Americana Hotel – Ali Marcus

Ali Marcus - Americana HotelIt’s hard to reinvent the wheel. Heck, it’s hard to effectively retread the wheel. It’s a problem folk music has long struggled with—how does a genre that intentionally avoids modernity stay modern? That’s why Americana Hotel, the latest record from Seattle’s Ali Marcus, is so impressive. Seven albums into her career, Marcus still manages to make her brand of simple folk music sound fresh in a genre that often feels like a relic.

There’s a casual effortlessness to Americana Hotel’s sound. Marcus’s voice is soft, sweet, and clear, straddling the line between singing and sing-talking. The instrumental backing flows like a laid-back down-home jam session, with various instruments (banjo, harmonica, fiddle, etc.) popping up when needed but never overstaying their welcome. It’s an organic feeling that works whether Marcus is singing about her grandparents during the Great Depression (“The Ballad of Helen and Bernie”) or playing an old-fashioned folk protest song (remember those?) like “American Soil.”

But what makes Americana Hotel stand out is Marcus’s idiosyncrasy. While she can craft old folk narratives, her music stands out the most when she strays lyrically into the modern realm. Marcus’s rallying cry for the misunderstood dreamer musicians, “Of Homes and Loved Ones,” drops allusions in a style reminiscent of Kimya Dawson of Juno fame (it’s not often “Hoagy Carmichael” or “Puff the Inconsolable Dragon” are used as end rhymes). “The Windmill Song” focuses on wind turbines and has an entire verse dedicated to Al Gore. “Trash Day” literally uses the lack of a trash day in an apartment complex as a way to look fondly to carefree days of the past. The best part is that none of it seems forced; it’s Marcus’s natural character shining through.

Folky Americana music has long been stuck in a distant past, some idealistic time gone by. Through her own inherent quirks, Marcus modernizes the style without sacrificing its soul.

Review Score: 7.2

*Original version published on SeattleMet.com.*

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Tools of the Trade: Tyler Carson’s Stroh Violin

I restarted the Tools of the Trade series I had going down in Charleston last year. First up I looked at the Stroh violin owned by Tyler Carson of Impossible Bird. Check it out.

Points of Reference: Jonathan Coulton

I’ve started a new series over at Seattle Met where I ask artists for pop culture reference points that inspired or could help the uninitiated understand their latest work. To start off the series, I talked with geek rocker Jonathan Coulton about his album Artificial Heart. Check it out.

How scared should we be of the LMFAOcracy?

First they came with The Black Eyed Peas,
and I didn’t speak out because it seemed too obvious.

Then they came with Lil John,
and I didn’t speak out because Dave Chappelle made it funny.

Then they came with Ke$ha,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t made of glitter.

Then they came with LMFAO,
and it was too late to speak out at all.

Perhaps the most prophetic movie of the past ten years is Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. The 2006 comedy revolves around the idea that as society continues to promote anti-intellectualism and extreme commercialism people devolve into a stupider species. The dumbest people will reproduce more rapidly, sullying the gene pool with stupidity and driving future culture into an idiotic dystopia. Unfortunately electropop duo LMFAO wasn’t around at the time of the film’s release, or the band could’ve provided the entire soundtrack for the film.

LMFAO makes loud anthems about getting drunk and partying. They wear crazy clothes. They have wild hair. LMFAO is “fun.”

OK, I’ll admit: it’s almost too easy to call LMFAO banal. If the group existed on the cultural fringe, the problems they inherently represent would be meaningless and easy to ignore. But LMAFAO is becoming a dominant pop culture force. The duo already has two number-one hits with “Party Rock Anthem” and “Sexy and I Know It,” has toured with the likes of Ke$ha, and showed up performing alongside Madonna at the Super Bowl halftime show. They’ve won Billboard Music Awards and have watched their songs gain gold and platinum status.

The LMFAO fan’s preloaded response to any of the follow criticisms is probably along the lines of, “Hey man, it’s just about having fun. Stop being such an uptight snob and enjoy it. It’s not supposed to be deep or meaningful.” But it’s not the fact that LMFAO is dumb that’s the issue. There is plenty of great music that plays on being dumb (see: The Ramones). The problem is the way LMFAO obnoxiously assaults listeners with stupidity.

The Los Angeles electropop duo is assisted by will.i.am — the Black Eyed Peas’ head honcho, who was the executive producer on both LMFAO albums — who is driven by a tireless pursuit to find a simple universal hook and then repeatedly, incessantly bludgeon the listener with it over and over and over again until they’re not sure if they actually like it or have just heard it so often that they like it because it seems familiar (see: “I Gotta Feeling:).

This is represented in LMFAO’s drinking hit “Shots” (feat. Lil Jon), the chorus of which features Lil Jon yelling “Shots!” sixteen times. Again, again, again. (Don’t worry ladies, there’s also plenty poetic misogyny in there too! “The ladies love us when we pour shots. They need an excuse to suck our cocks.”) While some argue that there’s a brilliance to tapping into such mindless musical universality, what does it say about our culture when that’s the universality? Continue reading