Thursday, July 31, 2014

Show Review: Merge 25 at Cat's Cradle Parking Lot

Photo Credit: Agatha Donkar
Usually when I spend all day getting drunk in a parking lot it's highly frowned upon, but apparently when a record label is involved it all becomes okay. As the closing day for Merge Records' four day anniversary bonanza, Saturday proved to be a day filled with constant stimulation. Whether it be the seemingly non-stop flow of incredible Merge acts both young and old, the delicious beer on tap, the FREE SUNSCREEN (because Merge cares) or that sweet Locopops goodness hidden around back, there was plenty to love about the day-long event that took over the Cat's Cradle parking lot.

Merge's anniversary celebrations are always a pleasant reminder that one of the most prolific, important record labels in the past 50 years was built and blossomed right in our own backyard. Merge planted their roots all over the Triangle and those roots swiftly blossomed across the nation, now a quarter century later they're home to some of the largest names in indie-rock history. Events like Merge 25 run the gamut for Merge's impressive lineup, new signees like Hiss Golden Messenger are able to share the spotlight with esteemed acts like Destroyer, Wye Oak, The Love Language and other indie acolytes. It's a wonderful way to not only put-on for your constantly deepening roster, but to show the fans that you appreciate all that they do to support you.

The Love Language
Photo Credit: Agatha Donkar
Despite the intermittent clouds that would shade us all from the sweltering heat, the day was a sweat-filled foray into many different corners of Merge's roster. The day began with Vertical Scratchers, a tightly wound, simplistic pop/rock album that one would expect from Merge. They were the typical college-rock expectation, thus I was more than happy to scarf down some Carburritos while they performed. As local darlings Love Language took the stage though, the crowd was palpably more excited, singing along to their infectious summer anthems. Acts as great as The Love Language can seem to become little more than filler music for fans that have seen them countless times, but having them re-contextualized amidst Merge's impressive roster makes you remember that they're not those road worn locals to everyone else. Some folks at Merge 25 drove across country to see acts like The Love Language in everyones favorite local venue parking lot, which truly makes you appreciate the breadth of our local scene.

Photo Credit: Agatha Donkar
The afternoon all seemed to bleed together as acts like Ex-Hex and Mikal Cronin took the stage, blending together low-key punk with high-energy pop sensibilities. While Ex-Hex left me focusing on following the shade like some nomad lost in the desert, Mikal Cronin momentarily took me away from the parking lot and into a thoughtless haze of shouting and swaying to Cronin's alt-pop goodness. But surely enough as every band announced that they were on their last track I high-stepped into Cat's Cradle to enjoy the luxurious air-conditioning before the crowd herded in. I stayed inside throughout most of Bob Mould's set, never getting into Husker Du is definitely something I regret, but seeing Mould for the first time in this light with no prior context of his musical explorations was just something that didn't feel right. But with Jon Wurster on drums I'd imagine that Mould's set was a raucous occasion to say the least.

After Mould the night kicked into overdrive, representing the vastly different ends of the Merge spectrum. Caribou brought an hour of dance-filled, entrancing electronic music while Neutral Milk Hotel left most folks standing still and transfixed on the dimly lit icon Jeff Mangum. There were two massively different vibes for each artist, as the sun was setting during Caribou's career-spanning set there were handfuls of folks dancing wildly (myself included) to Caribou's intricately arranged and brilliantly executed tracks. Frankly my only problem with the Caribou set was the amount of people just cross-armed and uninterested, seemingly unwilling to give this music a chance. But even a whole slew of curmudgeons couldn't suck the fun out of a set filled with "Sun," "Odessa," and "Can't Do Without You."

Mikal Cronin
Photo Credit: Agatha Donkar
Afterwards MC Margaret Cho came out to inform the crowd to kindly put their phones and cameras away for the evenings headliner, as per the artists request. Everyone by now is familiar with Neutral Milk Hotel's picture policy, but that was something totally beside the point for this set. I love Neutral Milk Hotel, I've got some of Mangum's lyrics tattoo'd on my arm, I'm a full-on fanboy for this band. I've seen them three times this year and each time I was closer than the last, but it still doesn't entirely feel right. The songs still move me, they're just as powerful as they've always been. Everytime I hear the opening strums to "Two Headed Boy Pt. 2" my heart still sinks a bit. But, seeing Neutral Milk Hotel live isn't particularly what this music is least to me. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is and always will be a pivotal album for many people, these songs are vividly attached to places, times, memories and people. It's a joy to be able to see these things revitalized through the art of live music, but it's never going to match the crackle of that record you've played a few too many times. Now that doesn't particularly take away from how beautiful and cathartic it is to shout over "how strange it is to be anything at all" amidst hundreds of other diehards, but in a sense it becomes less of a personalized experience. Maybe my reasons for feeling detached from these shows is a bit selfish, or maybe it's because I saw an older woman grinding on her husband during, "Oh Comely," but nothing can detach these songs from my own experiences. Granted that's not what they're trying to do here, they're trying to allow folks that never got to see this short-lived act a chance at redemption, but it's hard for me to gaze upon a stage full of aging indie-rock figureheads and pretend like I don't just want to close my eyes and travel somewhere else. All in all though Mangum and company put on a fantastic performance, even it it's roughly the same set most folks have seen time and time again. Neutral Milk Hotel is a testament to Merge's perseverance, and one can only hope that they have another long, illustrious 25 years of life. So here's to hauling our gray-haired asses back out to a parking lot in 2039.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Album Review: "Hedonism Colosseum" by Astro Cowboy

Astro Cowboy released "Hedonism Colosseum" on
July 13, 2014. Listen to it on their Bandcamp.
One of my favorite parts of the North Carolina music scene has always been the reciprocal qualities of its musicians. When someone makes a wave within the culture the ripples are felt for years to come, we've seen it with acts like Lost in the Trees, The Love Language, Megafaun and plenty more. Someone latches onto an interesting musical idea and it inspires a wash of creativity in countless musicians in the area. Lately Wilmington has seen a resurgence in its own music scene despite the closing of their marquee venue The Soapbox, perhaps it's that laundro-lounge sized void that's lead these acts' heightened sense of focus or maybe it's just something in the water. Either way it seems like bands like Museum Mouth sit atop the crew of these new, young and invigorated bands that have been coming out of the eastern part of the state. One of these young acts obviously influenced by Museum Mouth's pop-leaning punk tunes is Astro Cowboy, a duo of fresh out of high-school teens that display an unparalleled sense of intensity and veracity.

Hedonism Colosseum is the band's first full-length effort, but if nobody told you that you'd probably never be able to tell. Hedonism Colosseum feels like the reflections of a road-worn individual that's pawning over the days of his youth rather than one stuck in the middle of the most awkward, confusing times of most of our lives. Filled with bouts of self-loathing, introspection and hardened cynicism, Hedonism Colosseum bounces along with a surprising sense of optimism despite the somber lyricism. The album kicks off with the barnburner, "White Shoes," a track that's filled with as much pessimism and realization as it is cheerful, bouncing vibes. "White Shoes," much like the rest of the album, chronicles the bitter end of relationships that have been long worn down. "Nothing's gonna be the same, believe me that I want to change," sings vocalist/songwriter Travis Harrington, "but this change will be all in vain, like always I'm way too late," he continues. Harrington powers through a palatable sense of frustration and disappointment while churning out infectious melodies and danceable rhythms.

Most of Hedonism Colosseum continues on this same trajectory, it's filled with angst-driven lyrics that propel the listener back to high-school journal entries of loves long lost and things that could have been. But at the same time, the album isn't a total sadsack marathon, there's bits of humor and refreshing metaphors tucked into these tightly packed tracks. "Suntan" compares relationship problems to pale-skinned woes while "Big Blue" finds Harrington comparing his own frustrations to a shaken soda bottle. There's enough frenetic grievances to keep nervous rockers placated while the lyrical rawness and aural depth will keep the rest of listeners bobbing and swaying along to the relatable, yet intensely personal subject matter. Whether Harrington is waxing rhapsodic over math class or yearning for days gone he does so with an earnest sense of passion that reminds me much of the first times I heard Marc Kuzio's nasally shout in early Ghostt Bllonde and Coastal Vision tracks.

It won't be long until Astro Cowboy has honed their craft and become the local titans that acts like Museum Mouth and Ghostt Bllonde are becoming. Travis Harrington and Kameron Vann clearly have a brilliant chemistry as musicians and it gets me downright giddy to see young musicians with such a clear vision as to the sounds they hope to create. Hedonism Colosseum is clearly just a brief taste of the brilliance to come from Astro Cowboy, and while the surf-rock/post-punk vibe may not be as polished and precise as it could be, it's most definitely real. There's a sense of intensity and urgency on these tracks that you can't craft over time, it's got to come from inside of a songwriter, and these two display that in bunches. I'm immensely excited to see where Astro Cowboy goes from here, but for now it's just as exhilarating to soak in the sounds of Hedonism Colosseum and fondly reminisce over the thoughts and feelings of young adult life.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Album Review: "Hidden Mothers EP" by Magpie Feast

Magpie Feast released "Hidden Mothers EP" on
July 13, 2014. Listen to it on their Bandcamp.
Nowadays if an artist is set to release a new recording there's usually quite a bit of pomp and fanfare. Album release shows, listening parties, you name it, basically any chance an artist gets to wedge their name in a new listener's ear is immediately pounced upon. That's what makes artists like Magpie Feast so refreshing, there's no self aggrandizing publicity that's filled with high praise from everyone and their mother. Magpie Feast relies solely on their music to do the talking for them, and dammit that music should be shouted from a mountaintop. Last year Magpie Feast's full-length Out of the Womb made its way to our Top 10 North Carolina albums list thanks to the band's rich storytelling, powerful instrumentation and blatantly awesome aura. Now the band has released a brand new EP Hidden Mothers rather unceremoniously. There was little more than a Facebook announcement to herald in the new release, but when you've got the deft songwriting skills that Matthew Southern and company do, you don't need a massive campaign to bring listener's to their knees begging for more.

Hidden Mothers EP isn't a grand departure from the act's previous work, but rather it finds the band digging deeper into the proverbial rabbit hole. There's much more orchestral string arrangements, but rather than adding grandiosity to these tracks they instead bring subtle layers of melody and harmony to the mix. The EP is bookended by two instrumental tracks, "Hidden Mothers Theme" builds tension and anticipation with a gradual build of acoustic guitar and rustic strings before slowly fading into the swaying sounds of "Moon Advises Crow." The three tracks that are nestled between these brief instrumental adventures are punctuated with sparse electric guitar and vibrant strings, yet driven by simplistic acoustic arrangements and Southern's quivering vocals.

"The Wolves Pt. 1" is arguably the track most indicative of Magpie Feast's prior sounds, it's filled with a myriad of compelling sounds that beckon the listener to dig deeper into the rather condensed arrangement. The banjo at the core of the song takes on an almost percussive element, it's harshly plucked and slowly drives the song along in addition to some distant percussive clatter and a particularly addictive wordless chorus.

By the time "The Mouse" rolls along we've yet to pass the ten-minute mark but it feels like the release has traversed a wide array of soundscapes, which makes the upbeat rhythms of the track feel all the more enjoyable. Vocal harmonies are much more pronounced and the track feels firmly rooted in traditional folk standards than the darker, somber tones of the rest of the EP. "The Mouse" transitions excellently into the equally upbeat, rambler "Goodnightshade,"a track that slowly unfurls with quaintly fingerpicked acoustic and ambient electric additions to end things on a dreamy, blissful note.

Hidden Mothers EP is a brief journey into the musical minds of Magpie Feast, clocking in under 15 minutes it's a nice teaser for the direction that the band may move forward with. There's plenty of new aesthetics that set this release apart from their previous work, but enough of their tried and true structure to placate fans expecting a riveting display of blues-folk goodness.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Shakori Hills announces Stars in the Round lineup

So Shakori Hills is basically one of my favorite parts of the North Carolina music scene. While Shakori is primarily best known for their bi-annual festivals that take place in April and October, the 75-acre farmlands have been gradually getting more and more events since the organizers made their long-awaited land purchase. Naturally this means that any chance folks can get to flock to their festival mecca should be one ridiculously excellent time. Last month Shakori Hills hosted a luau themed event on the farmlands, displaying the depth and diversity of their talent pool and further expanding their musical horizons. However, on August 23 the 5th annual Stars in the Round event will bring a handful of the region's talented songwriters to Shakori Hills for an evening of roots-driven folk, soul, country and Americana.

For the past five years Stars in the Round has been bringing together various songwriters to share their music in a rich communal environment. The evening's staple performances are based around a songwriters circle, hosted this year by Grammy Award-winning North Carolina artist, Jim Lauderdale. Lauderdale will be joined by Laurelyn Dossett, John Howie, Jr., Dan Smith, Nikki Talley, and Shannon Whitworth as they one-by-one pass the mic around to serenade the droves of Shakori supporters in attendance. Shakori staple Ironing Board Sam will be opening up the evening's performances with his captivating, soulful sounds.

Profits from the annual event all go back towards the Shakori Hills Community Arts Center, a way to make sure that fantastic events like these continue to grow and flourish in our local community. The funds will help the organization to improve upon the infrastructure at the farmlands, planned renovations include an indoor dance hall and improvements to the community gardens and nature trails. The Shakori Hills Pizza Shack will be open along with the Lil' Coffee Barn as well. Beer will be available from Carolina Brewery and snacks from Pittsboro's Phoenix Bakery will be on-site as well. Tickets for the Stars in the Round event are $15 in advance and $20 at the gate, with camping allowed for the evening as well at $15 per site (allowing 1 vehicle and 2 tents). More information on the event can be found at