Category Archives: music

Berlin: Day 1

Brandenburg Gate at night.

Brandenburg Gate at night.

I got back from Berlin late Saturday and will now start to catch up on blogging. Berlin was amazing. Yes, it’s poor and not as pretty as Paris, but it has so much art and culture and incredible history. I didn’t have nearly enough time to see even a fraction of the city. That would require at least another year, maybe ten. In fact, it’s a city I would love to live in. But with its high unemployment rate, it’s hard for foreigners to work there right now. It’s definitely on my list for desirable future homes. I’d decided to go to Germany on a whim, not really knowing much about Berlin or what I would see there. I don’t speak German, although I think I mastered a few essential phrases and tried my best. This was my favorite: “Ich verstehe nicht. Sprechen sie Englisch?” Or: “I don’t understand. Do you speak English?” For the most part people were very helpful, although the public transportation and museum employees could be a little impatient.

My first day was consumed by travel. I caught the 6:00 am TGV train to Paris from Valence and then took the RER to Charles de Gaulle airport. I was impressed by Air France. Both flights I took were on time and the food was actually edible. Plus they had tons of free newspapers. My experience in the actual airport in Berlin was frustrating. There is no train to the airport so you have to get the bus. After being surrounded by French for five months, finding myself suddenly in front of a transportation map with long German names was disorienting. In Berlin, there is the U-Bahn (underground metro), S-Bahn (overground metro), buses, and trams. These are all mixed together on one transport map and you often need to take a combination to get where you are going. Luckily, someone at the airport helped me find the right bus and I was soon outside my hostel. The hostel was in a cool neighborhood called Kreuzberg, although it was one of the quietest hostels I’ve ever stayed in. I was always the last person to go to sleep.

The Handsome Furs playing at the Bang Bang Club.

The Handsome Furs playing at the Bang Bang Club.

I used the U-Bahn and tram to get to Hackescher Markt and went on a walk around town and randomly ended up in front of the Brandenburg Gate. I saw it at the end of a boulevard and thought that it looked familiar. I would be by there again a few times. For dinner, I ate a mozzarella and tomato sandwich because it was the only thing in the bakery that was obviously vegetarian, so I could point and say one of my few German phrases: “Dieses, bitte” (this please). I then went to the Bang Bang Club to see the Handsome Furs. I really liked their 2007 album, “Plague Park.” If you haven’t heard of them, the Handsome Furs is a Canadian group composed of guitarist and vocalist Dan Boeckner (also a member of Wolf Parade) and his wife Alexei Perry  (also a short story writer) on synths on drum machine. It turned out to be a really cool show. I hadn’t heard anything from their new album, “Face Control,” and I’m pretty sure almost all the songs were from it. Their last album was really mellow, but their new songs are more upbeat and danceable. The album will be out on March 10, so I’ll have to track down a copy. There’s a video of them playing one of their new songs, “I’m Confused,” at the Sundance Film Festival on youtube that shows what their show is like. Check it out.

I managed to make it back to the hostel after the concert and got some much needed sleep. I hadn’t seen Berlin in daylight yet and was looking forward to exploring the city.

Paris Weekend: Day 1

Cry Me A River, seen near Place de la Republique in Paris. It has to be by the same person who did the Hell Yes! sign on the New Museum in New York, right?

Cry Me A River, seen near Place de la Republique in Paris. It has to be by the same person who did the Hell Yes! sign on the New Museum in New York, right?

Last Saturday, January 31, I took the TGV up to Paris for a weekend visit, with the main goal to see Of Montreal play a concert. Of Montreal, along with the Mountain Goats and The Flaming Lips, are a band for which I will travel long distances. You will see why later in this post. I arrived in Paris a little before noon and decided that instead of taking the metro I would use the Vélib bicycles for my entire trip. This actually went pretty well and I didn’t step foot into a subway car until the third day when I woke up to snow which turned into freezing rain. While I really enjoyed cruising through Paris on a bicycle and pretending I lived there, I should warn any prospective Vélib users that they can be frustrating. Don’t expect to just bike up to your destination. More than once I had to circle around several Vélib stands before I found a parking spot. Or there was the time when the bike I picked had loose handlebars and I had to change it out, but then I had to wait five minutes before getting a new bike. Or when I couldn’t get the bike in at just the right angle and spent several minutes of frustration banging it against its metal stand. And there are a surprising amount of one way streets in Paris. France is teaching me to be patient.

NON!!! says the statue at Place de la Republique. Probably leftover from the January 29 strike.

NON!!! says the statue at Place de la République. Probably leftover from the January 29 strike.

I’d picked a hostel near Place de la République and despite the fact that my roommates spoke neither French nor English and seemed to have problems keeping the water in the shower, it worked out well. I could walk to the concert venue, was right next to a Vélib stand, and was a block from a metro station. Plus, there was a bakery across the street that was awesome. I would go there everyday if I could. The woman who worked there gave me free pastries while I waited for my sandwich and seemed overly concerned about the heating time of the mozzarella.

Les Galeries de Paléontologie et dAnatomie Comparée

Les Galeries de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie Comparée

I ended up having lunch in front of Notre Dame because I got lost looking for the Jardin des Plantes. After eating part of the giant sandwich I’d made in Valence, I finally made it over to the right place and went to Les Galeries de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée (the Galleries of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy). The Galeries are part of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) complex in the Jardin des Plantes. You might remember my visit to the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution which is also part of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. Like that museum, les Galeries de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée was a spectacle of species. This time with skeletons and wet specimens, which is when organs and body parts are preserved in jars usually filled with formaldehyde. As this is a comparative anatomy museum, everything is arranged according to function. For example, there is a case of stomachs from animals that have similar digestive functions and a case full of brains (sometimes connected to spines) for animals with similar cognitive functions. One of the more interesting cabinets had a succession of human, ape, and gorilla skulls from child to adult that showed the similar ways our skulls develop. I’m going to bet that couldn’t be shown in some parts of the United States.

Whale skeletons in

Whale skeletons in Les Galeries de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie Comparée.

At first when I entered the museum and saw the herds of children, I thought I was going to be annoyed. But they were so involved in the exhibits and their parents never pulled them away from the more disturbing cabinets, like the jars of fetuses or the “monsters” with two heads. My tour through the three floors was accompanied with a constant soundtrack of “C’est quoi ça???” (“What’s this?”). I kind of felt the same way. At every cabinet or every skeleton I was instantly thinking “What in the world is going on?” and would read the tiny cursive writing and find out it was a bird skeleton from an Egyptian mummy, a dissected camel, or a human ear. In addition to the curiosity aspect, the museum is beautiful. As you can see from these pictures there is a herd of animals skeletons in the middle with the wet specimens and smaller skeletons in cases on the sides. On the walls above there are collections of skulls and horns. Plus, it was almost completely lit by the sunlight coming through the giant windows.

Dinosaur skeletons at

Dinosaur skeletons at Les Galeries de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie Comparée.

The paleontology floor was similarly arranged (no wet specimens, alas). I especially enjoyed the woolly mammoths and the balcony from which you could see all the fossils. I ended my tour by looking at one of Georges Cuvier’s original comparative anatomy boxes that shows his attempts to classify species through their functions. His system may be a little out-of-date now, but a walk through the museum definitely made me think about the similarities between my hands and the bones in a whale’s flipper or the similar structure my skull shares with a chimpanzee.

Sign for Of Montreal and Casiokids at Le Bataclan.

Sign for Of Montreal and Casiokids at Le Bataclan.

I Vélibed back to the hostel and took a walk through Oberkampf before getting in line for the Of Montreal concert. I was there pretty early so there were only about 10 people in front of me. I figured if I came all the way to Paris I had better be in front. And when the doors opened I was right against the stage. The show was in Le Bataclan, a little concert hall built in the mid-1800s that often hosts indie concerts.

Casiokids opening for Of Montreal at Le Bataclan.

Casiokids opening for Of Montreal at Le Bataclan.

Casiokids, a Norwegian electropop group, played first. I’ll start by saying that their bass player and drummer were pretty good and we’re churning out some awesome dance beats. However, the band seems to have some sort of rule that all five people cannot play at once and at least one person must be awkwardly dancing or playing the woodblock. However, I was charmed by their awkwardness and most of their songs were danceable, so I enjoyed their set.

Of Montreal takes the stage at Le Bataclan.

Of Montreal takes the stage at Le Bataclan.

Soon after the Casiokids ended, a tiger wearing a white suit came on stage to rev up the crowd for Of Montreal. And once the band took the stage it only got more fantastically bizarre from there. The lead singer Kevin Barnes had several costume changes, which towards the end of the show became more and more revealing. First no shirt, then just silk beige underwear, then covered in shaving cream (over a bodysuit). I was right in front of Bryan Poole the guitar player who had his usual battered angel wings. I have to say that I probably missed some stage theatrics because I was so enthralled with his guitar skills. That man can play and has some great stage presence. And yes, I’m using stage presence as code for attractiveness. Although I just gave away my code.

Gold Buddhas storm through the Of Montreal stage.

Gold Buddhas storm through the Of Montreal stage.

The last time I’d seen Of Montreal was at a free concert they played at the University of Oklahoma. At that show, the power blew about halfway through their second song and they ended up playing an acoustic set. So I was excited to see their fully electrified stage performance. They mostly played songs from their new album, Skeletal Lamping, although there were selections from Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and some of their older popular songs like “Requiem For O.M.M.2” and “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (and Other Games).” I came to the show expecting it to be overrun with Americans since Of Montreal is from Georgia, but I was surprised to be one of the few there. This of course made me the annoying person who knew all the words to all the songs.

People in black catsuits with red glitter masks carry Kevin Barnes.

People in black catsuits with red glitter masks carry Kevin Barnes.

Every song was accompanied by a video projection and some sort of costumed theatrics. I’m sure there was a plot or meaning that brought the birds wearing red suits or a hoofed Satan to the stage, but it was lost on me. And I didn’t care. I love absurdity and spectacle for its own sake. Although I’m sure if it was all coordinated by Kevin Barnes it must have a connection with the Georgie Fruit story. They even threw feathers into the crowd like the Flaming Lips does with confetti.

A tiger attacks a pig at the Of Montreal show.

A tiger attacks a pig at the Of Montreal show.

But despite the fact they might be influenced by the Lips carnavelesque stage show, it isn’t the same level of positive exuberance. It’s much more cathartic and darker. There was a point where there was a funeral procession with Barnes in the casket and there was another where a guy continued to reveal more hideous masks under masks to a terrified skeleton. Or where, as in this photo, the tiger in the white suit attacked a pig.

Kevin Barnes in a smoking fur suit.

Kevin Barnes in a smoking fur suit.

If you want to see some videos from the concert, people have posted a few on YouTube. You can Of Montreal’s performance of “Id Engager,” “Cato as a Pun,” and their finale where they covered Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out.” The last one is especially worth watching is you want to see how many people in costumes were involved in the set. At the angle of the last two I’m sure I could find my head if I really looked. I’ll leave that to you if you so desire.

Of Montreal covers Franz Ferdinands Take Me Out and the stage is swarmed with costumed people.

Of Montreal covers Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" and the stage is swarmed with costumed people.

I think I’m still feeling happy from that concert, so it was well worth the trip. I love bands that put extra effort into making their live shows engaging. It’s nice if you can get up there and play your music just like it is on the CD, but then there’s really no point in going. I will definitely go out of my way to see Of Montreal again.

Two more Paris posts are coming. Hopefully I’ll get them done before I leave for Berlin.

My Favorite Albums of 2008

Another year has almost gone by since I celebrated New Year’s Eve with the Flaming Lips in Oklahoma City. And like I did at the end of 2007, I’ve compiled a list of my 10 favorite albums of the year. I’m sure there is some excellent music I missed, just like there is a lot of music everyone seemed to love, but wasn’t for me. I’ve included an mp3 from each album that you can download and sample, as well as a video where you can watch the music in action and a link to where you can buy the album. There ended up being a lot of dance-influenced music and several artists who have been haunting my music collection for a while, as well as artists who I’d never heard of before 2008.

cutcopy

10. Cut Copy :: In Ghost Colours

Cut Copy almost perfected the 1980’s electronica, new wave sound that a lot of bands are playing with these days. In Ghost Colours is the second full-length album for the Melbourne, Australia group and they strategically used enough futuristic synthesizing and creative vocals to make it more than just a throwback. The uptempo beats have made this album the one I listen to on my walks and bus rides through the cold, gray days.
Favorite tracks: “Hearts on Fire,” “Lights and Music,” and “So Haunted.”

Listen: Lights and Music” (click to download)
Watch: “Hearts on Fire” music video
Buy: In Ghost Colours

passionpit

9. Passion Pit :: Chunk of Change

If I was ranking my favorite new band discoveries of 2008, Boston-based Passion Pit would definitely be first. Chunk of Change is only a 6 song EP, but every one of the songs is exciting and fresh. It even has a good story behind it. Michael Angelakos, the singer/songwriter for Passion Pit, originally created the EP as a Valentine’s Day gift for his girlfriend. It got handed around to friends and eventually made it to the internet and exploded onto every music blog. Passion Pit is coming out with a full-length album in 2009 and I can’t wait to hear how they develop their perfectionist dance pop.
Favorite Tracks: “Sleepyhead,” “I’ve Got Your Number,” and “Better Things.”

Listen: “Sleepyhead” (click to download)
Watch: “Sleepyhead” music video
Buy: Chunk of Change

holdsteady

8. The Hold Steady :: Stay Positive

The Hold Steady first caught my attention back in 2004 with the release of Almost Killed Me, an album full of classic rock-influenced intelligent music, yelled out in Frank Black monotones. Four years later, the Brooklyn-based band is still playing passionate ballads and bar songs about the boys and girls in America. The songs on Stay Positive use the band’s poetic storytelling to follow the stories of the characters from the previous albums as they try to persevere against aging.
Favorite Tracks: “Stay Positive,” “Sequestered in Memphis,” and “Lord, I’m Discouraged.”

Listen: “Sequestered in Memphis” (click to download)
Watch: “Stay Positive” music video
Buy: Stay Positive

chadvangaalen7. Chad VanGaalen :: Soft Airplane

I think Chad VanGaalen should commission me for his next album’s art, I could definitely capture his style. Soft Airplane is the Calgary singer/songwriter’s third album and many of its fragile, ghostly songs explore death. Known for being somewhat of an eccentric hermit, VanGaalen recorded the songs in his basement home studio and the album includes some of the recordings he made of the trains that go by his house. And he also animates his own music videos. What’s there not to love?
Favorite Tracks: “City of Electric Light,” “Willow Tree,” and “Rabid Bits of Time.”

Listen: “City of Electric Light” (click to download)
Watch: “Clinically Dead” music video (not off of this album, but it shows his creative animation skills.)
Buy: Soft Airplane


mcchris6. mc chris :: mc chris is dead

mc chris‘ latest album is his strongest and shows how far he’s come with vocal arrangements and backing tracks. But don’t worry, the Brooklyn rapper is still as nerdy as ever, referencing video games, the Discovery Channel, the history of Reese’s Pieces, and Six Flags. At the end of his last album, Dungeon Master of Ceremonies, he dies. So at the beginning of mc chris is dead, he comes back as a zombie. Like any good nerd would.
Favorite Tracks: “mc chris Is Dead,” “Falynn,” and “Older Crowd.”

Listen: “mc chris Is Dead” (click to download)
Watch: “Falynn” performed with Pinback at the Nokia Theater in New York
Buy: mc chris is dead

why

5. Why? :: Alopecia

How could I have missed out on Why? until this year? They’re brilliant, mixing indie music and hip hop into something unique and unclassifiable. The California band’s Alopecia is experimental with genre, while still accessible, and completely refreshing. Their lyrics are creative, including lines like “I sleep on my back because it’s good for the spine and coffin rehearsal” and “In a crowded room, project a debonair aloof impermanence.”  This might be weird, but to me Why? sounds what would happen if the character Mark from the musical Rent started a band. If that sentence means anything to you, listen and let me know if I’m completely crazy.
Favorite Tracks: “The Hollows,” “Fatalist Palmistry,” and “The Vowels Pt. 2”

Listen: “The Hollows” (click to download)
Watch: “The Hollows” performed live in Berlin
Buy: Alopecia

ofmontreal

4. Of Montreal :: Skeletal Lamping

I watched a DVD of David Bowie’s music videos at a friend’s apartment today, and it was impressive how he was able to alter his music and image so dramatically over only a few years. The same can be said of Kevin Barnes, lead singer and songwriter for Of Montreal and a big Bowie fan. In Barnes’ new persona, Georgie Fruit, who appeared in the middle of last year’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, he is a long way from the shy singer from Atlanta, Georgia who created Cherry Peel. Skeletal Lamping is eclectic, manic, primal, melodic, ambitious, beautiful, overwhelming…I could probably use every adjective in my thesaurus. And the band’s stage show has grown in the same way. Last year there were a few props and costumes, now its a full-blown theatrical performance. Did I mention I have tickets to see them in Paris on January 31? I’m so excited!
Favorite Tracks: “Id Engager,” “For Our Elegant Caste,” and “Gallery Piece.”

Listen: “For Our Elegant Cast” (click to download)
Watch: “Id Engager” performed live in North Carolina
Buy: Skeletal Lamping

themountaingoats3. the Mountain Goats :: Heretic Pride

According to my iTunes, I have around 180 songs by the Mountain Goats. I think I’m still missing a few hundred. John Darnielle is one of the best living songwriters and Heretic Pride is one of his most energetic releases, although he still gives us heartbreaking characters on even the most dynamic tracks. This is his 16th album and although the orchestration is still light, its an evolution from Darnielle’s early lo-fi cassette recorder days while maintaining that original emotional intensity. I was lucky enough to see a lot of these songs performed live during my trip to New York City and they worked the large venue where some of the Mountain Goats’ more intimate, early songs might get lost. The other two times I’d seen them was at the Opolis in Norman with about 30 other people, perfect for the songs on Get Lonely or We Shall All Be Healed. Heretic Pride is an album for a crowd and with their ever-expanding fan base, it’s a not a bad direction to take.
Favorite Tracks: “Sax Rohmer #1,” “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” and “Michael Myers Resplendent.”

Listen: “Sax Rohmer #1” (click to download)
Watch: “Sax Rohmer #1” music video
Buy: Heretic Pride

mgmt

2. MGMT :: Oracular Spectacular

I first checked out Oracular Spectacular because David Fridmann (producer for The Flaming Lips and member/producer for Mercury Rev) had produced it. I had no idea it was going to be so epic and addictive, easily one of my most-played albums of 2008. MGMT (formerly called The Management) have made a mesmerizing album that’s a soundscape of space age synths and earnest vocals. I love it when good music gets the popularity it deserves, I even heard “Kids” playing in the tourist office here in Valence. Despite its ubiquity, the album isn’t yet stale, and it looks like there’s still more to come. Members of MGMT and Of Montreal recently announced that they’ll be working on an album together. And I imagine it will sound like nothing I’ve heard before.
Favorite Tracks: “Kids,” “Time to Pretend,” and “Electric Feel.”

Listen: “Kids” (click to download)
Watch: “Time to Pretend” music video
Buy: Oracular Spectacular

hotchip1. Hot Chip :: Made in the Dark

This album literally did not leave my car stereo for a month. London’s Hot Chip made, in my opinion, the best electropop album of 2008, and there were a lot to compete against. Made in the Dark is their third studio album and while it has many danceable tracks, it also has love ballads. The whole album is a balance between catchy club beats and the sensitive romanticism that appears on the slower tracks,  although it lurks in the lyrics of the dance tracks. And there is even a reference to Tim Burton’s Batman in “Ready for the Floor”: “You’re my number one guy.” Plus, I’m a little in love with their geeky fashion style. Apparently Peter Gabriel may be producing their next album, so I’m interested to hear if that is realized. I’ve ranked this as my favorite album of 2008 because this year wasn’t always easy and, like Made in the Dark, sometimes I felt like dancing and others I wanted someone to commiserate with. Hot Chip gave me both and became the perfect accompaniment for my drives around Oklahoma City and now my train trips across France.
Favorite Tracks: “Ready for the Floor,” “Wrestlers,” and “Touch Too Much.”

Listen: “Ready for the Floor” (click to download)
Watch: “Ready for the Floor” music video
Buy: Made in the Dark


Honorable Mentions:

Bonnie “Prince” Billy :: Lie Down In The Light
Ratatat :: LP3
Ghostland Observatory :: Robotique Majestique
TV On The Radio :: Dear Science
Wolf Parade :: At Mount Zoomer
Sigur Rós :: Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust
The Roots :: Rising Down
Okkervil River :: The Stand Ins
Horse Feathers :: House With No Name
Frightened Rabbit :: The Midnight Organ Fight
Crystal Castles :: Crystal Castles