Set, Match and Game to Pandora and Chris Harrison: MERLIN Gives Pandora the Rate Cut They’ve Always Wanted.

Ugh…

The Trichordist

Harrison trounces performers and labels with MERLIN deal.  Congratulations. 

In the past I’ve had rather unkind things to say about Pandora and their chief legal strategist Chris Harrison.  But today I’d like to sincerely congratulate them on a game well played.  Pandora and Harrison have successfully outflanked performers by exploiting us where we were  weakest (and stupidest).  That weak spot?  The independent label rights licensing association known as MERLIN.

MERLIN led by Charles Caldas represents over 20,000 independent labels.  In a jaw-dropping bonehead move ,Merlin cut a direct deal with Pandora to license songs at about 1/2 the rate proposed by Sound Exchange IF Pandora plays Merlin songs more often than everyone else.  Isn’t that called payola?  Pandora is an FCC broadcaster after all!

We at the Trichordist knew what would happen next. Pandora would present this as evidence of a “willing seller” rate and then ask  the Copyright Royalty Board  to…

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Tiny Ruins & Sharon Van Etten @ Mohawk – Oct, 18th 2014

There’s a pretty killer double-bill this Saturday at The Mohawk. Two great, soulful young songwriters from opposite ends of the globe will be performing with their bands. I couldn’t tell you whose idea it was to have these two acts tour together, but it was a perfect decision.

Tiny Ruins (The Opener)

Tiny Ruins is the moniker and band name of Auckland, New Zealand-based songwriter Hollie Fullbrook. Without an ounce of kitsch or pop-inclinations, Fullbrook’s songwriting is not the sound of the times; it’s the sound of her own times. Otherwise put: timeless. It’s solid, thoughtful, carefully arranged, and perhaps most notable on the most recent record, carefully produced. Fullbrook is consistently able to maintain a Nick Drake-like delicacy to her guitar and vocal delivery putting the songs themselves at the center of each performance. As an avid fan of great songwriting, that’s something I’ve grown to really appreciate (and recognize)–putting the song first. It’s something I generally strive for in my own work.

Following two EPs and a debut LP, Tiny Ruins just released a second LP, Brightly Painted One, a markedly more mature and polished record–both in songwriting and in production than its predecessors. Brightly Painted One is also the group’s first collaboration with a new producer, Tom Healy, who did a superb job capturing the magic and weaving such a beautiful record together.

 

Sharon Van Etten (The Headliner)

Sharon Van Etten’s music has been one of my favorite creations to have come from the past five years. From the time when we were both living in NYC (where I first heard her music and where Van Etten still lives) to present and beyond, I feel like hers is one of the most honest voices out there today. Honest in content and in delivery. Something about the timbre of her voice and the way she holds and bends notes vocally can command attention from even the gruffest of audiences. I recall Bob Boilen (or one of his All Songs Considered podcast cohorts) reiterating a story of watching Sharon Van Etten play to a loud, rowdy  bar full of drunks and, “…halfway through the first song, and the whole room dropped what they were doing, shut up, turned and listened.”

 

Any fans of The Succulents out there are highly likely to enjoy both of these bands. We certainly do. I tend to lean towards substance over flash,  timelessness over contemporary fads and fashion. Saturday night at The Mohawk will be end-to-end timeless substance. I’ll be there. Come out, say hello, support the truth-seekers, find new loves, and raise a glass with me to what promises to be a great night of music.

Little Dragon, Octopus Project, & the art of staging a show

Sunday night, my bandmate and I indulged in one of the many spoils of living in Austin and saw local favorites Octopus Project open for Sweden-based Little Dragon at ACL Live’s historic Moody Theatre.

Little Dragon – Ritual Union

A few reflections:

Sights for Sounds

For both of these bands, music is just one element of the show. Lighting, film projections, animation, and even attire are designed to complement the music. The intended result (and successfully so at most times, I would argue) is an overall more submersive experience. It’s mixed media in musical performance. For Little Dragon, custom-built neon structures placed in an encompassing crescent around the stage were synchronized with the setlist to create an illusion of movement at varying speeds and colors. Adding to the atmosphere, the three instrumentalists were decked out in pseudo-matching (or at least themed) jumpsuits with asymmetrical patterns and positioned such that a little dancefloor was left open in the center of the stage for the lead singer.

For Octopus Project, even greater concerted efforts went into constructing visual components to the show. But this is nothing new for Octopus Project–the ultimate DIY band–who have been known to hand-make their clothes, album art, and even a good portion of their merch. Their light show and a video of what was clearly homemade animation and art that was projected behind them when I first saw them perform several years ago…and how well it all fit into what they were doing on stage, how it meshed with the music…was what I originally found so compelling about them. And the theremin, of course. What a wildly cool and strange thing to master. They compose a new stage show, film projections, and all else for each tour. This tour’s projections were split across several 2′ x 5′ screens in sequence set up behind the drummer.

Blocking, lighting, costumes–it’s all thought-out and part of the stage show. In a lot of ways, the production of it felt as much like a film or theatrical set as it did a rock show. All of the little details create a larger set, another place, another world. They make it easy to get lost in the saturation of it all.**

Staying Power

At one point in the evening, I recall commenting to Audrey about my pleasant and inspired surprise that Octopus Project had made it this far and stayed together for as long as they have–which is not to say that I had low expectations of the band. But I know how hard it must be to keep any band together for over a decade–successful, commercially funded ones, even. Here was a group of very experimental DIY-ers using synth, theremin, and a whole host of other obtuse sounds to make avant art-rock. I loved it. I wanted to see them succeed. But I knew the odds. I thought of the dozens of other bands I’d fallen in love with over the years who have tried to do something new, unique, and challenging. Most have a good year-or-two run and move on to other projects. The fact that Octopus Project has been around since 1999, has garnered a devoted following over that time completely on their own, and are now owning the crowd and stage at Moody Theatre…it’s a happy moment; a scenario unique enough to be worth mentioning.

 Oh, and the music 

Octopus Project. Aside from noting that a few obvious influences might include Stereolab, 1970s krautrock, and just about every Kubrick soundtrack I can think of, there’s not a lot I can or wish to say about the music itself without speaking of it in the context of a live performance. So listen to the albums, check out their music videos, do all of that. But know that their live show is where it’s at. Some bands are brilliant at building perfect masterpieces of recorded albums but have trouble translating it to a live environment. This is not one of those bands. GO. Experience something new. And buy a t-shirt f’christssakes.

Octopus Project – I Saw The Bright Shinies

Little Dragon. This was the first time I’ve seen Little Dragon and I was a little surprised at how energetic their performance was–especially considering it was their last show of a world tour starting in Japan. I have to admit, I’d only heard a handful of their songs prior to the show. I was more familiar with some of the collaborations they’ve done with other nouveau trip hop bands like Gorillaz, SBTRKT, and my favorite of the bunch, DJ Shadow. “Scale It Back” has made it into a few of my personal mixes.

DJ Shadow feat. Little Dragon – Scale It Back

While Little Dragon’s own material is reminiscent of European club music that you might find in a designer drug-laden discotheque at times, they are certainly not confined to that. They’re of the more innovative in their genre often experimenting with beats, loops, and timing that is more to the effect of electronic jazz–which, I promise, is a lot more palatable than it sounds. “After The Rain” from their first album is a good example.

Little Dragon – After The Rain

Find more on Little Dragon: http://little-dragon.net/

Find more on Octopus Project: http://www.theoctopusproject.com/

 

**Not recommended for those with epilepsy. Seriously. It can get a little intense.

Singing in the shower with Les Baxter (& his orchestra)

Firstly, I’d like to admit that I sing in the shower. In fact, I make a point of singing in the shower regularly–especially if I have a gig or will be tracking vocals that day. Not only is it healthy from an emotional perspective, but it is uninterrupted time to write and flex those muscles. Work it out! Plus, the heat and moisture is heaven on your vocal cords (a hot, steamy shower really is when you sound the best.) But I don’t really want to talk about my daily hygiene schedule; far more interesting (I would hope) is today’s shower music of choice: The Les Baxter Orchestra. Les Baxter wrote a lot of music that ended up in films in the 50s and 60s, some of which even became American standards. Though it was popular some time before I existed, his music still conjures a sense of nostalgia for me when listening–which is half of the appeal. Baxter’s songs were the kind that helped define a part of our cultural history. His songs are so embedded in our cinematic past that I would wager that most of the melodies on ‘Baxter’s Best’ would be recognizable to listeners of my generation. They were even nostalgic when they were first released, as Baxter’s style feels more contemporary to the big bands of the 30s and 40s–which, of course, was the setting for many of the films released in the immediately subsequent decades. He captures the same “essence of era” that Woody Allen, I believe, aimed to capture in his film ‘Radio Days’ (not so coincidentally, one of my favorite Woody Allen films.)

Aside from the multi-tiered, warm and delicious nostalgia factor, I really love the way Baxter conducted vocal harmonies. Although The Succulents never try to sound like anyone else in particular, we would be remiss to think that Baxter’s place in at least my personal sphere of influence isn’t represented in some small way when when writing our own vocal harmonies. “Wake The Town And Tell The People”, for me, is such a pinnacle example of harmonies done right.

 

Baxter also made a name for himself along with the likes of Martin Denny in the “exotica” genre. There’s apparently a bit of controversy (in the form of proclaimed ghost writers for Baxter) regarding his exotica catalogue, but I feel his film score work is his strongest–and certainly had the larger, more lasting impact evident in what is still played and listened to today.

Key takeaways:

1. sing in the shower and you’ll be a happier, healthier person

2. we all stand upon the shoulders of giants and everything we’ve ever heard is reflected in what we produce

3. give a listen to ‘Baxter’s Best‘, just for kicks, to see how much of it you recognize

Songwriting with Soldiers – What We Can Do in the Wake of Ft Hood

While we try to make it through yet another one of these deadly suicidal rampages that have become terrifyingly commonplace in the US, I’d like to call special attention to a charitable group doing a colossal service to this nation by working with veteran soldiers to help them come to terms with what they’ve endured in war. Darden Smith and his volunteer crew at SongwritingWith:Soldiers share their time and musical expertise teaching soldiers how to communicate their emotions and turn the most vile of things into something positive–and sometimes even beautiful. It’s the reason many of us became songwriters to begin with; it’s therapy. It’s a place to find answers, or at very least, comfort. Darden and his crew are not only helping American war veterans work through their post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, they’re teaching soldiers how to be their own best therapists.

As with each one of these tragedies, the political debates will inevitably ensue–but I will not take part in that. I believe it’s the wrong tool to fix the problem. Our problem is much deeper than any political system could possibly take on. Reducing the frequency and breadth of events like the one that just happened in Ft. Hood, Texas first requires our society as whole to acknowledge the importance of mental health, our sore lack of resources for understanding and maintaining it, and–the even bigger white elephant in the room–the huge number of PTSD-afflicted soldiers returning from war.

It is with that notion that I implore each and every one of you to get to know the work of SongwritingWith:Soldiers and, if you believe in it, donate. It seems fated that less than a month ago, Darden Smith won the Esme Barerra Award for Music Activism–an award given in honor of a bright light in Austin’s beloved music community who was killed two years ago by a young veteran of the war in Iraq also purported to have been afflicted by PTSD (and later committed suicide.)

So let us all take heed from the great example set by Darden, his crew, and the soldiers in his camp; let’s invest in the healing and mental health of our citizens.

“Music is the best thing you can give.” – Darden Smith

An American-Irish St. Pat’s – Mark Geary

A hundred or so years ago (or so it feels,) I engaged in a blink-of-an-eye-brief internship with a brand new music label called SonaBlast Records in New York City. I can’t even recall where their offices were–somewhere in the Flatiron or close by, I’d guess. I vaguely remember the inside of the office. Piles of demo cds and printouts. Posters on the wall. I remember the people, a few names. And while the time and place is shrouded in the haze of another lifetime, it should come as no surprise that some of the music has stayed with me the strongest throughout the years. At the top of that list is an Irish songwriter by the name of Mark Geary. He split his time and years between the green, soggy motherland and the grit, excitement, and poverty of New York. SonaBlast picked up his first record, 33 1/3 Grand Street right about when I did my stint there. His voice and style of writing stuck with me. Being that it was the end of my teen years, just about any music that resonates some element of truth tends to make a lasting imprint at that age.

Several years later, after I’d moved halfway across the country and then back to New York, I met up with Mark for coffee at a little shop off of Avenue A. The discussion was enlightening. He’d been singing his heart out and playing the survival game for well over a decade. Before I’d met him at SonaBlast, he used to open up for Jeff Buckley at the Sin-é in the East Village…I think Mark’s (brother? cousin?) owned the joint. He came from the same lot of musicians and music scene in Ireland that produced The Frames & Glen Hansard. While Mark hasn’t achieved as wide of notoriety or record sales as some of his friends and collaborators, he has just as many moments of brilliance in songwriting, recording, and performing. I only remember bits and pieces of our conversation. How his landlord would come knocking and ask if he had the rest of rent… “Well, no, but I’ve just written the most perfect refrain!” How he charmed his way into first class on his last flight back to New York. Everything he said was simultaneously weathered, exhausted, and hopeful. Many people can tell you about the sacrifices of the life of an artist–the certain tolls it takes, as well as its virtues. You can read about it in countless books. Watch it in movies. But seeing it in the lines around a young man’s eyes. Hearing those dichotomies in the quips and banalities of what a career songwriter has been up to over the past weeks, months, years…that was an education. And one for which I’m thankful. Almost as thankful as I am for having crossed paths with Mark’s music.

Sláinte.

Purchase Mark’s music from his website here: http://www.hereforthefanfare.com/

Fat Tuesday Special – Tuba Skinny

Yo, it’s Fat Tuesday! Happy Happy Mardi Gras! While life doesn’t look much like a Mardi Gras with the unseasonably rare cold rain in Austin today (although, I hear it’s that way in NO right now, too,) it ain’t going to stop me from getting my Mardi Gras on with my favorite New Orleans-based rag revivalist band, Tuba Skinny. Listen now to get in the spirit of the day and buy the album to save for another rainy day–a guaranteed mood lifter. http://tubaskinny.bandcamp.com/

Mediterranean Sundance

I just read that Paco de Lucia has left us for the next world. He was likely the best flamenco player of our time. As a fan of his work and without any knowledge of the man himself, there isn’t much I could or should say in his honor, but to reflect on and share the brilliant, awe-inspiring music that he left in his wake. This tune is, perhaps, the one of his that I love the most.

Robert Ellis

My favorite songwriters, storytellers, and artists all around are truth-seekers. Their stories and characters study what it means to be human and alive. To live in a certain time, a certain place, with a certain host of conditions. The “magic” moments that happen in music for me are the times at which this whole, open, and pure line of communication between the storyteller and the listener exists. “Yes–I’ve had that experience, too–in my own way,” or, “I understand in some small way what it is to be you.” The greatest songs and stories tap into our deepest senses of empathy and our ability to relate to the world around us. If this is the golden standard, one of the youngest and best around is Houston-based Robert Ellis. I’ve been listening to his most recent album, “The Lights From The Chemical Plant,” and the album released prior to that, “Photographs” a lot over the past two weeks. Listen to a song from each album below. Albums can be purchased in a variety of formats from Ellis’s website.

 

It’s also worth mentioning that Ellis is producing Austin band The Whiskey Shivers’ new album set to be released later this Spring. I’m really excited to see what comes of that.

Holland, 1945 to Austin, 2014

Along with Radiohead’s “The Bends ” & “OK Computer”, Fiona Apple’s “Tidal”, and Ben Folds Five’s “Whatever and Ever Amen”, one of the definitive contemporary albums of my high school years was Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.” And I certainly wasn’t alone. Those albums made big impacts on kids my age all over the country at the time. It’s interesting to look back, in retrospect, what happened to each of those bands over the following decade and a half. Radiohead remained the giant that I always knew they were–but the rest of the world caught on in droves. Ben Folds Five broke up, but they all continued to make music in a less public manner. Ben still toured solo. Fiona Apple took a hearty hiatus here and there, which didn’t surprise anyone. We were happy when she chose to release new material and return to stages and everyone accepted that it was on her terms and no one else’s. But Neutral Milk Hotel. No one knew anything about anything. These guys dropped a couple of anthemic albums that became the soundtrack to so many of our young lives and then we never heard from them again. I don’t even recall them touring back in the late 90s when “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” came out. They disappeared…after hardly ever appearing to begin with…and somehow, every loner, alternative kid in the country knew every word to every song on that album. I suspect that very few people know the real and likely very complicated reasons that Jeff Mangum didn’t perform or release music for the past fifteen years–and it doesn’t really matter.

What matters now is that he’s chosen to return and to share the music of our formative years with us and a whole new generation of concert-goers. Austin was lucky to score two dates on what I believe is NMH’s first tour of this century (someone please fact-check me on that) this past Monday & Tuesday. Tickets to both dates sold out as quickly as they went on sale this past Fall. Thanks to Audrey’s lightning-quick ticket-buying trigger finger, all 3 of The Succulents attended the reunion. Between Mangum’s steady, unapologetic vocals (just like we all remembered,) the outright brass section and bag of tricks (including a melophone, electric sax, and metal saw & bow,) and the contagious enthusiasm on the stage rivaling that of the audience, it made for as memorable an experience as one would’ve hoped. The most powerful scene last night at ACL’s Moody Theatre: a sold-out room unified in song, hundreds of voices singing the songs we’ve all been waiting fifteen years to sing out loud. Together. It was a pretty special thing. I could hear Pete Seeger; “Participation–that’s what’s going to save the human race.”

nmh

Photo by Transmission Events

Mangum has self-released a box set of his work available for purchase here.