Kimbra is underrated. She deserves to be well-known as an innovative vocalist. She uses technology and her own vocal range to create a sensual wall-of-sound effect. She’s an example of the way the full range of digital technology can be used to make a very rich sound filled with layers and centered with heartfelt songwriting. Kimbra may be techie but she’s also, deep down in her bones, an earnest girl who like to write about love a lot. She could easily give many of her songs an acoustic makeover and play them in coffeeshops. That just shows that it’s a damn shame that so many writers of intimate songs are content to just stick with the piano-and-guitar format.
My emo phase was more murder ballads than sk8er bois, but I’m right there with my generation in that I spent my young adulthood being earnest to Death Cab for Cutie. Death Cab was always great company, being melodic pleasant music that talked about feelsy stuff without touching on anything too sad or disturbing. By 2011 I was well past the emo phase and thought Codes and Keys was fairly blah. It’s well worth revisiting, though. There may be less need for gently mournful chamber pop or romantic ballads, but it’s still good company.
Look at the assortment of instruments that Paul Simon brings on stage with him. It’s like the contents of a small music store or antique shop. And how many of them come out for one low-key ballad? That’s just Paul Simon’s way. He incorporates exotic things from all over the world and makes is sound natural. But, of course, you could stuff all wind chimes and flutes and talking drums in the world onto your record and it wouldn’t mean anything if you don’t have songs that are touching. Simon wrote all the songs alone with an acoustic guitar, and anything else added on in the studio is just sprinkles on what’s really hearts-and-bones songwriting. We come to Paul Simon for his thoughts about life, and if there’s a little flute on the side, that’s nice.
Portugal. The Man are from Alaska, which means that they can see Russia from their house (Lord, I never get tired of that joke!) which should give them a unique perspective of what it means to be American. Seriously, though, Alaska is not a proper state; it has a different history, demographic makeup and culture than the proper United States, not to mention a radically different environment. I would imagine that being Alaskan actually would give one a nice remove from which to watch the American culture wars. Just don’t expect to hear about it from this band. Portugal. The Man is not here to write polemics or make comments about the unfolding world. Their songs are not about anything you can put your finger on – they’re just poetic and melodic. And that’s really a relief. I don’t actually want to hear another song about what it means to be ‘so American’ – I already know it’s not gonna be anything good. I just want to hear a catch song.
In case you didn’t know it, Portugal. The Man is from Alaska. You normally wouldn’t guess that, given their breezy psychedelic vibes. Also, it’s not like there’s any such things as ‘Alaska vibes’. There’s California vibes and New York City vibes, Southern rock and Chicago blues. But Alaska is somewhat underrepresented in pop culture, so ‘frozen wasteland vibes’ hasn’t been a part of the American music scene. (Meanwhile Europe has Scandinavian black metal and Swedish electronica.) I’m not suggesting that American music fans need more songs about shooting moose or whatever, but it could be an interesting aesthetic if someone wanted to develop one. Portugal. The Man aren’t exactly out to make that a thing – their aesthetic is far too eclectic to be shoeboxed as an aesthetic at all. But here they’re leaning into the white frontier culture, and remind us why man-against-nature epics keep being popular.
I saw Zola Jesus perform at a music festival. Her music is not well served playing to a semi-indifferent crowd in the middle of a muddy field at two in the afternoon. At least it was drizzling slightly. But if I was semi-indifferent myself at the start of her set, I was all in by the end of it. Despite unconducive circumstances, it’s hard not to be blown away by that voice. The ice-goth aesthetic doesn’t hurt either, but it’s all about the voice. It’s music for long nights in dark places. I can’t help thinking it’s no coincidence she comes from places where the winter and the nights are long, the land of the ice and snow, if you will. A Wisconsinite of Russian descent, she knows about the long cold dark hours of the soul. Nothing comforts the wintry spirit like some otherworldly wailing, that’s for sure.
It’s not that often that an instrumental pop song hooks your ear and leaves you so satisfied you don’t even miss singing. Even songs designed for nothing more than taking ecstasy usually insert a vocal track. And it’s especially striking given that the singer missing is the great Charles Bradley. But this Menahan Street Band instrumental interlude from Bradley’s debut album is actually a standout all on its own. It evokes its own story, a little bit melancholy and a little bit optimistic, like any good love story should be. Just fill in your own details.