New Music

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 Justin Jacobs (talking to us from Israel via Skype!), contributing writer to Billboard & Relix Magazine.

In case you missed it, here is what he played with commentary by Justin:

Black Joe Lewis, "Dar es Salaam" - If this song doesn't wake you up on your morning commute, you need to check your pulse. Black Joe Lewis has been playing funk rock for a few albums now, but his most recent, "Electric Slave," is down and dirty garage rock and punk, with a horn section for good measure. Loud, fun and trashy. Just how I like it.

Okkervil River, "On a Balcony" - On the other side of the spectrum is Okkervil River, a fairly refined, intelligent, melodic indie rock act. This track, off their upcoming "The Silver Gymnasium," is the band's best release since 2006's near-classic "The Stage Names." We had to wait through two so-so albums, but this return to dramatic form is great.

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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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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:

Summer-Winter, "Borrowed Time" - This is from Heart of a Starling, the new album from the talented and somewhat mysterious local solo artist Terry O'Hara, who goes by Summer-Winter. He's got help from a lot of notable locals here, including members of Good Night States, Meeting of Important People, Broken Fences and Sleep Experiments.

Heliotropes, "Awake" - This is a Brooklyn band that's getting some good attention lately; some of the tunes are slow and spacey and sound like Mazzy Star, some of them are loud and psyche-y and sound like Boris.

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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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Producer-superstar collaborations are often fraught with danger. When the producer is established, famous for a signature sound and star in their own right (see: Dan Auerbach, Danger Mouse, Brian Eno), they can easily overshadow the band itself. Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and gospel queen Mavis Staples found the holy middle ground with their 2010 collaboration, You Are Not Alone. Staples’s 12th solo album after being part of the famous Staples Singers in the 1950s and 1960s, You Are Not Alone won the Grammy Award for Best Americana Album for its combination of gospel classics and original songs written by Tweedy for Staples.

One True Vine, Staples and Tweedy’s just-released follow-up to that album, reinforces the brilliance of this particular producer-superstar collaboration. The central reason for its success is Tweedy’s subtle touch, guiding but never overbearing. Staples’s voice is an institution; it doesn’t need any padding or interference, and doing so would be almost sacrilege. Instead, Tweedy’s arrangements place Staples in the forefront of every song, with backing choruses in the distance to flesh out the harmonies but never attempting to add power. His guitar is rhythmic but rarely takes the spotlight, and drums provided by his son Spencer get the job done.

In songs like “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today,” plucked from the public domain and arranged skillfully with sweet horns, Staples takes her sweet time but delivers just as effectively as on the more upbeat “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus).” The selections of covers here, however, prove some of the most interesting choices on One True Vine. The title takes its name from an unreleased Wilco song, on which Tweedy switches out the original piano for acoustic guitar, using space and silence for maximum contemplative effect. “Can You Get To That,” the rousing single, does a solid job of matching George Clinton in funk, and “Holy Ghost” is a quick turnaround on a Low song just released months earlier. “Far Celestial Shore,” Nick Lowe’s original contribution to the album, finds a call-and-response choruses much to its liking.

Staples achieves her best on “I Like the Things About Me,” a Staples Singers original reinvigorated by a driving electric groove. On an album that’s otherwise more laid back, especially in its first half, the tune is a welcome pickup. “I Like” is a confident soul tune about finding pride in one’s flaws as well as attributes, and it’s a high point for Staples, finding critical success and a new, younger audience in these albums. Tweedy briefly brings his guitar into the forefront for a brief solo, fuzzy and distorted, bringing these roots closer to roots-rock. Staples continues to prove that she still has more in her than any singer alive, and Tweedy cements himself as the sole producer who can handle her talent.

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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).

Two Cow Garage, "Hey Cinderella" - "Only poetry can save us, or heal our wounds," singer Micah Schnabel intones over a breakneck beat that typifies the punk spirit and singer-songwriter sensitivity of this decade-old Columbus, Ohio band. I'm pretty sure this is the first song to include Elliott Smith, John Steinbeck and Ace Frehley. The album, "Death of The Self-Preservation Society," arrives in September. I've heard it all, and would be surprised if it doesn't make a few year-end "Best Of" lists.

Eisley, "Currents" - "I would part the waters if you said so/I would shift the currents if you had to row" begins the album launching title track from this Texas indie-rock band that was in town last night. I first caught them a year ago at The Smiling Moose, where I was blown away by the interweaved harmonies and artsy grooves of the Dupree sisters -- Chauntelle, Sherri & Stacy, who along with brother Weston and cousin Garron compose the band. It's more Kate Bush than Partridge Family, at least at the very start of this song, which then billows into all sorts of sonic exploration.

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Local Natives have released a music video for the single "You and I" off of their latest record Hummingbird. The song is about the last living dog on the planet earth, who is hospitalized and in critical condition.  The video for "You and I" chronicles one man's experience dealing with the reality of his dog's health.

Local Natives recently played at Stage AE on June 10.  Guitarist/keyboardist/singer Ryan Hahn recently called in and did an interview with Cindy.  You can watch the new Local Natives video for "You and I" below.

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Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zero's have release the second single, "This Life."  The single is the second one release from their upcoming self titled release Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zero's which is due out on July 23 in the US and July 29 worldwide. "This Life" is a soulful song which includes a frontman and singer Alex Ebert leading a gospel chorus.  Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros recently played in a free concert in Pittsburgh on the 3 Rivers Arts Festival on June 7. This summer Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zero's will be touring in support of their new record.  You can listen to "This Life" below.

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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 Justin Jacobs (talking to us from Israel via Skype!), contributing writer to Billboard & Relix Magazine.

In case you missed it, here is what he played with commentary by Justin:

Bastille - "Pompeii" - How is this song not a gigantic hit in the US? It's a mystery, because this track by British act Bastille is about the catchiest thing I've heard since my dad introduced me to "Thriller" when I was five. The band is blowing up in England right now (and on YouTube, with 25 million views), but pretty unknown in the States. You can say you heard this track first on WYEP.

Houndmouth - "Houston Train" - Here's a band that isn't breaking any astounding new ground, but what they do, they do well: country-leaning rock and roll. The band just released their debut album, "From the Hills Below the City," and it's full of great rootsy rock begging to be played at your next barbecue.

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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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