English alternative band Alt-J all met at Leeds University. They spent two years rehearsing before signing a record deal in 2011. They released their debut album “An Awesome Wave” in September last year. These guys are unique, especially the vocals. At times, vocalist Joe Newman almost sounds like a parody. But he keeps it interesting. You might need to listen a few times before the vocals sit right, so have an open mind. This album sounds great on a nice pair of headphones, and I think the album would lose a lot if you were hearing it through a cheap pair of speakers. These guys demonstrate a lot of interesting sounds and rhythms throughout their album. The track “Breezeblocks” is a good example of what the band sounds like. The track starts off with his vocals and a bass line, before being joined by the percussion and toylike piano sound. As the track progresses, there is some harmonizing and many rhythm changes taking place. About 2 minutes into the song, it veers off into a darker direction and mood. The background vocals maintain a sweetness, but the lead vocal becomes a bit paranoid and sinister hinting that the “fondness” sung about earlier in the song is turning into an “obsession”. Anyway, if this track intrigues you in any way, you should check out the rest of the album. Personally I went from finding it interesting, to then questioning why I ever downloaded the album, to moving back to appreciating and enjoying its uniqueness. Parts of it remind me of another debut album with somewhat unique vocals that I absolutely loved from 2005 – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s S/T album.
Savannah’s Kylesa just released their 6th full length album “Ultraviolet”. I’ve written about this band before. They’re kind of metal, with elements of psychedelic stoner, hardcore and sludge. Keeps things interesting. Also notable is one of their vocalists/guitarists is female (unusual in this genre) and they have two drummers. I don’t know if “Ultraviolet” is the best album to start with if you’re not familiar with the band. To me, it seems like more of a transitional album that will be setting-up what is hopefully a monster seventh album. This doesn’t mean the album is weak, it has plenty to offer. But their sound is dense, can be abrasive and the dissonance is their by design and with reason. For people who don’t listen to a lot of music in this genre, there can be a rather long adjustment period. But there are also moments that are very melodic, mellow and groove-oriented.
Given that, I’m featuring the most readily accessible track for non-metal ears – “Unspoken”. A spiraling guitar line opens the song before the rhythm section kicks in. There’s plenty of atmosphere in this song, with the keyboards moving around the sound-space, along with various percussion accents. Then 80 seconds in the song kicks up way, way up a notch. Everything is harder, faster and dirtier. Laura Pleasants’ vocals are actually sung (rather than screamed) and the song still maintains its psychedelic touch. The vocals are few and far between in this song though, as the last few minutes simply feature excellent instrumental interplay by the band, with some background vocals floating around the mix. Good stuff.
For the last clip, I have a duet with Nicholas and Melanie covering “Criminal” by Fiona Apple. I already loved that song, and it great seeing Nicholas and Melanie sing it together. Can’t wait to see what these two end up recording in the future.
Melanie did her take on “Toxic” by Britney Spears and far exceeds Britney’s original version. Notice Christina Aguilera was the only one who didn’t turn around. She had it in for Melanie throughout the entire season of the show for some reason.
If you don’t watch “The Voice”, Nicholas and Melanie were contestants this past season. I don’t watch “Idol” or any of the other vocal competitions, but I have watched “The Voice” all three of its seasons. I think the vocalists are much better than what is showcased on “Idol”. Nicholas David and Melanie Martinez were the two contestants who impressed me the most this past season, and I’m interested to see what both of them can do with some original material. Nicholas has an awesome singing voice, so smooth, soulful and peaceful. It’s perfectly suited to “Lean On Me”. The addition of a gospel choir behind him adds even more depth to the song. I hope he can get some good collaborators with him in the studio, I’ll be looking forward to an album by him. Melanie Martinez is only 17 years old and lives in New York. She has a unique voice and is known for putting her own style to well-known songs. In addition to her musical abilities, she also a talented photographer and helped create some of the sets she performed on during “The Voice”. I’ve included a clip of her trying out for the competition. It’s blind for the judges, and if they want a contestant on their team, they turn around their chair.
“Face to Face” – Ok, I had to include a down-tempo song just so you could see a different side of the band. At a minimum, go about 2:45 into the song where Armstrong begins building a vocal climax that peaks at about the 3:30 mark that is one of the most impressive, impassioned vocal performances I’ve heard captured on record. The remainder of the song is her just trying to wind back down. If this woman showed up on one of the singing competitions on TV, I think the other contestants would all quit on the spot.
“Test On My Patience” is similar to “Weatherman” with a really catchy riff and a big, explosive sound. Armstrong has some really cool vocal parts on this track, with some fast-paced vocals and then some higher parts as well. Armstrong and Medley really make a great team together, the interplay between Medley’s guitar riffs and Armstrong’s vocals create some exceptional music. And the guys behind them provide a solid rhythm to keep the music driving steadily.
I was born and raised in California’s Silicon Valley, just a decade ahead and a few miles south of where Apple would eventually take shape and introduce the iPod and iTunes to the world. I played in bands throughout Jr High and High School, and when I left for Los Angeles to attend the now defunct Grove College of Music, I told everyone to watch for me on the Grammy’s someday.
One of the first people I met upon arrival in the San Fernando Valley happened to be a TV producer. He was a nice guy – a friend of my roommate, and I didn’t really know the details of his involvement in the entertainment industries. He was aware of my music aspirations, and I shared with him that Peter Gabriel was my all-time favorite artist. Later that year, just ten days after my 19th birthday, my friend left me a cryptic message, “I need you to go to the Bonaventure hotel today to pick something up at the front desk. Be sure to bring your ID.”
I followed his instructions, and the concierge handed me a regular envelope. I was amazed to find two “All Access” passes to the Grammy’s inside!
I immediately called the young lady I was dating at the time – a talented vocalist I met at music school, and I went home to get ready for the show. I had achieved starving student status with honors, and the only thing I had to wear was a 3-piece suit that was easily one size too small. I figured it was more important how I carried myself than how it fit me, so I went with it and headed for the show.
The day was such a blur that it really didn’t hit me what I was doing until we were walking down the red carpet at the Shrine Auditorium in Hollywood, and I heard fans and paparazzi whispering “who’s that?” Once inside the theater, I grabbed the nearest usher – a young man just a couple years older than me and asked, “where does this pass get me?” He responded, “Dude, it’s all access. You can go anywhere you want. Upstairs, downstairs, backstage, press boxes, wherever.”
So I did.
Everything that followed was magical and surreal. The first thing I did was head backstage to get a behind-the-scenes look, and that’s where I was shocked back to reality for a moment. I walked smack into Stevie Wonder, and like an idiot I said, “I’m so sorry – I didn’t see you there!” to which he replied, “That’s okay, I didn’t see you either.” His escort looked pissed, and I suddenly felt small enough to fit into my suit. But in a way, that moment helped me regain composure so that I could really take in the rest of the evening’s events.
The performances were amazing. Janet Jackson must have had 40 people on stage for her dance routine – totally tight – and Anita Baker’s voice could have filled the theater without a mic. I spent some time chatting with the year’s Best New Artist, Bruce Hornsby, who seemed almost as awestruck by the Grammy experience as I was. I met Mike Rutherford of Genesis fame that was nominated for his work with Mike & The Mechanics.
I went to the press area backstage and watched Paul Simon field questions about his Album of the Year award for Graceland. I was talking with Steve Winwood when a group of ladies came over to get pictures with him, and as he put his arms around them for the shot he paused for a moment, turned to me and said, “hold these” and handed me the two Grammy’s he had just won. I distinctly remember Whitney Houston running by screaming, “Where’s my dress! Where’s my dress!” as she was being chased by several people with walkie-talkies whose job it was to look nervous all the time.
As the show was drawing to a close, the celebrities took the stage for a chorus of “Stand By Me.” I went around to stage left where I was abruptly halted by a guy we’ll call “tank.” I flashed my pass, he stepped aside, and there I was – on stage at the Grammy Awards standing somewhere between the year’s MC, Billy Crystal and Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald singing “Stand By Me” and waving my hands in the air like I was at the last 60’s flower power rally.
And yes, I met my idol. As everyone pooled in the lobby to wait for their limousines, I took the chance to chat with Peter Gabriel. I spouted something about how I had seen him perform in Oakland on his “So” tour the previous summer and I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I told him how disappointed I was that he didn’t pick up any awards from his four nominations, to which he said, “It’s politics.” At that moment he held the record for the most Grammy nominations without an award (nine), although “Sledgehammer” went on to receive the most awards ever for a single music video. And just a side note – Gabriel was on the Independent Music Awards judges’ panel that recently named my service Noisy Planet “Best Music Business Website 2009.”
As a youngster, I packed my bags and left for LA determined to fulfill my dreams of meeting Peter Gabriel and being on stage at the Grammy’s. I didn’t expect that it would happen in one night, or so early in my quest. And now as each year passes, I wonder whether I will ever return to the Grammy’s and take the stage for a very different reason.