Karen Elson | The Ghost That Walks

9 09 2010

For those not familiar with Karen Elson, simply put: she’s a very talented and beautiful  lady. To elaborate, albeit just slightly, she is a British supermodel who recently released an album on Jack White’s Third Man Records. Interestingly enough, this album has been getting a lot of attention, both positive and negative. The issue is that most people read something like that (“supermodel turned musician”) and immediately condemn the work regardless of it’s merit. For me, not only is the actual material important but the context is key to understanding where she is coming from as an artist. Only after considering both is it fair to opine one way or another. First, let me give you a little taste of the title track from her debut The Ghost That Walks. Then we get into the business…

Pretty good stuff, no? The girl has an excellent voice that is drenched in this moody folk meets gothic style. Here’s the scoop: Karen is a supermodel of significant notoriety (if you follow that world) but she has long been a singer/songwriter, using the guitar as her writing tool. The arts must be in her genes as her twin sister, Kate, is a film maker in her own right. Plus, it’s not like fashion isn’t a creative field. Sure the models tend not to contribute artistically but they need to “get it” as they are a large part of the atmospherics that collectively create a designer’s show.

That aside, She has actually been doing this singing thing for a while now. Many people don’t realize that she is a founding member of a political cabaret troupe in NY called The Citizens Band. Some might say cabaret is nothing but an arcane side show but that couldn’t be further from the truth. These girls actually put on an amazing show that transcends sex appeal covering songs by artists as diverse as The Velvet Underground, Kurt Weill, Elvis Presley, Mimi and Richard Fariña, Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Marlene Dietrich. Not surprisingly, Karen is a strong talent that stands out amongst the others both with her fantastic voice and songwriting skills… ok, and the sex appeal too. Live footage of The Citizens Band is very rare but I was able to find this one performance of one of Karen’s originals called “Mouths To Feed”. It happens to be on the new album but it’s not exactly one of my favorite tunes. Not to mention that the video is very amateurish, literally as it was taken by an audience member, and it doesn’t necessarily capture the essence of their typical showmanship. But nevertheless…

This gig in The Citizens Band led to collaborations and supporting work with Robert Plant and Cat Power. But that’s not what produced this great great collection of material. Actually, it’s not what but who produced the work that is most responsible for inspiring her to take it to this new level. I casually mentioned earlier that Jack White was invloved but I purposely left out the details as I find this to be one of the more interesting parts of the backstory. Jack is just her producer, he’s her husband. Karen and Jack met while filming the music video for The White Stripes’ video “Blue Orchid”.

The video’s director, Floria Sigismondi, remarked that “you could sense the energy between them.” They married within the year and now have two kids together. An odd side note: They had a remote wedding on the Amazon River in Brazil where White Stripes manager Ian Montone was the best man and Jack’s ex-wife, Meg White, was Karen’s maid of honor. Anyway, while living happily ever after in their Nashville home Jack found Karen “hiding” away scrolling out these songs. He eventually persuaded her to show him what she had been working on and he was blown away with what he heard. With some more encouragement, she wrote a few more and, like that, the album was born.

White’s contribution is in sound design only as the producer but that is one of the most striking things about this album. It sounds richly organic. He very wisely blends a very gritty instrumental with her beautiful voice to create this fantastic combination that is strangely haunting yet alluring. All and all, I am please to say that she checks out. Her songs are good, her voice is great (so long as she doesn’t go too Stevie Nicks with vibrato) and artistically, there is certainly integrity there. Like many albums in this iPod era, this album is not a complete winner but there is definitely some good stuff there. If I had to pick just a few tunes, I recommend  “The Ghost That Walks”l, “The Birds They Circle”, “Thief At My Door” and this one: “Pretty Babies”


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Maps & Atlases | Pigeon

22 07 2010

I recently found this cool video of Maps & Atlases playing “Pigeon” live in the studio. In the first bit, lead singer/guitarist Dave Davison explains the moment the song came to him during a walk in their home city of Chicago. The story is pretty cool, although, he seems to have a hard time finding the words at some points (warning: there are a lot of “likes”). It’s actually very funny because he does not seem like the type. Nevertheless, the whole thing is really interesting and the performance is great. Their sound is quite cool, featuring some very technical playing but in a really organic manner. This song, from their recently released LP Pertch Patchwork, is a perfect example. This style reminds me a bit of Prog Rock in that it is pretty sophisticated stuff. So much so, that it is being called “Math Rock”… but don’t let that scare you away, it’s not calculus or anything.


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MGMT @ The Greek

21 07 2010

Last weekend we went to LA’s famous Greek Theatre to see MGMT. Let me start by saying, the venue is amazing. Being my first time the experience was fantastic. There is a picnic area outside where you can hangout prior to the show. If you plan accordingly you and some friends can eat and drink (and be merry) until show time. The only catch: no food or drink inside… so finish it all or, in our case, park close by so you can unload come show time. Once inside, the atmosphere is really cool. It’s one of those spaces that’s not too big but large enough to accommodate the crowds typical of big name acts. What really makes it appealing is that it’s completely open-air. Plus, the entire venue is at the foot of Griffith Park so it’s surrounded by tall trees that create a canopy along the perimeter.

As for the show itself, I must say I was completely underwhelmed. Surprisingly, despite being an ex-NYer this was actually my first time seeing MGMT (who currently reside in Brooklyn). Perhaps it was the timing but they just do not put on a good live show. After much thought I attribute it to 3 factors:

1. 80% of the audience is there to see them play their 3 HUGE singles from their first album, Oracular Spectacular. Which, they seem to want to put behind them entirely. Even with their newer material from their recent release Congratulations, the enthusiasm was lacking. In fact, when it came time to play “Kids”, they simply pressed the play button on an instrumental track and sung the vocals while the rest of the band threw random “souvenir” items (drum sticks, water bottles, towels) into the audience.  This same, barely interested, audience was quick to “beat the traffic” as soon as they heard each of the 3 songs. The attendance dropped by about 25% at the conclusion of “Kids”, which they closed the set with. They actually put on a pretty long encore and seemed to have a lot of fun with it. Which, got me thinking that maybe they use that portion of the show to connect with their more appreciative audience.

2. Their music is the type that mimics the album note by note. Because of that, it lacks that fresh feel that you supposed to get with a live performance. Although I’ve been to many other shows that do the same, this was worse than usual. It took me a while to figure out why but I think I finally determined that it’s mostly because of their instrumentation. Meaning, they have a lot of instruments/voices playing in the same or similar register occupying the same frequency or sonic space. On the album this is combated by some excellent mixing but in the live environment it doesn’t seem to translate as well.

3. This is more personal and connected to factor #1 but I think it’s valid nonetheless. To have that many concertgoers essentially sitting on their hands for everything but their favorite songs or even talking amongst themselves about seemingly everything but the show tends to heavily dilute the experience, not just for the band but for the rest of the audience. Unfortunately, crowd mentality being so effective really has a negative effect in this situation, often killing the entire momentum of the show. I understand that audiences are not always going to be 100% engaged and perhaps that’s as much the fault of the act as the individual but it nevertheless has an impact on the total experience… unfortunately for me.

Now having said that, there were some real high points. I own their new album but have had a tough time connecting to it. Perhaps it’s because it represents a large departure from their first album. I would liken the sound to more vintage electro-pop rock like David Bowie, Brian Eno/Roxy Music or even David Byrne. With this one it’s also a little more acoustic, which they blend nicely with some great surf-rock sensibilities. These two styles are a big change from their debut work but that’s not to say that they are better or worse, just different. What was nice about this show was how I was able to hear this material in a new context and it actually comes off way better than I had given it credit for. In that sense, the show was a complete success.

As a side note, they have a song called “Brian Eno”. It’s probably one of the better tunes form the new album. However as I was hearing it live, i couldn’t help but look around and think that 80% of that audience has no idea who Brian Eno is or how big a contributions he has made to the music community. Putting my snobbery aside, here is actual footage of them playing “Brian Eno” at The Greek. It’s a cool song and this video/sound quality is pretty good considering the source.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy seeing them play their biggies, “Electric Feel” and “Time To Pretend”.  Check out the footage of “Time To Pretend”:

I know many of you must be curious what this lack-luster performance of “Kids” was like… check out HERE.


More info on The Greek Theatre

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From the Basement

2 06 2010

I was recently turned on to a pretty cool project dedicated to creating, fostering and recording great live music. Created by acclaimed producer Nigel Godrich (and friends), the concept behind From the Basement is to create an environment that allows artists to relax and feel comfortable. The idea is to coerce the most authentic performance from them in a small intimate setting free of distractions. In a world where TV production is often done on the cheap and can be very chaotic, it’s a place where artists can perform without feeling the stifling effects of the process or program structure. The resulting footage was initially intended to be a television series in the vain of The Old Grey Whistle Tests. Unfortunately, it could not be sustained in that form so it now lives on as an online destination. In explaining the overarching mission of the project, Nigel has said,  “My own personal goal is that in the future some of these performances might be seen as the truest representation of the state of their artists work, captured in a way that lets their talents speak without the interference of presenters, or audiences.”

The site features forty or so artists,  including Beck, Iggy & The Stooges, The White Stripes, Radiohead, Band of Horses, Sonic Youth, The Shins, Dead Weather, My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird and many more. It’s a nice blend of big icons and bright young act who are just having their moment. All the performances are shot in HD, and are well produced utilizing various camera angles. All the music is produced by Godrich. For those not familiar with his resumé, Nigel has worked with quite a few major acts. He has worked extensively with Radiohead, even be referred to as the “sixth member” of the band. He produced most of the band’s catalog, including OK Computer and Kid A, and won a Grammy for the latter. He also produced Beck’s Mutations and Sea Change, as well as Paul McCartney’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard… and that’s just a small portion of his discography. Nigel is not just a producer but a musician and a composer. He has written for many of the artists he has worked with and is currently a member of Thom Yorke’s recent solo band Atoms of Peace. With credentials like that, it should be no surprise that he is working on something so cool. Be sure to visit the site and poke around. You will find A LOT of really great footage of some of today’s best artists doing what they do best and because of the recording techniques it all translates on a very personal level. You will not be disappointed…

Link: From the Basement


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Karen O @ The MoMA

26 05 2010

Last night I attended the Party in the Garden at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art. Every year the MoMA throws a big bash in the their garden courtyard. It’s a really fun event that attracts art lovers from all over the city. Not only do you get to enjoy the installations in their gorgeous outdoor space,  but there is also an open bar and a GREAT live act to enhance the ambiance. Last nights billing featured Karen O and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They were joined by a few guest to help them fill out the band. Although the night was an acoustic set that featured a string trio, it was not short on energy. As would be expected Karen and Co. exuded that same intensity that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are known for. The set list included a variety of tunes, dipping into some material that was produced for Spike Jonze’s film Where The Wild Things Are as well as numerous songs from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs original catalog. Perhaps it was the setting of the MoMA garden, the renewed sense of life that emerges in this city when the weather finally turns, or maybe just the free booze but it was an amazing night of music, art and fun. Below are a few pics snapped from the event as well as some video I captured with my Flip Camera. The quality is less than perfect but it still displays the essence of their performance, enthusiasm of the crowd and overall energy that filled this lovely outdoor space in midtown NYC.

Here is the video… the first one is “Soft Shock” from It’s Blitz!, this is a great tune. I think I may prefer the studio version because of the electric pulse, but this acoustic rendition is still very cool.

This second one is even more mellow. It’s “Hideaway” from the Where The Wild Things Are soundtrack, which happens to be a really good collection of material considering it was produced soley for use in the film.

Finally, the last tune of the night was “Zero”. It was a great song to end on despite leaving me wanting more, but then again, I guess that’s the idea…


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