Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Concert Review: Carbon Leaf in Columbus, Ohio

Although I've been a fan of Carbon Leaf for years, I'd never gotten up the courage to go see them until Sunday night. I had no idea what to expect from the crowd or the band themselves. But I'm glad I made it happen.

Carbon Leaf took the stage at Woodlands Tavern more than fashionably late, and to "Cantina Band" from Star Wars. They opened with "Lake Of Silver Bells" from Nothing Rhymes With Woman which I enjoyed despite not being a huge fan of the album, and then moved on to the most catastrophic live version of any song I've ever heard, on one of my favorite Carbon Leaf songs, "What About Everything?" I was prepared to walk out if the show continued in the same vein.

Luckily, it did not. Barry Privett began to engage the audience with amusing banter, which made his stage presence less annoying and more amusing, like the class clown once he becomes your friend instead of just a disruption. The band played "One Prairie Outpost" beautifully (if a little faster than usual), followed by "7 Brides For 7 Sinners." By this time, Carbon Leaf had totally sold themselves to me, and I'd even forgiven them for ruining one of their best songs by giving it a strange tempo and melody.

Barry Privett and Carter Gravatt

Next up, they played "Attica's Flower Box Window," a request from some ladies who were standing to the left of me. Being a song from an earlier album I hadn't managed to procure, "Attica's Flower Box Window" was new to me, but it won me over. That said, "Paloma" was a welcome familiarity when they played it next. Barry then chatted with the crowd some more, before launching into "Miss Hollywood." 

Carter Gravatt in particular had several instrumental solos that aren't in the recorded versions of the songs. I was amazed to hear and watch him play, and I now believe he's one of the most talented instrumentalists I've had the pleasure of seeing live. He certainly knows his way around an instrument. 

"Desperation Song" came next, followed shortly by some lovely new songs that I can't remember the names of. Then they played two of their more popular songs, "Life Less Ordinary" followed by "Raise the Roof," both of which they performed impeccably.

At the close of "Raise the Roof," the band moved into a semi-circle around one microphone, and asked the audience to be a little quieter as they performed some truly amazing numbers. They began with "Comfort" which sounded great with the setup. They then played "What Have You Learned?," one of the only tracks from Nothing Rhymes With Woman that I really enjoyed. They ended the songs at the single microphone with a song I'm not familiar with, but which I did enjoy.

Carbon Leaf ended their set by inviting another band onto the stage with them, and playing a lively "Let Your Troubles Roll By" with several [improvised?] instrumental breaks. "Let Your Troubles Roll By" was a great closer, and both bands on stage were exceptionally talented. 

The band came back on fairly quickly for their encore, and played "The Boxer," which I guess is their most popular song, although I hadn't realized it until Sunday night. 

Carter Gravatt plays cello on "The Boxer."

"The Boxer" topped off a wonderful set and a wonderful night. 

Taking a cue from bands like Ok Go, Carbon Leaf offered a recording of the night's performance on a flash drive after the show. 

I didn't know what to expect from a Carbon Leaf show, but I'm glad I finally got around my inhibitions and checked it out, because it was a terrific experience.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Album Review: Former Lives by Benjamin Gibbard

Benjamin Gibbard is one of those rare modern songwriters who manages to be both prolific and wonderful. Just since the inception of Death Cab For Cutie in 1997 (prior to which, Gibbard fronted a punk rock band called Pinwheel), Gibbard has had at least two major side projects (namely ¡All-Time Quarterback! and The Postal Service), not to mention his collaboration with Andrew Kenny on Home, Volume V, and work on the soundtracks for One Fast Move or I'm Gone (with Jay Farrar) and the recent remake of Arthur, amongst other things.

But Former Lives is his first full-length solo album. It's clear from the fore that this album is not like the work of his bands. Former Lives kicks off with "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby," an a capella tune apparently recorded on an iPhone. At fifty seconds long, "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby" serves more as an intro to the album than a song by itself. "Dream Song," on the other hand, is a splendidly catchy song, with much more Gibbard-esque lyrics. "Dream Song" gives way to "Teardrop Windows," the first song from this album that was made available. "Teardrop Windows" tells an interesting story, but is ultimately dwarfed by the rest of the album.

One of my favorite tracks on the album is "Bigger Than Love," which features Aimee Mann. Mann's voice compliments Gibbard's so perfectly that, at the start of the song, I almost thought Gibbard was using some vocal effects on his own voice. "Bigger Than Love" contains the gorgeous lyric, "...our house got crowded and I'd never felt so all alone," a sentiment many have tried to express, but which is nonetheless poignant in this instance.

"Bigger Than Love" is followed up by another beautiful piece, "Lily." "Lily" contains strong and elegant imagery, along with a folky melody that has touches of early country to it. Gibbard's voice is truly highlighted in this number as well, with minimal instrumentation. "Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)" is a mildly western-style piece, featuring Trio Ellas and vocals by Zooey Deschanel. Trio Ellas play a modern form of mariachi, which gives the piece its feel. Gibbard and Deschanel sing a "chorus" that's somewhere between a humming lullaby and howling, but in a smooth and graceful manner, which makes the voices into truly irreplaceable instruments.

Amongst the weaker tracks on the album is, "Duncan, Where Have You Gone?," a slow whine that could have been rejected from a Death Cab album. The tempo of the album picks back up with "Oh, Woe." Despite the positive feel, "Oh, Woe" is much in the vein of "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse" by Of Montreal (rather than a song like George Harrison's "Blow Away"), calling for irrational depression to leave. The lyricism of "Oh, Woe" is terrific. Gibbard personifies the emotion, and points out the way depression touches people. He even mentions the romanticized sadness that can draw people in, by speaking of woe like a lover, "...oh, woe you caught my eye//And I thought that I'd give you a try//But you're nothing like the way you looked//in all those famous songs and books."

Another of my favorite tracks is "A Hard One to Know," a rock-ey number with smart lyrics. The chorus is catchier and stronger than that of any other song on the album. "Lady Adelaide" is a slower and softer song than "A Hard One to Know." "Lady Adelaide" tells the sad story of a woman who has become cold due to a broken heart. It features another of my favorite lines from the album, "Now she's a bird with a broken wing//She likes the ideas of things//More than what they are bound to bring." Gibbard delves deepest into country on "Broken Yolk in Western Sky," which features a pedal steel guitar played by Mark Spencer

The album closes on "I'm Building a Fire." "I'm Building a Fire," much like "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby," is quiet and gentle, and it features only vocals and guitar. Gibbard recorded "I'm Building a Fire" using Garageband. "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby" and "I'm Building a Fire" create lovely bookends for an already brilliant album.

Benjamin Gibbard's songwriting rarely disappoints me, so it's no surprise that Former Lives is already one of my favorite albums of the year. His melodies and lyrics are just as sharp (and, at times, cute) as ever. While I would be inconsolable if Death Cab For Cutie never put another album out, I think Former Lives and future Gibbard solo works could help treat the woulds.

 Benjamin Gibbard is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Former Lives is his debut solo album.

Former Lives can be purchased here.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Brief History: Wall of Sound

A few posts ago, I mentioned Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound," and promised to elaborate. Well, I wouldn't like to disappoint.

One of the more prolific and/or legendary music producers of the 1960s, 70s, and beyond was Phil Spector. Spector worked with female vocal groups like The Crystals and The Ronettes, before producing The Beatles' Let It Be and several George Harrison and John Lennon solo works. He even produced one album for The Ramones. Then he became a convicted murderer and went to prison, but that is strictly besides the point.

What made Spector so legendary wasn't just the fact that he worked with awesome acts that happened to churn out lots of hits. Spector was also an innovator of one of the more important musical techniques of the 20th century. There is heavy debate over whether Spector's "Wall of Sound" did more to help or to hurt the music industry, but there is no denying its impact.

In the early 1960s, Spector created a technique of layering sounds together so that they came through well on the radio. He used studio musicians of the era (an elite group of commonly-used backing musicians known as The Wrecking Crew) to create a specific sound that his pieces became known for. The Wrecking Crew would record several guitar parts in unison, together with musical arrangements for groups as large as a full orchestra, all recorded with echo chambers. Sounds played by the studio musicians were bounced back through the studio before being picked up and recorded. The use of orchestral instruments in pop music was uncommon for the time. It immediately made "wall of sound" pieces stand out from the crowd.

The wall of sound was generally carried out on monophonic recordings, despite the traction that stereophonic recordings were gaining at the time. Spector disliked stereo recordings, saying that they took the power of the recording away from the producer and gave it to the listener instead. Were it not for the recording techniques used, Spector's songs would have had a much more flat, dull sound, seeing as they were mono recordings. Instead, the wall of sound created a rich sound with much more depth than the usual mono records.

For a more in-depth look at how the wall of sound worked, I recommend checking out this video:

Spector's work on The Beatles' Let it Be was extensive. The most controversial work he did was on "The Long and Winding Road," the production of which angered Paul McCartney so much that he cited it as one of the reasons for dissolving the band.

Tracks like "Be My Baby" and "Sleigh Ride" by The Ronettes are widely recognized as vivid examples of the technique. But the wall of sound was used in many places at the time and continues to be used to this day. During the 60s, the "Wall of Sound" technique was utilized by Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys on Pet Sounds and Smile as well as other works. Producer Johnny Franz also used a similar technique on his production for Dusty Springfield and The Walker Brothers.

In the 70s and 80s, techniques similar to the Wall of Sound were used by Queen, ABBA, and Bruce Springsteen.

These days, Wall of Sound techniques have developed into several musical genres, in addition to the throwback sound trend utilized by groups like She & Him. Shoegazing, Noise Pop, and Dream Pop all find their roots in the Wall of Sound in different ways. Dream Pop finds roots directly in George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, a Spector work.

Wall of Sound is definitely a technique that has had a great deal of influence over music in the last fifty to sixty years. The musical world would be very different without it.