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The Sonic Medium

Saturday, January 12, 2013

My favorites in 2012.

Another year has passed, but I don't feel any older. That's thanks, in no small part, to the music that filled my ears.

It kept me awake and kept me sane.

In 2012, I saw Converge, Refused and Neurosis play angry songs that I once thought could only be pulled off by younger bands. But great music never gets old. And without unrest, nothing good ever gets done in the world.

Favorite albums

Converge — All We Love We Leave Behind

Torche — Harmonicraft

The Mars Volta — Noctourniquet

Deftones — Koi No Yokan

Cloud Nothings — Attack on Memory

High on Fire — De Vermis Mysteriis

Grizzly Bear — Shields

Rise and Fall — Faith

Fiona Apple — The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do

Tame Impala — Lonerism

Honorable mention: ... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead — Lost Songs

Favorite song

Sharon Van Etten — Serpents

Favorite show

Refused — Congress Theater, Chicago


Friday, December 30, 2011

The best albums of 2011.

The best albums of 2011Kurt Vile
#1. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo

This was my go-to hangover music all year, and my favorite record of 2011, almost by default. But beyond that, I don't think there was ever a time I turned it off mid-album. I'm never not in the mood to listen to this. And that's saying a lot since pretty much every time I get in my car, I'm annoyed with what I'd been listening to previously. It's a very chill record, but never boring and not overly depressing. Favorite line: "Society is my friend. It makes me lie down in a cold bloodbath."

#2. Il Cattivo - To Bring Low an Empire

It's so great to hear Planes Mistaken for Stars co-founder Matt Bellinger playing heavy stuff again. I knew the riffs would be great, but I wasn't sure if the vocals would measure up. Turns out, Brian Hagman's throaty, melodic holler is the perfect complement to the music. If only metal bands who no longer wanted to scream their lungs out constantly had vocals like this. (Ahem, Mastodon.) I can even get some of my friends who don't like heavy music to appreciate Il Cattivo. It's a flawless record, from start to finish. If "Smoke Ring for My Halo" is my favorite low-energy record of the year, this is my favorite high-energy album.

#3. The Black Keys - El Camino

I've always considered The Black Keys to be a riff-based band. But, surprisingly, the guitar takes a backseat to the vocal melodies on this — their poppiest and best record. This time, the influence of co-producer and honorary third member Danger Mouse is more apparent. This sounds a bit like a Broken Bells record. But better. Favorite line: "She's the worst thing I've been addicted to."

#4. The Strokes - Angles

The Strokes are back in a big way. Not in that they're hugely popular again. I'm not sure how many people care about "Angles." But I consider it a fantastic comeback album after a years-long layoff and a less-than-stellar third album. The opening track sounds like a Men at Work cover. And "Gratisfaction" sounds like a theme song from a '70s TV show. Otherwise, "Angles" sounds like the Strokes.

#5. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Three years after his debut LP, singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold is feeling old and disenchanted, and the result is this nearly flawless followup record. The vocal harmonies are some of the best I've ever heard — beautiful and haunting. The instrumentation adds another interesting layer. See: bass clarinet solo.

#6. Baby Teardrops - X is for Love

Nothing makes me feel older than 1990s nostalgia. Matt Dunehoo's fuzzy guitar sounds like it's coming through Billy Corgan's old amp. Luckily, this isn't one of those ridiculous 70-minute grunge albums, though. It's an extremely catchy, clever and concise "alt-rock" record. Favorite line: "You're like a rubber sock on a wet foot, to boot."

#7. Wilco - The Whole Love

To say an album really drops off after the first track might seem like a put-down, but not in this case. That's because "Art of Almost" is easily the best song of the year and the most interesting in Wilco's rich catalog. After the opener, the fellows get down to a more basic rock 'n' roll sound — think "Summerteeth" meets "Wilco (The Album)." Favorite line: "As intimate as a kiss over the phone."

#8. Radiohead - The King of Limbs

When I first downloaded this, I thought Radiohead's website had somehow shortchanged me. Eight songs? That's the bands shortest LP by far, and makes you question whether it can actually be considered "long-player." (After all, they're not exactly a prog rock band.) But Radiohead once again proves they know what they're doing. The restraint used for this record is remarkable. Each musician knows when to play and, just as importantly, when not to play. Not a single note here is superfluous. They even cast off some of the session's best songs — check out the "Supercollider/The Butcher" and "The Daily Mail/Staircase" singles — to make "The King of Limbs" completely cohesive.

#9. Destroyer - Kaputt

Dan Bejar is perhaps best known for bringing his quirkiness to the New Pornographers sunny indie pop. Now he's brought that quality to what Jimmy Fallon would call "yacht rock." But make no mistake, this isn't the music you were forced to listen to at the dentist office or in your mom's minivan. Sure it has its similarities to listen-at-work light rock, but it's so much better. Layers of horns give it a bit of a druggie feel. Bejar's lyrics are as witty and off-the-wall as ever. Though he's spitting out fewer syllables per line — perhaps because he recorded the vocals while lying on a couch.

#10. Bon Iver - Bon Iver

Speaking of cheesy, it doesn't get much cheesier than Bon Iver's final track "Beth/Rest." It almost feels like it should have been a just-for-fun hidden track. (Do those even exist anymore?) To say it's a better version of an over-produced '80s soft rock song seems a bit kind. But Justin Vernon can be excused, because the rest of the album is so great. The first four songs on the album, in particular, might be the best Side A of any album on this list. This wasn't the record I expected to hear from the brokenhearted guy who recorded his debut alone in a cold cabin. It's more like an album I expected from the guy who worked with Kanye (though, thankfully, not on this record). Vernon's influences — both from his personal tastes and collaborations, and the fact that he now has proper bandmates — are part of what makes this record great.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Loufest report card

I've only been to a few festivals, and Loufest is by far the smallest, in terms of fans, bands and stages. But it also offered the best sound, the best food, the best beer and the best view of the bands.


This past weekend was only the second Loufest, and the lineup was far better than last year's. I really only came to see TV on the Radio and Deerhunter, and they didn't disappoint. I would say I hope the festival grows, but I have to be careful what I wish for. Watching two great bands, and a couple other good ones, was well worth the $64, two-day admission. And the laid-back atmosphere and ease of navigating the festival grounds (and the whole city, for that matter) was just swell.

TV on the Radio

Grade: A+

TVOTR is one of my favorite bands and the whole reason I was willing to venture into Missouri during a Cardinals homestand. I love their danceable stuff and have always found their slow material beautiful, albeit a bit of a buzzkill, depending on my mood. They left ballads out of the set and replaced them with especially raucous versions of old songs.

They also played most of the jams from their past three albums, seeming to focus on 2008's "Dear Science" – my favorite. The new stuff from "Nine Types of Light" also sounded great – especially an extended version of "Repetition." Their most popular song, "Wolf Like Me," took on new life, sounding more menacing than the eerie recorded version.

The entire, hour-plus set (with encore) was energetic and engaging. Vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone bantered about sex, St. Louis and the city's Chuck Berry statue.

One great thing about seeing them live is clarifying which vocalist does what. Adebimpe does most of the singing, including the rap-like vocals. Malone sings quite a bit, but rarely by himself (at least in concert), and provides the occasional falsetto.

I've never heard better sound quality at an outdoor show. Being 20 feet from the band definitely helped. The spread-out setup of Forest Park and the small lineup of the festival made it easy to stake out a great spot.


Grade: A-

Deerhunter opened with "Desire Lines," perhaps their best song. It was an awesome start, but strange, considering guitarist/vocalist Lockett Pundt didn't sing another note for the rest of the set. Frontman Bradford Cox took over the microphone as the band worked its way through a couple older songs, a couple covers and most of the best tracks from "Halcyon Digest" and "Microcastle." The band was noisier than on recordings but still managed to be catchy. One highlight was the creepy, slow song "Helicopter," which was made even cooler by an actual helicopter flying by mid-song as darkness fell.

They introduced themselves as "punk band from Atlanta, Georgia." Sure, they have the feedback and the power chords, but their music is too complex and textured to be called punk. And they certainly don't have the energy of a punk band. Even if Cox hadn't mentioned that Loufest was the last show of a long tour, the audience probably could have guessed it. The set was tight and enjoyable, but the crowd just stood and watched as the band just stood and played.


Grade: B

I've seen !!! a couple times previously, but I'm still not all that familiar with them. I've never been compelled to buy any of their music, but boy are they a fun live band. Part of that is thanks to Nic Offer's sick dance moves. He's taken choreography cues from "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Saturday Night Fever," and his stage presence more than makes up for an incredibly average voice. There's nothing average about the music, though, and it was a nice pick-me-up on a sleepy Sunday afternoon.

Surfer Blood

Grade: B-

These kids are a pretty good band, and "Astro Coast" is an enjoyable listen if you're in the mood. But despite what their name might indicate, they're just a moderate rock band – not really party music or surfing music.

The set was pretty good, and new stuff comprised at least a third of it.

The guitars sounded great – clean, slick and soaked in reverb. The vocals were OK, just like they're only OK on the record. The bass was poorly distorted and too loud in the mix. You could hear every note being harshly plucked.

Don't get me wrong, it was a pretty good set. And it was cool to see "Swim," "Catholic Pagans," and "Anchorage" live.

I met them afterward and I told them I hoped they play Bonaroo next year, and I meant it. They'd make for a nice, mid-tempo respite between higher energy acts. They're just not terribly exciting as a festival opener (for the fashionably late).

Cat Power

Grade: Passing

A black-clad Cat Power turned her back throughout her set and didn't acknowledge the crowd. Of, course, this made little difference to my friend Todd and me, as we were camped out in from of the other stage, eating Pi and drinking beer. She and her band sounded good but didn't command your attention. But I can't think of much better background music while waiting for TV on the Radio at sunset.


Grade: E (for effort)


I was pretty disappointed that The Roots canceled (even though I've never bought one of their records). I'm also a little confused how their hurricane-related "travel concerns" didn't seem to affect bandleader and drummer ?uestlove – or why they didn't just head west sooner, especially since Jimmy Fallon is on vacation. Nevertheless, ?uestlove got behind his DJ equipment instead of his drumkit and spun a bizarre mashup of hip hop and just about every decade of rock. (See: Bill Haley.) (See also: Jet.) (See also: Toto.)

Some festival-goers and workers thought this was almost as good as a Roots set. I thought it was about as enjoyable as hitting the "seek" button on your car radio and having your passenger periodically blurt out "yeah … uh huh, uh huh … Quest-luvvv … Saint Lou."

Even on short notice, the organizers couldn't find a touring band or a good local act?

The Hold Steady

Grade: F

"I've never heard The Roots sound worse," I drunkenly exclaimed to every passer-by.

No, it's not the Hold Steady's fault that they were pushed into a headlining slot in place of a band who would rather go through the motions on late night television than travel in a rainstorm to play in front of thousands of people. But it is their fault they're overgrown frat boys who play terrible music.

"Guys go for looks, girls go for status," the singer told the crowd between songs — a ridiculous generalization that turned out to be the chorus to the next song.

The only nice thing I can say about these douchebags is that they didn't make me feel bad about leaving early and heading to the bar.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Best of Bonnaroo.

Bonnaroo 2011

"Why can't life be more like Bonnaroo?" a friend asked.

Well, if life were more like Bonnaroo, then Bonnaroo wouldn't be the amazing escape that it is.

(And people would smell. Smell bad. Really bad.)

It's been over a week since returning to the harsh reality of post-Bonnaroo life. I've finally come down from the high, washed all the dirt from my body, coughed the dust out of my lungs and collected my thoughts ...


The Strokes

1. The Strokes

They started with the opener from their flawless first album and ended with its closer. In between, they played a few songs from all four of their albums, including a healthy helping of new stuff, which just cemented "Angles" as one of my favorites of 2011.

It didn't hurt that I had my best vantage point of the festival — for the big stages, at least. This was no accident. I watched Iron & Wine's set from the same spot just before, and stayed put in the hot sun in the interim.

It paid off, even if it did cause me to get severely dehydrated later. The boys looked like they were having almost as much fun as I was.

2. Man Man

Man Man

By far the most energetic band I saw all weekend, which didn't surprise me.

I've seen them at a mid-sized theater before, and seeing them in a big tent three years later was just as good.

They still follow the same formula: Horns. Keyboards. Xylophone. Gypsy singing. Viking vocals. Craziness.

They played a good amount of new stuff from "Life Fantastic." They also played a handful of songs from "Rabbit Habits." Unfortunately, I missed a couple songs at the beginning, but I'm really glad I made it for most of the set.

3. Junip

Jose Gonzales and his excellent bandmates (and a couple hired hands) made the mostly chill album "Fields" really come to life. Extra percussion, bass and even some sax will do that.

Someone once told me that "Fields" is a great album to listen to at home or in the car, but that Junip is not a band you need to see live. They would be wrong.

I didn't hear my favorite song, "Always," but I may have missed it at the beginning. The album opener, "In Every Direction," took on new life as the set closer.


4. Deerhunter

This was my first full set of the weekend, and it was a great way to start things off.

I caught the end of The Walkmen's set in the same tent beforehand and luckily got to see their best song — "The Rat."

Once Deerhunter began playing, any stress from the day of traveling, setting up camp and dealing with huge crowds melted away.

It was a pretty noisy set, but that didn't make it any less melodic. I recognized about half the songs — a good chunk of which were from last year's fantastic "Halcyon Digest."

5. Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire

The No. 5 spot was a toss-up between Arcade Fire and The Black Keys. Both bands could have been higher up if I were closer up. For each band, I could barely see the musicians — just the huge, slightly out-of-sync monitors.

Arcade Fire gets the edge because they seemed genuinely happy to be there and played their asses off.

"Ready to Start" is one of my favorite songs — and a great way to start the set.

"Wake Up" was amazing, as you might expect. What made it even better was Win Butler's preface — that they used play the song in basements in front of 20 people, and they'll never take things like headlining Bonnaroo (or winning Grammy Awards) for granted. Tens of thousands of people singing along made it even more magical.

Honorable mentions:

The Black Keys — Really awesome set. I just wish I were a lot closer. Even the addition of a bassist and keyboardist on the "Brothers" material didn't help the sound much. I've got to catch these guys in a small venue.

Iron & Wine — A solid performance by Sid Beam — beefed up by a full band on all songs. They played all my favorites from "Kiss Each Other Clean" — one of the best albums of the year so far. My only complaints were that the set was a little too long, and Iron & Wine — even with a full band — doesn't mix too great with the punishing Tennessee sun.

My Morning Jacket — A really, impressive sprawling set. I'm only familiar with two albums, so I didn't know many of the 22 songs they played, but I was still pretty blown away.

The Sword — These guys killed it. So much so that it almost made up for missing Kylesa. I was pretty out of it earlier in the day, and their southern-tinged metal riffs — and the shade of the tent — helped slowly bring me back to reality.

Best of Bonnaroo X playlist (7 videos)
The Strokes - Is This It
Arcade Fire - Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
The Black Keys - two partial songs
The Sword - Barael's Blade
The Walkmen - The Rat
The Strokes - New York City Cops
Arcade Fire - Wake Up

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Easily make some slick CD covers with iTunes

Make cool CD covers with iTunes

ITunes is far from perfect. I’m sure I’ll be sharing lots of gripes about it eventually.

But one cool feature I like that I like, and that I don’t think too many people know about, is the option to print some pretty cool covers for burned CDs.

And it couldn’t be easier.

File > Print.