Gabe R's blog

Scottish alt-rock veterans Belle & Sebastian have been around for 17 years, so they have a lot of stray material floating around— and more than just 8 studio albums, apparently. Their most recent release, The Third Eye Centre, streaming now at The Guardian website, is a the 19-track rarities collection. It includes various remixes of songs like "I'm a Cuckoo," but more importantly, songs such as "Suicide Girl," "The Eighth Station of the Cross Kebab House," "Passion Fruit," and other bonus tracks, compilation tunes, and EP gems you've probably never heard are included.

TEC contains outtakes stretching from 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress to 2010's most recent Write About Love. It will be released on August 27th, and you can stream it right now here. Belle & Sebastian also performed in Pittsburgh for the very first time in July, and you can read about that show on WYEP's blog.

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Chicago duo Wild Belle, after the release of their debut album Isles and a full summer festival circuit, have announced an extensive American tour for this fall, including a headlining show in Pittsburgh at the Rex Theatre on October 23rd. Comprised of Natalie and Elliot Bergman, Wild Belle performs a take on sultry soul, with minimalist bass-and-guitar grooves emphasizing Natalie on vocals. "Another Girl," performed above live for Sound Opinions, produces those vocals roughly so they sound scratchy and pained. With the addition of female backup singers, the result is a distinctly modern take on R&B and a scorned view of love.

The show at the Rex Theatre is 21+, and tickets are available online and at the door.

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"Kitchen sink music" is one of those useless terms in music journalism. It's thrown out for eccentric, often energetic, and even "exotic" music that doesn't quite fit into the pop spectrum. Little Comets, a trio out of England, often receives this irritatingly vague label, while their music is anything but. The roots of their bouncy, light guitar-driven, and polyrhythmic tunes comes from the same place as Vampire Weekend— afro-pop, by way of Paul Simon's Graceland.

"The Boy in the Bubble," "You Can Call Me Al," and especially "I Know What I Know" are the major reference points for Life Is Elsewhere, Little Comet's sophomore album from this past year. But the synths are for the most place replaced with breezy, noodling guitar, making this October record more of a summer companion. "Jennifer," the lead single, would feel right at home on the first Vampire Weekend album, and "Jennifer, why you have to be so taciturn?" sounds like it could be the direct product of Ezra Koenig. It's a poppy chorus, though, infectious and easy but with the music behind it hiding rhythmic complexities.

"Waiting in the Shadows in the Dead of Night" stands out as the richest song on the album, densely textured with guitar riffs and a echoing sonic background that Brian Eno might smile upon. And it's in the repetitive chorus that exhibits the metrical singing of lead singer Robert Coles, something that defines many of the songs on the album. Almost as a bonus track, an acoustic, piano version of the same song explores a different mood entirely, one where the shadows in the dead of night are not exciting and adventurous, but deep and solemn.

At 13 songs (not including the "Shadows" alternative take), Life is Elsewhere is burdened only by its length. It rounds out to a solid 50 minutes altogether, but that feels almost excessive, as the second half of the album doesn't quite match the distinctive feel of the first half. A better choice would have been to leave more contemplative tunes like the slow "Woman Woman" for a follow-up EP, keeping album as a whole at a more or less brisk pace, and leaving you wanting more. The listener gets his or her fill of afro-pop from Life is Elsewhere, which may be its only flaw. But it's a healthy fill, and hopefully, Little Comets did not use up all its ideas on this wonderful collection of songs.

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17 songs— one for each year Belle & Sebastian have neglected to play Pittsburgh during their prolific career, until now. On a warm Saturday night, Stuart Murdoch brought his troupe of Scottish musicians (I counted 13 in total: four string players, three multi-instrumentalists, two keyboardists, drums, bass, guitar, and Murdoch himself) to Stage AE outdoors, with the audience packed to hear just how the band would translate its immaculately arranged twee-pop to the stage.

Amazing well, as it turned out. Over two hours, Murdoch played the ultimate bandleader, introducing each member individually and telling jokes and stories between each song (excitedly listing off all the Pittsburgh facts he memorized pre-show). Because it was the first time they gave a concert in the Steel City, Murdoch declared that, rather than just playing the hits or the new material, the band would perform a survey of their material. In fact, more songs stemmed from their 1996 debut Tigermilk than from their most recent album, 2010’s Write About Love.

And despite the fact that the three songs I most looked forward to hearing live were ignored in the set (Dear Catastrophe Waittress’s title track, opener “Step Into My Office, Baby,” and closer “Stay Loose”), it was impossible to pout when B&S brought out their personal favorites to share with the crowd. “I Want the World To Stop,” an odd but energetic tune from WAL, turned into an extended jam, contrasting brilliantly with “Lord Antony,” a slow, melancholy number performed just two songs after. “Lord Antony” should receive special mention as one of the highlights of the night, beautifully done with the full force of the strings and horns at Murdoch’s disposal. Benefiting from the best audio balance I’ve heard at Stage AE, B&S perfectly translated their fleshed out instrumentation, their more laid back songs receiving just as much attention to detail as their crowd-pleasing, upbeat ones.

And even before Murdoch invited a large handful of audience members to dance onstage for two numbers (“The Boy With the Arab Strap” and “Legal Man”), the concert reached its true pinnacle for a wild and extended performance of “Your Cover’s Blown,” an obscure Talking Heads-goes-disco track from 2004’s Books EP. When the song hit its “Barracuda”-esque tempo jump, Murdoch jumped into the pit and wandered among the crowd, fireworks exploding in the background. And no, that last part wasn’t exaggerated— the Pirates game just next door ended in a victory and a large pyrotechnics display, possibly as a result of B&S’s full rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” earlier.

A successful night all around. Unfortunately, I failed to catch the opener Yo La Tengo, the famous Hoboken trio whose album Fade is one of my favorites so far this year, due to extenuating circumstances that also resulted in the lack of photographs of the night.  But between Murdoch’s infectious good nature, dance moves that even David Byrne might envy, and the clever and bright music of his band, Belle & Sebastian more than made up for that, and their long absence from the town, and every other gripe you could possibly have. I can’t wait to see them the next time they're able to make it to Pittsburgh— when I’m 35.

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Welp, now we know where Yo La Tengo comes from. Not, as we previously thought, from the stork or from Hoboken, but from an even more weird and disturbing world than New Jersey. The alternative rock band, as seen in this new video for the single "Ohm," comes  ether from a long complicated mathematical equation OR a magical world where free-roaming Ira Kaplans, Georgia Hubleys, and James McNews are captured, boxed up, and shipped out in bulk.

The music video for the best and most meditative song off their recent (and my personal favorite) album Fade, "Ohm" literally dives into a universe created by Simpsons/Letterman/Lil Bush writer Donick Cary and animated by Sugarshack Animation. It's Yo La Tengo's equivalent of Yellow Submarine, a surreal place where everything has a face on it, and a baby smoking a cigar knows his way around. You just have to watch to understand.

At the same time as our intrepid protagonist explores this wacky world, a student in a classroom attempts to solve the equation of "What Is Yo La Tengo?", something we've all had to ask ourselves at some point. Apparently, it's a long calculus problem that maybe I would have been able to solve had I taken a math class since high school, which I haven't. But you can still appreciate equation parts like [Ben E. King² - B.B. King] and [California Girls/(Beach Boys - Katy Perry - David Lee Roth)], which make sense to me, sorta.  If this isn't weird enough for you, the band is releasing this single as a shower curtain, so there you go.

Yo La Tengo is opening for Belle and Sebastian at Stage AE this Saturday, July 13. My greatest hope is that they will bring along their octopus-Volkswagen, and maybe give away free boxes of themselves at the show. You never know. A boy can dream.

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When post-punkers get a new sense of rhythm, things brighten up a little. Such is the case with Franz Ferdinand, Scotland's premiere mopey-yet-dance-able musicians, who fell into a bit of a funk after hitting it big with songs like "Take Me Out." But their latest single, "Right Action," off their first album in four years, Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action, is a breath of fresh air.

Wacky and groove-heavy, not unlike early Talking Heads, "Right Action" is illustrated in this Jonas Odell-directed music video as a step back into the classics section of the design department. (Odell also gave his recognizable touch to the "Take Me Out" video back in 2004.) With Cold War-era instruction manual graphics, bright colors, and wonderfully skewed perspectives, "Right Action" has almost as much to look at as there is to hear. It's a tough call, but probably the best pictures are the cow diagram (divided into sections such as "right words," "sunshine," and "love") and the meticulous human skeleton that appear.

It's a sensory overload, and too many details to take in during a single viewing. But along with the fuzz-rocker B-side "Love Illumination," Franz Ferdinand seems to be heading in the right direction to reclaiming their stance as the cultural juggernauts they were in the mid-2000s.

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Scottish alternative band Travis has been around since 1990, but the singles preempting their seventh (!) studio album are full of life and energy. "Moving," the second song off Where You Stand, out August 19 (the first since 2008's Ode to J. Smith), came with an accompanying music video that is simple and beautiful, much like the tune itself.

Standing in their hats and jackets in the cold, Fran Healey and his Glasgow group sing and blow into the cold air, with animated figures of men running coming out of their frosted breaths. But the music video was made with no post-production, apparently; the animations were all projected from that light in the back, and the cold air made by their breathing was enough for the light to project onto. That explains the imperfections and swirls in the heads and figures that appear.

The song itself is classic Britpop, with that belted, moving chorus making obvious the influences that bands like Coldplay took from Travis way back when. "Where You Stand," the title track and first single, is another sweet midtempo tune, although more acoustic than "Moving."

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If ever there were a song to make you feel zen and at ease with your place in the world, it is “Song for Zula,” the 6-minute-long single from Phosphorescent’s newest album Muchacho. Lead into by “Sun, Arise!”, an album intro that feels like a morning stretch with its elongated harmonies, “Zula” is the meditation that comes right after. The rippling bass line and breezy strings bring front man Matthew Houck to the level of space rock, the territory of musical astronauts like Spiritualized front man Jason Pierce.

Where Pierce experiments with noise and disorder, however, Houck invests more in beauty of the bright, organized kind, and this album of redemption and revival is both Phosphorescent’s best yet and one of the most well-crafted this year. Although not a concept album per say, Muchacho does center its 10 songs around similar styles and themes, building off of the soulful country-rock of 2010’s Here’s To Taking It Easy. The roots are still there, in the almost-gospel choruses of “Sun, Arise!” and the outro “Sun Arising,” the sweetness of the pedal steel guitar in “Terror in the Canyons,” and the chugging, driving rhythms of songs like “Ride On/Right On.”

But Muchacho isn’t grounded the same way its predecessors were. In songs like “Muchacho’s Tune” and “Zula” especially, Phosphorescent uses horns and synths to draw out the melodies like sunlight streaming in through windows, voicing the instruments as he might a choir (besides the choir he already uses). Even in the downtempo moments, such as the understated and glacially paced “A New Anhedonia,” Houck’s voice carries through as a soothing preacher. It’s an ultimately triumphant album, and, claiming as he does in “Zula,” “I am not some broken thing / I do not lay here in the dark waiting for thee,” Phosphorescent achieves the personal redemption he seeks.

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Photo by Gabe Rosenberg

Of the well-known musicians coming out of Iceland – Sigur Rós, Björk, and now Of Monsters and Men – the indie folk band Of Monsters and Men is really the only one you’ll hear on mainstream radio. Since their 2011 debut album My Head is An Animal received a North American re-release through Universal Music Group, the band has been an instant success. That album debuted at #6 on the Billboard 200, the best performance of any Icelandic band in the chart’s history, and the lead single “Little Talks” went 3x platinum, making its way into the Billboard Top 20 and topping the US Alternative Songs chart.

As a result, the band – with music closer to Mumford & Sons or a less daring Arcade Fire than either of its native contemporaries – has enjoyed a huge amount of success playing music festivals and selling out venues across the country. At Stage AE last Wednesday night, despite competing for a crowd against Glen Hansard at the Arts Festival across the river, Of Monsters and Men found themselves with a comfortable audience of a few thousand eager fans.  Supporting band Half Moon Run, hailing from Montreal, was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd, many of whom were familiar with the group’s harmony-strewn indie rock.

The electric energy of Half Moon Run, however, was not quite matched by Of Monsters and Men, who came on playing My Head opener “Dirty Paws” from behind a white curtain before it dropped at the chorus. Certainly, Of Monsters and Men put on a great show, their stage filled with giant paper balloons and brightly colored lights. Live, the full ensemble with horns, a prominent drummer, and lead by singer-guitarists Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson translated their music perfectly to the stage, sounding beautiful and perfectly transcendent in the night air. They’re a wonderful campfire sing-a-long band for that reason.

I’d like to think, however, that there is more to Of Monsters and Men than comes across in their live show, lasting not much longer than their album, because it was a performance without spontaneity or much on-stage chemistry. I loved the vigor of the drummer, placed in the center of the stage, and the skill of the musicians definitely showed as well. But the movements of the singers and guitarists, stepping to and from the microphone in unison came across scripted, too neat and organized, much different from the chaotic yet confident crescendos of The National the night before, or even from the remarkably similar Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes the week previous. Call it the conforming influence of a label (see: Motown) or call it a lack of originality, but Of Monsters and Men didn’t quite stand up to their monster hype.

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From the onset of “Harper Lee,” the opening song of Little Green Cars’ full-length debut Absolute Zero, you wouldn’t guess that this indie rock quintet hails from Ireland. No, they sound more along the lines of Dr. Dog (from Philadelphia) or Good Old War (also from Philadelphia— is there a trend here?) with 1960s-esq harmonies galore. But Little Green Cars is full of surprises.

Absolute Zero is a twisting, turning album of constant variation. Three different band members take turns writing songs on the album, and all five contribute vocals at some point or another. As a result, the band has a lot of space to maneuver stylistically. “Harper Lee” is the obvious radio-friendly single, enthusiastic and instantly catchy, and named after the author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a bold piece of American literature to reference, as lead singer Stevie Appleby declares, “Harper Lee I’ll kill me a bird / I sit back and I just watch it happen / And just like you I won’t say a word.”

For an Irish band, Little Green Cars sure likes its American references, taking the icon John Wayne as a central symbol of dangerous love in the thumping lead single “The John Wayne.” More surprising is the melodic switch in “My Love Took Me Down to the River to Silence Me,” beginning like a folk song but spinning into Florence & the Machine-type powerhouse anthem. “Red and Blue” is a gorgeously layered song placed strategically in the middle of the album, breaking up the overwhelmingly guitar-centric music with a restrained synth-and-vocoder meditation.

What Little Green Cars possesses that their Philadelphian semi-contemporaries lack is this ability to mess around with song form. Beyond their sharp musicality and expertise on their instruments, and beyond the multi-part vocal harmonies that are always welcome in indie music, Little Green Cars can craft an entire album that feels thought-out, cohesive, and at the same time, easy.

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