Back in July we talked to now-Atlanta-based rapper/activist/all-around-badass Blak Rapp Madusa, who was in Pittsburgh to play Ladyfest; tomorrow she's back in town to host an exclusive pre-screening of her new documentary, Her Time to Shyne, which explores the impact of hip hop on the lives of black women, and the role of the genre in combating racism, sexism and the patriarchy. Pittsburgh-based artists I Medina, Anqwenique Wingfield and Vanessa German, among others, are featured in the film.
A press release for the screening describes the film as an examination of ”the evolution of Black womanism and shares the growth of amultidimensional movement that expresses itself through literary, visual and performance art." Through interviews with black women artists around the country, Madusa aims to bring attention to the important work of these artists, while also sparking social change.
This week's MP3 comes from lo-fi indie-punk band Rue. The four-piece, lead by Laura Lee Burkhardt, just released a new song, "Reversed." It's a highly catchy tune, full of odd musical turns and pleasantly unexpected vocal patterns. Give it a listen (or five, if you're me) below.
This week’s Music To Sweep To (really should have gone with BroomTunes) is the instrumental work of Andrew Bird. There are exceptions, but overall I’m not a huge fan of Bird’s non-instrumental music (I didn’t mention this to him when we spoke last week, nor did he ask). His aesthetic is naturally pretty, but for some reason when he sings, it tips the scale from pleasantly sweet to saccharin, from moving to cloying.
I pretty much wrote the dude off until 2012, when I heard his music in the audiobook for David Sedaris’ Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls. Unlike Sedaris’ earlier audiobooks, which were scored with painfully goofy MIDI jazz tunes, Owls had this heavy, thoughtful score that was well-suited to the author’s sweet, cynical sense of humor. It’s a pretty brilliant matchup actually, and about halfway through, I started to have a bunch of those cornball moments that make you go “What is this?”
"This" was “You Woke Me Up!” from Bird’s instrumental album Useless Creatures.
Useless Creatures was released as a bonus album alongside his non-instrumental record Noble Beast in 2009. It wasn’t his first foray into instrumentals — his albums often have one or two — but Creatures felt and feels like it’s discovering or offering something new. I can’t think of any vocalist whose music is altered more by the addition of their voice. These would not be the same songs with Bird singing and it’d be difficult for him to even try. These songs aren’t built for it.
Of course, all of this (falsely) assumes that instrumentals are just non-instrumental songs with the vocals muted. Listening to “Hot Math,” it’s hard to imagine Bird finding a chorus in that thing. Because, of course, it wasn’t intended to have one. This is a longwinded way of saying that the two sides of Andrew Bird’s music, ones with vocals and ones without, are really profoundly different experiences. I think it’s rare to be so drawn to select songs in an artist’s catalog and so off-put by the rest. It’s like loving Aerosmith, but only the songs sung by Joe Perry. It never happens.
So…I compiled my favorites from Useless Creatures and other instrumental gems from his catalog. Most recently, he released an album called Echolocations: Canyon, which was recorded, mostly improvised, in Coyote Gulch in Utah. He’s planning to record more location-based instrumentals in the future, so maybe he has been getting my letters. Enjoy.
Best if you work in: spelunking, fire lookout, park maintenance
Since I just used quite a few words detailing my dislike for the dude’s voice, I’d like to undo it now with this great (non-instrumental) cut from his latest album Are You Serious.
The muscle behind Switchfoot’s newest album, Where The Light Shines Through, is the one-two punch of spotlighting the dark and offering hope for what they find there. It’s summed up in the anthem of the title track: “the wound is where the light shines through.”
During the band's fall tour, which brings the members to Stage AE on Oct. 12, they’re not only singing about giving people hope, they’re actually giving people hope. They’ve partnered with Cure International, an organization that seeks to heal children with treatable disabilities from 29 countries.
“We got to experience one of those hospitals while we were in the Philippines earlier this year,” drummer Chad Butler explains over the phone. “It's an incredible organization, so [we would] definitely like to highlight them on this tour.”
Jon Foreman talked in an interview about how you all had to fight for the songs you wanted on this record. Were there any songs you personally had to fight for?
For the most part ... we agree on the majority of it, but usually the last one or two songs that you're deciding to cut ... that's when the arm wrestling starts [laughs]. The intensity goes up a notch. Because, I think, as an individual, you become attached to a song, whether it's a particular lyric or just the way it makes you feel, and they mean different things to different people. So in particular, there was a song — "Bull In A China Shop" — that I really wanted to be on the record, and I remember that one being a point of contention for sure. Maybe it's because I'm a drummer, and thinking about the live show, that one seemed like one that I wanted to play every night. So I fought for that one for sure.
How do you guys work that out? How do you come to a decision?
... Ultimately, the passion is what wins. So if somebody has really got a strong opinion, they just have to formulate their case, you know. In the studio, you have to really fight for the song. But ultimately, those arguments are to better the art. You don't take it personally — you have to have thick skin to take the passion for the song but not be looking at it beyond that as far as someone's character. It's more about if you love the song, you're going to fight for it tooth and nail.
This album is very different but still classic Switchfoot at the same time. Did you guys approach this album differently than you did others?
With Fading West, we started without guitars intentionally to try to take the music somewhere new. But [for] this record, we started with guitars. It's a rock guitar record from the very get-go. For me, it's kind of a return to the guitar rock songs that Switchfoot's known for.
Do you guys ever think about or talk about how Switchfoot's music could affect people and stick with them?
Yeah, absolutely ... The goal of this band has always been to communicate hope. And the goal of this record, the reason why we made this record is because hope deserves an anthem. And for us, wrestling with big questions of life and looking for hope in the dark places. It's really what motivates us and keeps us going as a band. It's more than just about rock n' roll — this is about a desire to communicate hope and to explore the world through songs. And I think that's the beauty of art, is that you can really talk about things that are deeper, that are maybe uncomfortable or off-limits for everyday conversation. But through the songs you can explore those things in a meaningful way.
SWITCHFOOT with RELIANT K. 6 p.m. Wed., Oct. 12. Stage AE. 400 North Shore Drive, North Side. $32.50-35. 412-229-5483 or www.stageae.com
Andrew Bird, the Chicago-bred multi-instrumentalist, composer and world-class whistler, returned to the world of pop this year with a new record called Are You Serious. Bird has an appetite and keen ear for sprawling, challenging instrumentals but they have no place on this record.
Are You Serious is clean, inviting pop music that doesn't overreach or ask too much; it's grown-up stuff. "Truth Lies Low" is an easy highlight, pairing an addictive, repetitive riff with Bird's signature distorted violins. Sometimes listening to Bird is like pouring sugar on chocolate — he's just too sweet, the whistling is too perfect, the textures are too darn silky. He's at his best when he aims small, as he does on Are You Serious.
CP spoke with Andrew Bird by phone ahead of his show on Sat., Oct. 8 at the Byham Theater.
Your first release was Music of Hair in 1996. If 1996 Andrew Bird could time-travel to the future and hear your new album Are You Serious, how would he feel about it?
I started Music of Hair when I was like 19, and I was definitely into more things that might appeal to a 19-year-old music student. I was maybe a little more muso back then. I appreciated complexity, and now I appreciate conciseness.
Do you think he’d like it?
Good question. I think there’s enough there still that I would have liked, that my former self would have liked, but I probably would have thought it’s a little poppy …
I’m always interested in your tracks that have minimal instrumentation. You play so many instruments and their layering plays an important role in how your songs sound when they’re finished, so I’m surprised when you do something minimal. On your latest album, “Chemical Switches” is the most minimal, just an acoustic guitar, your voice and a whistle. Why did you hold back on that one?
I didn’t plan on it. But I was working closely with Blake Mills, and he had a take on the song that was … The first time I ever played with him we did a Nick Drake cover, for something that never came out, and we kinda connected over that. I guess maybe he’s taking it there, toward a John Martyn, Nick Drake kind of English folk thing, which we both had an appreciation for in the past. Every attempt to do that with a full band sounded kind of ... it just wasn’t working. He had a pretty inspired approach to it.
I thought there were gonna be overdubs, I thought I’ll probably replace the whistle with violin. That’s a live recording; after many, many takes, I was kinda exhausted and broken down. We had to resist the urge to do anything to it. I tried replacing the whistle — this always happens. I’ll just whistle to hold the melody, but nothing can beat it, it’s so honest. And I tried putting violin in there, and it sounded kind of Celtic. We just left it.
I feel like your body of work has two sides, the structure-based stuff with lyrics, and your instrumental work which is much more repetitive and abstract, like the songs on Useless Creatures. When did you first get into repetition in music?
I have to admit the technology led me to it. I started looping maybe 12-15 years ago, and I just thought, "Oh, this is kind of a cool compositional tool, I can create counterpoint." It suits my creative process. I don’t write things down. I’m not a classical composer, so I don’t get too precious about this is what I intended, here it is on the page written down. I like kinda fast, intuitive stuff, and looping suits that well. But in a way, it did change my music, because before I got into looping, I would have a lot of bridges, segues, my writing was very linear, I didn’t like to repeat myself at all. But the looping also led me to interesting patterns that a lot of modern composers have worked with.
Something like “Hot Math” off Useless Creatures is just kinda like a field recording, stumbling on something that I’ve never been able to replicate. I know all the parts that make up the whole and break them out, but I can’t replicate that groove. You can tell from that recording, I have no interest in stopping playing that. It just fades out. Either it’s in your bones that day or it’s not.
“Hot Math” arrives fully formed, as you said. It fades in and fades out and is more or less consistent for its 10-minute run. Whereas “You Woke Me Up!” (also from Useless Creatures) is also repetitive, but it doesn’t arrive fully formed. It builds up from nothing. Did you approach those songs differently?
Yeah, “You Woke Me Up!” was kind of, I had that pattern going and I dropped it. … That song was based more on that dropping everything to half-speed, down an octave, how it kind of slows everything down.
You said the technology led you to adopt repetition into your music 12-15 years ago. Is there any technology now that’s inspired a change in the way you compose?
I don’t know. For instance, I keep having these opportunities to do symphonic work and I keep balking because I’m really most interested in reacting to my environment, creating a human connection on stage, and I can’t really think of anything with more opportunity for disconnect or losing that connection than to do a big symphonic version. I like to keep it to scale.
Technology is very intuitive. It’s not a replacement of human beings. In fact, it kinda helps me connect to my audience, because of the opportunity for failure. ... A lot of people use technology in recording to eliminate chance, and I use technology on stage to increase my chance of failure, and thereby kind of creating an empathy with the audience.
On that note, your series Live From a Great Room uses technology to connect with your audience, though in an indirect internet sort of way. With that series, were you more interested in connecting with your fans in real time, or in collaborating with artists you respect and want to work with?
I think it’s more about what’s happening in the room. Getting over the initial awkwardness of addressing a phone that’s recording us, instead of a human audience. You know, I just turn to my guest and try to connect with them. I feel the presence of the audience, [but] there’s just no applause.
But if it was just me addressing the phone, that’s strange. But, yeah, that’s been a surprise. That’s kinda what I mean by reactive situations. Like I’m not an extrovert by any means, so to bring someone to my home and entertain them and be the emcee and interact with them in front of an iPhone [is] not something I would dream of doing.
But, really, after each one of these, I feel that satisfaction, gratification, like something real just happened.
Are they spontaneous? How much planning goes into it?
There’s a little bit of planning depending on the comfort zone of the guests. Like Chris Thile and Blake (Mills), there was less planning. But like the one with Fiona [Apple] the other day — we got together the day before, hung out, had dinner and played music. A lot of my life is planning for the unexpected to happen — an inherent contradiction.
I guess these also allow you to experiment with the songs and try new things. Like the cover you did with Fiona Apple of Bob Dylan’s “Oh Sister.” That song, as sung by Dylan and Emmylou Harris, is pretty heartbreaking, but you turned it into something uplifting.
Yeah, I started doing that song a long time ago, when I was asked to do a Dylan cover and I wanted something that wasn’t typically Dylan. That’s one that just kind of ... it’s kind of a mysterious song, you can’t quite pick out what’s going on. Those are my favorite songs that are hinting at something really complex and twisted.
This week’s track comes from far-out indie-rock group Spacefish. The band releases its new record, Earth Jokes, Oct. 15 at Delaine’s Coffee in the Southside; stream or download the title track below — AND, as a special bonus, check out the more-than-slightly dizzying new video for the song. Forrest Kos directed the video, with visual effects by Cory Pelligreno, whose credits include House of Cards and Gone Girl. Listen to more at the band's Spotify page.
Allison Crutchfield is stepping back into the spotlight. As a co-founding member of Swearin’ and P.S. Elliot, she’s spent much of her life making music alongside friends and her sister Katie Crutchfield, of Waxahatchee. In 2014, she released Lean Into It, a seven-track EP that marked the beginning of her solo project. This year she returned to that project, signing with Merge Records, which will release her debut full-length next year. In the meantime, fans can get a sneak peek at that record as Crutchfield hits the road with her backing band, The Fizz. The tour will carry her through much of the United States, including an Oct. 2 stop at Cattivo. Ahead of the Pittsburgh stop, Crutchfield talked to CP by phone about the Merge signing, recording the new album and making time for music.
It was announced that you signed with Merge this year. That must be really exciting. How does it feel to be a part of that label? And was that something you ever imagined when starting out?
I mean, it feels incredible. At the risk of sounding so trite and cheesy, signing with a label like Merge was a literal, like, stare-out-the-window-during-geometry-class daydream fantasy for me, always, and the fact that it’s happening and that, bonus, they’re the greatest people, is just really wonderful. I feel really lucky and grateful.
What was the recording process like for the forthcoming album? What kind of material can fans expect and how might it differ from your EP?
The album is already finished and the recording process was kind of an amazing breeze. I feel like I’m generally an over-preparer when it comes to recording, and so to be working with someone new — the very talented [engineer/producer] Jeff Zeigler — and making my first solo album, it was pretty much ready when we walked into the studio. That left us with lots of time to add overdubs and harmonies, and to just really hone in and focus on what we were doing. I feel like the album is thematically an extension of the EP, but sonically is much more expansive.
Did any of the previous work you did with Swearin' or P.S. Eliot influence this recording?
Sort of. Every other band I’ve been in has revolved in some way around a very close relationship, and that dynamic has been the main creative driving force. So this project kind of finds me without that; I’m motivated by something different, and finding the motivation is a new experience for me.
You're touring with your band, The Fizz. Who are some of the members and how does the band help to bring your songs to life for a live audience? Will you be performing any new songs live?
Right now we’re kind of a power trio, which I’m super into. I play synth and guitar, Sam Cook-Parrott plays bass and Catherine Elicson plays drums. I really love being in a rock band, and I think we play these sad synthy pop songs like a rock band. We’re definitely playing a chunk of the new songs on this tour.
You're also part of your sister's live band for Waxahatchee, so it would seem like you’re often on the road. Do you enjoy touring and how do you balance life on the road with creating new material?
I have my moments where I really love being on the road, and I’m so thankful that I get to travel so much and play music, but I’m also such a creature of habit, so sometimes being on tour can be a challenge for me. I do enjoy it a lot of the time, though. I feel like I find balance by allowing myself to take breaks; putting pressure on myself to write is the absolute worst thing I can do to actually make songs I care about. Usually by the time I’m feeling like writing again, I’m so ready and it’s all easily accessible in my brain.
ALLISON CRUTCHFIELD & THE FIZZ, SPACE BUNS FOREVER, RUE 7 p.m. Sun., Oct. 2. Cattivo, 146 44th St., Lawrenceville. $10-12. 412-687-2157 or www.druskyentertainment.com
Nobody writes music for plants anymore. There’s music about plants, like songs about flowers, and grass, and trees. There are songs about how poison ivy is itchy and how weed is cool. But where are the songs for plants?
In 2007, a study by South Korean scientists found that plants grew at a faster rate when exposed to music, particularly classical music.
“The boffins noted that sounds at 125Hz and 250Hz made genes rbc5 and Ald, that are known to respond to light, more active whereas sound waves at 50Hz made these genes less active, reports the Telegraph," according to MedIndia.net.
In the study, the boffins, who I assume died to bring us this information, opted for stuff like Beethoven and other popular classical music to get the plants going, probably unaware that 30 years prior, a Canadian electronic musician wrote an album specifically for this purpose.
That album was Mother Earth’s Plantasia and the dude was Mort Garson. It was released in 1976 with the subtitle: “warm earth music for plants … and the people who love them.”
Plantasia was released one year after Garson’s Ataraxia: The Unexplained (Electronic Musical Impressions of the Occult), a spooky, atmospheric album which sounds like Zappa writing for Kraftwerk. It’s a strange, sort of disorienting album and though I’m not sure of the science behind it, I’m pretty sure playing it for plants would kill them. I only mention it because Plantasia, by contrast, is almost humorously relaxing.
The opening sequence will sound familiar to anyone who’s played video games made between 1987-94. There’s a Nintendo-ish vibe to the whole thing, and not just for the obvious similarities in instrumentation. Plantasia has a Nintendo game’s sense of adventure and romance, sort of whimsical without all the tiring nonsense that usually accompanies whimsy. Plantasia is cartoonish and sincere, and immensely satisfying to listen to.
My first contact with Plantasia was in 2014, when I interviewed (Pittsburgh’s own) Jeremy Malvin a.k.a. Chrome Sparks and discovered it on one of his playlists. I was intrigued by the name, and was hooked about eight seconds into the opening track. My memory’s a little fuzzy, but from what I can remember, Malvin had a similar first experience, showing up early to a gig in the U.K., hearing it over the speakers and demanding to know everything about the album playing. I believe this is the average response.
Plantasia is not on Spotify, nor is it easy to come by on vinyl but it’s not impossible to find on CD. I found mine used on Amazon for under $15. In the meantime, this YouTube video gets the job done (plus there are great comments) and while I don’t recommend skimming track by track, it’s hard to ignore that “Rhapsody in Green” is a standout.
So… whether you’re a plant or a person or some kind of Ent, take a half hour to listen to Plantasia once in a while. If it can make rice plants happy, imagine what it can do for you.
Best if you work in: a greenhouse, botany, horticulture, etc