Blue Scholars Feature From The Inlander

Nothing’s Shocking

Seattle’s Blue Scholars take a bookish approach to hip-hop

Last year, a Shadle Park High School teacher found himself on forced administrative leave, in part, for playing “Commencement Day,” a diatribe against the flawed American education system by Seattle hip-hop group Blue Scholars.

For the socially conscious group, occurrences like this are actually the opposite of the norm. Most of the time, they’re invited to come to schools and universities to be part of classes covering everything from English to post-colonial thought. For the group’s beat-maker, DJ Sabzi, hip-hop is a tool for teaching.

“Hip-hop acts, and has always acted, as a teaching tool outside the classroom,” says Sabzi. “When it really started, hip-hop inspired a lot of people in my generation to read more, to study, and to understand culture far more than any school ever did.

“To me, you should be making art that open people’s minds and uplifts them.”

One idea heavy on Blue Scholars mind these days is the self-coined idea of the “cinemetropolis” for which their latest album is aptly named. The group explores the idea that we’re now living much of our lives through the moving pictures of the media and copying what we see, instead of forging our own paths in life.

“There’s a generation coming up that grew up glued to the television. Most of what they learned were not things that they experienced themselves,” Sabzi says. “We live in a culture of heavy imitation of style without really an understanding of the substance that goes behind it.

“Our generation, we feel like, is one of the last that remembers when culture used to be authentic. Now anything goes, and no one cares.” Continue reading

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Capes – Tancred

The recent notches on the musical timeline have provided quite the fill of lush and sweeping chamber pop produced by bands with ever-expanding rosters. It’s posh to cram the stage with 7-12 people who have a vague sense of baroque stylings. And that’s great. But that’s also precisely why we need more quality albums like Capes. The solo debut of Now, Now guitarist and secondary vocalist Jess Abbott, Capes is the antitheses of the modern quest for grandiosity.

The tone for Capes is set in the opening seconds of the album, as a humming organ sustain blends with brittle, barely strummed chords on “Old-fashioned.” The sound is vulnerable and fragile; weak but welcoming. Abbott’s vocals work on the same level: breathy, personal, unforced, and, in a way, cozy. Her voice is best understood through her own lyrics on “Black Cat”; “My only request, vocalized with my tiny lungs in my tiny chest… You ignored.” There’s no strength in the delivery from those tiny lungs, but there’s undeniable strength Abbott’s quiet sincerity.

The production on Capes is somewhat deceiving, but in a positive way. On first listen, the production seems so stripped back that it’s none existent. But further listenings reveal that there are, in fact, many layers of sound here. They just happen to be strategically brought starkly in and out of the mix at certain times so that there’s never too much going on. It feels basal, despite the layers. Because the album isn’t overproduced, each track sounds homespun; like Abbot is just playing the songs for a few friends seated around a fireplace during a bitterly cold Minnesota winter night. Continue reading

Strange Mercy – St. Vincent

There’s a beauty in sounding broken. These days no one can touch St. Vincent’s Annie Clark when it comes to sounding simultaneously ethereal and mentally wrecked. Strange Mercy finds St. Vincent more sonically twisted than ever; still searching for a calm clarity in this mad, mad world.

Themes of feeling unloved and neglected dominate the album. Downtrodden lyrics abound, like those found on “Cruel”: “They could take you or leave you. So they took you. Then they left you. How could they be so casually cruel?” “Neutered Fruit” finds Clark questioning “Did you ever really stare at me? Like I stared at you.” But that’s not to say St. Vincent simply plays the victim. When pushed, like on “Cheerleader,” Clark’s tongue can be as defiantly cutting and vicious as it is insecure and vulnerable, declaring “I-I-I-I-I don’t want to be your cheerleader no more.”

Music supporting Clark’s vocals on Strange Mercy is a full-fledged wall of chaotic electronic fuzz. While these moments spotted previous St. Vincent albums, they’re consistent here. Lush orchestrations still pop up now and then, but they’re usually momentary; like on the intro to “Cruel,” before the song suddenly shifts into a thumping, club-worthy dance track. Continue reading

Codes and Keys – Death Cab for Cutie

There might be a good album buried under Codes and Keys’ excessive production, but it’s hard to tell.

Death Cab for Cutie has always excelled thanks to personable songs with a sense of closeness, but the way Codes and Keys was put together undermines that completely. Producer/guitarist Chris Walla has struggled with over-production at times (see: half the songs on Tegan & Sara’s The Con), but this is the first time that problem has reared its ugly head on a Death Cab album.

The fatal flaw here is the handling of frontman Ben Gibbard’s vocals. His voice is processed within an inch of its life, stripping it of any warmth and humanity. It’s distant, over-layered, and synthetic sounding, making it difficult to connect to a word he’s singing. Without that feeling of earnestness, Death Cab feel like a completely different band. Continue reading

Strange Negotiations – David Bazan

Dear economy, you’re bumming David Bazan out.

On his latest album Strange Negotiations, Bazan turns his gaze away from God and reserves all his spite for those playing God – the fat cats behind the financial crisis.

The tension prevails on songs like “Wolves At The Door” where on pins and needles guitar work is paired with lyrics expressing the follies of trusting the wrong people; letting the rapacious “wolves” in only to see them ruin everything. Compared to previous efforts, Bazan is much more direct with his lyricism. When targeting his anger, words come across as blunt like the butt of a rifle to the back of the head rather than precise sniper shots. He still gets his points across effectively, but in comparison to his work on Curse Your Branches or some Pedro the Lion albums there’s not the same elegance behind it. Continue reading

Wasting Light – Foo Fighters

Twenty years ago, the Foo Fighters’ leader Dave Grohl was part of this band called Nirvana that released a little album called Nevermind. While Grohl has been consistently prolific in the two decades since, Foo Fighters’ latest album, Wasting Light, comes the closest to that classic album’s unrelenting energy and behemoth sound.

On Wasting Light the band and Nevermind producer Butch Vig create a wall of sound that’s less Phil Spector and more Red Bull and creatine. It’s epitomized by the albums opening seconds on “Bridge Burning” as anxious guitar clanging quickly kicks into a pure thrill ride of distorted guitar, thundering drums, and Grohl bellows.

From there the band runs through the gamut of awesome hard rockin’ tropes. “Dear Rosemary” features a jerky three-guitar attack of stereophonic glory, made possible by guitarist Pat Smear has once again joining the Foo. On “White Limo” Ghrol screams like he’s trying to destroy his vocal chords as the music thrashes in a way that would make punks with patches sewn into their jackets proud. Taylor Hawkins’s accent assault on the cymbal during “Rope” (especially the tight chattering in the chorus) give the song a flavor not typical in hard rock. Continue reading

Extended Cut of The Matt Pond & Rocky Votolato Feature From The Inlander

*Sometimes when I’m writing a feature for The Inlander my rough draft is about twice as long as the print word count limitations but I really like it. This is one of those times. So here’s the extended version of my feature on Matt Pond & Rocky Votolato’s musical friendship.*

Sticks and Stones

Matt Pond and Rocky Votolato are bound by their love for songwriting. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t rough patches.

Three minutes before I’m set to interview with singer-songwriters Matt Pond (PA) and Rocky Votolato, I receive an e-mail saying they won’t be doing the interview together, after all. They’re traveling to the next stop on their co-headlining tour in separate vehicles.

That seems odd: The point of talking to them was to explore their musical friendship. After all, the two are on their second tour together this year. But separate interviews still works.

I talk to Pond first, and it’s clear what’s on his mind: his broken leg. While loading out gear after the fourth show of the tour in Pontiac, Mich., Pond suffered a spiral fracture that completely severed both his tibia and fibula.

Pond is first up and it’s clear what’s on his mind – his broken leg. While loading out gear after the fourth show of the tour in Pontiac, Mich., Pond broke his leg. Or perhaps that’s underselling it. He destroyed his leg. He suffered a spiral fracture that completely severed both his tibia and fibula which twisted the leg backward.

“It wasn’t some gloriously drunken or exciting adventure,” says Pond. “It was simple. I tripped and someone, I pulled them down onto me, and basically their knee went right through my leg. It was gross. I had a surgery. I have a lot of rods and pins now.”

He seems like he’s trying to push the pain from his mind, though. His comments drift to the astounding number of dragonflies in the fields they’re driving through. But he also might be trying to distract his mind from another byproduct of the broken bones, one that becomes clear once the next call begins.

After some idle chatter about what Matt and I had discussed, specifically the broken leg, Votolato is more directly open about why today’s interview became today’s interviews.

“Did he tell you that’s pretty much why we’re in separate cars today?” Votolato asks.

Turns out it was a tense morning in the Pond/Votolato camp. A detail which I probably should’ve picked up on after Pond’s description of what character trait draw the two together.

“Rocky and I both have a temper,” says Pond. “I think it’s a good thing. It is one huge struggle to play music and continue to play music. You need to have fire in your belly if you want to do this. I like that about him and appreciate that about myself. We look at things a lot of the same ways. But it’s hard to have so much fire in your stomach sometimes.”

“We’re both very passionate people; I guess I’ll just put it that way,” says Votolato. “When shit gets heavy, we can definitely blow up.”

“Touring is difficult as it is,” he continues. “And then when somebody breaks their leg and there’s a medical problem… it’s been very challenging for both of us. But I love Matt to death and care about him as a friend. And I just don’t want him to have a long-term medical problem from just trying to finish the tour. I’m really proud of him that he’s been able to play the shows and keep getting on stage.”

Stepping back from the drama of the day, it’s clear to see that the musicians are kindred spirits. They share the same birthday (March 8) and speak in equally admiring terms about the other’s music. They’re simpatico, both personally and audibly.

“We have a mutual respect for each other’s music,” says Votolato, “really that’s what it kinda comes down to. We got along personally too, but I really dig his songwriting.” Continue reading