EP Review: Marine Life “Fool of a Kind”

Much of what you need to know about San Francisco indie popsters Marine Life can be gleaned from the fact that they’re labelmates with Camera Obscura and a quick glance at the cover to their debut EP, Fool of a Kind (2014). Like those venerable Glaswegian popsmiths, Marine Life hail from a place known for its oft-grey skies; but while we could certainly use more rain here in the Bay lately, Marine Life are a ray of sunshine that won’t exacerbate the ongoing drought.

Elefant’s description of the lead-off title track as “one of those things that makes you happy to get out of bed in the morning, no matter what day of the week it is” might seem like standard-issue label hyperbole; but faced with Des de Leon’s sighing harmonies and bouncy brass, it’s hard to argue with the PR guys. “Big Sur” continues in the same sunny vein, with appropriately surf-rock organs and handclaps. “Boy from B-612″ switches things up with its spacy synthesizer and lyrics inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s The Little Prince, but we’re back to driving, horn-laced 60s pop with closer “For the Camera Shy.” With Fool of a Kind, Marine Life have crafted a gem that, if it doesn’t have the literate wistfulness of the band’s esteemed labelmates, has all the indie pop infectiousness.


Listen here. Buy it here.

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Track Spotlight: Avicii feat. Robbie Williams, “The Days”

I listen to an awful lot of music: Italian progressive rock, Irish traditional, classic disco, French House, power pop, alt-country, indie pop, German opera, southern soul, and Klezmer, to name a few choice genres. But at the end of the day, there are a few things I always come back to.

One of those things is soaring synth leads. This stems in part from nostalgia for a childhood spent playing every Super Mario game in existence at the time, up to and including Mario Is Missing and Mario Teaches Typing (although I never did have a Philips CD-i… it was probably for the best anyway) – chiptune is kind of in my blood. But it also stems from the fact that, when it comes right down to it, I go to music in search of ecstasy, the experience of going outside myself. And there are few musical experiences more ecstatic than that moment–you know the moment I’m talking about–when the beat drops and the lead synth leaps into the stratosphere and you fly.

For Avicii’s latest single, “The Days,” that moment happens at 3:24, and It. Is. Glorious. Take a listen, and let yourself fly away.

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Play Review: “Bad Jews”

In the booklet for the Magic Theatre of San Francisco’s production of Joshua Harmon’sBad Jews” (dir. Ryan Guzzo Purcell), dramaturg Dori Jacob includes one of the most popular, enduring fables of Hassidic Judaism:

Whenever the Jews were threatened with disaster, the Baal Shem Tov [Hassidism’s founding figure] would go to a certain place in the forest, light a fire and say a special prayer. Always a miracle would occur, and the disaster would be averted.

In later times when disaster threatened, the Magid of Mezritch, his disciple, would go to the same place in the forest and say “Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire but I can say the prayer.” And again, the disaster would be averted.

Still later, his disciple, Moshe Leib of Sasov, would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Lord of the World, I do not know how to light the fire or say the prayer but I know the place and that must suffice.” And it always did.

When Israel of Riszhyn needed intervention, he would say to God, “I [no] longer know the place, nor how to light the fire, nor how to say the prayer; but I can tell the story and that must suffice.”

And it did.

It is a perfect introduction to Harmon’s play, which concerns itself with the question: What does it mean to be a Jew in the modern world? Embedded in that question are several more universal questions: How do we, living in an age of globalization and multiculturalism, honor the cultures and traditions that gave us birth? How do we transmit them to future generations? Or do we? What does it mean to be a person of faith, both product and re-interpreter of centuries-old traditions, in the 21st century?

Each character in Harmon’s play answers that question differently. For Daphna Feygenbaum (Rebecca Benhayon), her Jewish identity is primary. She’s a proud Zionist, constantly referencing her upcoming move to Israel and (putative) Israeli boyfriend, highlighting at one point the fact that 20% of Nobel laureates have been Jewish, and generally rubbing her Chosen-ness in the face of anyone who spends more than five minutes in her presence. Her cousin Liam Haber (Max Rosenak) proudly describes himself as a “bad Jew,” celebrating Christmas instead of Hanukkah and eating leavened bread at Passover just to piss Daphna off. When Liam and Daphna are forced to share an apartment with Liam’s younger brother Jonah (Kenny Toll) and (non-Jewish) girlfriend Melody (Riley Krull) for their grandfather’s funeral, sparks are bound to fly. The situation is further complicated by the fact that both Daphna and Liam want “Poppy”‘s gold Chai, the traditional Hebrew symbol for “Life” – and the symbol of Poppy’s survival of the Holocaust.

And fly those sparks do. Benhayon and Rosenak shine in their respective roles, unleashing virulent monologues as bitingly funny as they are squirmingly unpleasant. Much of the play’s humor–and it is very funny–derives from the appalling depths to which both Liam and Daphna are prepared to sink in their castigation of one another. But those questions run as threads throughout their respective diatribes. Liam’s suggestion that Daphna’s religious zeal is really a defense mechanism, an attempt to retreat to an idealized childhood as a way of dealing with her own loneliness and discomfort, rings uncomfortably true. On the other side, Daphna’s pointed criticism of Liam’s assimilationism points up the dilemma of the “self-hating Jew.” After surviving diaspora and ghettos and pogroms and death camps, will Judaism ultimately wither from the inside, rejected by its modern-day inheritors?

A Hebrew Chai (“Life”) necklace.

Daphna points to Melody as the apotheosis of cultural homogenization. She’s “Delawarean,” a blonde Caucasian Christian with seemingly no ties to her ancestry and an obliviousness to history. What the admittedly air-headed Melody has going for her is her genuinely good heart. She may not have much of a sense of cultural identity, but her simple, deep-seated belief in the basic goodness and equality of all peoples contrasts starkly against Daphna’s holier-than-thou tribalism and Liam’s pomposity and latent antisemitism. Meanwhile, hapless Jonah finds himself in the unenviable role of mediator, repeatedly declaring, “I don’t want to get involved” in his brother and cousin’s game of offensive one-upmanship. At first it seems as though he is simply unwilling to address the questions that so occupy Liam and Daphna, preferring to float through life in the sheltered bubble of his parents’ affluence. By the end of the play (I won’t spoil it for you), though, he reveals that he is grappling with Jewish identity and memory every bit as much as Liam and Daphna are.

In the midst of all the tongue-lashing, the play’s key moment comes in a recollection of a dinner party with Poppy from the cousins’ childhood. Sharing memories of their beloved grandfather is the only thing that truly brings Liam and Daphna together, that finds them laughing with one another rather than at one another. Harmon doesn’t definitively answer the question of how to be a modern Jew–how could he? But this short sequence, I think, points a way forward. We no longer know the place, nor how to light the fire, nor how to say the prayer; but we can tell the story, and that must suffice.

Bad Jews: Comedy. By Joshua Harmon. Directed by Ryan Guzzo Purcell. Through Oct. 19. Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center. S.F. 90 minutes. $20-$60. (415) 441-8822. www.magictheatre.org.

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Track Spotlight: Paradise Fears, “You to Believe In”

Full disclosure: Paradise Fears hail from my second hometown (Vermillion, SD), and their lead singer, Sam Miller, just happens to be the son of my pastor, mentor, and dear friend, whose influence on my life is probably the single biggest reason I’m at seminary right now. So my love for them might be construed as mere parochialism.

But while it’s true that I became aware of the band because of their “hometown hero” status back in Verm-Town U.S.A., I’ve come to love them on their own terms. Especially since Sam might be the best preacher I know, with the sole possible exception of his dad. He and Paradise Fears write, in their own words, “songs that matter.” They tackle big spiritual questions like “Who am I?” and “How do I/should I relate to others?” and “What is our purpose in life?” and “Why do I/others suffer?” and “What sustains me in times of sadness and doubt?” And (also not unlike his dad) he manages to address those questions without resorting to sloppy, all-too-often alienating God-language. I know Sam (albeit not as well as I know the rest of his family), and I don’t even know that he’d consider himself particularly religious. But he’s posing the very same questions that religion exists to address, and doing it more authentically and less cringe-inducing-ly than any contemporary “religious” musician I’m aware of.

“You to Believe In” could be mistaken for a Christian rock song if you weren’t paying attention. The bridge, where the protagonist refuses to “pray to celebrities” or “find faith in TV screens,” certainly seems like an implicit statement of faith in something else – the “you” of the title, the one who “grabbed my hand and pulled me up… poured my soul into a cup until it runneth over.” Sounds like the personal God of many a Christian radio staple, right down to the Biblical language. The Almighty even gets name-checked in the chorus: “When it feels like I’m nothing, you’re there, and, God, well, at least that’s something.” That would be to ignore the second verse, however:

Some people have their faith
I don’t what to think
‘Cause if there’s something guiding us,
Then why am I still drawing blanks?

Our protagonist may not be able to find meaning in the belief in a higher power (at least in any traditional sense). As the video makes even clearer, the “you” he can believe in isn’t God – it’s other people, maybe one specific person. It reminds me of something Joss Whedon said a couple years ago about humanism (over and against traditional notions of religion):

Faith is something we [humanists] have to embrace. Faith in God is believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers.

To quote another song that’s Very Important to me: “I believe in friends and laughter and the wonders love can do, I believe in songs and magic – and that’s why I believe in you.” That’s all the credo I need, really. Because, for all the proof to the contrary, there are plenty of reasons to believe in humanity too – and Paradise Fears help me do precisely that.

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Album Review: Foster the People, “Supermodel”

Foster the People - Supermodel

Caught in a materialistic economy we did not create, faced with a job market that still offers us primarily low-wage service-sector drudgery, many Millennials find themselves wondering if something more is not possible, whether our modern society has rather radically misplaced its priorities, and whether we can do anything about it. This quest for greater meaning has become so pervasive among Millennials that some are heralding the rise of a new “purpose economy.” I tend to think such utopians underplay the insidious power of mature global capitalism in shaping our values and our lives. Either way, though, the search for meaning in midst of a social order that prioritizes profit over purpose is a primary concern for much of my generation. It’s also a primary concern for Mark Foster as he seeks to establish himself as more than a mere popsmith on Foster the People’s sophomore effort, Supermodel (2014).

The record opens with a question many young people are asking of themselves these days: “Are You What You Want to Be?” With syncopated verses that recall Vampire Weekend and a high-octane, purpose-seeking chorus, it might even seem a little calculated, as if it were crafted specifically to appeal to those dissatisfied Millennials described above. If that’s the case though, you can hardly blame Ford – before Foster the People took off, he was writing commercial jingles in L.A. You don’t land a gig like that if you don’t have an ear for a hook. And calculated or not, it’s the gigantic, wordless hook that propels Supermodel‘s lead track into the stratosphere, offering a musical answer to its title: “Maybe not yet, but anything’s possible.”

“Are You What You Want to Be?” is followed by two tracks that rival it, and in some ways even surpass it, in their relevance and gripping immediacy. The existential angst becomes more explicit on “Ask Yourself”:

And you say that dreamers always get what they desire
Well I’ve found, the more I want the less I’ve got
Is this the life you’ve been waiting for?
Or are you hoping that you’ll be where you want with a little more?

You can imagine Mark Foster in his L.A. apartment circa 2009, writing 30-second snippets for Honey Bunches of Oats and Verizon and asking himself the same questions. The third track, “Coming of Age,” is perhaps the result of all that self-examination:

I seem to hurt the people that care the most
Just like an animal I protect my pride
When I’m too bruised to fight
And even when I’m wrong I tend to think I’m right
Well, I’m bored of the game
And too tired to rage

It does, indeed, feel like a “coming of age,” as Foster takes a look at his own behaviors and attitudes – and decides to leave behind the ones that are no longer helping him to be “who he wants to be.”

What makes these three songs so powerful is the way in which they marry big questions to big choruses – personal enough to invite introspection on the listener’s part, but still anthemic enough to get your fist pumping, cut from the same highly-produced, catchy cloth as the best songs from 2011’s Torches. (Those wordless falsetto hooks make for effortless sing-alongs too.) In other words, it’s perfect pop music for 20-somethings in 2014, and an important step forward for Foster – 2011’s Torches had much of the same musical energy, but lacked the thematic resonance.

However, as understandable, even necessary, as Foster’s maturation beyond mere popcraft may be to him as a musician and as a person, his songwriting loses its immediacy when he tries to get away from doing what he does best, i.e., popcraft. The thematic concerns of “The Truth” (“I’ve been searching for the directions, and I’m convinced the world doesn’t know what it needs”) and “A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon” (“Now I’m staring at the moon wondering why the bottom fell out – I’ve been searching for answers and there’s questions I’ve found”) are of piece with those of “Ask Yourself.” But set against a middle-of-the-road pop/rock backdrop, it doesn’t have the same oomph. Apart from the a cappella interlude “The Angelic Welcome of Mr. Jones” and the funky, brassed-up “Best Friend,” there’s just not a whole lot of musical interest beyond Track #3.

In the end, then, Supermodel has to give the same answer so many members of my generation do: no, I’m not what I want to be. Not quite, anyway. But for an album that finds its Millennial creator figuring out how to grow up, how to face up to his strengths as well as his limitations, that might only be appropriate. In the meantime, that opening trio should tide us over until Foster the People’s third album, and keep us asking those all-too-important questions.


Listen here. Buy it here.

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Album Review: The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, “Midnight Sun”

Midnight Sun

Being a Beatle Kid is a decidedly double-edged sword. On the one hand, you start your musical career with name recognition the likes of which most artists—even the successful ones—can only dream of, giving you an instant audience. On the other hand, you stand perpetually in the shadow of the most popular, most influential, most beloved musicians of the twentieth century. Any success you achieve gets ascribed, prima facie, to your last name; and even then, you’re still not your dad, as every single reviewer is contractually obligated to point out.

When considering Sean Lennon’s band the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (GOASTT), then, it would be easy to just draw comparisons to his iconic father. After all, with its blend of dreamy psychedelia, garage rock, and ornate folk-pop, Midnight Sun (2014), the latest effort from Lennon and long-term partner Charlotte Kemp Muhl, plants itself firmly in the late 1960s – an era when the Beatles’ influence was omnipresent and inescapable. To the extent that Midnight Sun recalls John, however, it’s mostly in his son’s unmistakably Lennon-esque voice. But if Tame Impala or Temples had made this record, reviewers would be talking more about Syd Barrett than the Beatles, more about the classic Nuggets compilation than “Nowhere Man.”

What distinguishes GOASTT from Tame Impala and their ilk is that, rather than merely aping the past, they reinvigorate it. Lennon and Kemp Muhl trade the current obsession with self-consciously retro, lo-fi production for a rich analog sound, keeping the grainy warmth without sacrificing fidelity. The musical invention on display on Midnight Sun likewise eclipses that of GOASTT’s contemporaries. “Last Call” is perhaps the standout track, leaping from bouncy chamber pop to Floydian slide guitar space-outs in the space of a (rainbow) bridge. Only the even more Floydian “Moth to a Flame” (it sounds for all the world like a Meddle outtake) challenges it for the Album Highlight crown. But even shorter efforts such as the calliope-tinged “Don’t Look Back Orpheus” or the unsettlingly catchy “Great Expectations” are brimming with trippy flourishes and unexpected hooks.

It’s not hard to figure where Sean gets his knack for experimentation; after all, it’s not as if his parents recorded an album of avant-garde noise and plastered their naked selves all over its cover or anything. But while Yoko Ono was and remains a remarkable artist, in this reviewer’s opinion, her particular, peculiar brand of musical artistry never meshed all that well with John’s (see: Double Fantasy). Sean and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, on the other hand, are much more compatible on record. I’m tempted to attribute the crunchy psych passages to Sean and the airy chamber folk to Kemp Muhl, but that have more to do with their respective vocal timbres and preconceived gender roles than anything else. Either way, they gel remarkably well – far from Sean following in John’s footsteps (or Paul’s for that matter) and simply dragging his girlfriend into the studio to sing with him, it’s clear that GOASTT is a genuine creative partnership.

As you can see, like every other music writer on the planet—like a “Moth to a Flame,” if you will—I am inexorably drawn to comparisons with John. Perhaps it just comes with the territory, what with Sean being a Beatle Kid and all. But if he were a complete unknown, if GOASTT were just another New York band with an intriguing name, Midnight Sun would still deserve to be heard on its own merits as one of the better records to emerge from the recent psych revival.


Listen here. Buy it here.

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Album Review: Ian Anderson, “Homo Erraticus”

Homo Erraticus

When they go on tour these days, most artists of Ian Anderson’s age might slot in a couple of new songs into their act, but mostly keep to a standard-issue “greatest hits” setlist. Anderson, clever fellow that he is, however, got audiences on his most recent tour to sit through a full hour of new material, by the rather brilliant stratagem of writing an album-length sequel to Thick as a Brick (entitled, creatively, Thick as a Brick 2) and then performing the two records back-to-back. And you know what? It was a really good record – no match for the original, certainly, but without question some of the best music Anderson has made since the late 70s.

This year he’s at it again, offering a sequel to that sequel in the form of Homo Erraticus (2014) (and touring it, in toto, alongside a “Tull’s Greatest Hits” setlist, appropriately enough). The concept this time out—because there has to be a concept—is that these songs are based on a “dusty, unpublished manuscript, written by local amateur historian Ernest T. Parritt (1873-1928)” and “rediscovered” by none other than Gerald Bostock of Brick fame. It’s a pretty loose concept, but it does lend the album a sense of continuity and coherence, even as it affords Anderson the freedom to range across the entirety of British history, from pre-Roman times to the present and beyond.

Musically speaking, longtime JT devotees may bemoan Martin Barre’s absence; and it’s certainly true that even Homo Erraticus‘s rockers are decidedly more staid than the likes of “Aqualung” or “Locomotive Breath.” But the band does a bang-up job of recreating the sound and feel of classic Tull, handling pastoral British folk (“Heavy Metals”), syncopated 70s prog (“Tripudium Ad Bellum”), and riff-heavy hard rock (“Cold Dead Reckoning”) with equal aplomb. As concertgoers know, Anderson’s voice is pretty battered after decades of use and abuse, but he’s in good form here, trading vocals (as he does live) with his young counterpart Ryan O’Donnell. Moreover, his lyrics are as good or better than ever. For him, British history is not so much as an inevitable march of progress as a revue of human foibles and frailties – a fact altered little by future prospects of technological utopia and and interplanetary exploration.

As Anderson casts his eye back upon his homeland’s long and storied past, he invites his listeners to cast their eye upon his own musical history. Since the late 70s, he’s been something of a homo erraticus himself. But coming quick on the heels of the excellent Thick as a Brick 2, Homo Erraticus (the album that is) would seem to signal a late-career renaissance for Mr. Anderson. Let’s hope there are more old manuscripts collecting dust in his library – and that he’ll see fit to bring them into the light of day in the not-too-distant future.


Listen here. Buy it here.

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