Photos: Sufjan Stevens @ the Chicago Theatre (Chicago), 4/25/15

Sufjan Stevens‘ latest release, Carrie & Lowell, wrenches the heart. Named for his late mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and substance abuse, and his step-father, who serves at the helm of Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty, it tackles childhood, death, and the myriad of emotions that accompany both, as well as the search for peace in the wake of loss. As the artist told Pitchfork of the self-proclaimed “artless” release, “This is not my art project; this is my life.” That sentiment came to life at The Chicago Theatre Saturday night, as Stevens trekked through all of Carrie & Lowell and then some during a 20-song set that proved a far cry from the artists’ last stop in the Windy City when he brought his “Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long Tour/Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant On Ice” to the Metro, complete with inflatable decor, unicorns, and a giant “Wheel of Christmas” from which he built his holiday sing-along setlist on the fly.


And while a Yuletide concert sounds like a spiritual affair, Saturday’s show—with its serene scenes and touching home videos splashed on LED screens that resembled panes of stained glass—felt like church. The new songs were presented both as they sound on the album with Stevens solely plucking a guitar but were also gifted to the audience in much fuller forms, as the artist’s four-piece band swelled the sound, particularly for the pre-encore finale of “Blue Bucket of Gold.” The assistance of Dawn Landes on backup vocals (to whom Stevens dedicated “The Dress Looks Nice on You,” the only song from Seven Swans he played that night) added additional levels of delicacy and beauty. And, fittingly, the pick-me-up at the end of the emotional show came in the form of Stevens’ most recognizable track to date, “Chicago”, a special song to hear live always, but especially in a theatre of the same name. As the singer appeared to wipe a few tears from his cheeks at the end of the night, so did much of the audience. All things go.

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1. Redford (For Yi-Ya & Pappou)
2. Death with Dignity
3. Should Have Known Better
4. Drawn to the Blood
5. All of Me Wants All of You
6. Eugene
7. John My Beloved
8. The Only Thing
9. Fourth of July
10. No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
11. Carrie & Lowell
12. The Owl and the Tanager
13. In the Devil’s Territory
14. Futile Devices
15. Sister
16. Blue Bucket of Gold
17. Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
18. Casimir Pulaski Day
19. The Dress Looks Nice on You
20. Chicago



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Projecting a Spectacle: Candystations’ Deborah Johnson creates electrifying concert experiences

If you’ve been wowed by the projections at a Sufjan Stevens or St. Vincent show in the past few years, then you’ve witnessed the work of visual-performance designer Deborah Johnson, the founder of multidisciplinary New York studio CandyStations. Johnson, who toured exclusively with Wilco from 2003–2005, creates thrilling live sets by wedding live music performance with traditional animation, three- and four-dimensional design, video projection, and digital art.

Working with a team of production designers, artists, and programmers, her approach is collaborative by nature, but never overly polished or “art by committee.” Instead, Johnson approaches her visual style as “the highest of the lo-fi, using these really sophisticated programming languages and tools — but it doesn’t look like Pixar; it looks like a child did it.”


What made collaborating with musicians appealing to you as a visual artist?

I knew coming out of art school (Maryland Institute College of Art) that I was disillusioned with the idea of working in galleries. I felt really annoyed with the idea of the autonomous artist; I didn’t believe that lack of collaboration was true or relevant anymore. I started going to a lot of live scratch DJ shows—DJ Shadow, Kid Koala—that had these visual projections as they were playing. I loved the interactions between the visuals and music, and how much of a compelling and fun experience it was. I was just struck by it.

I really loved the scale and experience of going to a show and seeing all these evolving backgrounds along with the music. I also knew I was a little bit of a performer, so I got really into “playing” along with musicians live, even though I’m not a musician myself.


You’re a drummer. Do you connect with drumming and percussion more on a visual level?

Yes. The more I was performing live with visuals, the more I felt that visuals were very percussive and I had to pay attention to tempo downbeats, accents that are really pulling from the drummer’s cue more than anything else. And I felt like, for a long time, I just took it for granted that these responses are instinctual. I had the opportunity to take drumming lessons, and my editing skills and visual-performance skill has been increased ten-fold. It felt so much more natural, and I made smarter choices in my live performance, in terms of hitting my marks and making a more dramatic impact.


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Something witchy this way comes: Psychic Temple’s “Seventh House” video

Psychic Temple: IIPsychic Temple: II (Asthmatic Kitty, 7/16/13)

Following his original Psychic Temple creation with a massive ensemble of noteworthy guest musicians, composer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Schlarb has united another outrageous selection of talent for Psychic Temple II, a progressive mix of pop, jazz, and folk.

“Seventh House,” the album’s opener, lays down a steady groove and acoustic strums for vocalist Sarah Negahdari (touring bassist for Silversun Pickups), whose airy pipes set the mood. Elsewhere, guests range from Sufjan Stevens to Ray Raposa (Castanets), Paul Masvidal (Cynic, Death), Devin Hoff (Nels Cline, Xiu Xiu), and Ikey Owens (Free Moral Agents, The Mars Volta), and amid the Schlarb originals you’ll hear covers of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” Frank Zappa’s “Sofa No. 2,” and Brian Wilson’s “’Til I Die.”

As for “Seventh House,” its video begins innocently enough — before a mysterious (and potentially Wiccan) stranger pays an unexpected visit.

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Pop Addict: My Brightest Diamond’s All Things Will Unwind

Every Thursday, Pop Addict presents infectious tunes from contemporary musicians across indie rock, pop, folk, electronica, and more.

My Brightest Diamond: All Things Will UnwindMy Brightest Diamond: All Things Will Unwind (Asthmatic Kitty, 10/18/11)

My Brightest Diamond: “Reaching Through to the Other Side”

[audio:|titles=My Brightest Diamond: “Reaching Through to the Other Side”]

Detroit-based singer/songwriter Shara Worden has long made a career as an indie-pop mercenary. Over the past decade or so, she has lent her talents to Sufjan StevensIllinoisemakers, collaborated with The Decemberists, covered Radiohead for an OK Computer tribute album, appeared on numerous compilations (including her excellent cut on Dark Was the Night), and contributed to the chamber ensemble yMusic (which also includes Bon Iver, Antony & the Johnsons, the New York Philharmonic, and Rufus Wainwright).

Clearly, Worden has no problem keeping busy. But even in the midst of her many endeavors, Worden has found time for her indie-pop pet project, My Brightest Diamond, without ever skimping on musical quality or integrity.

Such is the case on All Things Will Unwind, My Brightest Diamond’s third effort on Asthmatic Kitty, as Worden’s talents are as focused and as strong as ever. Indeed, the most engaging aspect of My Brightest Diamond is undoubtedly Worden’s voice. With such grace and skill in tow, it’s no wonder that so many acts enlist Worden as a hired hand. Her voice is so pure, so strong yet delicate, so confident and dynamic, that there is no denying the presence of an immense talent. Swaying between sweet, soft-edged crooning (“She Does Not Brave the War”) to full-on, forceful belt-outs (the latter half of “Be Brave”), Worden knows exactly what she’s doing. The songs swell and sway, kept adrift — and often take flight — thanks to Worden’s cosmic vocal work.

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Son Lux: A Composer’s Mind, a Sampler’s Perspective, and an Unlikely 28-Day Challenge

Son Lux: We Are RisingSon Lux: We Are Rising (Anticon, 4/26/11)

Son Lux: “Rising”

[audio:|titles=Son Lux: “Rising”]

Chances are that you’ve heard compositions by the classically trained Ryan Lott more often than you think. His day job at Butter Music and Sound finds him writing 30- to 50-second tracks to be used for television ads, often cranking out two in a day. He composes original pieces for dance and theater troupes, his work has been featured at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and he has participated in multimedia installations.

But despite the percolating buzz around his name in the art scene, his talent remains unknown on a greater scale until 2008, when Lott made his debut as Son Lux, his first major foray into releasing music for himself. His first album, At War With Walls and Mazes, introduced the world to a nigh-uncategorizable work, a blend of hip-hop beats, electronica, delicate vocals, neoclassical flavor, and both melodic and chaotic instrumentation.

It was an arresting and unique debut, released by the indie-rap Anticon collective, but his newly released sophomore album, We Are Rising, is as notable for its quality and diversity as it is for its method of creation. Essentially on a dare from National Public Radio, Lott wrote, recorded, and arranged the album entirely in the 28 days of February 2011.

Son Lux

To most, a task like that would be unfathomable. Especially considering Lott’s usual method of composing, it seems unthinkable that he would be able to complete this challenge.

“What I normally do is come up with an idea and drill it into the ground for a few days,” Lott says. “Then I leave it and let it sit for sometimes months. By the time I come back to back to it, if I still think it’s magic, I’ll keep it and I’ll keep going — I’ll keep experimenting, pull it apart, try it from all different angles.”

But Lott knew that despite the restrictions that such a time limit would put on his primary method of creating music, the opportunity — and the publicity — were once-in-a-lifetime chances. Luckily, he has experience in composing under short notice due to his professional work as composer (and if a musician has to have a day job, hey, you could do a lot worse). And though he has received commissions for longer pieces, the time constraints were never nearly as tight — an hour of music would be expected in five months, a breeze compared to completing an LP in four weeks. In the end, it was the project’s seeming impossibility that made it so enticing.

Son Lux

“I really had to do it,” Lott says. “It’s not going to happen again — this imposition of force that could really bring out something wonderful.”

The resultant album, much heavier on orchestral flair, is nine tracks of otherworldly musical mosaics bursting with fragility and introspection. “Chase” finds percussion alternately rumbling and pattering, with swelling trumpets and strings coexisting with haunting synth lines, and eponymous “Rising” mixes stuttering flute lines and gently played strings with crashing percussion and distorted harpsichord-sounding synthesizer, with a catchy vocal performance above it all. The languid “Leave the Riches” features a steadily ticking beat overlaid with chiming and droning synthesizers (and also features vocal assistance from Jace Everett, of True Blood theme fame, organized and recorded on the same day). The songs sound fully formed, as if they were swimming in Lott’s mind for weeks before he let them flow out in the studio. The truth, however, is far different and exemplifies the mind-bending composing, arranging, and performing that goes into creating a piece of Son Lux music.

“I’m a samplist. I’m a collagist. Yes, I’m a composer in a classical sense, but I’m also a hip-hop producer. And those two, in Son Lux, they get along. They get along great.”

“I decided ahead of time that no matter what, I was going to do all my tracking in the first two weeks,” Lott says. Rather than write songs completely, he came up with 10 kernel ideas for songs (one of which was left off for sounding like “a bad Philip Glass film score”) and recorded instrumental tracks with the intention of creating a palette of samples. Never mind, of course, that Lott had not completed composing the songs at the time of recording.

“I essentially plan to sample myself, and in the process of sampling myself, create my arrangements,” Lott explains. So though each instrument played a composed part, the part itself was never intended to be used in a track as recorded. After the first half of the month was spent gathering raw sonic material, Lott chopped up his recorded passages and mashed up the sounds — some intentionally off-key, some recorded with three mics that were each manipulated separately — until Son Lux songs emerged. With only parts of the songs being conceived during recording, it’s easy to think Lott would get lost in uncertainty and confusion, but to him, this new way of making music opened new creative doors.

Son Lux

“It’s another limitation that helps me come up with more creative things I wouldn’t normally,” he says. “If I wrote out every note in advance, it probably wouldn’t have been as good as the results of experimenting with the audio after the fact.”

A first-time listener likely won’t hear Son Lux’s self-described hip-hop influences, despite the act’s inclusion in the venerable underground rap label Anticon, and understandably so. Lott sports a vocal style that’s more in line with the indie rock of Sufjan Stevens and others, and his percussion is far from the 4/4 boom-bap beats that are virtually synonymous with the genre. But though Son Lux may not seem born of hip hop to the ear, ideologically, Son Lux can fit comfortably next to Pete Rock and Prince Paul as a producer. Lott refuses to let his music be stagnant, changing his sounds and sampling himself relentlessly to construct his songs. Discovering new avenues of creativity and beauty by sampling and juxtaposing existing sounds is one of the cornerstones of the philosophy of hip-hop production, and We Are Rising does that splendidly, creating cohesive, beguiling melodies out of the sound fragments he arranged on the track.

“I hated piano lessons all the way through college,” Lott says. “The moment that I realized that I could sort of change what was on the page and maybe come up with my own ideas — that’s when music happened for me. I’m a samplist. I’m a collagist. Yes, I’m a composer in a classical sense, but I’m also a hip-hop producer. And those two, in Son Lux, they get along. They get along great.” The unique mixture of a lifelong student of music and an unabashed sampler also brings an emphasis on percussion and rhythm to Son Lux. Theoretically, it might be easy for a Son Lux song to drift away from listen-ability into a formless morass of sounds, but Lott’s rhythms keep them anchored.

“Rhythm is, from theoretical perspective, the most important thing about my music,” he says. “I think in rhythm before I think in anything else, and I will winnow out texture and melody through experimentation and hard work, but I hear rhythm and feel it in my body.” The aforementioned “Chase,” for example, was built on its percussion track — in fact, an unused improvisation by Mutemath’s Darren King and Midlake’s McKenzie Smith from two years ago. Lott’s favorite track on We Are Rising, the closer “Rebuild,” is so cited due to its rhythm, which opens the track with skittering, clanging percussion before being replaced with staccato bursts of synthesizer and trumpet. None of the beats are overtly propulsive, but they create an essential structure — in Lott’s words, to keep the songs so that “you can, for the most part, bob your head to it.”

Son Lux

Lott was already in the midst of an album, one he had been working on for years, when the challenge came to record We Are Rising. After this album’s inability to support open-ended compositional processes, Lott is curious about where his songwriting and composing will go. Though he seemed convinced that the time limit precluded experimentation, it instead opened a new avenue, one where split-second decisions colored entire songs and the pressure of obligation forced out ideas. Turning his eye back to his “paused” album, Lott recognizes that some of the things he wanted to do for that record were already accomplished in We Are Rising. However, he is currently back to work on the record, reassessing where he will take it and what self-imposed limitations will bring out the best results.

Meanwhile, the cult of Son Lux is growing. Choreographers continue to commission Lott to write original music for dance performances, but some are beginning to ask for Son Lux material. (The Atlanta Ballet just premiered 20 minutes of new Son Lux music for the “Flux” portion of Ignition, its newest performance.) The NPR challenge has led to press from the public-broadcasting stalwart as well as from major newspapers and independent-music publications, and the blogosphere is buzzing. Though Ryan Lott doesn’t have trouble in getting his music heard, Son Lux is well on its way to sharing the same luxury.

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Behind the Counter: Le Disquaire (Saint-Brieuc, France)

Saint-Brieuc is located on the northwestern tip of France, near the English Channel. Its most notable musical export is perhaps Julie Budet of electro-pop group Yelle. Saint-Brieuc is also home to a record store called Le Disquaire. It says something about the size of the town, and the closeness of the musical community, that these two entities call each other friends. We spoke with Gilles Ollivier of Le Disquaire and discovered that, despite the fact that it’s a small city, big acts regularly roll through town and play on the venue’s own stage.

What are the origins of Le Disquaire / What is your background in music?

When we opened in 2006, there was no independent record store in Saint-Brieuc anymore. We’ve grown up with such places (and we had been working for several years in that type of shop) where music may be something more than just a product. We wanted to share our passion and experience.

Le Disquaire

What does the store do particularly well — any specialty genres or formats?

We sell all kinds of music and all formats (including lots of vinyl), which means having the artists that you don’t find anywhere else. That’s what make us different and that’s why we work with many labels and artists (mainly French for the moment).

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John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra: A “Wild” Analog Opus

John Vanderslice with the Magik*Magik Orchestra: White WildernessJohn Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra: White Wilderness (Dead Oceans, 1/25/11)

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra: “Sea Salt”

[audio:|titles=John Vanderslice with the Magik*Magik Orchestra: “Sea Salt”]

In San Francisco’s Mission District, the small but bustling Tiny Telephone is booked four months in advance. John Vanderslice is there everyday. Things are smooth. When he first opened the studio almost 15 years ago, this wasn’t the case. There were problems. Floods. Power outages. He would get calls while on tour. “At the beginning, it wasn’t a celebration,” he says. “It was just a grind.” But about three years ago, between albums, Vanderslice returned from the road and decided to take a break from touring. He was recently married, and he had the itch to explore not the world but the life that he had in San Francisco.

“When I came back, I was happier,” he says. “I was with my wife everyday. She’s a teacher, so I would [go to the studio] every day and just help bands. I would figure out stuff. And I started to make the studio a lot better. I got in this feedback loop where everything I was doing was helping the studio.” He admits that life could’ve taken him somewhere else — the studio might’ve not been a success. Even now, success is relative. Not long ago, Vanderslice got an E-mail from his bank. “Available balance: $0.22.” It was Christmas Eve. So though he’s not getting rich, measured other ways, things are better than ever. As he says of rough times in the past, “Everything kept pointing to all music, all studio, all the time.” They still are.

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra

Vanderslice’s latest offering, White Wilderness, is a collaboration with Minna Choi’s Magik*Magik Orchestra (M*MO). Despite its size — nine tracks that fill only 31 minutes — the record has the power to engulf: like a controversy, the more one digs, the more complex it seems to get. What at first sounds like a thin, quirky rock album becomes instead a contained magnum opus. Portentously, White Wilderness was released exactly a week before a monstrous snow storm blanketed two-thirds of the United States, transforming the Midwest into a white wilderness of its own and bringing Chicago to a standstill; 20 inches whipped into eight-foot drifts proved too much, even for the city of broad shoulders.

Initial inklings for the project came two years ago, when Vanderslice played a show with M*MO at the Great American Music Hall. “Within the first 10 minutes of being in the center of 20 string players, I was like, ‘This has to be the next record.’” He and Choi had just begun a new partnership. Her collection of classical musicians would serve as a modular, in-house orchestra for Tiny Telephone, a solution to a problem that Choi had noticed for a while: it was always difficult to find classically trained musicians to record her arrangements, so why not create a group with that as its primary aim?

It was the perfect opportunity for a studio owner who owns every Gustav Mahler and W.A. Mozart symphony on vinyl. “The color — the use of oboe, French horn, and clarinet on Mahler symphonies — I just wanted to taste that,” he says of his passion for classical music. “I wanted, like, 0.1 percent of what I heard there to show up in my music.” Fueled also by artists like Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom, who’ve skillfully woven orchestral music into other genres, Vanderslice wanted to get away from the typical, rock-music-with-string-overdubs sound: “I wanted to…just flip it around, where the orchestra is driving everything.” This meant that Vanderslice had to take himself out of the equation. After penning the original demos, he passed the material to Choi and didn’t hear the music again until three days before recording.

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra

“It was as far as I could get from my usual process,” says Vanderslice, who normally does everything himself in his basement before even heading to the studio. “I told Minna, ‘Listen, I have a very high tolerance for dissonance, and I would love to include as many woodwinds as possible.’ End of sentence. I didn’t say another word to Minna about music. Ever. I never changed a note. I never made a suggestion about orchestration — after a 30-second conversation.”

In her bedroom, surrounded by piles of paper, Choi had a significant amount of work ahead of her, but with Vanderslice encouraging dissonance, one of her main hurdles had been leapt. “As an arranger, dissonance is the thing that I have to worry about most,” she says. “I compare it to a caterer being hired to cater a wedding — that’s kind of what I’m doing. I have to get inside their head and create something that’s to their taste. Dissonance is like spiciness; everybody has a different idea of what’s spicy, just like everyone has a different idea of what’s dissonant. It’s totally subjective, it’s totally personal, and there’s no right or wrong.”

“When I think of wilderness, I think of something unknown — there’s a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of unsettledness to me. But then the whole idea of a white wilderness is different. It’s very peaceful and very beautiful.”

For Choi, “White Wilderness” set the tone for the record. It was the first song that Vanderslice played for her, and as they listened, he said that he loved the dissonance in a recurring chord — “some version of an augmented fourth,” Choi recalls. So she paired that sound with the visceral imagery of the title. “When I think of wilderness, I think of something unknown — there’s a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of unsettledness to me,” she says. “But then the whole idea of a white wilderness is different. It’s very peaceful and very beautiful.” The tension there — itself a sort of thematic dissonance — became the fulcrum on which the rest of the album balanced.

* * *

Vanderslice and Choi click. On the album, much like in real life, they respect each other enough to not talk over the other, or step on toes, or do those things that could poison promising collaborations. And so, at times, the orchestra will disappear completely; other times it’s Vanderslice’s voice that vanishes. These absences enhance the record’s topography and keep it from becoming pallid. “After It Ends,” for example, might not withstand critique on its own. It’s not a single. If untethered, it would fade into the background and be lost. But within the record, it serves as respite between two of the record’s more overgrown tracks.

Without M*MO, the same might have happened to White Wilderness. Distilled down to micro-vignettes and a few instruments, the album might’ve faded into the background, barely registering, the equivalent of a nine-page book of poems sandwiched between John Ashberry and Charles Bukowski on the shelf of a crowded bookstore. This allusion is not unfitting. Actual Air, a collection of poems by David Berman (of Silver Jews fame) is such a book, agonizingly difficult to find, often buried among more formidable names. But there’s a hint of it in the way that Vanderslice constructs his vignettes, and when his songs are compared to Berman’s poetry, it becomes clear as to why. “Aw man, that guy’s my hero,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of his. David Berman has actually given me a lot of titles for a lot of my songs. He sends me lists of titles for me to use. I mean, that’s fucking incredible, right? It makes me feel like a really lucky person.”

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra

Such informal, casual collaborations are not anomalies in Vanderslice’s world. Even the title, White Wilderness — the lyrical, musical, and conceptual anchor of the entire project — was suggested by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. And by the time that Vanderslice came to Choi with the name, he was already under its spell. “I’m making an album called White Wilderness,” he told her, “and it’s going to be all magic.” Whether he meant “all magic” or “all Magik” is unknown. Both would be accurate.

Darnielle also influenced Vanderslice’s lyrics, which are more personal here than in the past. “He’d really been encouraging me to write about my family, my father, and my childhood,” Vanderslice says. “I’d told him stories about my life and growing up, and he’s like, ‘Man, you have to write about some of this stuff.’ So I just started writing. ‘Convict Lake’ is as true as I can tell it. It’s basically an experience I had taking acid and getting altitude poisoning. And it was in some ways beyond surreal; and in other ways, it was the most horrific experience of my life.”

This gives the following “White Wilderness” — already a sort of dream sequence — an even heightened ethereality. As tough as autobiographical writing can be, Vanderslice is an adept storyteller, deft with the details of childhood. In “The Piano Lesson,” an anonymous teacher is in charge (“Place your thumb on the middle C”), and so M*MO’s musical roughhousing, led by a great bari-sax riff, becomes the rebelliousness of a kid stuck at a piano. “There are rules when you strike the drum,” the young Vanderslice is told. He doesn’t like that notion.

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra

The songs are made stronger by Vanderslice’s plain, unadorned vocals, sometimes almost spoken, and by bits of well-fitting fantastical language, the vernacular of a young boy’s imagination. “20K” is the exaggerated deep-sea adventure of a Florida tour boat, the name a reference to Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “English Vines,” a gentle folk song replete with pedal steel, becomes a Poe-like tale: “By night, our neighbors’ invading vines / rooted into my dreams from underground / twined their nooses ’round our lives / branching out maniacally / they choked our sycamore / and grew thicker and thicker / and when I finally scaled their fence / to kill the source of this malevolence / were my neighbors watching me / from their house?”

Choi’s style here is modern, relying heavily on strings, brass, and simple, warm percussion to give muscle to the skeletal compositions of piano or acoustic guitar. Her orchestral arrangements feed off Vanderslice’s imagery as well as his brevity, respecting his selectivity even as they flesh out his stories. Some of the album’s most triumphant moments are in her graceful but compelling interludes: the pregnant phrasing between sung lines of “20K”; the seemingly endless rising and falling action at the end of “White Wilderness”; the end of “Sea Salt,” where a gorgeously layered orchestral volley becomes the air currents on which Vanderslice escapes, singing, “For the first time I could take to air / I was free now / I could go anywhere.”

In a way, this record is that same escape. No longer slave to savage condemnations of far-off political affairs, Vanderslice offers an honest, eager reflection of his past. So though it opens with a foreboding reference to the Gaza Strip, the album veers away from the political track and into new territory. “Sun shines on the Gaza Strip / smiles on the back alleys of Madrid / comes off the stone like a burning whip.”

* * *

As Choi arranged White Wilderness, Vanderslice planned his next project: a new studio, right next to Tiny Telephone. Vanderslice sits in his car, commenting on the progress. “They’re putting up mirrors and windows and doors today,” he says. “It’s incredible. It’s the most exhilarating feeling I’ve had in years. We’re sick of turning down work. We had Islands call us, we had Philadelphia Grand Jury — we always have these really great records that we can’t do.”

Bands love Tiny Telephone. Thao, Spoon, Ra Ra Riot, Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon, Red House Painters), Death Cab for Cutie, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum — all these and more have spent time at Tiny Telephone, partly because of Vanderslice’s belief in the sanctity of a more traditional recording process, which favors analog tape, live takes, and a host of other once-again-popular techniques. (He was recently interviewed by Wired magazine for a story on the growing use of ribbon mics.) “We always encourage bands to be confident in what they’re doing,” he says. “We’re here documenting and recording what a band does, and there’s a lot of power in what four people do in a room together.”

Or consider the power of 19 people — 20 if you count Choi, whose siren-like vocals appear on “Overcoat.” Produced by seasoned engineer John Congleton (who’s worked with St. Vincent and the Walkmen, among others), White Wilderness strings, horns, winds, piano, and drums were all recorded live. M*MO came in, set up, and for two days straight, it made music. “We said three days in the press release because we honestly didn’t think anyone would really believe us,” Vanderslice notes.

Vanderslice is adamant that recording together, on analog tape and in full takes, is exactly what gives an album energy and life. Comparing the world of infinite overdubs to a mirror that magnifies things 100 times, he says that it’s ridiculous to obsess over such a distorted image. “That’s not what life is, and that’s not how people listen to music,” he says. “People listen to music in the totality and for the commitment to the performance. So yeah, we’ve done everything we can to fight this micro-management of performance.” One way is by giving bands free tape, which means that they’re on a linear format. “It encourages performances, it encourages whole takes, and it encourages not cut-and-pasting and correcting minor imperfections,” he says. “It endorses the music as it is. And it’s a strong endorsement because it sounds really good — it sounds better than digital.”

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra

Another strong endorsement is the one that Vanderslice gives M*MO. He gives it all the credit for White Wilderness, and he encourages every band that comes through Tiny Telephone’s door to work with it. This isn’t surprising. After all, his approach to music isn’t really about the profession. It’s about life. The musical community that he’s a part of and has helped create is how he interacts with the world — professionally, yes, but also socially, civically, and politically. And the same goes for Choi, in a very tangible way. In March, Choi will finally abandon her bedroom office for a real office space between Tiny Telephone and the new studio, which opens its doors June 1. Vanderslice is no doubt happy to weave her more tightly into his daily collaborations, but it might be Choi who’s most thrilled with the move. Because of its solitary nature, arranging can be a lonely task, and Choi will be happy to inhabit a space where she’s not alone in her creative efforts.

“I’m really excited about how I’ll change, socially,” she says. “Because I spend so much time arranging, that meant before [that] I was spending a lot of time alone. Like on a Friday night, writing a string arrangement isn’t the most social activity, but now, I can come here and write here, and I’ll hear bands on both sides of me also doing something creative. We can, like, take breaks together, and go out for coffee, and it’s so much more fun-sounding.”

John Darnielle. David Berman. And now Minna Choi. Vanderslice seems to collect talented people. With a brilliant new partner in crime and an already solid community of collaborators, increasingly, Vanderslice has more reasons to stay put than to go on tour. “I love touring; I love that,” he says. “But man, this can compete toe-to-toe with being on tour any day. It’s that exciting and that fun.”

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Pop Addict: Iron and Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean

Every Thursday, Pop Addict presents infectious tunes from contemporary musicians across indie rock, pop, folk, electronica, and more.

Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other CleanIron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean (Warner Bros., 1/25/11)

Iron and Wine: “Walking Far from Home”
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When Iron and Wine made its debut in 2002 with underground sensation The Creek Drank the Cradle, it immediately became apparent that there was something special at hand. The album — anchored by lo-fi acoustic finger-picking set to Sam Beam’s hushed, harmonized vocals — featured no bells and whistles.  It remains a blunt testament of Beam’s humble offerings as a songwriter and the splendor that he can achieve through it.  Today, when listening to the album, you still get the feeling that the songs were written by Beam while he sat on the front porch of a ramshackle home, located on a dirt farm somewhere down south, singing “Upward Over the Mountain” as the late summer sun sets beyond the horizon.

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Behind the Counter: Kingbee Records (Manchester, UK)

Kingbee Records in Manchester, England has been around since 1987 and is now one of the last remaining independent record shops in northwest England.

The shop attracts a diverse clientele, and its ability to draw business from collectors and dealers around the world has fueled its success. Though its strengths are numerous, Kingbee is unparalleled in its selection of Northern soul vinyl. We spoke with Les Hare, Kingbee’s owner, and got the lowdown on this music mecca.

Mike holds Kid Canaveral's Shouting At Wildlife

Mike holds Kid Canaveral's Shouting At Wildlife

What was your motivation for starting a music store? / What is your background in music?

Always was a big record collector, then [I] started doing record fairs with my spares, and it kinda carried on from there. I have also deejayed off and on since 1971.

How has Kingbee survived the digital boom?

By having a loyal customer base both locally and across the country. We also get record dealers from Japan regularly visiting to replenish their shop stock. Sales from our website help, but mostly it’s the large amount of stock that we turn over in the shop.

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100 Unheralded Albums from 2010

Among the thousands of under-appreciated or under-publicized albums that were released in 2010, hundreds became our favorites and were presented in ALARM and on  Of those, we pared down to 100 outstanding releases — from the progressive-industrial madness of Norway’s Shining to the folk-hop rhymes of Sage Francis to the orchestral Italian oldies of Mike Patton‘s Mondo Cane project.

As usual, ALARM leaves no genre unexplored in our list of this year’s overlooked gems.

Presented in chronological order.

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Guest Spots: Pop singer Liz Janes on her noisy, experimental past

Though her music might not immediately suggest it, adventuresome pop singer Liz Janes has a particular fondness for noise and drone music.

Janes entrenched herself in the vibrant Olympia music scene before joining Sufjan Stevens and Asthmatic Kitty for albums like Done Gone Fire (2002) and Poison & Snakes (2004). Those albums put a unique spin on classic Americana and blues, but her upcoming album, Say Goodbye (Asthmatic Kitty, 12/7/10), is a pop/soul record built on Janes’ inescapably experimental roots.

Here, in a personal recount of her musical history, her songwriting theory rings especially true: “You can choose any two points to be A and B, and there is always a way to connect the two.”

Liz Janes: “I Don’t Believe” (Say Goodbye, Asthmatic Kitty, 12/7/10)

Liz Janes: “I Don’t Believe” (Say Goodbye, Asthmatic Kitty, 12/7/10)

Drones Are Forever
by Liz Janes

I was a hippy living in a trailer in the coniferous rain forest of Olympia, Washington. Eventually, my endless meandering through the woods brought me into the little downtown. It was there that I stumbled upon the gentle and brilliant rock-poet solo performances of Mirah, Phil Elvrum, and Karl Blau; the kinder-pop of Jenny Jenkins and Super Duo; the pop punk of The Need; the hot, spastic, urgent noise of The Nervous System; and the shrieking, sexy soul of Old Time Relijun.

This sparked for me a new interest in culture. This K Records / Olympia scene was really vibrant and producing truly original and interesting art. So as I was drawn further into culture, and out of the woods, it just got better and better.

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