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Our Favorite Musical Moments on Letterman

David Letterman and his staff have always had their finger on the pulse when it comes to contemporary, innovative music. Whether it was Late Night or The Late Show, the musical guests have often ushered in new trends in popular and independent music by appearing for millions on the iconic Ed Sullivan Theatre stage. Anthony Landi and I have given you a few of our favorite performances, dating all the way back to 1982, when Letterman first started on late night TV.

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Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

A-

I first came across Courtney Barnett while perusing Rookiemag.com- a site geared towards feminist 16 year-old girls that I admittedly don’t think I’ll ever outgrow. I stumbled upon a short playlist made by a teenager with arguably better music taste and cooler hair than I’ll ever have. The artists spanned from the Flaming Lips to Chastity Belt, and included Courtney Barnett’s Avant Gardener off the EP A Sea of Split Peas.

I was immediately hooked, and devoured the rest of the tracks on her double EP. Barnett mocks her concerned and nagging parents on “Are You Looking After Yourself,” rolls her eyes at condescending older dudes on “Out of the Woodwork,” and illustrates the horrors of leaving one’s bed in “Avant Gardener.” If Richard Linklater’s Slacker were made today it would undoubtedly be set to that EP.

Barnett is a singer-songwriter and guitarist based in Melbourne, Australia. In 2012, she released her first EP I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris. With the opening lyrics, “I masturbated to the songs you wrote,” she quickly became a staple on every Australian Riot Grrrl’s playlist. Her second EP, How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose, garnered international acclaim and in 2014 she re-released the tracks on the double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, propelling her into the hearts of teenage girls and seasoned music critics alike.

Barnett’s witty humor and garage-rock inspired instrumentals are in full swing on her first full LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit. Tracks like “Small Poppies” and “Depreston” feel inspired by the warped melodies of beach-rock powerhouse Mac Demarco, whereas the last few tracks are reminiscent of early Strokes Albums Is This It and Room on Fire. The album’s instrumentation is dynamic yet maintains its cohesion with tracks seamlessly bleeding into one another.

Barnett hasn’t abandoned her slacker roots, but she is giving adulthood the old post-college try. She’s left her bed and has found herself shopping for organic produce and a house in the suburbs. Predictably, she despises it. She may just be floating through life, but her new proactive approach has given her perspective and experience. She earnestly admits, “I don’t know quite who I am oh but man I am trying/ I make mistakes until I get it right”. Barnett’s newfound confidence is evident in her new LP’s strong and assertive lyricism.

Barnett maintains almost monotone vocals similar to that of a deadpan comedian. The lyrics pour out of her as she details the drab lives of herself and others with lightening speed, like a young Lou Reed. She isn’t saying much, but its pretty clear she isn’t trying to either. In “Depreston” Barnett depicts the mundane motions of house hunting in the suburbs of Melbourne, with the most profound realization being, “We don’t have to be around all these coffee shops/now that we’ve got that percolator.” The song explores themes of gentrification and the passage of time, but at no point does Barnett distance the listener with pretentious or overreaching lyricism.

She does touch upon more thoughtful themes of loneliness, depression, and even global warming in Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit. However, she’s quick to discredit the severity of these often heavy-handed themes through her quirky quips. On the track “An Illustration of Loneliness,” Barnett qualifies her melodramatic rants with comical observations like, “my love line seems entwined with death/could just be a spider web”. Tracks that stray from this formula, namely “Small Poppies,” serve as low points on the album.

To project greater meaning onto Barnett’s words is to miss the point altogether. She explicitly says this on “Kim’s Caravan”: “Don’t ask me what I really mean/I am just a reflection/Of what you really wanna see.” Her lyrics are witty, absurd, and illustrative. In a year of strong female releases, like Colleen Green’s I Want to Grow Up and Waxahatchee’s Ivy Tripp, she manages to hold her own with her charmingly monotone vocals and grittily distorted guitar riffs.

Ashley Schiro

 

 

 

 

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Hop Along – Painted Shut

B+

“The world’s gotten so small and embarrassing,” wails frontwoman Frances Quinlan on “Waitress,” the lead single off Hop Along’s sophomore album Painted Shut.  The Philly-based underground heroes have released their new LP on Saddle Creek, the label where Bright Eyes and Cursive made their earnest, heart-on-sleeve homes. You can feel her no-bars-held delivery in every part of your body – unlike the other musicians who have enjoyed success in the revival of girl-fronted rock bands like Best Coast, Waxahatchee and the reunited Sleater-Kinney, Quinlan shreds her voice, delivering vocals closer to Cobain than Brownstein.

That voice – or growl, rather- is one of the only things to have stayed the same from their debut album, Get Disowned. The new album finds the band skipping the sophomore slump entirely, bearing a cleaner sound, writing better hooks and coming up with generally stronger, more mature songs than ever, of which there was never any lack.

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Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon

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In the spring of 1974, pop stalwart Harry Nilsson went to work on a new album, bringing along his storied wingman John Lennon to work the controls and add his distinctive touch to the tunes. The result was Pussy Cats, a passable album, considering that during this period, both Nilsson and Lennon behaved more like frat boys on homecoming weekend than the mature musical mavericks they were on records past.

Though Pussy Cats had some choice moments, for a lot of people it was probably a case of too little, too late: Nilsson was no longer the three-octave singer and creative expert he once was (the former thanks to a vocal cord he ruptured during the Pussy Cats sessions) and Lennon, despite some major works at the top of his post-Beatles career, was already in the process of plateauing. Had they joined forces three years prior, we could have had an album made by a Nilsson Schmilsson-era Harry working alongside an Imagine-era John. It would’ve been killer.

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Blur – The Magic Whip

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You might know Blur as Damon Albarn’s band prior to Gorillaz, or the guys who wrote that ‘woo-hoo’ song. You might also know them as Oasis’ rivals, competing for Britpop chart glory in the mid to late 90s. Others know them as one of the best guitar-pop groups of the 90s – a haven from the Gallagher brothers’ petty horseshit and grunge’s backslide post-Nirvana. Then again, you might not be familiar with them at all, and that’s fine too – outside the UK’s ravenous press reviews and idolization (NME is hyperbolic to say the least), they received very little attention Stateside.

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Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

A

To listen to Sufjan Stevens is to hear paradox. He’s inarguably one of music’s most gifted storytellers, but the connection between the artist and his stories has often been obfuscated. Take his landmark album, Illinois, a sprawling, stunning odyssey through the history, fables, and culture of the Land of Lincoln: he emotes so convincingly of things that clearly never happened to him (I’m fairly certain he was not one of Gacy’s victims, for example) that it becomes difficult to determine which stories are actually personal (‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ comes to mind).

Imagine my surprise at the ineffable intimacy of his March release, Carrie & Lowell. This is a deeply personal album, the kind that gets written not because it’s time to release new music, but because an artist needs to cope the only way he knows how (Hospice and For Emma are other good examples of this). In other words, this album was not made for us, the listeners. Sufjan made it for himself, and for his mother, the eponymous Carrie.

Carrie died a few years ago, and while it goes without saying that losing a parent is a traumatic event in anyone’s life, her passing is further complicated by the nature of her life, and of her tenuous relationship with her family — for Sufjan, she’s defined far more by her cold absence than by the warming presence we ideally associate with our mothers.

To hear this on record is softly, sweetly devastating. Musically, Carrie & Lowell is almost regressive for Sufjan: he eschews both the orchestral flair of Illinois and the electronic maximalism of Age of Adz for simple acoustic structure. His flair for arrangement is still present — songs swell and sigh with emotions of hope and futility, strings and piano add texture and emphasis, and white noise haunts the album between many of the tracks.

But his greatest tools are his oldest: his voice, guitar, and lyrics. His hushed, pure vocals haven’t  changed much; they’re still used to great effect as he sings some of his most moving melodies. And there’s a slight but unmistakable quiver in his timbre that lends palpable emotion to a singer that has occasionally sounded detached on past records. His harmonies, too, are equal parts beautiful and bereaving.

His guitar playing will please any fan of Elliott Smith (an early and significant influence for Sufjan) — his fingerpicking is quick and clean, lending an almost ironic technical precision to an album that is frequently about falling apart. But the musicianship is always secondary, lending harmony and rhythm (speaking of rhythm, no drums to be found) to accompany his gorgeous melodies and lyrics.

The honesty and purpose in those lyrics are what make Carrie & Lowell such a singular listening experience. You will never hear an album like this from another artist — it’s as unique as the relationship between Sufjan and Carrie. Sufjan has always had a knack for combining the poetic with the matter-of-fact — that skill is at its best here: “There’s blood on that blade/ Fuck me, I’m falling apart.” His voice reaches for a note just out of reach at the end of that phrase, his futile grasps for solace reflected in the music.

There are very few answers for either Sufjan or the listener on Carrie & Lowell. Even when Sufjan writes from the perspective of his elusive mother, it’s rarely comforting: “Did you get enough love, my little dove? Why do you cry?/ And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best.” Her imagined words ring hollow, as empty to the listener as they must be to a man who was deprived of the motherly love every child so desperately desires. It’s not without some respite, at least. Sufjan still finds familial comfort, whether from the birth of his niece, and from the steady presence of his stepfather (the ‘Lowell’ of the title).

Still, it can’t be denied that this album is a sullen journey. What makes it worth taking is the sheer humanity in its words and music. There are moments on this record where I desperately wish I could offer comfort to Sufjan — not as a listener, but as a fellow human being with a mother I can’t imagine losing. It’s very difficult on an emotional level to be transported into Sufjan’s mind, to come to know some portion of his understandable yet immeasurable pain, and to agree that there’s absolutely nothing he can do to fill the void his mother’s love should occupy. As Sufjan himself puts it, “I forgive you mother, and I hear you/ And I long to be near you/ But every road leads to an end.”

Reviewing this album is a strange process, a bit like evaluating a diary. I can’t objectively assess whether or not Sufjan worked through whatever he needed to in creating Carrie & Lowell; truthfully it sounds like he probably doesn’t, which is perfectly ok. And it’s hard to listen to someone bear his soul across 43 minutes, sharing his most personal secrets and insecurities, and search for flaws or standouts (note that I didn’t highlight any tracks — there isn’t much point to picking them out when they best exist as a whole). In many ways, the personal nature and function of Carrie & Lowell transcend critical opinion.

But there’s still a listening experience underneath the ghosts and demons of this record. And it’s one of the most intimate and affecting you’ll find in music.

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