BlackBook Tracks #21: Bringing In The Funk

Hey, how’s your week been? Good? Well, it’s about to get better. Drink some craft beer and listen to these songs. Things are about to get funky.

Jamie Lidell – “What A Shame”

Jamie Lidell moved to Nashville last year to record his forthcoming self-titled album, and “What A Shame” is the first hint at what he’s been up to. It’s a blistering cut from the British-born electro-soul artist, heating things up even more since 2010’s Compass.

School of Seven Bells – “Secret Days”

School of Seven Bells just put out the Put Your Sad Down EP, helmed by a sprawling, majestic title track that clocks in at nearly 13 minutes. For something a little less intimidating, check out another track from the release, “Secret Days,” still a strong listen from the Brooklyn psych-pop duo.

inc. – “5 days”

So, how about that indie R&B scene? L.A. duo inc. are the latest to arrive, and they have a vision that’s dreamy, hazy, and altogether intimate.

Alt-J (feat. Mountain Man) – “Buffalo”

There’s a real cinematic quality to Alt-J’s music, and it’ll be put on full display when this previously unreleased track appears in the upcoming Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper film Silver Linings Playbook. It starts off more airy than what we’re used to hearing from the British art-rockers, but still hints at their characteristic driving low end.

El Perro Del Mar – “Home Is To Feel Like That”

Swedish singer-songwriter El Perro Del Mar’s fifth album, Pale Fire, came out this week. It’s a quiet stunner, and “Home Is To Feel Like That” sees her flirting with electronic glances.

Midnight Magic – “Walking The Midnight Streets”

You need more disco-funk in your life. Here’s the title track from Midnight Magic’s just-released debut LP. It’s a dancefloor-ready good time from a band featuring various DFA alums.

The 1969 Club – “Go Right Ahead”
French garage rock? It’s more likely than you think–or than I thought, anyways. “Go Right Ahead” rips hard, all churning guitars and catchy chorus.

 

Heems – “Third Thing”

 

It feels like more rappers have released mixtapes this week than usual? One of them is Heems of Das Racist, who just dropped Wild Water Kingdom. “Third Thing” sees him teaming up with esteemed Italian dance producers Crookers.

Fine Peduncle – “Hymniptera”

Let’s get weird with some sexy, sinister electro-pop. Looping vocals, choppy synths, and pulsing bass form a mysterious world.

Follow Katie Chow on Twitter.

Comeback Kids: March Goes Out Like a Lion With Some Fantastic New Albums

The Magnetic Fields, Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge)
The Magnetic Fields bandleader Stephin Merritt, one of the great living American songwriters, has returned to indie label Merge, picked up his synthesizers, and released his strongest album in years. No concepts or overarching themes this time out, just a collection of 15 short, crafty pop songs (all under three minutes) from a master of the form. The song titles alone will elicit giddy grins from fans (“God Wants Us to Wait,” “All She Cares About Is Mariachi”). Merritt covers a fair amount of ground: clever synth-pop, of course (“The Machine in Your Hand” is about wanting to be a crush’s mobile device); a spurned lover’s revenge fantasy (“Your Girlfriend’s Face,” which the song’s protagonist has hired a hitman to, um, remove); country (“Going Back to the Country”); and Gary Numan–style ’80s new wave (“Infatuation [With Your Gyration]”). Almost every track’s a keeper, and the (very) few that miss their marks are over before they wear out their welcome. It’s the band’s most consistently entertaining album since 69 Love Songs, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

The Ting Tings, Sounds from Nowheresville (Columbia)
Manchester pop duo and Apple darlings The Ting Tings follow up their ubiquitous international hits “That’s Not My Name” and “Shut Up and Let Me Go” with a confident, polished collection of smart, sassy modern pop. Highlights abound: The twin chant-a-longs “Hang It Up” and “Hit Me Down Sonny” could pass for M.I.A. at her catchiest, and “Soul Killing” is an admirable stab at a ska anthem. Elsewhere, the album effortlessly shifts from the ’90s heyday electronica of “One By One" to the deft radio-ready pop of “Day to Day.” The spare, haunting closing track “In Your Life” ends the album with hushed vocals, acoustic guitar, and viola—a well-deserved cooldown after a half hour of uptempo, spirited fun.

School of Seven Bells, Ghostory (Ghostly International)
The third album from NYC’s answer to M83 is another inspired mix of electronica and early-’90s dreampop.The band is now a duo after the departure of vocalist Alejandra Deheza’s twin sister, Claudia, but the vocals here soar as effectively as on prior releases. Ghostory is a concept album (thankfully without the minor-key dirges or goth trappings its title might imply), but while close attention reveals a story  and the group’s trademark lyrical wordplay amid Benjamin Curtis’ swirling guitar textures, the individual songs are strong enough to stand on their own without narrative context. The propulsive opening track “The Night” is as good a song as any the band has yet produced, and “White Wind” packs a heavy, Garbage-like punch. Only on the trance-inducing “Show Me Love” and the percussion-less “Reappear” does atmosphere overtake songcraft.

Miike Snow, Happy to You (Downtown Records/Universal Republic)
Proving this Swedish trio’s stellar eponymous debut was no fluke, the self-produced Happy to You gamely picks up where its predecessor left off, with 10 more tracks of  sonically tricked-out, expertly crafted songs that stylistically fall somewhere between The Postal Service and MGMT. While no single track reaches the dizzying pop heights of “Animal” (the first album’s finest moment and one of the best songs of 2009), some (“Paddling Out,” “Pretender,” and “Archipelago”) come awfully close. The album as a whole is packed with an arsenal of production tricks, sound effects, and marching band brass and drums that will hold your attention throughout.

Nite Jewel, One Second of Love (Secretly Canadian)
L.A. singer Ramona Gonzalez’s sophomore album of hip, lean, laptop disco retains the D.I.Y. charm of her earlier recordings, which have earned her a legitimate cult following. The main difference here is the expected studio polish and her improved songwriting chops. Half of the album consists of hooky pop confections like “Memory Man,” “Mind & Eyes,” and the album’s infectious title track and first single, all benefitting greatly from the cleaner, leaner sound. The remaining half is more stark, minimalist, and experimental, and should appeal to adventurous ears—the kind of music enthusiasts who prefer their pop in quotation marks.

Bright Moments, Natives (Luaka Bop)
Multi-instrumentalist Kelly Pratt, who has played brass and wind instruments for the likes of Beirut, Arcade Fire, and LCD Soundsystem, has released a solo album on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, and it’s a charmer. Natives is a home-studio recorded confection of odd samples, warm vocals, keyboards, and Pratt’s trademark trumpet flourishes. The Kentucky native’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to recording fills out the album with all manner of nifty sonic details without making it sound cluttered, and the songs themselves are tuneful and melodic (Careful: You’ll have the melody of “Travelers” stuck in your head for days.) A promising debut.

Plants and Animals, The End of That (Secret City Records)
The Montreal trio’s third folk-infused, guitar-centric indie rock record has a raw, intimate, in-session sound, with Warren Spicer’s vocals way up front in the mix, suiting the material just fine. While the lovely harmonies that sweetened their Polaris-nominated debut album, Parc Avenue, are missed, understated acoustic moments like opening track “Before,” and the midway interlude “HC” nicely offset Crazy Horse–style rave-ups like “Crisis!” (featuring the priceless chorus “We’re somewhere between a crisis and a pretty good time”). The End of That manages the neat trick of sounding contemporary, even as it harkens back to loose, ’70s-style guitar rock, ragged in all the right ways.

Watch School of Seven Bells Play ‘Jimmy Fallon’

School of Seven Bells’ Benjamin Curtis and Alejandra Deheza turned up on Jimmy Fallon last night. They’re drumming up buzz for their upcoming Ghostory, a concept album based on a character surrounded by spirits. The band has gone from a trio to a duo since their last release in 2010, but from the  shoegazey hum of things, it doesn’t matter.  They still sound as dreamy as ever.  

Ghostory is out Feb. 28. Below, they play “The Night.”

Two for the Road: Beach House & School of Seven Bells Keep it Intimate

Hard to say whether or not Beach House‘s Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally are what’s commonly called “a couple.” In fact, after meeting the two last week at The Fillmore Miami Beach, I doubt seriously they could be commonly called anything. Same goes for School of Seven Bells‘ Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin Curtis, who I met at Grand Central on Saturday night. They, too, could be “an item.” But frankly, I don’t much care. To me it’s enough to know that both pairs have some kinda special bond between them, and that together they make some of the most compellingly beautiful music on the planet. Would any of it be possible without that girl/guy give and take? Unlikely. But that doesn’t mean I’ve gotta peak into their respective bedrooms to find out what really goes on.

That said, the big idea behind this column is getting close to folks who are either blowing through or living in Miami, and trying to learn a bit about what makes them tick. You don’t do that without a little prying, or by sticking solely to the facts according to some press release. I mean, even the most perfunctory interview can turn intimate, especially if it’s face-to-face. That’s one of the reasons I insist on in-person interviews in the first place.

Besides, who else would ask Beach House which director and artist they could see themselves soundtracking? For the former, Scally thinks “Antonioni and Kusterica, the guy who did Black Cat White Cat; Antonioni [because] there are a lot of slow parts, and there’s a lot of great intensity, and there’s a lot of great beauty.” Legrand says “any director who uses space really.” And when I press for a Frenchie, she’d choose, “Godard, obviously, the way he’d freeze a still so it’s almost like a photograph and then dissolve into a sequence of three.” But really, “anyone who cleverly uses visual.”

Citing numerous reviews and interviews in which the subject of abstraction comes up, Legrand wants to ensure that I don’t think of Beach House as a bunch of eggheads. “Abstract is important to us in an almost non-intellectual way,” she tells me, “because it’s not super on-purpose abstract; it’s in the most playful way.”

“I feel like people talk about writing music in a way that we can’t relate to,” explains Scally. “‘I had some really intense stuff happening in my life so I sat down on the guitar and hashed it out. That’s not how musical inspiration comes to me, and I don’t think that’s how it comes to Victoria.”

“If it does, it’s residual,” she concurs, “long after the fact.”

“Artist-wise though I could say anyone really” Legrand continues. “I could say Bill Viola and I could say Basquait. That doesn’t necessarily mean how I think it connects to us. But it terms of boldness of color, freedom of shape, of form, of explosiveness, of very little, it could be very minimalistic. Anyone in that vein really. It’s hard to say one in particular.”

“Miro,” says Scally. “Really bold and really simple.” And “Rothko,” adds Legrand. “Depending on where you’re looking from.”

The Baltimore-based duo (who record as a threesome and tours as a quartet) tend to finish each other’s sentences, and it’s a bet that in studio or in the writing room, they finish each other’s thoughts as well. Though their most recent album, Teen Dream, and the rest of their highly-regarded recordings are the primary reason for their increasing success, Beach House seems to be most at home in the back of a van or a bus.

“We’ve basically been on the road for four years straight,” says Scally. “Our growth has been from touring constantly. We haven’t had a week home the entire year.”

“We’re a touring band,” Legrand insists. “We’re not like little fairies that need to be protected. We have to tour all the time.” That’s why after Beach House wraps a tour supporting Vampire Weekend, they’ll be back to bunking across the pond. “This will be our fifth time in Europe,” says Scally, “this year.”

School of Seven Bells are equally road-worthy, which is a large part of the reason why twin sister Claudia recently bowed out of the current tour.

“We make a record and we go on tour,” says Curtis. “We make a record while we’re on tour, then we keep touring. We eat, sleep, and breathe School of Seven Bells, and I can understand if that’s not for some people.”

Alejandra (aka Ally) wasn’t at all surprised by her sister’s decision.

“Yeah, we sensed it coming,” she tells me. “I think Claudia just lost interest in being in a band. The bottom line is touring just isn’t for some people. If you don’t love it, you can’t do it.”

Like Beach House, SVIIB is back and forth across the pond as much as possible, and in a week or so they’ll be “in Europe for the second time since [their LP Disconnect from Desire] came out on July 15.” And while Claudia’s departure did leave a gap, “Her spirit is still with us,” says Curtis.

To my eyes it appears that perhaps the bond between Ally and Benjamin might’ve left Claudia feeling rather like a third wheel. After all, it is Alejandra and Benjamin who write all the music (though “that was [Claudia’s] choice” they say), and it is they who, like Legrand and Scally, complete each other’s sentences and thoughts. Add the gruel of the road and it’d be enough to send anyone packing.

But the School kids didn’t seem to be fretting so there’s no reason I should either. I ask them whether or not they’ve seen the 1973 James Coburn flick Harry in Your Pocket, which is where I first heard of the mythical pickpocketing academy known as the School of the Seven Bells. Oddly, I’m “the first person ever to even mention it.” I ask Ally if anyone’s ever said she sometimes sounds like Karen Carpenter, especially in tracks like “Dial” and “ILU.” And she says, no, but she’s more than a little flattered by the comparison. That leads to a run about Olivia Newtown John (Karen’s best friend), lucid dreaming (frequently mentioned by the band) and bibliomancy (which Ally saw practiced first-hand in the “fanatic, evangelical Christian church” of her youth).

But when I ask for a “fanboy shot” to prove I was actually present at the creation of this conversation, and the two in turn responded by asking me to recommend a good nearby restaurant, I couldn’t help flashing back to Wednesday when Victoria and Alex simultaneously asked the exact same thing. Yeah, I know, everybody gets hungry. But not everybody does so at the same time alongside a partner with whom they are taking on the whole wild world.

Are the duos in fact couples? I don’t know. But since both pairs slipped me their coordinates and asked that I keep in touch, one day I may. Till then I get to revel in the notion that I now know two of the most charming twosomes in pop.

School of Seven Bells’ Ethereal Chimes

School of Seven Bells’ performance at the Bowery Ballroom on Friday night struck gold. I knew it’d be awesome, yet the band took their music to another plateau of sonic appreciation. The powerful threesome — Ben Curtis, Claudia Deheza, and her twin sister Alejandra Deheza — just finished up a monthlong US tour stretching far across to California. The Bowery show was a “coming home” of sorts for the New York-based band.

Ben, prior to taking the stage said, “Jessica! How are you! I’m running around, but you have to come to the Bowery Hotel with us after the show.” Claudia, whom I saw after their performance, said the same thing, “Come to the Bowery.” (So yeah, I guess I was going to Bowery.) My stop through the hotel lobby lasted ‘bout 15 minutes due from a text from Ben, “In the bar under the pizza place by Niagara. Come over. We’re here now.” Of course I knew he was speaking of one of my favorite bars, the Cabin.

Upon arrival, I found Ben, Claudia, and Alejandra holding court in the tucked-away back room, talking with friends including their manager Ryan Gentles and doing the usual catch-ups. The buzz among everyone at the Cabin was the band’s amazing performance. Everyone couldn’t stop chattering, especially Brandon Curtis — Ben’s brother from his former band Secret Machines. “I’m so glad I was able to make it tonight. So so so good.” (Now that’s coming from one of the most opinionated men in music. No family free passes from that one.)

While chatting with Alejandra, she surprised me by shifting the conversation and giving me an accolade. “The fact that you actually cared about our music when no one paid attention, years ago, in the beginning, even with On!Air!Library!, and are still here means so much. You’d always check in with us and see our progression.” I thought I was the one who was supposed to be the critic? The most critical thing I will say however is that this band isn’t going anywhere, so watch out Roseland and Hammerstein ballrooms — they’re coming soon.

Are School of Seven Bells Brooklyn’s Next Breakout?

School of Seven Bells have Interpol to thank for their togetherness. Alejandra Deheza laughs when I suggest this, but really, it’s sort of true. The New York trio made up of Benjamin Curtis, Alejandra, and her twin sister Claudia, met while supporting Interpol on tour — Ben with the band Secret Machines and the Deheza twins with On! Air! Library!. As Alley tells it, she was enamored with the way Ben played guitar, watching him every night, and amazed that no two nights were ever the same. And though they didn’t leave their respective bands to start School of Seven Bells until a couple years later, the rest, as they say, is history. And so I stand by my suggestion of sending the boys in Interpol some flowers.

Since their full-length LP Alpinisms debuted late last year, it has garnered major critical acclaim and earned SVIIB touring spots with Bat for Lashes, White Lies, and Black Moth Super Rainbow. The most unique praise has been from The Edge of U2, where, in a Rolling Stone cover story, he cites their sound as an influence on No Line on the Horizon’s droning side. The sound: tribal, womanly, warm, and dreamy, is created by a method of total creative immersion. After they quit their respective bands, Alley, Ben, and Claudia set up shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (they’re regulars at Enid’s), living and working in the same space. “When we’re at home everyone’s always working on something,” says Deheza. “So when we’re in the house we can hear what everyone else is working on.” Songwriting thus is an organic process, melding with the processes of everyday life.

There is an air of mystery to the SVIIB. It’s in their name, taken from the final exam for a South American school for pickpockets, which Deheza saw on a PBS special at 3 in the morning. “There were seven items in seven pockets with bells attached to them, and you had to remove each item from each pocket without ringing the bell,” she explains. “I like the idea of taking something like shoplifting and making it into such an art.” The mystery came alive at their CMJ show last year when the smoke machine broke, flooding the stage with haze, and unexpectedly enhancing the experience. And then there’s Alley Deheza’s lucid dreaming, or the ability to control her dreams, that she experiences and writes about in her songs. “It’s basically something that I’ve been doing since I was really little and I didn’t know it was anything different. I had a lot of nightmares when I was a little kid, so it was something that developed as a way to get out of nightmares,” she says. “It wasn’t until I was about 20 years old, when I was talking to someone about a dream I had and I’d be like, “yeah, and then I got out of it,” and they’d be like “what the hell are you talking about?” And that’s when I knew it wasn’t as common as I thought.”

See what else is uncommon about the School of Seven Bells when they play their New York homecoming show tonight at Bowery Ballroom, before taking a break to record new material.