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Monday, August 11, 2014

Vandana Jain + Diane Birch – Recent Live, Review + Interview

Special performance events are moments we look forward to weeks and sometimes months in advance. When a recording artist releases music that both excites and fascinates, the opportunity to review, interview and/or cover their live show truly becomes a mission of purpose.

Having previously written a show preview and select track review of Vandana Jain's wonderful new album  Anti-Venus on Dingus, catching her next live appearance was a must.

On July 30, 2014Den Entertainment impresario Solonje Burnett presented SHE at The Highline Ballroom

A featured prime-time performance there by Vandana and her band presented a futuristic technical tour-de-force in both sight and sound.

Long-time bandmate, co-producer, sometime songwriting partner and fellow synth sound sculptor Yusuke Yamamoto once again helped bring this sonic vision to life.

Additional live synth and keyboards assistance from Ryan Casey completed the three point auditory initiative - filling a room designed for this kind of acoustics.

Listen to "Ecstatic"

The track emphasizes distant percussive mechanical clicks and whirrs recreating sci-fi atmospheres first touched on in the mid 1970’s via Pink Floyd’s “Welcome To The Machine.” Dark foreboding (yet warm) analog synth notes pulse and rise from distant ethereal mists. Recorded at Jain’s home studio, inspiration came in part by delving into Henry Miller’s classic novel “Tropic of Cancer,” and its embrace of “the grip of delirium.” “You freak – you make me ecstatic” becomes the central single line vocal hook. All semblance of repetitive listener fatigue is non-existent, however by virtue of varied intonated emphasis throughout each recitation.

Additional Anti Venus tracks like “Claw” are less instrumentally dense, allowing more space for expressive vocals. With a style reminiscent of Kate Bush’s penultimate work combined with the modern deeper vocal textures of British pop vocalist Sophie Ellis Bextor, Ms. Jain’s voice becomes an instantly appealing force.

While “Mask” is recurrently stark and minimal in places, the overall effect sounds incredibly big. Her seductive vocal delivery (and placement) makes for a delightful headphone listening experience. The subject matter focuses on the “mask” we all put on every day to function.

Molded to each of our points of view - which are often deceptive. Frequently presenting a “wicked smile” that can be “crooked and sideways” or “misleading.” Ultimately the mask will come off when looking in the mirror (because only you are there to see). This allows for an unguarded conversation with one’s own thoughts.

The brilliant light show added a dreamlike visual dimension to the sounds enveloping everyone.

A most impressive performance

Catching up with the artist after her show.

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Earlier that evening the melodic folk stylings of Lily Virginia graced the stage.

Her gentle music is quite lovely, and as my fellow writer Andrew so eloquently wrote in this review on Dingus it “speaks from the heart” and ultimately “feels fully human.”

The cinematic foreboding of “Dreamtrain” and innocent uplift of “It’s You” nestle seamlessly next to percussive handclap propelled “Can’t Help Myself.”

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At the end of 2013, introspective songwriter and vocalist Diane Birch released her second album “Speak A Little Louder,” which garnered a similar critical acclaim bestowed on 2009’s debut “Bible Belt.”

Establishing a permanent residency in Brooklyn (she's originally from Michigan, but she lived in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Sydney, Australia before settling in Portland, OR) has afforded opportunities to collaborate with creative forces that better reflect her evolving sound. Daptones drummer Homer Steinweiss became that influential foil, producing and co-writing several tracks on the latest album. Though her primary instrument is piano (and her voice), many of her newer tracks feature analog sounding synths that have a decidedly retro feel, while her vocals - at times - embrace a similar synthetic sheen, giving it an otherworldy quality.

In anticipation of her August 2, 2014 headlining appearance for The Deli Magazine's 10th Anniversary show at Brooklyn Night Bazaar, I conducted a one-on-one interview with Diane.

The full text of that portion of the interview can be read online at The Deli Magazine here

In addition to that Q and A, Diane also answered a number of specific Equipment and Recording questions, which can now be read right here (along with photos from her mesmerizing performance at the Deli 10th Anniversary show).

How much of your recording is done at home versus in the studio?

All the recording for my albums was done in a studio, although I hope to make my next record in my bathtub.

What are the pieces of equipment that you find particularly inspiring when recording at home?

Currently my Yamaha piano, a beat up old mic from the 1940's and Ableton.

If you use a studio, what do you record there and what do you record by yourself and why?

I like to record vocals at home because I sound and perform the best when I'm left alone. For live drums, bass, synths, etc I prefer a studio because I don't have access to all that gear at home.

Do you expect your next record to be self-produced, or would you like to work with a producer? If it’s the latter, who would you most like to produce your band, and why?

I love to produce my own stuff and will probably release some of that depending on what project I'm focusing on. I'm still dreaming of making an instrumental ambient record with Brian Eno and wouldn't say No if perhaps Nile Rodgers, Damon Albarn, Boards of Canada or Dev Hynes wanted to make a rek (to name a few…)

Check out this video for her song “Superstars” (which she included in her live set at the Deli show) – “we got life on mars, we’re superstars tonight” is the wistful sentiment.   Structurally the song starts out in the traditional dramatic piano ballad format.  As it progresses however, everything begins to filter through a David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust-like persona - especially the buzzy synth end out (which she employed masterfully more than a few times during the live show).  In fact an acknowledging nod is sent that way with the lyrics “Simple life, you look so good on paper" (an ironic truth) "They got Bowie playin' on the radio” -referencing the randomness of influences you become attuned to out in public.

Do you have a particular recording style that you aim for? What techniques do you employ to recreate it?

I aim for spontaneity and free flow. I need to be impulsive and unquestioned until I've gotten whatever out I need to get out. Then I can determine if it's good or not.

Who determines the direction and style of your recordings? 

 From here on out, I do. 

 Is there a person outside the band that's been important in perfecting your recorded or live sound?

What other artists would you say have had the biggest influence in your approach to recording? Why?

Nina Simone for capturing emotion in the raw, Sade for listening to the things that happen when it's not ' the perfect take', Fleetwood Mac for their sonic mastery.

Would you say that your live show informs your recording process or that your recording process informs your live show? Both? Neither? 


Is there a piece of equipment that you find particularly useful on stage? 

Nord Stage keyboard.

With bands doing more of everything themselves these days (recording, performing, self-promoting, etc.) and the evermore multimedia nature of the world, how much effort do you put into the visual component of your band - fashion, styling, photography, graphic/web design, etc.? Do you do these things yourself or is there someone that the band works with?

 The visual element for me is imperative with all aspects of the music from the live show, to the album art, graphic design etc... I am aesthetically very particular and involved with all aspects within my control.

What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of the recording process? On the flipside, what aspects are the most rewarding?

The most challenging for me has been to acknowledge and proactively navigate through outside involvement and input regarding my vision when there is creative disagreement. The most rewarding is that moment when something magical happens and you get full body chills and a euphoric release of any pain and anguish that brought you to that moment.

The interviewer and the artist.

Find out more about Diane (including her upcoming tour dates) Here at her Official Site

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

4Knots Fest - July 12, 2014

Saturday July 12, 2014 was about as perfect a day for an outdoor music festival as you can get. Under clear blue skies dappled by the occasional puffy white cloud, an array of diverse rock music acts filled the air for some seven plus hours in New York City. Although there were a number of events happening on this day, you’d be hard pressed to find a better one than the fourth annual 4Knots Fest at South Street Seaport.

With the event securing its best headline act ever, the whole day served to build towards a grande finale monstrous show from legends Dinosaur Jr.

The full recap of "Mascis-Fest" closes out this blog, however there would be plenty of great music (and other things) to check out throughout the entire day.

Joining me for the 4th consecutive year (if you also count The Ravonettes at Beekman Beergarden show) was fellow music aficionado (and sport cycling enthusiast) Rob/drid.

First band up was good friends Dead Stars

Who hit the ground running (as they say) and kicked off the early afternoon in glorious style.

And a lovely afternoon it was.  Like I said, perfect blue skies with just a hint of cloud cover for a splash of color.  Those early to arrive were treated to a set of perfect music.

The boys throttled out tracks from their latest release "Slumber"

Someone told me later on that none other than J. Mascis was listening to the set from a hidden location, and nodded his head in approval of what these guys are doing.

Things I've previously written about Dead Stars:


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Had to go grab my credential, if I was going to have any fun at all on the party boat.

Which was a thoroughly re-energizing experience with all the complimentary food and beverages.

All served up with a smile and in style!

Delicious sandwiches with exotic sauces on top

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The first band on the Main (Pier 16) Stage was the three piece brother act from St. Joseph, Missouri called Radkey.

Dee, Isaiah, and Solomon are all self-taught musicians who are still teenagers.

They point towards bands like the Misfits (who’s Danzig-like vocals very much reflect their own) as well as classic punk and rock bands like the Ramones and Who as inspiration.

Check out their song "Feed My Brain"

This photo stream with an alternate song can also be found posted by yours truly Here on Dingus as well.

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Next up were Northampton, Massachusetts' Speedy Ortiz

Frontwoman, Sadie Dupuis added the first bit of feminine touch to what had been (up to this point) at complete dudes-only fest.

I had caught one of their shows earlier this year at Brooklyn Night Bazaar, and although they came off very well at the time - here on this much bigger stage (and soundsystem) they sounded HUGE.

Speedy had the crowd jacked up and going, and the view (and sound) from the boat was super sweet.

Get to know more about this band via their Bandcamp link (above) and their Facebook page here

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Already familiar with members of the next bands prior work in noted Canadian band Women, the set delivered by Viet Cong presented a more evolved and experimental sound.

Having had the opportunity to get to know a number of tracks via their debut EP release titled "Cassette," I found the live delivery of these songs even more impressive.

"Throw It Away" drives along an oscillating bassline, while extended guitar breaks recall the early math-rock structures of Yes and the late great Peter Banks.

“Unconscious Melody” builds around a straightforward drum pattern, as angular guitar structures pierce through falsetto vocals.

The incorporation of keyboard synths at points throughout the performance added the right amount of diversionary textures to an otherwise predominantly guitar-bass-drums approach.

An impressive live set, and definitely a band to watch for future releases.

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The dual female fronted roots-rockers Those Darlins made the most of their prime time slot.

 Taking the whole festival to an even higher level, they chunked out raw rock'n'roll that felt at times like Exile On Main Street Rolling Stones.

Vocals delivered alternately in tandem or individually captured the right vibe for this stage and venue.

Particularly tasty was the tone and texture of the guitar leads.

This track captures their sound as good as any.

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It's been a relatively quick rise from obscurity to the level that one-time image manipulating Mac DeMarco  now inhabits.

Positioned in the just-prior-to-headliner slot, there certainly appeared to be more than a few "DeMarco heads" in the audience.

Back in October of 2012, I had previously caught his act during CMJ at Pianos and wrote These Observations

His shtick now appears to be considerably more laid back and slacker than that more entertainingly dynamic show during CMJ.

Though some might applaud the "bold move" of attempting to bring back the bucket hat as the ultimate in casual hipster attire - one wonders if greasy gas station attendant pants might be taking the I-really-don't-care attitude just a bit too far.

Props must be given to his-Mac-ness for popping a trucker hat on over the bucket hat - when someone tossed it up to him from the crowd.

The most exciting thing DeMarco did all afternoon was to dive into the crowd on his last song.  (Unless someone actually thought his mellow synth tunes were thrilling).

Bright red sneakers (now there's a positive fashion statement) bobbing up from the crowd - while angry security men look on with concern.  Hopefully nobody attempted to Iggy Azalea him!

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Finally it was time for the legends to take the stage.

The music of Dinosaur Jr has made the kind of indelible imprint on my life that truly cannot be overstated.

The fact that this band is now more popular than ever (getting back together in the mid-2000's after many years of solo projects) is a testament to the universe getting at least some things right.

My long-time perception of J Mascis has always been one of wonderment, worship and apprehension.  It has been well documented over the years (and especially in their early days) that he could be difficult to interact with.

Though to be fair, at a show in the early 1990's a friend and I chatted with him out front before he played - and although it was somewhat strained and awkward - he did attempt to converse with us in a friendly way.  A recent encounter with him a few months ago presented an even more personable experience. My sense of it all is simply that J has a low tolerance for nonsense.  Which is why he'd mess with industry types (who's motivation for interaction weren't entirely sincere) while being more accommodating to actual fans.

Founding member and long-time drummer Murph is an amazing, accomplished percussionist.  He has managed to not only cope with the difficult task of playing in a band where the principal songwriter also writes all the drum parts - but has actually excelled in that scenario.

On this afternoon Dinosaur Jr played a set that spanned their entire career that as one would expect included some personal all time faves.

The high point of the show (for me) was the inclusion of "Out There" - probably my all time favorite songs of J's - from 1993's brilliant Where You Been

“Out There” encompasses everything that is so brilliant about music. From the rough distorted guitar tones of the intro – with J riffing madly out of the gate – displaying a dazzling skill and multiple note dexterity all the while establishing this unforgettable melody. How can one be “jam band” and alterna-slacker at the same time? It’s in the lyrics. And what amazing lyrics these are. A universal song to “everyone” – “out there” – out in the world. Trying to get by and cope with every single day. The need for friendship - but – at what cost?  J delivers the words in a conversational manner. “You can’t say that’s fair” – “can’t you be wrong?” and “maybe you weren’t on my side all along” – yeah – it’s kind of on the downside. But isn’t this life so often filled with sadness and disappointment?  Yet – we’re still all “out there.”  “You’re still a case, it’s still the place – weren’t you invited?”   Ultimately “it’s what you can spare.”  “Whatever’s left just hide the rest” – and then “bring it right in.”  However far too often it’s all just “sick.” “A game – a trick” 

Musically, one incredible hook leads to another. The bridge buildup leans hard on drum accents, while the chorus is a swirly headtrip uplift into Maestro Mascis guitar solo ecstasy.   In the end its about sharing – or not sharing. About caring – or not caring. Or wondering if anyone actually truly cares at all. The balance between knowing that everything is ultimately pointless – and our human need to carry on like it isn’t.

Or maybe its all about the delirious euphoria of crowdsurfing

Or the power of Lou Barlow's bass

We live to rock one more day

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