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Download This: Alejandra Ribera, 'I Want'

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

ARTIST: Alejandra Ribera

DOWNLOAD: 

Alejandra Ribera, "I Want"  

GIG: Wednesday night at Joe's Pub ($15)

The Canadian singer Alejandra Ribera says her life is heavily influenced by three B’s: Bjork, Bette Midler, and Billy Connolly. The “B” influence is also evident in the title of her new album, La Boca – or, “The Mouth.” It’s an appropriate name for a collection of songs that bounces from Spanish to French to English. You probably won’t need to translate this one, it’s called “I Want.”

Alejandra Ribera plays at Joe’s Pub tonight. 

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Josephine Baker's Subversive 'Rainbow Tribe'

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

American-born singer and actress Josephine Baker rose to fame as a risqué hot jazz act in 1920s Paris -- and it's this period of her life that she's best known for today. Performing in her trademark banana skirt (and sometimes not much else), Baker became enormously famous -- acting as a muse for artists and writers, like Langston Hughes and Pablo Picasso.

However, Baker's life was filled with unexpected twists and turns: during World War II, she gathered intelligence for the French Resistance and was eventually awarded a French War Cross. In the 1950s and '60s, she became a figure in the American civil rights movement.

But there's one part of Baker’s story that most people have never heard. In 1953, Baker adopted twelve children from around the world in a quixotic attempt to assemble a family with children from all races -- and quite literally put them on display.

This chapter of her life is explored in Josephine Baker And The Rainbow Tribe, a book by Matthew Pratt Guterl, professor of Africana Studies and American Studies at Brown University. He joins us to speak about the "rainbow tribe" she attempted to create, and his personal view on the matter as an adopted child himself. 

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How Well Do You Know Your Middle-Aged Pop Stars?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

This summer, two middle-aged artists hit No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, each for the very first time in their long careers. In July, 54-year-old "Weird Al" Yankovic scored with Mandatory Fun. Just two weeks later, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (average age: 63) topped the chart with Hypnotic Eye.

Pop-chart guru and Soundcheck regular Chris Molanphy  wrote about these "senior moments" for Pitchfork. Even though this year's other No. 1 albums were released by relatively younger artists, Molanphy writes, Yankovic and the Heartbreakers are the latest in a decade-long string of acts reaching the penthouse for the first time -- or for the first time in decades. It's partially about older fans still buying music, but many of these older acts are also working every possible angle to score a hit. 

Before you read his piece, take Molanphy's pop-chart quiz!

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Hear: Liam Bailey, In The Studio

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Liam Bailey’s recent performance in an opening slot at Central Park Summerstage introduced the fiery English singer and guitarist to many in the New York audience. But Bailey has been tweaking his fusion of rock, soul and R&B across the pond for the past decade, first with his own bands and later in collaboration with the electronic duo Chase and Status (on the UK dance hit “Blind Faith.”)

Bailey’s career path has led him through a series of contracts, including the late singer Amy Winehouse’s label, Lioness, which released two of his EPs.

Now, the Nottingham-based songwriter is releasing his full-length debut, Definitely Now, through Winehouse producer Salaam Remi’s Flying Buddha label on Aug. 19. He joins us to play three songs from the album in our studio – and discuss his love of Pink Floyd and Oasis with host John Schaefer.

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The 'Garden State' Soundtrack: Still Changing Lives After Ten Years

Monday, August 18, 2014

Love it or hate it, Zach Braff's 2004 film Garden State had a killer cast and a soundtrack filled with indie royalty. So why hate it? Because the film tended to overstate its own capture of the quarter-life crisis zeitgeist, and the soundtrack introduced multitudes to many bands that were -- until Garden State -- niche favorites. And your general reaction pretty much hinges on what you think of this scene:

Still, there's no denying that Braff curated a mix-tape that became a totem for a certain kind of early-aughts indie sensibility. Reggie Ugwu certainly thinks so; the deputy music editor for Buzzfeed wrote an essay -- "Listening In The Abyss: The Lasting Legacy Of The Garden State Soundtrack" -- extolling the virtues of Braff's prescient music sensibility.

In a conversation with host John Schaefer, Ugwu talks about the Grammy-winning collection, and to explain why, in the age of Spotify, Soundcloud, and Tumblr, the success of the Garden State soundtrack probably can't be reproduced. 

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Pick Three: Matthew Weiner

Monday, August 18, 2014

Many know Matthew Weiner as the creator of critically acclaimed AMC drama Mad Men, the groundbreaking show which is currently in the middle of its seventh and final season. But Weiner is now dipping his toe into unfamiliar waters, the big screen, with his film directorial debut, Are You Here. The film, which comes out Friday, Aug. 22, stars big names such as Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler, and Zach Galifianakis, and follows the story of a womanizing local weatherman who joins his best friend on a trip to their childhood hometown after the death of his friend's father.

Aside from creating incredible television and film, Weiner is an avid music lover known for having a keen ear which has translated into songs playing a key role in specific scenes on Mad Men. Still, because of limited television budgets, Weiner says there are major between working music in television and in film.

"You can have more than one song in a movie," Weiner explains in a conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer. "Usually we have financial concerns on the show and we can never really have more than one cue that's not a composer or what we call a library cue. But I had some of these songs that are in the movie in the script." 

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In The Valley Below: Synth Pop With Sensual And Swampy Ambience

Monday, August 18, 2014

In The Valley Below could probably just do bright synth pop, but what you get instead is something slightly more subversive. The Los Angeles duo -- Jeffrey Jacob and Angela Gail -- create pop songs built around edgy guitars and dark, swampy ambience that lurk in the shadows. And with lyrics that allude to sex and religion and death, its clear that beneath the fizzy hooks and sensual boy-girl harmonies, there's some real weight in this music.

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Three Must-Hear New Songs From The Vaselines, Young Buffalo, Jenny Hval And Susanna

Monday, August 18, 2014

Three very different projects caught my ear in the past week -- both for the songs and the stories behind them.

The first is The Vaselines, the Scottish band who formed in 1987 and is now releasing its third album. Yes, you read that right. Three albums in 27 years. The group broke up just as its debut record was released. But Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were fans (they covered the Vaselines on Incesticide and MTV Unplugged in New York), so the legend slowly grew -- until its members finally reunited and produced a second record, 2010's Sex With An X.

Now, V For Vaselines comes out on Oct. 7, but you can check out the lead single, “One Lost Year,” right now. I mean it. Right now. Do it.

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Check Ahead: Dry The River, 'Alarms In The Heart'

Monday, August 18, 2014

Dry The River's new album Alarms In The Heart is out Aug. 26.

In music, the “Origin Story” has become a common, if over-romanticized narrative hook -- especially when it involves an artist decamping to write songs in some far-off Walden-esque location: a cabin in snowy Wisconsin, or a remote beach, or simply a private studio upstate. Certainly at this point, that’s become a cliche. But there’s still something enticing in the imagery of a musician toiling alone on their craft, separated from day-to-day distractions, and coming up with something that could not have been made anywhere else. And for Dry The River, that isolation from the world was firmly integral to the creation process for its new album, Alarms In The Heart.

Dry The River began as a solo outlet for Norwegian-born singer-songwriter Peter Liddle, and its debut, 2012’s Shallow Bed, was admittedly a collection of songs written for himself over many years. But after the success of that record -- and especially the song “Bible Belt” -- the London band travelled to Iceland, to workshop and write and record, but also, to redefine what the band should represent and sound like as a full band. With the help of producers Charlie Hugall (Florence and The Machine, Ed Sheeran), Paul Savage (Franz Ferdinand) and Peter Miles -- and arrangements and strings from Valgeir Sigurðsson (Sigur Rós, Björk) -- Dry The River’s songs conjure a new grandiosity befitting of the country's sprawling otherworldly landscapes.

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'Mad Men' Creator Matthew Weiner On Music; The 'Garden State' Soundtrack, 10 Years Later; Gem Club Plays Live

Monday, August 18, 2014

In this episode: Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner talks about his foray into film with the new comedy Are You Here, starring Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Poehler. Plus: Weiner shares three favorite songs – and explains why he used Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” on Mad Men.

Then: Ten years ago, the comedy drama Garden State showed off a different side of television star Zach Braff -- who wrote and directed the film. It also gave us some soon-to-be-influential songs from Iron & Wine, Cary Brothers and, of course, The Shins (who apparently did change some lives). Reggie Ugwu of Buzzfeed explains why the soundtrack clicked with a generation.

And: The Boston chamber pop band Gem Club’s latest album, In Roses, sees the band moving out of their bedrooms (where they recorded their last record) into John Vanderslice’s San Francisco studio. Hear the trio — piano, cello, and vocals — perform live in the Soundcheck studio.

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Download This: Elio Villafranca, 'Sunday Stomp At Congo Square'

Monday, August 18, 2014

ARTIST: Elio Villafranca

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Elio Villafranca, "Sunday Stomp At Congo Square"  

GIG: 12:30 p.m. at One Liberty Plaza (FREE)

“Sunday Stomp At Congo Square” is the name of this song from Cuban pianist and composer Elio Villafranca, from his new record Caribbean Tinge. The name refers to an old tradition among slaves in New Orleans; they would gather in Congo Square on Sundays to sing and dance. A joyous sound with a hefty undercurrent – take a listen.

Elio Villafranca is playing a free solo show this afternoon at One Liberty Plaza 

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How To Be Smarter About... Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks'

Friday, August 15, 2014

Let's face it: as much as we all know and love about music, everyone has at least some blind spots. In our new series, "How To Be Smarter About…" Soundcheck aims to help you become a more impressive conversation partner at cocktail parties and around the water cooler.  

When Soundcheck put out the call to the audience asking for musical blind spots they wanted to know more about, one listener, Darren in Paramus, New Jersey, wrote us about a classic album: 

"Astral Weeks is Van Morrison's greatly acclaimed and highly influential second album released in 1968. It consistently makes All Time Top 10 Rock Album lists -- still after 45 years. What is it about this album (and Van Morrison as an artist) that makes so many place this album at the very pinnacle?”

To help answer Darren's inquiry, Soundcheck host John Schaefer turns to Joe Levy, editor at large for Billboard Magazine -- who says he did not like Astral Weeks upon first listen. 

"I came to it from Moondance," Levy says, "I was in high school -- I loved that record. I was on a mission: me and my friends were buying every five-star record in the original Rolling Stone album guide -- the one with the red cover. And I got this, I was super excited, I went to our high school band room -- they had this massive stereo. I put it on, and I can't say exactly what I said, cuz that would be impolite, but I said 'What is this?' I didn't understand it. It made no sense." 

Now, many listens later, Levy relishes in Astral Weeks' strange instrumentation and transcendental lyrics.

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Gem Club: Exquisite And Aching Pop Songs

Friday, August 15, 2014

Listening to the music of Gem Club is like hearing time stand still: Spare and methodically muted, these songs not only ease you into this dreamlike world, but force you to stew in the emotional weight of each note. You can hear it in the piano chord's slow-drip pulse and sweeping cello lines -- which swirl all around Christopher Barnes' voice with such haunted beauty it aches in your heart. It's this interplay between the lovely and the melancholy that makes Gem Club so dynamic.

For its first two records -- the 2010 EP Acid And Everything and 2011's Breakers -- the Boston chamber pop trio recorded mostly in Barnes' bedroom. For many artists, that situation might be artistically confining. But Breakers' intimate yet exquisite sound transcended the small recording space. For the group's latest release, this year's superb In Roses, the band went to a new recording space, Tiny Telephone -- John Vanderslice’s San Francisco studio. And while still sparse, it's clear with songs like "Hypericum" and "Polly" occupy a wider sonic space as well. The result is an expansive, electronic soundscape that retains and builds on Gem Club's trademark warmth and depth.

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Download This: Jacco Gardner, 'Puppets Dangling'

Friday, August 15, 2014

ARTIST: Jacco Gardner

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Jacco Gardner, "Puppets Dangling"  

GIG: Tonight at Seaport Music Festival with Boogarins (Free)

You can practically hear the paisley in the songs of Dutch songwriter Jacco Gardner. He’s in his mid-20s, but he makes psychedelic music that avoids being a derivative 1960’s cliché. For a taste, take a listen to “Puppets Dangling” from his 2013 debut, Cabinet of Curiosities.

You’ve got two chances to catch Jacco Gardner in New York this weekend: He’s at the Seaport Music Festival tonight, and at Baby’s All Right tomorrow. 

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How To Be Smarter About... Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks'; The Revivalists Play Live

Friday, August 15, 2014

In this episode: When Soundcheck asked listeners to tell us what they wish they were smarter about, one response begged to explain why Van Morrison -- and in particular, his 1968 album Astral Weeks – is so beloved and has such an enduring legacy. Billboard’s Joe Levy gives a thorough explanation.

And: New Orleans is known for jazz, zydeco, hip-hop... and now, thanks to The Revivalists, a kind of Southern-flavored, funk-infused indie-rock. The septet makes music that has echoes of Dr. John, maybe a little Sly and the Family Stone, and perhaps a smidge of Kings of Leon. Hear the band perform live in the Soundcheck studio.

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Nina Simone: A Revolutionary Voice Of The Civil Rights Movement

Thursday, August 14, 2014

There’s a James Brown biopic in theaters now, which is generally creating a buzz for Chadwick Boseman's uncanny portrayal of the famously manic singer. But there’s another film about a similarly mercurial artist that isn’t getting quite as much attention -- yet. That’s because the film, about iconic jazz and soul singer Nina Simone, hasn’t yet been released. But the news that Zoe Saldana, a light-skinned actress, has been cast to play Simone has created a furor among those who recognize Simone’s complicated relationship with race and with black music.

That relationship is the subject of a profile in this week’s New Yorker magazine, "A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone Turned The Movement Into Music," by staff writer Claudia Roth Pierpont. 

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The Revivalists: Warm New Orleans Funk Rock

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Just with its name alone, The Revivalists evokes the tradition of New Orleans funk that surrounds its hometown. With big horns, wah-wah guitar, and indelible, funky rhythms pervading each song, the band's latest release, City Of Sound, projects that NOLA feel loud and clear.

But, as evidenced in "Navigate Below," there's a strong rock sensibility, teased out by the growl of lead singer David Shaw. Renowned for its live performances, The Revivalists' showcase an uncanny ability to genre-blend and create a sound that at once calls back to the past and navigates its own distinct path. Hear The Revivalists perform live in the Soundcheck studio.

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How To Be Smarter About... The Brian Lehrer Edition; Nina Simone; Wildcat! Wildcat! Plays Live

Thursday, August 14, 2014

In this episode: Soundcheck's How To Be Smarter About... series -- about addressing musical blind spots -- continues with WNYC host Brian Lehrer, who tells us a musical topic he’d like to know more on – and we help to fill in the gaps.

Then: Claudia Roth Pierpont discusses her new essay for the New Yorker which explored Nina Simone’s complicated relationship with the civil rights movement and with her own racial self-identification. Pierpont tells Soundcheck about how these issues influenced both the singer’s public persona and works like her perceptive song “Four Women.”

And: Hear the infectious, expansive synth pop of Wildcat! Wildcat! as the L.A. band performs songs from its debut, No Moon At All, in the Soundcheck studio.

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How To Be Smarter About... Brian Lehrer's Home Audio

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Let's face it: as much as we all know and love about music, everyone has at least some blind spots. In our new series, "How To Be Smarter About…" Soundcheck aims to help you become a more impressive conversation partner at cocktail parties and around the water cooler.

If you've ever tuned into WNYC earlier than Soundcheck, you'll know that we work in the same building with one of the smartest-sounding guys in the city, morning show host Brian Lehrer. Well, here's a not-so-well-kept secret: Brian's every bit as smart as he seems on air. We just assume he knows everything. 

WNYC’s Brian Lehrer

Which is why we were delighted when he responded to our How To Be Smarter About... call-out with a request of his own. Brian wrote in from his office alllll the way across the 9th floor at 160 Varick to ask "What's the deal with speakers and headphones?"

He says that, back in his college days, speakers were supposed to be big, and they were supposed to have impeccable sound. In the age of streaming audio and crummy laptop sound, Brian wonders, is there a place for speaker systems any more? And if so, do they still need to be large to show you're serious? Soundcheck turned to Gregory Schmidt, contributor to The New York Times' blog Gadgetwise, to help sort out Brian's questions and give listeners some insight about the state of home audio speakers -- and headphones -- today.

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Listen to This: Junior Brown, “Apathy Waltz”

Thursday, August 14, 2014

ARTIST: Junior Brown 

LISTEN:

Junior Brown, "Apathy Waltz"  

GIG: Thursday Evening at City Winery

Austin-based singer Junior Brown is most famous for his mastery of an instrument he invented: the “guit-steel” – a double-necked steel guitar and standard six-string combo. It gives his honky-tonk compositions real fire. But this here is the Big City, so here's a tune with lyrics that hit particularly close to home for New Yorkers. It’s called “Apathy Waltz."

See the legendary Junior Brown playing live tonight at City Winery. 

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