Wednesday, 26 August 2009

REVIEW: Alejandra O'Leary - Nothing Out Loud

For some listeners, singer-songwriters can blur into one another very easily....especially when one attends a local free venue for more than a few hours, watching the performances come and go. An acoustic guitar and a voice can form a particularly limited weapon when faced with a loud, indifferent crowd.

Thankfully, Alejandra O'Leary has more than enough firepower in her musical arsenal to not only take the good fight to the masses, she'll also have little trouble winning the so called 'battle for hearts & minds'.

On new album 'Nothing Out Loud', the (recently uprooted from NYC) Ann Arbor-based singer-songwriter takes the stripped down versions of her acoustic numbers, adds a subtle keyboard line here, some delicate percussion there, and polishes them up until they positively sparkle.

The initial impression is made by O'Leary's vocal, which effectively mixes the melody of mainstream songstresses with the more quirky leading ladies of indie-folk....anywhere from Liz Phair to even Lykke Li.....maybe it's all the L's? On songs such as upbeat opener Ever After and Rally, her voice is front and centre delivering lovelorn yet wearily hopeful musings on matters of the heart.

It's further in, however, on songs like the hypnotically intricate
Tremor, that the singing drops deeper in both tone and the mix, allowing winding keys and understated percussion to the fore. Offering an alternative to the more uptempo numbers, songs like this nestle up comfortably to their neighbours and afford the album a pleasant variety for repeat listens.

MP3: Alejandra O'Leary - Ever After
MP3: Alejandra O'Leary - Tremor
Taken from the album 'Nothing Out Loud' - out now - BUY

Myspace / @alejandraoleary / LastFM

Though at times the more impacting songs - which are far in the majority - can dwarf those that lack their memorable lyrics or instrumentation, this is a small price to pay for the soulful pleas of a song like Rally. Demanding an intervention to rekindle ailing romance as it does ("There's a battle in here / And I never want to fight it again / I want you to rally my heart & then win"), the song marries the direction of much of O'Leary's lyrical focus on Nothing Out Loud to the upbeat tone that is a regular charm of the album.

Listening to the two songs posted here gives a sound base for comparing the various speeds at which this album drives, showcasing all the cautious optimism and fragile emotion that continue to appear across the album. One of the more skillful aspects of the songwriting - and one that is apparent after only a couple of spins - is the ability to fuse the two somewhat contrasting sentiments together as though it were the only natural way to approach the subject of loving relationships.

In achieving this blend, Alejandra O'Leary has delivered a charismatic, varied album that delivers on many levels. Also something of a gigging machine, she will be hitting a number of cities in North America towards the end of the year. So as you sit in that aforementioned venue and ponder whether it's worth persevering with another set, just remember that someone like Alejandra might pop up to make it all worthwhile.

Now playing: Volcano Choir - Island, IS
via FoxyTunes

Monday, 24 August 2009

Spare Any Change Guvna?

This work from the Washington Post (stumbled upon via piqued my interest. Particularly so as I come across all manner of buskers on any given subway ride, from break dancers to classical violinists to mariachi bands, most of whom are plenty pleasant enough to deserve a dollar or so donation for brightening up an otherwise dull journey.

Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later:
The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes:
A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes:
The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour:
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. The questions raised: In a common place environment – at an inappropriate hour -do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made…. How many other things are we missing?

This isn't entirely surprising to me. By virtue of the location, matey was playing to a lot of people in a hurry, going about their daily grind. Even if someone does register a pleasant sound or visual, if they have to be somewhere critical to our livelihood or meeting a responsibility then there are additional repercussions in stopping to consider every interesting, beautiful, or simply entertaining distraction one may happen upon.

MP3: Refused - Liberation Frequency
Taken from the seminal album (which you MUST own) 'The Shape of Punk To Come'

Buy it at Insound!

What this strikes more in me is the boundaries we place upon the enjoyment of the arts. On the subway occassions I mentioned, the players rarely receive more than a couple of contributions, even if they're great. Most people, sometimes myself included, make more effort to disengage themselves from the unexpected intrusion into their routine by utilising any prop to hand....iPod, book, newspaper etc....anything to avoid becoming a part of the impromptu entertainment foist upon them. Yet many will attend a scheduled performance and pay handsomely for the privilege.

The space in which the performance takes place is crucial to its acceptability and, to a large extent following from that, its enjoyability.
Living in New York I've started to see artists plunged into a wide variety of spaces, from traditional venues through to street side events, in stores, and even some playing to empty airport lounges. Some win appreciation and attention, others simply elicit confusion, but without fail anything outside the traditional venue raises an eyebrow and challenges the perception that musical entertainment can only be enjoyed when scheduled at an established performance space.

Given the abundance of new music on the internet and with artists increasingly needing to stand out from their peer pack, unexpected gigs in strange new spaces are likely to become more and more common. What remains to be seen is whether they become the norm and mould people's attitude towards stopping to enjoy such performances accordingly.

Now playing: Pitchshifter - Chump Change
via FoxyTunes

Thursday, 20 August 2009

It's Not Quite a Jagjaguwar

Long time readers of the hot air generated herein will know that I favour record labels that happily dole out free MP3's of their exciting new tunes, trusting fans to give back to the artists to whom they are drawn. For this reason and so many more, I very much favour Jagjaguwar.

Having released the widely adored debut of Bon Iver - and now riding the acclaim that comes with it - it would be easy for them to want to lock the masters for Justin Vernon's new project, Volcano Choir, deep in a Bloomington vault guarded by ninjas.....big, bearded, indie ninjas. Check out their latest download section, however, and the new track Island, IS sits unashamedly alongside other current label wonders, including H-T-A faves Sunset Rundown and Dinosaur Jr. In my deepest Aussie brogue: Good on ya, fellas.

MP3: Volcano Choir - Island, IS
Taken from the forthcoming album Unmap

So the track itself is a very light, warm sounding effort, not entirely removed from the style of Bon Iver but feeling much less introspective. It rides on a gentle tide of quiet electronica and simple bass hums, with Vernon's unmistakable croon adding a whole bowlful of cherries to the top. It bodes well for the forthcoming album, which is intriguingly titled Unmap.

MP3: Sunset Rubdown - Idiot Heart
Taken from the new album

MP3: Dinosaur Jr. - I Want You To Know
Taken from the new album Farm

Add to that a cut from Sunset Rubdown's new Dragonslayer album and another from Farm by Dinosaur Jr. and you have an outstanding start to your weekend listening - gratis. Do yourself a favour and dig around the website for some of the less established artists too......let's face it, these guys have some particularly sharp ears in that Indiana base of theirs. 

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Need Some Time in the Sunshine?

It's hot in New York right now. Should one be more used to the mild (euphemism) summers of the United Kingdom, it's bloody hot in New York right now. Pepper the 90F degree temperatures with torrential rain here and there and my guilty feelings of already looking forward to the winter chill are rapidly assuaged.

One of the worst effects of sweltering heat and humidity is the lethargy it seems to breed. At times it feels as though brain cells have actually fused to the point of no more than basic, mindless activities being achievable. This accepted, people still love a good heat wave and I look on incredulous as the morning news reports temps pushing 100F as a improvement. Gah, army of me.

All of which coincides nicely with my rediscovery of Sara Watkins' suitably topical song, Long Hot Summer Days. Upon first snagging the couple of songs posted up on Can You See The Sunset From The Southside - a repository of excellent musical musings across a variety of genres - I was somewhat underwhelmed and merely left them to fester in the bowels of my iPod. As an ever-increasing fan of bluegrass outfit Nickel Creek and Sara's sterling vocal performances therein, I didn't immediately click into the simpler attractions of her solo output. This was rectified today.

MP3: Sara Watkins - Long Hot Summer Days
Taken from the self-titled debut album - Buy


The song itself is a perfect accompaniment to the current blast furnace conditions. A slowly unwinding, lilting recollection of sweltering work and the simple rewards of time off during the summer months, it bobs along on the underlying river of fiddle work and ambling rhythm section. Her voice is by turns nostalgiac and assuredly relaxed, melding seamlessly with the instrumentation. What it lacks in the intricate delicacy of a Nickel Creek outing, it makes up for in style and attitude of delivery.

Having been foolish enough to give this solo material only a passing glance first time around, I will be digging much deeper now that the heat has sent me groggily back in its direction. In a most indirect way, it also pushed me to write on the subject here today, forcing out some productivity. And some people moan that it's too hot......pah, roll on the 100's?!

"The Earth was too hot, the air was too thin,
I took off my clothes, I took off my skin."

Now playing: The Thermals - When I Died
via FoxyTunes

Monday, 17 August 2009


I must admit to a disservice. Quite unfairly, I've been keeping the latest free music from Chicago's Apteka all to myself for a couple of months now. Unintentional but a disservice nonetheless.

The band released their free tour EP - which actually comprises 9 songs......even with the term album in a state of flux these days, EP seems like a glaring understatement - early in June. An intriguingly addictive blend of soaring vocals, dynamic guitars, and the occasional swirling wall of noise when every member of the four piece powers in, Apteka come close to being the unfeasibly attractive offspring of Jane's Addiction and 90's shoegaze pioneers Ride.

The Sheet showcases their many qualities, all urgent riffs and majestic high notes. Elsewhere the dissonance is favoured as the weapon of choice, with She Is Riots pounding away from the first note yet retaining more restrained sections to emphasise the noise. The band is even willing to abandon power altogether and, on a track like Where You Sleep, allow the music to simply shimmer and shine on the strength of melody alone.

MP3(s): Apteka - Tour EP

Whilst not qualifying as revolutionary - I'm sure this isn't the first time anyone with even a passing familiarity of either shoegaze or post-rock has come across the 'quiet/loud' dynamic - the music is knit together so well that it deserves the praise. The higher pitch of the vocals offers something a little different from the more standard moping of some forebears and the musicianship is adventurous enough to keep one interested across the full 9 tracks.

There isn't a great deal of information hinting at current recording activity on Apteka's Myspace but lucky Chicagoans (I was there last week.....lovely place) can catch the band once summer departs on September 24th, playing the horror movie sounding Darkroom. The rest of us will have to make do with a full set of supremely addictive free songs for the time being.........oh cruel world.

Saturday, 15 August 2009


Been H-T-A absent too long for plenty of reasons, but rather than waffle about them it seems more appropriate to kick start the whole shebang again with a couple of tracks.

Yeasayer's great live performance on Jools Holland is up after the band charmed a diverse bunch of people, myself included, this past Thursday at Pier 54 on the West side of Manhattan. It literally is a long, narrow pier and one of the stranger places I've seen a band to date. Lovely view, however, and the band's glowing globes onstage only made the visual aspect more appealing, as they started the show right around sundown. Only got to see 4 songs before hiking off for a show on the Lower East Side, but if I get a chance to see these guys inside any time soon then I'll be taking it.

Chemical Brothers get up here simply because this tune never fails to get me going for whatever a day brings. As I'll be getting up at 4am on Sunday to run the half marathon (donations still gratefully received here!) and a distance I've never actually achieved, I find it a requirement to post the song as a good luck charm!

MP3: The Chemical Brothers - Galvanize
Taken from the album 'Push the Button'

Much more coming this local, national, and international, live stuff, the usual random babble.....CTRL+ALT+DEL, indeed.

Monday, 3 August 2009

On The Road (Again)

Yep, busy end to the week and headed West over the weekend with no mobile service for the most part, so apologies for the lack of content.

Have a few bits for this week now that the wireless waves are hitting the PC again, but here's a great mix of music and comedy in the meantime. One of the best episodes of BBC quiz comedy Never Mind The Buzzcocks, featuring some gold from Simon Amstell, a poor excuse for a punk in Donny Tourette, and the ever gregarious amusement of The Mighty Boosh's Noel Fielding.

If you're new to this show - despite the fact that it's been going for a good decade or so - this is a great place to start. Enjoy!

Now playing: MxPx - Punk Rawk Show
via FoxyTunes