If you'd like to hear some good new music, here's some news. There was a really good album made this year that you might not have heard, by a talented band that you may not know, that was released by an imaginative label you're probably not familiar with, from a vibrant music scene you're almost certainly unaware of.
If any of that sounds unusual, here's another surprise. The music scene where the label is that signed the band that made the album is Birmingham, Alabama, but (just one more surprise) that tells you absolutely nothing about what the record is like.
Wray is a three-piece band out of Birmingham whose album is a driving but dreamlike adventure through the collective musical imagination of David Brown, David Swatzell, and Blake Wimberly. Their music is sometimes referred to as 'power gaze', because it shares a mesmerizing and atmospheric richness with much of the music that is called 'shoegaze', but they drive it hard and never let it lose its power. In reality, what they're doing is much more complex than anything you can describe with a name, partly because of where their music comes from, and partly because of where they can take it.
Unless you already know who MC Frontalot is, it would be all to easy to miss out on his new album Question Bedtime. As a matter of fact, it would be all to easy to miss out on the entire MC Frontalot adventure, and that would be a shame, because his music is written so imaginatively and produced so effectively. It's a very unpredictable collection of creativity that MC Frontalot puts together, but he puts it all together so well that it would really be too bad to miss it al all.
A lot of people already know who he is; MC Frontalot's been making records and doing shows for a lot of people for quite a few years, and none of those people are likely to miss out on anything new he comes up with. If you've heard one of his other studio albums (Question Bedtime is his sixth), or if you're one of the tens of thousands of people who have seen his completely unique take on what a rapper can be on stage, you would already have a pretty good idea that there's way more here than what it looks like at first. If you had barely heard of him though, or maybe never heard of him, it would be all too easy to get the idea that this was just something that you already have a perfectly good category for. You might think that it's just comedy, or maybe that Question Bedtime is just a young person's record, or that the whole MC Frontalot story is just a novelty, and you could easily miss something that you might really enjoy.
In such a media rich but content poor world, it becomes common, and maybe even fashionable, for people to define, rate, and then file away anything new that they encounter. That might be the main reason why somebody who would have liked this album could miss it, because there are too many dimensions to what MC Frontalot is doing to be able to really define them. Besides, they're all wired together into such a precisely designed circuit that as soon as you start to classify some of it, you're bound to miss the rest of it.
Take his latest album for example. It's true that there are a lot of moments on Question Bedtime that are really funny, but it certainly isn't a comedy record, because it's packed to digital zero with so much lyrical wattage and so much musical power. It's also true that the musical tracks on the album are based on folk tales and stories for young people from around the world, some that you know and some that you don't, but the way MC Frontalot and his extensive cast of collaborators and co-conspirators rhyme their way through these stories, they just aren't like anything you ever heard before. There's a lot that's new in the way that MC Frontalot interprets rap and rhythm and writing and rhymes, and he puts it all together into an often (but not always) light-hearted approach that the press will call Nerdcore, but novelty this is not.
There's an art to being an independent label, but the heart of the art isn't exactly what most people might think. It's not so much the ability to discover, produce and promote that makes a great independent record label. It's more a talent for appreciation. When you find an indie label that you want to follow, that you would want to hear more from, it's often because the people there not only appreciate the music they bring you, they also appreciate how good it is for for everybody who loves that music when that music can be heard.
There's a new label like that just outside of D.C. They call themselves Soul Stew Records, and they started releasing music last year, bringing a promising new touch to an old idea: find great music, and bring it to the people who love it. "We deliver blues, soul, roots, jazz, gospel, Americana and any other genre that is real and moves us," is the way they describe themselves, and Soul Stew's first two releases (both of them what most people would call the Blues) deliver a lot.
These are two albums that spotlight two very different sides of the Blues, though. Bob Eike's CD happy little songs about futility and despair showcases the acoustic side of the art's oldest traditions, although Eike's songwriting is so rich with forward-leaning imagination that he makes a familiar style feel like it's new right now. With a very different approach and a very different sound, Billy Thompson's new release Friend is a such a road ready, crowd driving, blues-rock jam that you could almost forget to tell your friends how accomplished the musicianship on it is.
This is new music for sure, but that doesn't mean it's not old school. Brightly creative, yet true to the best of two richly different blues traditions, both albums sound classic and proud of it. Both Thompson and Eike go back far enough to have seen plenty of what's real in music, and between them they've shared stages and studios with a roll call of great players. They're also old friends, and as artists they have a lot in common. Perhaps the most important quality they share is an unspoken understanding, an understated conviction, that whatever music you most love to play, that's the music that people will most love to hear.
There's a band out of Detroit called Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas, and just about everybody who sees them thinks they're seeing a promising new group with a cool new singer, but that's not quite all of it. When you take a good look at Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas you can see a lot more than just that, because what you're really seeing is an exorbitant take on where music can come from, an all-embracing vision of what music can be. You're looking at a stage full of gifted young jazz players tearing it up in a rock band behind a creative and talented singer, a singer who cares a lot about everything she does, and not so much about what anybody said she was supposed to do. It's quite a sight, and quite a sound, and even if it's already quite a story, there's bound to be a lot more where that came from. That's because Jessica Hernandez has a vision that's such a wild and complex collage of creativity that nobody can really guess what she might do next.
They covered a lot of the country last year, and since people who see them often tell somebody, you may have heard of them already. It's just as likely that you've heard some of their music; after signing with Instant Records, the label founded by songwriting, producing, and label icon Richard Gottehrer, they released a five song EP called Demons (after the Hernandez original that opens the record), and it gets played a lot. Since they're heading out on tour again right now (Atlanta, San Diego, Austin for South By Southwest and a lot of other places), they'll probably be wherever you are before too long. Until then you could listen to the EP, or maybe check out some of the unreleased tracks in their live videos (many of which will be on the full length album they'll release this summer). Either way, you'll probably start to see how much there is behind the little that anybody has seen yet.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Winter Series presents the return of Alejandro Cerrudo's full evening work One Thousand Pieces, premiered in 2012 for the Company's thirty-fifth anniversary. When the work was originally peformed, the response to it from Hubbard Street's audiences was even more enthusiastic than expected, and expectations were unquestionably high. Alejandro Cerrudo had become Hubbard Street's first ever Resident Choreographer three years earlier, and his ten previous works for the Company had steadily attracted attention and accumulated admiration, building expectations of similar creativity like the crescendo of a symphony. One Thousand Pieces was a very different undertaking though; exponentially more complex, it required the synthesis of so many creative and practical possibilities that it was hard to be sure if even Cerrudo could accomplish it. How he was able to do so, and do so successfully, turns out to be a study in the art of balance as much as the art of dance, balancing personal vision with practical reality, leadership with cooperation.
It seems like Morgan Frazier must have a secret, not just because she does so many different things so well, but because she makes it all look so easy, as if it's just a matter of being who she is. Whatever her secret is, it probably isn't one of those secrets that you're not supposed to tell, because she speaks so readily about what she's doing and why. "I'm a songwriter," she says, "and I feel like my music is a kind of open book to who I am." Still, it could be one of those secrets that you can't just tell people because you have to show them, something that most people just don't want to believe until they see it for themselves.
If you haven't heard of her yet, Morgan Frazier is one of those talented veterans of Country Music that most people don't know about, even though she's been performing for more than fifteen years. She made her first album eleven years ago, and she has a catalog of carefully crafted original songs that are still largely unknown. None of that is really much of a secret, though, and there's a good reason why so many people don't know about her. She's still only twenty years old, and although she's been performing since she was five and recording since she was nine, her first national release, a beautiful self-titled EP on Curb Records, just came out this year.
Anyone who knows Lizzie Mackenzie's choreography is probably surprised that she's not better known as a choreographer. She's widely known as a truly exceptional dancer, from her performances with Giordano Dance Chicago and then with River North Dance Chicago, as well as her many guest appearances in high profile special events. She's also well known, especially in the world of preprofessional dance, as the founder and artistic director of Extensions Dance Company, one of the most successful and respected preprofessional dance companies in the country. When she does choreograph, the results are often spectacularly rich; she combines an ability to create beautiful and engaging movement designs with an unusually effective understanding of concert dance architecture.
That's why the news that Lizzie MacKenzie was creating a full evening original work would have been promising no matter what, but to hear that it was going to be for Chicago Dance Crash made the whole idea even more exciting, and much more intriguing. The work is titled ...and sometimes we were lost, but always we became found, and it runs for two weekends, December 6-7 and 13-14 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago.
MacKenzie is thoughtful in everything she does, but especially in everything that has anything to do with human connection; it's one of the reasons why she's so successful as a teacher. That same thoughtfulness, that same willingness to consider new ideas and actively engage them until she can work them into all of the other things she does, also gives her an exceptional ability to learn, and to embrace new possibilities. Around the time that Chicago Dance Crash first approached her about working with the Company, she had recently discovered, and was hugely impressed by a lecture by a University of Houston professor named Brené Brown.
On a warm summer weekend last August, something happened in Cincinnati that you would have to call a remarkable accomplishment; in complete defiance of anything you would ever realistically expect, thirty-five thousand people went to see the Symphony.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, with their widely admired new Music Director Louis Langrée conducting, performed outdoors on Saturday and Sunday in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, while historic Music Hall was illuminated behind them in a dazzling display of synchronized light. It's an astonishing accomplishment for a Symphony Orchestra to attract crowds like a rock concert, but as you learn more about music in Cincinnati, and about the way the city supports its music, you begin to realize that it's more than just a single accomplishment. It's actually a lot of very different accomplishments, by a lot of different people, and an event like the LumenoCity concerts last summer is what happens when all of those people put all of those accomplishments together, somehow sharing an understanding of how to make things turn out right.
Of course, an accomplishment like the success of LumenoCity has to begin with the music, and Louis Langrée brings with him to Cincinnati an understanding of what music can be that is as precise and informed as his conducting. He speaks convincingly about the importance of preparation ("You have to know a piece the way you would know a road that you've driven many, many times, because then you can move more smoothly, more freely; you can really anticipate the curves"), and of thorough technical mastery ("The performance has to include all of the elements of harmony, of rhythm, of melody; everything is important"), but he is also vividly aware of how much more music can be than that. "Even when something is very impressive technically, that's not the beauty and the truth and the depth of music," he says. "It's that it makes you feel different, because it relates directly to you."
When you think of the art of dance, what you're likely to think of depends on who you are; the way that dancers and even choreographers are likely to see the art of dance can be quite a bit different from what their audience sees. Most of the time when a dancer or choreographer thinks of the art of dance, they think of performance, perhaps of movement design; their idea of the art will often be very much centered around their own experience. The audience has a better view, though, because as profoundly artistic as movement and performance can be, the art of dance is richer, more involved, and much more complex than that. There's a lot more than just movement on stage; there are costumes and makeup, lighting design and sound, sometimes even original music. There are artists backstage running light boards and mixing consoles, others taking care of the front of house, and still others who's art is publicity or administration.
It brings up an important question about art, and although Heather Trommer-Beardslee never actually asks that question in her new book Dance Production and Management, she answers it thoroughly; the book is both a step-by-step guide for anyone who wants to make art in dance successfully, and a richly insightful study of the art itself. The question she answers, but doesn't ask, is this: is the art of dance what you create, or is it what you share? Is art what you experience when you make it, or is it what you and others, other artists, and especially your audience, experience together? Whatever the answer may be for an individual artist, there can only be one answer for an audience, because an audience can only experience what artists share with them.
There's a lot of different kinds of music in this big wide world, so many different kinds of music that nobody could even name them all. Everybody could name a few though, and two kinds of music that almost everybody can name are Rock and Country. Each of them is its own wide world, and although they do share some history, they don't share a lot of artists, or a lot of audiences.
There's plenty of music in America, and a lot of it's out on the road, rolling down interstates, sea to shining sea. The tour buses carrying Rock acts look a lot like the ones carrying Country acts, but even if they do pass each other on the interstate, they'll always be in two very different worlds. It's true that Rock and Country have a few things in common, and the more acoustic, lyrical kinds of Rock aren't all that different from some Country music. Still, the louder and heavier Rock gets, the less it sounds anything like the handcrafted story songs from a Nashville session, where most of the guitars are played undistorted, and the pedal steel might answer every careful line of a clear, melodic vocal.
That makes Aaron Lewis a very unusual story, because after sixteen years in a band called Staind (who've sold fifteen million very heavy rock albums), he recorded five country songs and put them together on an independent country EP. It had a picture on the cover of a sign by the side of the road that said "Entering Nashville", and he called it Town Line. If that doesn't sound all that astonishing, it's because that's not the really unusual part. When Town Line was released in March, 2011 it became the No. 1 Country album, and that's not only way past unusual, it may be unprecedented.