Within the YouTube universe, there is a world of musicians, amateur and professional, who are constantly busy covering, interpreting, and reinventing sounds. This world of cyber-performance has spawned a new species of success – that of the viral artist, who is thrust from the anonymity of his or her bedroom and, brushing away the world wide cobwebs, enjoys a sudden, newfound spotlight. This spotlight, driven also by YouTube’s fellow flagships of social media, sometimes shines very bright – Andy McKee, now one of the biggest names in contemporary fingerstyle, is among the best examples of this.
Yet, despite the unprecedented access it provides musicians and performers to broad audiences as well as to each other, YouTube is not quite the answer for homebody songsters. The reason for this is in the very design: it rewards popularity (in the form of hits), a notoriously unreliable indicator of quality in music. Without a comb and a pair of tweezers, there’s simply no adequate way to extract the diamonds from the YouTube rough. Doing so is part of the mission of The AV, but our challenges are the same as yours, loyal reader.
Enter CoverStruck. Launched just a few months ago, CoverStruck is a music-centric video-sharing website which is explicitly designed to reward quality – as determined by the viewers, themselves often musicians and always passionate about music. CoverStruck is YouTube with taste (and without trolls). In other words, it’s a long time coming.
Growing steadily since its launch, CoverStruck is the only website of its kind to provide musicians with a reliable mechanism for putting their music in front of fellow musicians, both for publicity and for feedback. The best part is that, in this community of musicians, the feedback responds to the performance on its own terms, instead of based upon whatever ADD-influenced standards motivate the many YouTubers who leave their obnoxious commentary just because they get off on being anonymous. You’ll certainly see folks from CoverStruck featured here in the coming months – including the winner of their upcoming inaugural cover competition (follow those proceedings here).
Anyway, and without further ado, here are a few of the talents unearthed by CoverStruck so far:
Ellipsis is a duo who describe their music as “electroacoustic with classical influences.” Click the below frame to watch them play Bon Iver’s “The Wolves (Acts I and II).”
Ryan Knorr hails from Des Moines, IA, where he is taking full advantage of the internet to reach viewers across the country. Also a talented songwriter, watch Ryan cover The Verve Pipe’s “The Freshman” below.
Mitch Rossell, born and raised in the great musical state of Tennessee, possesses just about the most powerful vocal chords you’re likely to detect behind an acoustic guitar. Here he brings that energy to Zac Brown Band’s “Free.”
There’s no question that bluegrass musicians – or at least cats playing in those kinds of outfits – are among the most versatile around. It’s unclear whether this is because its leading contemporary practitioners – the likes of Bela Fleck and Chris Thile – have succeeded in injecting a little bit of everything into bluegrass (or a little bit of bluegrass into everything, depending on how you look at it), or because of its unique roots in the music of African Americans and the various traditions of the British Isles, or because of something else entirely. Regardless, this is illustrated well by the 5-piece group headed by Abigail Washburn, the clawhammerin’ banjoist and remarkably strong and soulful vocalist, whom I had the pleasure of seeing in concert at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia back on January 12th.
Washburn is at her core an Appalachian singer-songwriter, a self-description she ventured repeatedly over the course of the show, but hers aren’t the only songs that make up their setlists. The group’s (mostly) guitarist, a multi-instrumentalist (keyboard and trumpet, too) indie-pop rocker named Kai Welch, also penned a couple of their tunes, including one of the strongest: Sentimental Queen.
Washburn made much of the stylistic contrast between Appalachia and indie, half-jokingly – and repeatedly – making cracks about the bitter struggle between the two. At least once, Welch parried that he’d like to think there’s an alliance between the styles. (The light, charming banter was nearly as prominent a feature of the performance as the music itself, and no less entertaining.)
And indeed there is an alliance. The group had on display the very best elements of both: the rhythms of clawhammer, the hook-ey indie melodies, the emotionally accessible Appalachian lyrics, the fiddle licks channeling bluegrass, and even a bit of sultry-voiced, mute-trumpeted, swingin’-bassed vibes for good measure, briefly transforming the room into the ‘30s underground, swirling smoke and all, in Keys to the Kingdom.
None of which would have been possible without the backing group of Rayna Gellert on fiddle, Alana Rockland on bass, and Jamie Dick on drums. The classically trained Gellert gave the group vertical dimensions which would otherwise have been conspicuously absent, and despite her restraint – musical and otherwise– was the closest thing the group had to a lead instrumentalist. Rockland did exactly what a good bassist should (usually) do: held down the bottom line, stayed out of the lead players’ way, and occasionally and dramatically stole the show, as when her hopscotch-lines led the groovy way in Keys to the Kingdom, and when she provided a funkalicious opening to the second set with her electric bass (its only appearance of the evening). And Dick proved his versatility, showing equal levels of comfort in all the group’s myriad styles, and even added a little stand-up bit by showing off his alter egos, among them the sadly gap-toothed, but still charming Whistlin’ Dick.
Abigail Washburn’s group packs a punch, but only some of the time; it’s light, but only when it wants to be; it fills a room, unless the room is more in need of some emptying. And that’s what a great acoustic group like this one can do that’s unavailable to the very best of the amplified: they can subtly play with dynamics, manipulate architectural acoustics, dance between styles, modulate emotions, and ultimately get extremely, even unnervingly close to their audience. And that, along with an extremely moving voice and great songwriting, is what you get from this bunch.
Give these tracks from Abigail’s new album, City of Refuge, a listen:
Be forewarned: There is nothing acoustic about this feature. Why not, you ask? Well, we have other interests.. don’t you?
The King of Limbs: the album everyone is talking about. The album you’re obligated to have an opinion about, unless you’re a Christopher McCandless protégé, and your plan involves leaving it all behind for a short and lonely life in the Alaskan wild.
Much of what has been said about Radiohead’s new cut is highly critical, and not unfairly so – there is plenty to be critical about. This album almost completely lacks the technical virtuosity and compositional boldness of OK Computer (and even, one could argue, to a lesser but still significant extent Kid A and Hail to the Thief). There is no single track that breaks ground in quantifiable ways, no obvious standard the way there was Paranoid Android, no masterpiece hidden in plain sight like How to Disappear Completely.
And yet The King of Limbs is just what we’ve come to expect from Radiohead: brilliant, destined for decades of replay and analysis, a landmark, a statement of our times. One might even say that it is the flagship of a newly coined sub-genre we can call “post-pop” (or has that label, like every other, already been taken?) – a self-conscious critique of pop culture, a parody of its most ludicrous and indulgent components with a simultaneous embrace of its redeeming qualities.
This is best exemplified by the album’s first single, the first song most people heard and the only released with a video, Lotus Flower. On the surface, it’s pretty conventional Fourth Wave Radiohead (i.e. Pablo Honey->OK Computer->Kid A and Amnesiac with some transitional identity confusion around the time of Hail to the Thief->In Rainbows and The King of Limbs) – an ostinato bass line, modulating occasionally to fuel the melody which is original yet memorable, with dark, borderline indecipherable lyrics painting a vague picture of conflict, whether internal or interpersonal is impossible to tell.
To understand this song, one should begin with the video, which features a fedora-clad Thom Yorke spastically dancing alone in a back-lit warehouse. Ludicrous though it may seem, the intensity of Yorke’s performance is in large part genuine. At the very least, it reflects the unapologetically idiosyncratic intensity he brings to everything he does. It also matches the pulsating feel of the music playing which, as Radiohead (among precious few others) so often does, defies the neat mood-based categorizations we like to impose on music: sad, happy, pensive, ecstatic, angry, calm, lovesick, defiant.
Of course, it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously (a fact which, admittedly, didn’t dawn on me until my second viewing – you can imagine my initial amusement). The objective, it seems clear, is Read the rest of this entry »
This is the third and final installment of a three part conversation with James Lee Stanley. In the first installment (read it here), James talked about the process of songwriting. In the second (read it here), he discussed his approach to playing someone else’s music in a new and interesting way, as well as the importance of studying and learning from the greats.
One of the things that sets James apart from a lot of solo and/or acoustic performers is the combination of preparation and natural ease that he brings to his performances. To understand how he crafts a successful show, I probed a bit into his process – much as I did with songwriting and interpreting other artists’ music – as well as to draw out some of the emotional and aesthetic dynamics that arise between the performer and the audience.
I’ve tried to get out of James’ way, and to let him teach us a little something about three elements of musicianship – writing, interpreting, and performing – which all too often get overshadowed by technique. Technical ability is crucially important (it goes without saying), but it is the how, not the what (and certainly not the why), and it can distract from the core objectives of music: emotion, invention, and communication. So without further ado, a man who brings all of these elements to life.
James playing “Going Back to Memphis.” “I want to enrich [the audience] and, if I have any enlightenment to give them, I want to give it to them and I want them to feel good about themselves and good about the world and good about the possibility of a better world,” he says.
The AV: When we spoke before your show, you mentioned that you get to the venue a few hours beforehand and sit and play and focus in.
JLS: Yeah, I like to do that.
The AV: Do you drill?
JLS: No. I sing songs that I’m working on. Like, I haven’t done [Backstage at the Resurrection] yet – so I have been singing those songs because I’m trying to own them for live performances. I mean, I love my record of them but that’s a different palette than on the stage with one guitar. So I play those songs. And then as it closes in on it I pick the song I’m going to open with and sometimes I’ll play it for 20 minutes, just over and over again.