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Monthly Archives: April 2017

Mysterious Pop Music for Realistic Escapists

Sasha Perera isn’t completely sure whether music should offer a retreat from the outside world, or if it should be a tool for provoking social change. “A lot of musicians either want to make really politicized art,” she tells me via Skype in early May, “or they just make ambient music because they can’t talk about all the bad things that are happening.” On All of This, her roiling new album as Perera Elsewhere, she splits the difference with low-lit electronic pop songs that are structured but experimental, atmospheric but laced with languid vocal hooks, strange but approachable.

“In some ways, reality is so harsh that we should confront it and attempt to change things, but on the other side reality is so sick that if I don’t find a corner for me and the people I love to protect ourselves from the evil, it’ll be awful,” she continues. “So I’m in between both of these things. I’m creating an ‘elsewhere’ musically, for me and like-minded people to hide, but it also has to be a place to reflect on what’s going on in the world—we don’t want to live in a bubble, where we paint pretty pictures while everyone is dying outside the castle.”

“Something’s Up”

Perera Elsewhere

Via SoundCloud

Perera first found a musical refuge of her own within the world ofclub music during her days as a raver in late-1990s London, as she dove headfirst into the breakbeat and jungle scenes in her teens and early twenties. The hybrid nature of those early experiences drew her in completely; the social aspect of it, the confluence of different people, technologies, and genres. “All these people would come together for this music, like some kind of ritual,” recalls the 39-year-old, sitting on the floor of her living room. “I was really touched by it.”

Perera is still a club kid at heart, but her proximity to sound system culture these days comes via her work as a DJ and general partygoer—she’s not keen on producing for it herself. Instead she loves to dabble in the jazz, hip-hop, electronic, and outré influences that converge in Perera Elsewhere.

This rampant curiosity stretches back to her childhood in London, where Perera was born and raised, aside from a two-year stint in Singapore. At home with her parents, who are both originally from Sri Lanka, artists like Ravi Shankar, Boney M, ABBA, and Boy George provided some of the ambiance. Her mother had a penchant for classical music, and also encouraged a young Sasha to pursue her love of instruments, supporting her as she cycled in and out of piano, guitar, and violin lessons, before gravitating towards the trumpet. “I was probably the most ignorant person about the trumpet at first,” Perera admits, in her no-nonsense South London cadence, “but it was loud.”

Today, the trumpet is a staple of her live performances, and Perera handles almost all of the instrumentation on her songs, as evidenced by the brooding melodic textures of All of This; she took care of the production too. As a child she spent her free time learning the rudiments of recording by creating her own take on low-fi audiobooks, filled with narration and improvised sound effects captured on old tape decks lying around the house. Since then, of course, she has leveled up both in terms of skill and quality of equipment. Her current studio has an open-door policy, and Perera relishes having a workshop where other artists can come to work, a corrective of sorts to the lack of such a space when she was a teenager.

The lab is in Berlin, her home for the past 16 years and the place where her most important musical evolution took place. Not long after moving to Germany, Perera became the frontwoman for Jahcoozi, an experimental electronic trio that put out three studio albums throughout the 2000s. In Jahcoozi she was the MC, who would rap, sing and hype up the crowd with a band behind her. With Perera Elsewhere, she can focus more of her attention on the instruments, playing as many as she wants while keeping dance music on the cards—as an option rather than an obligation.

In the years between her debut album, 2013’s Everlast, and All of This, Perera took time to master instrumentation, songwriting, new facets of her singing voice, and the possibilities that minimalism leaves for them to flourish. The interlude also involved a good amount of travel, through India, Turkey, Africa, and beyond, as a means to see the world and broaden the space that Perera Elsewhere inhabits within it.

The Eclectic Soul Music

Its a miserable day to visit Nick Hakim at his home in Ridgewood, Queens. April showers have extended well into May, and an almost comically torrential rainfall has transformed the charming New York City neighborhood into a giant flood. But inside the 26-year-old’s apartment, which he shares with his partner Naima and two roommates, all is tranquil; the only sign of the storm is an innocent plink-plink tap on a triangular skylight. Hakim’s presence is immediately soothing, though initially guarded. We break the ice by discussing the arduous task of moving from one place to another—his debut album, Green Twins, is his first release since relocating to New York after graduating college, and its emerald-tinted chill shows both a young man and his adopted city in transition.

As exorbitant rent prices push artists away, many have warned that New York City is increasingly facing the risk of losing its creative class. Before moving to relatively quiet Ridgewood, Hakim struggled to get by financially in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn while waiting tables and also teaching music at a nonprofit in Boston two days a week. Though he considered leaving the city completely, Hakim remained because of the energy and drive of his local peers, including his band, the jazz collective Onyx, singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief, and rising filmmaker/musician Terence Nance. In the end, Hakim learned to utilize his precious free time while gradually carving out his own space in the city. “There’s still a hungry, positive, angry community—angry in a good way,” says Hakim, sitting in his light-soaked home studio. “We use music to fuel that passion for creating and playing shows and making art.” Rather than presenting the stereotypical cooler-than-thou attitude that can exist within NYC music circles, Hakim’s spacey soul embraces his diverse community and upbringing.

“Green Twins”

Nick Hakim

Via 

Hakim’s parents emigrated from Lima, Peru, to New York City in the early ’80s after his father received a Fulbright scholarship to study economics at the New School in Manhattan. After about eight years, the family moved to Washington D.C., where Hakim was born and raised. His mother founded two daycares in addition to serving as a social worker in local public schools; his dad’s main gig involved analyzing finances for companies that deal with education in at-risk countries.

Though Hakim would not express an interest in playing music until his late teens, he was surrounded by a diverse array of sounds at home. There was the nueva cancion—political folk music—of his mother’s native Chile; ’60s and ’70s touchstones like the Beatles and Al Green; D.C. hardcore bands like Fugazi that were beloved by Hakim’s older brother—though Nick preferred the reggae-infused Bad Brains, especially since one of his teachers performed regularly with the band’s vocalist, HR; and Latino rappers like Big Pun and Fat Joe.

In his youth, Hakim was placed into special education classes and often found himself ostracized in school. “I had a lot of learning issues,” he tells me, pouring hot tea into a cup. “When I was in sixth grade I couldn’t tell time and I didn’t know the months in order.” But when he was 17, one of his friends invited him to sing with her church choir, and he began teaching himself to play piano. Everything changed. Suddenly, the kid with the “two-point-something GPA” was accepted at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. While there, he self-released 2014’s two-part EP Where Will We Go, on which he ponders romance’s alluring intoxication, ensuing heartbreak, and eventual death through a dark and frosty lens. Those releases became an unexpected success, racking up millions of SoundCloud plays, leading to opening slots for Maxwell and How to Dress Well, and an eventual signing to indie titan ATO Records, home to Alabama Shakes and Hurray for the Riff Raff.

Grizzly Bear Discuss Painted Ruins

Ed droste is reaching over to grab Chris Taylor by the shoulder, imitating his Grizzly Bear bandmate’s motivational role behind their upcoming fifth album, Painted Ruins. “Come on! Snap out of it!” mimics Droste, as Taylor laughs along. This brotherly interaction is happening at Droste’s home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, where it’s a sunny spring day. Droste, bearded and wearing a blue-and-white striped T-shirt, and Taylor, in a lighter blue tee and with his blond hair combed from the side, are huddled together in front of an iPad perched on a pile of books. Visible behind them even over Skype is a mirror reflecting on the living room, which has a black-and-white baby photo of Droste and a wire stand for his fern, peace lily, philodendron, and more. “I’m an anxious person, and plants calm me,” he says.

Originally all based in New York, the group has scattered, with singer/guitarist Droste, multi-instrumentalist/producer Taylor, and drummer Chris Bear all living in L.A., and co-lead singer and guitarist Daniel Rossen splitting his time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and upstate New York. All are married now except for Droste, who is recently divorced. Bear, the proud father of a 1-year-old, is the first dad among the group. “We’re four guys in our mid-30s, and the world is going into a really crazy-ass direction,” says Taylor, casually summing up the general context behind the new record.

Since coalescing around the current lineup after 2004’s apartment-recorded Horn of Plenty, Grizzly Bear have developed a distinctive style that blends baroque-pop’s intricacy, the Beach Boys’ vocal harmonies, and psych-folk’s finger-picking unease into something thrilling enough to famously get Beyoncé and Jay Z out for a show. Across 2007’s Yellow House, 2009’s Veckatimest, and 2012’s Shields, they refined an approach that was cerebral, but also deeply emotional, and never less than meticulous.

“Three Rings,” the first track released from the new record, retains their characteristic ornateness, but the six-minute song is also slow-building and somewhat elusive; proper single “Mourning Sound,” on the other hand, is gleaming and hard-charging, perhaps surprisingly so. Painted Ruins has plenty of both styles, from slinky electro-folk that name-checks a Honda TRX 250 four-wheeler, of all things, on opener “Wasted Acres,” to the horn-enshadowed resignation of closing opus “Sky Took Hold.” Taylor contributed more to the band’s collective songwriting process this time, including his first-ever Grizzly Bear lead vocal turn, on the melancholic “Systole.”

Reached separately by phone, Rossen says that his part on “Mourning Sound” was inspired by morning walks upstate, where he also uses that TRX 250 from “Wasted Acres” for hauling firewood with his dog. As for the foreboding march of “Four Cypresses”—which includes the album’s most evocative line, “It’s chaos, but it works”—Rossen says it started as a narrative from the perspective of a homeless person sleeping in the driveway of a place he was staying in L.A., but broadened to encompass his thoughts about the refugee experience and life during wartime. “I never really explained that to those guys,” he admits, referring to his bandmates.

Communication within Grizzly Bear may have its limits, but Droste and Taylor present an understanding that seems implicit. After more than a decade together, Taylor says, “There’s that rare kind of intraband wisdom—a more adult approach to problem-solving.”

A Guide to Their Essential Live Songs

As avatars of San Francisco’s ’60s-born counterculture, the Grateful Dead have served as an alternative to American reality for more than a half-century. Performing from 1965 to 1995 with guitarist and songwriter Jerry Garcia, the Dead survive through a vast body of live recordings, originally traded by obsessive fans and now preserved on a long string of official releases. Though the band has an epic narrative (told in Amir Bar-Lev’s rapturous four-hour Long, Strange Trip documentary), much of the Dead’s story and significance remains purely musical. Part of the group’s staying power is due to the mysterious vastness that exists outside the bounds of their official studio recordings, a live canon shaped by generations of the still-active Deadhead music trading network.

Flourishing in an extralegal sharing economy built around the exchange of concert tapes and psychedelics (the tapes were never to be sold), most of the Dead’s live recordings could only be accessed through profoundly anti-corporate means. Rather than killing music, as an infamous British music industry campaign claimed in ’80s, home taping actually propelled the Grateful Dead to stadiums, as the Dead themselves acknowledged.

Profoundly unslick, the Grateful Dead’s anti-authoritarian creative tendencies remain palpable in the current era. Self-consciously apolitical and populist to a fault, the Dead built a diverse audience across the political spectrum while continuing to act as a catalyst for young and old seekers, music heads, counterculturalists, and psychonauts. Simultaneously, the Dead produced dancing music, folklore, and lyrics to nourish an extended community that continues to thrive at shows by the band’s surviving members and a national scene of cover bands.

Navigating the Grateful Dead’s shadow discography can be daunting, a tangle of different periods and idiosyncrasies. This list of recommended song versions—chronological, not ranked—serves as an introductory survey of the band’s different periods. Loosely, the 37 entries here chart a path from garage-prog (1966) to lysergic jam suites (1967-1969), alt-Americana (1970), barroom country & western (1971), space-jazz (1972-1975), and epic hippie disco (1976-1978), eventually arriving at the more slowly evolving band of the ’80s and ’90s, whose driving creative force sometimes seemed to be their own inertia.

It’s the latter era that is most prone to cleave even Dead enthusiasts. It represents a divide between the tighter, more critically accepted earlier band and the beloved-by-Deadheads ’80s and ’90s incarnations, when they were beset by addiction, the technologies of the era, questionable aesthetic choices, and an evolving secret musical language that sometimes made more sense in sold-out stadiums of dancing fans. While the Dead got more popular every year in their later decades—and continued to generate jam surprises and bold performances aplenty—new listeners will likely want to start with the band’s earlier epochs. One can see long-running debates even among our contributors encapsulated in entries for beloved songs like “Jack Straw” and the “Scarlet Begonias”/”Fire on the Mountain” combo, with a contingent of heads here deeply digging the chaotic stadium psychedelia of the later band.

The majority of the primary song choices presented below come from the classic years of the ’60s and ’70s; for many songs, Key Later Versions from the ’80s or ’90s highlight further developments for the discerning Dead freak. There, one can hear the band finding new places hidden in the old, mining the mountain range of material they’d generated earlier in their career.

Though the band’s proper albums have earned an undeserved bad reputation, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead (both released in 1970) especially contain a small handful of songs for which the studio versions remain almost undisputedly definitive. While songs like “Ripple,” “Attics of My Life,” “Box of Rain,” and several others belong on any list of the band’s campfire standards, they’re left off here in the interest of songs that varied more greatly in live performance. Likewise, Europe ’72, which features elements re-touched in the studio, generated a number of great live tunes served perfectly well the version found on that album, including “Ramble on Rose” and “Brown-Eyed Women.” Though the Dead continued introducing new originals up through their last tours, this list focuses on something like a core curriculum of live Dead.

Nearly every selection on this list can and should be argued by anyone with an opinion about live Dead recordings. But these picks are intended to be gateways into different scenic and well-manicured corners of Grateful Dead land for those who haven’t spent much time there, places that might feel welcoming before drumz/space kicks in. From there, the paths are nearly infinite: an enormous live catalog splattered unceremoniously across streaming services (but helpfully listed chronologically at DeadDiscs), the complete fan-curated collection at archive.org (navigable via DeadLists or Relisten.net), a riot of Grateful Dead historical and ahistorical blogs, academic conferences, a nightly slate of #couchtour webcasts, or a live music venue near you.

Listen to The Grateful Dead: A Guide to Their Essential Live Songs on Spotify and Apple Music.


“You Don’t Have To Ask”

July 16, 1966

Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, Calif.

Written by: Grateful Dead

Overly complicated original is highlight of album’s worth of songs scrapped before debut LP. Played in 1966 only.

“You Don’t Have to Ask” has all the elements of a great garage band song. It’s got a groovy bass line, excellent reverby guitar solos, great group harmony vocals, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s combo organ cuts right through everything. It’s a zippy little number, guaranteed to fulfill the Dead’s dance-band obligations. But while it’s catchy, it’s also totally fucking bananas. There are several verses, choruses, parts, sections, a bridge or maybe three, chords you don’t expect (maybe they were surprised too), modulation up, (spoiler alert) modulation back down, then something else entirely, all at a breakneck speed for them and wrapped up in under four minutes. It kinda sounds like they (Bob) were still learning the song, but they’re all really going for it, even if it was destined to be one of approximately an album’s worth of originals dropped from the repertoire before the band signed to Warner Bros. in 1967. If there was a version of the Nuggets compilations that consisted entirely of songs written and played by lunatics totally zonked on acid, this would definitely make the cut. James McNew

Lore: Deadhead forensics has determined that “You Don’t Have to Ask” was also known as “Otis on a Shakedown Cruise,” an early song title remembered by band members that seemingly didn’t survive on tape; at least until an attentive listener noticed that—seconds before this version starts—a band member can be heard off-mic asking, “Otis?”