Photo by Gabe RosenbergOf 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.
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.
Mikal Cronin has long played second fiddle to the much more well-known and prolific Ty Segall, the San Francisco garage-rocker with whom Cronin attended high school. Although he released his debut solo album in 2011, Cronin has more regularly stayed out of the spotlight as the guitarist in Segall’s band. With MCII, his sophomore album and one of my more played albums of 2013, Cronin proves that he can – and should be – his own front man. MCII is power pop of the highest caliber, the sort of hook-infused, catchy music that I almost gave up looking for. Refreshingly, though, this is not simply a guitar-rock album, although the instrument is certainly prominent here, with Segall contributing two guest solos in addition to Cronin’s own exhilarating virtuosic playing. Cronin holds a well-earned B.F.A. in Music, and the difference between MC and MCII is all in the arrangements. A lovely and melodic violin solo goes to K. Dylan Edrich on “Peace of Mind,” working just as well as the fuzzy guitar shredding on lead single “Weight.” An ample sprinkling of piano throughout the album also helps to brighten the mood and soften the tone of the songs, which deal with self-doubt and the angst of growing older. “Piano Mantra” especially shows Cronin’s gift for introspection. But don’t think that Cronin doesn’t know how to get loud. The climax of “Change” comes with a complete strings-and-electric-guitar psychedelic freak out, and “Shout It Out” goes full-force as a pure, adrenaline-filled garage rocker. As a whole, the album is nearly flawless, constantly holding the listener’s attention and never doubling over on itself. Released in early May, MCII was made for the summer: bright, poppy, but never simple, drab, or conventional. SPIN Magazine, Pitchfork, and Consequence of Sound all gave it top ratings upon its release, and it’s at the top of my personal Best of the Year So Far list (which is now quite long). MCII not only the best music of its kind, but the best music of any kind.
Photo by Gabe RosenbergAround 12,000 people flocked to the 54th Three Rivers Arts Festival this past Friday, but I can safely say that the reopening of the Point State Park fountain had nothing to do with it. Although the reintroduction of waterworks was certainly a welcome sight to the area, which had been dry for the last four years, the real pull all came from the evening’s musical headliner. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros promised, and delivered, a summer festival-worthy performance that drew a crowd from a larger radius and a younger age group than the festival usually experiences. While the free and open nature of the concert certainly didn’t hurt, Edward Sharpe’s mostly teenage-to-college-age fans are so fervent that they would be willing to shell out a small price for the band, playing Pittsburgh for the first time. The 10-person ensemble makes hits out of ‘60s-style jangly rock, touting a communal, free-love aesthetic and directing a heavy dose of positive energy into easygoing, catchy tunes like the excellent “Man on Fire” and “Up From Below.” They’re festival regulars at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Coachella, and for good reason— front man Alex Ebert, along with singer Jade Castrinos, know how to engage their audience, no matter how large. Three Rivers Arts Festival, for once, felt like a “legitimate” festival, the sort you travel across the country to attend. Local band Donora were a pitch-perfect pop-rock opener, bouncing up and down with their audience, many of whom were quite familiar with the lyrics to the group’s hook-heavy songs. But Edward Sharpe and his merry band of musicians were the musical saviors of the night (and looking the part, too). Although Ebert generally takes the lead vocals, while climbing into the audience and literally reaching out to his yelling fans, Castrinos’ songs are often standouts, such as the gospel-tinged “Fiya Wata.” The two-hour performance took material from both the band’s debut and last year’s Here, as well as the recent single “Better Days,” which sounded much more lively than on its recording. Some of Edward Sharpe’s onstage antics can seem kitsch at times – handing the microphone to concertgoers to talk about mortality, for one – but they rarely degraded the vitality of the show. The best moments of the performance often rode on the shoulders of the musicians rather than the singers, such as when band members whipped out trumpets for solos. Whatever the band did, whether Ebert moved into reggae-esque sing-talk territory or gave another band member the spotlight, the audience followed along. “Home,” their most well known hit, marked the beginning of the end of their set, but also the pinnacle moment that the crowd showed up for. There are songs, and then there are showstoppers, and “Home” was made for outdoors, drop-all-inhibitions sing-a-longs, the sort that Pittsburgh dearly needed for its own festival. And so it received. You can watch the just-released video for Edward Sharpe's "Better Days" below.
Every Wednesday at 9:13 am, one of Pittsburgh's finest music writers joins me (Cindy Howes) on the Morning Mix to play a couple favorite new songs and share some insight. Today we welcome Scott Mervis of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In case you missed it here's what he played with commentary by Scott: Alt-J, "Fitzpleasure" - The young band from Leeds, home to Gang of Four, throws a lot of stuff against the wall and somehow it sticks on this delightfully weird, rocking song. There are many other, varied pleasures on the band's debut album, "An Awesome Wave." Frank Turner, "Recovery" - The British singer-songwriter/punk rocker points to Springsteen as an inspiration, and you can certainly feel that kind of energy spewing forth in this passionate single. On this song, though, he reminds me more of Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller. Either way, it sounds like he's got a lot of good years ahead of him.
Every Wednesday at 9:13 am, one of Pittsburgh's finest music writers joins me (Cindy Howes) on the Morning Mix to play a couple favorite new songs and share some insight. Today we welcome Andy Mulkerin of Pittsburgh's City Paper. In case you missed it here's what he played with commentary by Andy: The Van Allen Belt, "Songs" - This is a local band that's been around for some years and is starting to gain real momentum. They do cool stuff with live performance and sound collage; Tamar Kamin's vocals are beautiful to boot. This is from the 7-inch of the same name, which is in advance of their new full-length, coming in the fall. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, "Holy Roller" - This was the first single from Thao's new album, We the Common. Big fan of her as a songwriter, and I'm excited about the new album, her first with this band in several years.
Every Wednesday at 9:13 am, one of Pittsburgh's finest music writers joins me (Cindy Howes) on the Morning Mix to play a couple favorite new songs and share some insight. Today we welcome Scott Tady of The Beaver County Times. In case you missed it here's what he played (with commentary by Scott). Free Time, “I Lost Again” – We all could use a little Free Time. That’s the Aussie-New York quartet that yesterday released its debut album, “Underwater Peoples”. They’re mostly dream-pop with a hint of shoe-gazer. The singer, Dion Nania, has a voice that reminds me of the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Jim Reid. Nice bittersweet lyrics about longing and trying to find one’s place, purpose and soul mate. The Sparrows, “Star Crossed” – One of my favorite Western Pa. bands. They wear their passion for Americana on the sleeves of their vintage-looking cowboy shirts. Based in Ellwood City (birthplace of Donnie Iris!), the Sparrows took their sweet time on this sophomore release, coming up with a well-crafted collection of hooks and solid storytelling. This song ponders why so many of us spend so much time chasing after an elusive romance, or pining for a former lover.