Segments and Articles
- Listen Ralph Ellison: Learning About A Man From His Records
- Listen Bear's Den: Heartfelt Harmonies With A DIY Spirit
While we know writer Ralph Ellison best as the author of the acclaimed 1952 novel “Invisible Man,” he was also a musician, a critic, a teacher, and a record collector. In 2007, more than a decade after his death, his large collection of records was given to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem -- and now, they're on display there in an exhibit called Ralph Ellison: A Man And His Records.
In a conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer, Loren Schoenberg, artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, talks about the records in Ralph Ellison's collection, his musical life story, and what we can learn about a person from his or her musical taste.
Bear's Den has built a cult following in England thanks to its heartfelt three-part harmonies, personal songwriting, and DIY approach -- right down to the custom hand-carved potato paw prints stamped on each CD. A part of the same London folk scene that produced Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons, the British trio -- comprised of Andrew Davie, Joey Haynes, and Kevin Jones -- is now winning over fans stateside, touring with likeminded artists like Daughter and the Mumfords.
On its two critically acclaimed EPs -- last year's Agape, and the followup, Without/Within -- band's intimate songs evoke a warm tranquility, with romantic and aching musings about love and loss. With a full-length album coming later this year, Bear's Den appears to be on the cusp of something far bigger, and it will be fun to see where they go next.
The musical madness that is South By Southwest happens at this time each year. Literally thousands of musicians from around the world descend on Austin, Texas -- and specifically to a relatively small area around East 6th Street -- to play hundreds of shows. Some are official, many are not. If you can find a back room, or a street corner, or a large box to stand on, you can play a show.
But you couldn’t make it to SXSW this year. That’s okay. I didn’t go either. I may not go again anytime soon, in fact. Turns out you can have too much of a good thing, and it usually involves standing in incredibly long lines for each good thing you attempt to take in.
So, what shall we do this week, here in New York City -- which is suddenly only the second-best musical center in the country? Well, here are some suggestions:
You know a lazy song lyric when you hear it. Thematically trite. Clunky phrasing. Cliched rhymes. Slate writer Ben Blatt has done some deep digging as regards that last issue, and he found that one pair of end-rhymes, in particular, shows up in a staggering number of pop songs from the last 50 years: "do" and "you."
Seems simple, not terribly shocking. Until one considers just how frequently it shows up. It's the go-to rhyming pair for Madonna, Kanye West, and Whitney Houston. But also for The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, U2, and other titans of pop music.
In 1999, the statistical high point of the Do/You pair, it showed up in a full 15 percent of all Billboard Year-End Hot 100 songs. Justin Bieber has used the rhyme in twelve different songs during his short career to date -- while Blatt found that Queen never used a single rhyming pair on more than five different occasions.
"I can't blame someone for using do/you," says Blatt in a conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer. "If you make it the centerpiece of all your songs, there may be a problem."
In addition to exploring the frequency of "Do/You," Blatt created interactive rhyme charts showing the change in popularity for 20 different word pairs, as well as a chart showing the favorite rhyme schemes of several dozen major artists.
Blatt talks about why he tackled this subject, and what he's found about trends in rhyming.
One of my favorite parts about a duet is the intertwining exchanges and negotiations that happen between two singers. Sometimes that snappy dialogue can be playful and fun to listen to. Yet to me, it can be far more interesting when the song presents Rashomon-style shifts in unreliable points of view; each narrator has their own differing account, but the full picture doesn’t reveal itself until you hear them both together. Even more interesting when the singer delivers both sides of the story.
That notion comes into play on The World Doesn’t End, the upcoming fourth album from Eric Lindley -- a Brooklyn-based producer and multi-instrumentalist who records as Careful. Throughout the album, Careful explores an unraveling relationship between a man and a woman -- both voiced by him with the help of some gender-shifting, pitch-bending electronic manipulation.
And on the haunting “You Will Have To Kill Me,” Lindley’s warm vocals harmonize with his female counterpart’s fragile and lovely voice to great effect.
Throughout the 2000's, Drive-By Truckers has churned out song after song celebrating and often grappling with the Southern experience and its history with precise economy and poignant detail. Fronted by founding memebers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the Athens, Ga.-based group mixes twangy rock and blustery guitar lines with truthful storytelling that portrays flawed and colorful characters as they deal with failure and heartache.
Drive-By Truckers now returns with its 12th album, English Oceans, a visceral and raw collection of 13 songs recorded in a mere 13 days last August. As such, there's a feeling of primal immediacy in muscular rock 'n' rollers like "Pauline Hawkins" and "When He's Gone" and of delicate rumination in "When Walter Went Crazy" and "Hanging On." It's in these songs that Hood and Cooley seem reinvigorated as songwriters. English Oceans is yet another energetic and thoughtful album from one of the most consistent and well-respected alt-country bands around.
Watch Hood and Cooley perform a stripped-down acoustic set of songs from English Oceans in the Soundcheck studio.
ARTIST: Nir Felder
GIG: Monday at Le Poisson Rouge ($18)
New York guitarist Nir Felder’s exciting debut record arrived in January. It’s called Golden Age, and it shows off a muscular and playful brand of jazz. The songs also feature creative samples of voices like Malcolm X, Hillary Clinton, Jesse Jackson, and more. Listen to the song "Lights." Nir Felder is playing at Le Poisson Rouge tonight.
BONUS: Here's Felder playing another track off of Golden Age, called "Lover"...
In this episode: Slate writer Ben Blatt has used the powers of statistical analysis to determine the most-used rhyming couplet in pop music for the last 50 years. Find out what it is, and then try not to notice it in every song you hear from now on.
Then, Dom Flemons, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, tells Soundcheck the story of 20th century blues singer Gus Cannon, whose song “Walk Right In” was a hit for the Rooftop Singers in the 1960s. We take a listen to his minstrel-inflected music, and find out who he was singing for.
Annd: Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers have returned with the new album, English Oceans. The band's co-founders and singer-guitarists, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, deliver an intimate acoustic set in the Soundcheck studio.
Folk musician and former member of Carolina Chocolate Drops Dom Flemons distinctly remembers the first time he heard the music of 20th century blues musician Gus Cannon: It was about ten years ago, while Flemons was taking a college class that examined racial stereotypes in literature. It was then that he heard the Stax recording of Cannon's "Walk Right In" from 1963. The song, originally written and recorded by Cannon decades earlier in the 1920s, had become a hit in the early 1960s thanks to a cover by folk group The Rooftop Singers -- which led to Gus Cannon, then aged 80, re-recording his own song.
Flemons recalls that after initially hearing Cannon's 1963 recording, he thought his exaggerated speech and singing resembled the offensive blackface minstrelsy that he was learning about at the time. "All I was ever hearing was blackface minstrelsy is a bunch of white guys making fun of black guys," Flemons told us on Soundcheck. "But when you bring [in] black participants, after several decades of this first round of blackface minstelsy, it starts becoming a bit more complex when you think of black people making fun of the white guys making fun of black people."
In a conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer, Flemons discusses his research findings about Cannon and his article in last fall's Oxford American, in which he uncovers the true meaning behind another song of Cannon's called "Can You Blame The Colored Man?"
Tonight, The Allman Brothers Band begins its annual New York City residency at the Beacon Theatre. Over the next three weeks, the band will celebrate 45 years of making music together -- a longevity virtually unrivaled in pop music (except by A Certain Very Big British Band). Even more remarkable for the mind-boggling number of lineup changes, intentional or otherwise.
So, to mark the occasion, we present the Soundcheck Guide To The Allman Brothers -- a fly-by look at the legendary Southern rock group.
In a conversation with host John Schaefer, Alan Paul, the band's long time biographer, talks about the band's highs, obscure gems, and material that should probably remain in the cellar.
Southern rock original
This segment originally aired on Jan. 19, 2011.
With her new album, No Way There From Here, Nashville-born, New York City-based singer-songwriter (and sometime Soundcheck guest host)
With the exception of her superb Kitty Wells covers album from 2011, No Way There From Here is Cantrell's first record in nine years. Here, Cantrell continues to blend that classic country and honky tonk sound -- the shimmer of mandolins, the sliding guitar melodies, her delicate, aching vocals -- with a modern Americana-meets-New York folk flavor.
Hear Cantrell perform her new songs in the Soundcheck studio.
This segment originally aired on Jan. 27, 2014.
DOWNLOAD: "Occupy My Heart"
SHOW: Friday at Friends and Lovers ($8)
Sultry vocals. Funk guitar. Hammond organ. And horns! Does this recipe ever disappoint? New York band JuiceBox keeps stirring together the many flavors of R&B, soul, and funk for something tasty – and toe-tapping. Take a listen to “Occupy My Heart.” JuiceBox is performing tonight at the Brooklyn venue “Friends and Lovers.”
BONUS: Get the full-frontal JuiceBox assault here:
The Allman Brothers are set to kick off its famed yearly New York City residency at the Beacon Theater tonight. To mark the occasion, we offer Soundcheck’s Guide to The Allman Brothers -- a look at the band’s long history for both beginners and big fans.
Plus, we revisit a favorite session with Gregg Allman, from back in 2011.
And: We listen back to another recent session with singer, songwriter -- and occasional Soundcheck guest host -- Laura Cantrell, who plays songs from her new album No Way There From Here live in the studio.
Two weeks ago, we took our first steps on a long journey into the mind of a beguiling yet frustrating pop star. We formed a club. We set high goals. Some of us even bought the book.
But I never told you that this journey would be an easy one.
ARTIST: Rachelle Garniez
LISTEN: "Jean Claude Van Damme"
Rachelle Garniez mixes smoky vocals with whimsical subjects. And tons of accordion. She’s played with Rufus Wainwright and Dan Zanes, but she’s truly at home in the dusky cabaret scene, playing classic Americana alongside her biting originals. Listen to “Jean Claude Van Damme” for a taste of the latter. Rachelle Garniez is playing tonight at Barbes.
BONUS: Amy Poehler's "Smart Girls" YouTube channel featured Rachelle and her accordion:
On Thursday, Feb. 27, Soundcheck hosted an all-star Beatles vs. Rolling Stones Smackdown at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. In front of a crowd of more than 200 people, two teams fiercely battled over which band is better -- at times pitting album versus album, guitarist versus guitarist, song versus song -- and, of course, debating the sex appeal of each band.
Arguing for The Beatles were comedian, actor, and director Mike Myers (Wayne's World, Austin Powers, and Shrek); and writer and musician Paul Myers, author of the acclaimed biographies A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, and It Ain't Easy: Long John Baldry and the Birth of the British Blues.
According to Mike Myers, "The Beatles are a cultural movement. They've affected everything. 'A Hard Day's Night'... has informed everything I've done, including and especially Austin Powers. So for me personally, it's everything."
And taking on the Myers brothers on behalf of The Rolling Stones: Ophira Eisenberg, comedian, writer and host of NPR and WNYC’s Ask Me Another; and Bill Janovitz, frontman of the alt-rock band Buffalo Tom, and author of Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell The Story of The Rolling Stones, and the 33 1/3 series' book about Exile On Main Street.
During the debate, Janovitz summoned the words of a literary giant. “Tom Wolfe once said, ‘The Beatles want to hold your hand. The Rolling Stones want to burn down your town.’”
Janovitz added: “I wanted a band that would burn down my town.”
The idea of rap stars as royalty is hardly new -- hip hop artists from Rick Ross to Lil' Kim to Run-DMC have been rapping for years about their transformation into self-made kings and queens. But in his paintings, British artist Amar Stewart takes that idea of rap royalty and places it in a literal context, portraying artists like Biggie, Questlove and Mary J. Blige as actual royals -- who happen to be living in the 17th century.
We talk with Amar Stewart about finding inspiration from Dutch painter Frans Hals at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, painting to the music of Jay-Z and Tupac and moving to Brooklyn. Plus, art gallery owner Sean Leonard shares the harrowing tale of how he chased down a thief who made off with one of Stewart's paintings last weekend and successfully got it back.
Paul Lamere works for a company that tracks tons of user data from music streaming sites, so it's important that he understands what people listen to, and where they listen to it. In doing some research into listener preferences, he noticed that different states listen to particular artists at a higher frequency than the rest of the country. So he made a map. BuzzFeed posted it under the title "This Map Reveals Every State's Favorite Band," and it went viral.
And people went nuts. Why? Because the name Bruce Springsteen floating over New Jersey doesn't set off any alarm bells, but who the heck is Bonobo?
Soundcheck digs a little deeper, and finds out that Jay Z has conquered virtually half of the country's streaming playlists. Also: New Yorkers really don't like country singer Luke Bryan.
Cash has lived in New York for more than 20 years, having transplanted herself from what became a restricting Nashville scene. But after she was asked to help restore her father’s childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, her first visit to the site inaugurated a whole series of trips which became part of a larger pilgrimage down Highway 61 with her husband and songwriting partner, John Leventhal.
During one of their early trips, they met the widow of Marshall Grant -- bass player of the Tennessee Two -- Etta. After many conversations, Cash and Leventhal wrote “Etta’s Tune” -- from which the remainder of The River & the Thread unspooled as a series of observations about the South.
Cash also tapped many of her friends and fellow musicians with an affection for the music of the South: Cory Chisel, Rodney Crowell (who also co-wrote one song), Kris Kristofferson, Amy Helm, Allison Moorer, John Prine, Derek Trucks, John Paul White of The Civil Wars, and much more. The result is perhaps Cash's finest record since 1993's The Wheel, and will surely be one of year's best country and Americana albums.