Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Live Review: tUnE-yArDs/Pitchfork Music Festival

Dance Pop, Festivals, Indie Pop, Indie Rock, Live Reviews No Comments »
Photo: Robert Loerzel

Photo: Robert Loerzel

tUnE-yArDs is divisive, from Merrill Garbus’ elaborate face-paint/clothes, to the arguable-cultural appropriation of Afro-beat influences, to the frustratingly quirky spelling of the band’s name, even Garbus’ spacey greeting to the Pitchfork crowd (“Thanks for being a massive mass of massiveness!”) seemed to be a bit …put on. To be so boldly, messily experimental in pop can either speak to an audience uniquely or rub them the wrong way. It is not a surprise that for every “I ADORE tUnE-yArDs” comment I heard in the crowd, there were an almost equal number of “This is annoying as hell,” comments to balance it out.

But it’s hard to deny Garbus’ talent, even if you don’t “get it.” She stands out in a sea of indie-pop sameness, especially for women artists. Where delicate vocal styles are the norm, Garbus is often gruff—she yelps, growls and howls in a decidedly non-gendered way. (At least two people near me thought Garbus was male at first.) She fearlessly plays with styles and cultural influences/signifiers: call and response vocals, funk bass, Afro-beat and hip-hop influenced percussion. (Is it cultural appropriation or homage? That’s way too much to get into while typing on an iPad standing up.) But with a five-piece band format (including two backup singers), her audacious musical vision comes alive on stage, giving the listener a lot more to chew on. Even when it doesn’t work, it does work; it’s hard to ignore and almost always elicits a strong audience response, which indie-pop needs a lot more of. (Keidra Chaney)

Record Review: “Amor Planeta” by Pacifika

Alt-Rock, Bossa Nova, Dance Pop, Indie Pop, Latin, Pop, Psychedelic, Record Reviews, Reggae, Rock, World Music No Comments »

RECOMMENDEDPacifika_Amor_Planeta

On their third release, the Vancouver-based trio formed by vocalist Silvana Kane, guitarist/producer Adam Popowitz and bassist Toby Peter seem to be taking the music into a deeper, more psychedelic direction without completely losing touch with their Latin, Middle Eastern and electronic roots. The songs are still framed by near-whispered vocals and nylon-guitar-framed textures alongside multi-tracked instruments and vocals sung mostly in Spanish, but the trio seems to have found a more organic approach to their sound. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Blank Project” by Neneh Cherry

Dance Pop, Drum 'n' Bass, Electronic/Dance, Experimental, Industrial, Pop, R&B, Record Reviews, Soul, Techno, World Music No Comments »

RECOMMENDEDnenehcherry

Is “Blank Project” a jazz, soul, art or pop album?  Listening to the disc attentively one could easily say all of the above, as the Swedish-born singer Neneh Cherry (known by mainstream music fans for her collaboration with Senegalese star Youssou N’ Dour) does her thing on her first solo release since 1996. Backed solely by Four Tet’s mix of percussion and electronic sounds, the music grabs you from the beginning with the Afro-inspired “Across The Water” and doesn’t let go until the very last track. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Icona Pop/Allstate Arena

Dance Pop, DJ, Electro, Electronic/Dance, House, Pop No Comments »
Photo: Fredrik Etoall

Photo: Fredrik Etoall

RECOMMENDED

Electronic DJ duo Icona Pop make tracks that sound exactly the way pop music of today should. Run, leap and tumble beats soar through starry, energetic electro-synth melodies, and land on their feet in the foggy midst of a humid, glitter-coated dance floor. When Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo met at a party in the suburbs of Stockholm in 2009, a connection surged almost instantly as the two discovered they shared nearly identical tastes in music. Within a few days they were writing songs and booking gigs, and in that same year the two moved to London to cut their first studio record with TEN Music Group. There, they met London’s Charli XCX who shared a song written for her by another Swede, Patrik Berger. The three women collaborated and came up with the international hit, “I Love It.” The song was released as the second single from their self-titled album in May 2012 and again as the first single off of their second album, “This Is…Icona Pop” in September 2013. As for the time in-between, the song’s commercial success flourished. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Alice Russell/Township

Alt-Rock, Dance Pop, Pop, R&B, Singer-Songwriter No Comments »

Alice RussellRECOMMENDED

In 2008, British soul singer Alice Russell caught the attention of critics and fans alike with her catchy “Got The Hunger” the lead single from her US debut, “Pot of Gold” (Six Degrees, 2008). She seemed to tag along with her country’s embrace of young female singers like the late Amy Winehouse and Adele, who capture the essence of American  soul and use it in their own way—apparently drawing more inspiration from Motown than more current stuff made here.

On her new record, “To Dust,” Russell goes further by incorporating gospel sounds and more organic instrumentation instead of the previous disc’s predominantly electronic sounds. For instance, “A to Z,” is a powerful guitar-driven tune with smart vocals and a very catchy groove. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “The Girl Who Got Away” by Dido

Dance Pop, Folk, Folk-rock, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Pop, Record Reviews, Singer-Songwriter No Comments »

dido-girl-who-got-away-album-sleeveRECOMMENDED

A decade after her smash hit “Thank You” put this English singer on the pop map and five years after 2008’s “Safe Trip Home,” Dido reemerges with this concise album that brings together all the nuances of her style, blending folk-rock, electronica and straight-ahead pop. The album opens with the acoustic ballad “No Freedom,” whose lyrics reflect on the necessity of allowing people to have freedom within the confines of a relationship. The title track makes a playful allusion to the lover “who got away,” the sort of utopian dream-like person who many of us were unable to keep by our sides. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Pro Whoa!” by Nikka Costa

Alt-Rock, Dance Pop, Downtempo, Electronic/Dance, Indie Pop, Pop, R&B, Record Reviews, Singer-Songwriter No Comments »

RECOMMENDED

The former child performer (and daughter of late producer and arranger Don Costa) shows on her new EP that she is in constant evolution as a performer. After dabbling in electronic and soul music on her previous efforts, Costa meets halfway by blending all her influences into a very personal musical form. The record opens with the bass-heavy “Head First,” a soul-inflected pop song that sounds ready for remixers and DJs to dabble with. “Never Wanna C U Again” shows her angry-girl side—it’s a female empowerment rocker about not allowing herself another lover’s deceit.

The title track is a bit unimpressive. Costa tries a bit too hard to mix a punk attitude with electronic elements, but the result is at least danceable even if it falls flat musically in comparison with the rest of the material on the disc. On the other hand, the downtempo “Chase the Thrill” has just the right blend of soul and psychedelics without sounding overproduced. The tune shift tempos towards the end, allowing for the instruments to take over and carry on its dreamy state—think of it as a cross between Alanis Morissette and the more trippy sounds of the late sixties in a well-balanced package. (Ernest Barteldes)

Nikka Costa
“Pro Whoa!”
(Go Funk Yourself/Giant Step)
www.nikkacosta.com

Preview: Dengue Fever/Empty Bottle

Alt-Rock, Dance Pop, Indie Pop, World Music No Comments »

Photo: Lauren Dukoff

RECOMMENDED

When Dengue Fever started out a decade ago, they researched a genre that had all but vanished: psychedelic, Beatles-inspired songs by Cambodian artists who were persecuted under the Khmer Rouge regime. They gradually began including their own songs, still sung in Khmer, and after their third disc, they started recording tunes in English while still keeping a firm footing in the style that made them known in US pop/alternative circles and abroad— including in the country that inspired them in the first place.

On their latest offering, “Cannibal Courtship” (Fantasy/Concord), they have more songs in English than ever before, and they’ve also started flirting with more jammy, Grateful Dead-influenced grooves. The band uses vocalist Chhom Nimol’s incredible range well, especially when it comes to more inventive tunes like the bluesy “Sister in the Radio” and the surf-rock-inflected “Kiss of the Bufo Alvarius,” where the guitar skills of co-leader Zac Holtzman also come to prominence.

Live, the band has great energy, charisma and chemistry. Nimol, who cut her teeth singing karaoke in Long Beach, California, commands your attention even if you can’t understand half of what’s going on in the first place. (Ernest Barteldes)

June 4 at The Empty Bottle, 1035 North Western, (773)276-3600, 10pm. $15.

Record Review: “Leave It All Behind” by Jason Walker

Alt-Rock, Dance Pop, Disco, New Music, R&B, Record Reviews, Rock No Comments »

Photo: Karl Giant

On “Leave It All Behind,” New York-based indie singer-songwriter Jason Walker explores all the influences that make up his musical style with a clear focus on Gospel-inspired soul. Possessing a voice with an uncanny resemblance to Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall (he is no imitator, though), Walker kicks off the disc with the piano-based “I Am Changing,” an ode to believing in oneself and recognizing the past. The title track is clearly intended for the dance floor with its techno-inspired beats, but paying close attention to the lyrics Walker sings of living through a mutually satisfying love affair.

Another memorable moment is the Brazilian-inspired “Como Te Llamas” (“What’s Your Name?”), a bossa that features an awesome guitar and keyboard arrangement. The very hummable neo-soul ballad “The Song in My Heart” is another great highlight that showcases Walker’s broad range. The presence of strings augments the tune well, and makes this one of the most enjoyable moments on the disc. Give the live version of “Sad Eyes” a spin just for producer/pianist Rami Ramirez’ solid accompaniment. (Ernest Barteldes)

Jason Walker
“Leave It All Behind”
(Self-Released)

Record Review: “Endlessly” by Duffy

Dance Pop, New Music, R&B, Record Reviews, Rock, Singer-Songwriter, Soul, World Music No Comments »

On her follow-up to the well-received “Rockferry” (2008),Welsh singer Duffy moves a step forward from her trademark retro/soul  sound. The single “Well Well Well” (recorded in collaboration with The Roots) takes her music to a whole new level thanks to the Philadelphia group’s fine arrangement, and the opening track “My Boy” is refreshing take on current Europop.

There are, however, a few misfires: the pro-life “I’m Keeping My Baby” sounds too close to Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” in message and sound—even the hook has the same words. “Hard for the Heart” sounds misplaced with its weak lyrics and iffy arrangement.

That is no reason to dismiss her, though. There are many strong moments that make this a disc to pay close attention to: “Girl” is a fun uptempo tune in which she warns a rival to stay away from her man—or else (Duffy is not one to play an insecure, hurt lover). “Too Hurt to Dance” is a gentle sixties-inspired ballad in which a brokenhearted girl asks the DJ to “turn the music down” as she drowns her sorrows in alcohol.

Many British reviewers cannedEndlessly” because Duffy distanced herself from British soul in order to come closer to a more American R&B sound (journalists across the pond tend to be a bit vengeful), but this makes her sound even more approachable to international audiences. Now let’s just hope she takes this album on the road. (Ernest Barteldes)

Duffy
“Endlessly”
(Mercury)