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(Above: Ziggy Marley will perform at this year’s 80-35 festival, but there are many great bands waiting to be discovered.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Over the past six years, the 80-35 music festival has put Des Moines and the Iowa music scene on the map. Great headliners draw increasingly bigger crowds, but the festival’s secret strength is drawing the best acts from the upper Midwest.

This year is no exception. Bands from nearly every neighboring state will fill the fest’s three stages this weekend.  Here are several bands I’m most looking forward to experiencing live on our nation’s birthday. (Note: Since I will only be able to attend the first day of the festival, all of the following recommendations are from Friday’s lineup.)

Any noisy three-piece rock band from Minneapolis is going to draw comparisons to Husker Du. Fury Things don’t run away from the similarities. Guitars explode from blown amps and drums sound like they are being punished. The band makes a compelling case for coming out early, and are guaranteed to jumpstart the day. (Fury Things perform at 12:45 p.m. on the Kum & Go stage.)

If the Beach Boys hung out in Greenwich Village instead of Venice Beach they probably would have turned out a lot like the River Monks. The Des Moines-based quartet combines a sea of lush harmony vocals over a forest of banjos, guitars and other wooden instruments. Bonus points for an album cover that looks like a physical realization of Brian Eno’s topographic covers in the Ambient series. (The River Monks perform at 8 p.m. on the Hy-Vee stage.)

Singer Johnathan Tolliver fronts soul outfit Black Diet like the second coming of Isaac Hayes, only with a better falsetto. The band may come from Minneapolis, but the sound is straight-up Memphis soul. Touches of slide blues guitar alongside a meaty B3 organ imagine what Booker T and the MGs may have sounded like if Duane Allman sat in (and brought a gospel choir). (Black Diet perform at 4:45 p.m. on the Kum & Go stage.)

8035logo_1Maids haven’t released an album, but the electronic duo has more than enough original material from surreptitiously released singles to fill a set. Danny Heggen’s high tenor soars over keyboards and drum machines while just a touch of guitar fill out the minimalist sound. The song “Seashell” sounds like a lost 8-bit classic until waves of synthesizers take over the track, turning everyone in their wake into Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (Maids perform at 6 p.m. on the Hy-Vee stage.)

Tree probably isn’t named for his love of forestry, but the Chicago MC proves there is more to hip hop than odes to weed. His raspy voice and rhymes are good enough, but what really stands out is the production. The song “Fame” sounds like it was inspired by William Burrough’s cut-up technique, with snippets of gospel organ or jazz piano diced and reassembled at random. “The King” employs fellow Chicagoan Kanye West’s old trick of speeding up a familiar song for the backing track, but Tree ends up with something that would sound like an over-the-top parody if it didn’t work so well. (Tree performs at 2:45 p.m. on the Kum & Go stage.)

Look for a review of Friday’s 80-35 festivities next week on The Daily Record.

 Keep reading:

10 Must-see bands at Kanrocksas (part 1 – Friday)

Wakarusa Music Festival: A Look Back

Middle of the Map 2013

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(Above: Jay-Z and Kanye West battle sharks and charm the Sprint Center crowd during a recent “Watch the Throne” tour stop in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Hip hop superstars Jay-Z and Kanye West titled their first joint album and tour “Watch the Throne,” but they could have just as easily called it “Where’s the Recession?” Seats near the stage commanded $200 while many seats in the upper deck went for $50. The asking price on tour T-shirts at the concert was $45.

That’s a lot to ask of fans in these times, but the deep-pocketed mass (12,000) that crowded into the Sprint Center on Tuesday night got a lot of bang for its buck. The gigantic main stage looked like a sleek aircraft carrier, completely bare, save a DJ and pair of multi-instrumentalists hidden in the back.

A smaller stage set at the back of the floor. The main stage was flanked by two gigantic screens. A dozen flashpots, including one above the stage, walls of light and the best laser show this side of Pink Floyd completed the visual extravaganza. Topping it all off was nearly two and a half hours of music encompassing three dozen songs, two-thirds of which were Top 40 hits.

West and Jay-Z appeared  on opposite stages. As the duo opened with five songs from “Watch the Throne,” the stages below each performer grew, elevating each man on a two-story cube of video screens.

After the initial run of duets, the two alternated pairs of mini-sets, never intruding on the other’s material, but often appearing to back each other up, as on “Run This Town” or “Diamonds of the Sierra Leone.” A healthy sprinkling of “Throne” tunes ensured Jay-Z and West were never apart for long. By the end of the night the crowd was treated to 10 of “Throne”’s 16 songs.

Because there was no band, the songs stuck close to the original arrangements. This also meant that the rappers were the only people onstage. It takes a lot of showmanship to carry an audience alone for that long, but the number of hits, he amount of charisma and overall spectacle kept the crowd on its feet, dancing and waving with each beat for the entire set.

For the most part, the lack of live instruments didn’t hurt the material, but there were a few moments that were obviously strengthened by the supporting musicians, such as the guitar solo on “U Don’t Know Me” and keyboards on “Made in America.”

The tag-team of hits also contrasted the two performer’s styles. Jay-Z was more straightforward, wearing street clothes and devastating with his phonetic dexterity and intricate cadences. His big moments were frequently punctuated by pyrotechnics. West, on the other hand, wore a black leather kilt over his black leather pants and performed in near darkness, surrounded by lasers.

Each style brought its own high points. Jay-Z overpowered the crowd during “Public Service Announcement” and “On To the Next One” and had the house singing on “Empire State of Mind” and “Jigga What.” West’s best moment was an extended version of “Runaway” that found him standing atop a red cube on the second floor singing about his mistakes and ruminating on love. Completely invested in the moment, West dovetailed “Runaway” into another emotionally revealing number, “Heartless.” Later, West’s perfectionism got the best of him when he twice halted “All of the Lights” to fix a lighting cue.

For most of the night the set functioned like an meticulously calibrated mixtape, with each song setting up and naturally leading into the big number. Somehow the playlist got stuck on repeat during the night’s final song. Not only did the main set end with three runs through “N****s In Paris,” but the pair returned for two more takes as an encore. When the two left the stage for the final time it set off a series of sparklers across the state, but those fizzled in comparison to the fireworks delivered throughout the night.

Setlist: H.A.M.; Who Gon’ Stop Me; Otis, Welcome to the Jungle; Gotta Have It; Where I’m From; Jigga What, Jigga Who; Can’t Tell Me Nothing; Flashing Lights; Jesus Walks; All Falls Down; Diamonds from Sierra Leone (remix); Public Service Announcement; U Don’t Know; Run this Town; Monster; Power; Made in America; New Day; Hard Knock Life; Izzo (H.O.V.A.); Empire State of Mind; Runaway; Heartless; Stronger; On to the Next One; Dirt Off Your Shoulder; Give It To Me; That’s My B***h; Good Life; Touch the Sky; All of the Lights; Big Pimpin’; Gold Digger; 99 Problems; No Church in the Wild; N*****s In Paris. Encore: N****as In Paris.

Keep reading:

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

Jamie Foxx brings it to Sprint Center

Fiasco Friday sparks Howard Beale moment

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 (Above: The Lawrence band make breakups sound like fun on “Friend of a Friend.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The big names at the top of the bill will draw the most fans, but sometimes the best performances are from lesser-known acts early in the day. In the week leading up to the inaugural Kanrocksas music festival we’ll examine 10 overlooked acts. Below are five acts from Friday’s lineup. On Thursday we examine Saturday’s bands.

FRIDAY

The Joy Formidable (Ad Astra stage, 2:50 – 3:30 p.m.)

The Joy Formidable have toured with the Editors and Passion Pit and turned to Muse and Glasvegas’ producer to help behind the boards for their studio debut. Singer Ritzy Bryan has a touch of Bjork in her delivery and the arrangements hint at what could happen if Jesus and Mary Chain were a pop band.

Fitz and the Tantrums (Main Stage, 2:50 – 3:30 p.m.)

This Los Angeles-buzz band play opposite the Joy Formidable, which is fitting because their music is at the other end of the spectrum as well. Working without a guitar, the group splits the difference between the Dap-tone sound and Maroon 5.

Fourth of July (Ink Unplugged stage, 6:15 6:45 p.m.)

This Lawrence quintet, comprised of two sets of siblings, combined the heartache and pain of “Blood on the Tracks”-era Bob Dylan with the relentlessly upbeat jangle of Camper Van Beethoven. A longtime mainstay of the Lawrence/KC music scene, their work deserves a wider audience.

Kid Cudi (Main Stage, 6:10 – 7 p.m.)

After bringing only a DJ to his Kansas City debut at the Midland theater last year, Kid Cudi has decided to bring a live band on the road with him this time out. Cudi’s studio work places the minimalist introspection of Kanye West’s “808s and Heartbreaks” in more lush, accessible surroundings. It should be interesting to watch Cudi try to translate his headphone music to a festival setting.

Major Lazer (Critical Mass tent, 8:15 – 9:05 p.m.)

DJs Diplo and Switch are best know for helping create the pastiche behind M.I.A.’s three albums. On their own the pair – who met through working with M.I.A. – create some swampy, dubbed-out dancehall reggae. Put Shaggy in a blender with the Bomb Squad, add George Clinton’s showmanship and you’re close.

Keep reading:

10 Must-see bands at Kanrocksas (part 2 – Saturday)

Wakarusa Music Festival: A Look Back

Claypool hits the jackpot on casino debut

(Below: A bonus video from Major Lazer.)

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By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Year-end, Top 10 lists are everywhere. Only The Daily Record presents its favorite records in haiku. Enjoy.

1. Arcade Fire – Suburbs

Four sides of vinyl.
Suburban sprawl? Viewing life
takes time to explore.

2. The Roots – How I Got Over

Late night’s finest band
drops another classic.
Best since “Game Theory.”

3. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid

Ambitious concept
spread over diverse styles,
An amazing voice.

4. Bobby Watson – Gates BBQ Suite

Mouth-watering sounds
Basie, Ollie should be proud
Tribute to KayCee

5. Black Keys – Brothers

Broader sound gives pair
more room for dirty landscapes
Blues and guitar bros.

6. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Self-proclaimed jerk
Submits tortured, twisted art
Tender, repulsive

7. Cee-Lo Green – The Ladykiller

Soul man blurs genres
for nonstop party. Like it?
If not, forget you.

8. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Lefty, Son of Chico Dusty

Execs slow release,
block Andre, but can’t stop fun.
More “Speakerboxx” joy.

9. Oriole Post – Silver City

A down-home hoedown
Warm as buttermilk biscuits
Full of Midwest heart.

10. Brad Mehldau – Highway Rider

Piano maestro
back with Josh Redman.
Expansive, probing.

Keep reading:

Top 10 Albums of 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2007

Top 10 Albums of 2006

Top 10 albums of 2005

Top 10 Albums of 2004

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(Above: “Go To Sleep” is one of many new songs rapper Lupe Fiasco has completed for his new album, “Lasers.” Despite submitting the album to his label two years ago, a release date of March, 2011, was just announced last week.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Today hundreds of young music fans will protest outside the headquarters of Atlantic Records in New York City as part of Fiasco Friday. A similar rally will also take place in Chicago.

The gatherings started as an frustrated discussion on an internet forum over Atlantic’s two-year refusal to release an album by rapper Lupe Fiasco. Inspired by success stories of similar incidents with Wilco and Fiona Apple, this new generation of fans want major labels to respect their voices.

“Lupe is just one part of a larger issue,” said 17-year-old Matthew LaCorte, one of Fiasco Friday’s organizers. “I would like Atlantic to stop interfering in the creative process of its artists and to help get a more positive message – a message like Lupe’s – on commercial radio.”

Tall requests, to be sure. Artists complaints of label meddling can be found in ever era of the music industry, and are a major reason why artists from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails to the Eagles have divorced themselves from major label. Complaints of commercial radio playlists have increased – while overall listenership has decreased – since the 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed single corporations to gobble up more and more of the national spectrum.

 

Rapper Lupe Fiasco.

 

“Our goals mirror Lupe’s L.A.S.E.R.S. manifesto, which he posted online,” LaCorte said. “We want to alert people and tell the message of Lupe Fiasco, who’s music has a drastically different message from what you hear on the radio.”

In part, the 14-point manifesto declares an end to glamorizing negativity in the media, promotes environmental responsibility, individualism and political accountability, elevates substance over popularity and calls for the end of war and a “processed culture of exploitation, over-consumption and waste.”

But it will take more than T-Pain’s ubiquitous and chart-topping auto-tune to make these lofty goals part of any mainstream discussion.

“I’m not exactly sure what to expect from the rally,” LaCorte said. “I know we’ll have lots of signs and so some picketing. I’m planning on giving a speech, and I know we’ll have lots of chants and rally calls based on Lupe’s music.”

Oh, and Fiasco will be personally participating in the New York rally. In late September, Fiasco tweeted “well if y’all there…I guess I gotta be there too!”

“This started because we all wanted ‘Lasers’ to come out,” LaCorte said. “Last week Atlantic finally gave us a release date of March 8, 2011, so in a way we’ve succeeded. Fiasco Friday will be both a celebration of our success and a chance to protest issues we feel still need to be addressed.”

Fiasco is hardly the only rapper facing label resistance right now. Last week Nas raged against Def Jam’s refusal to release the second volume in his “Lost Tapes” series as part of his contract.

“Beefing with record labels is so 15 years ago,” Nas wrote in his open letter. “I could go on twitter or hot 97 tomorrow and get 100,000 protesters @ your building but I choose to walk my own path my way because since day one I have been my own man.”

LaCorte said he was fine with Nas’ perspective. But when the original petition calling for ‘Lasers’” release was ignored by Atlantic, he knew it was time to make a bigger noise.

“Having fans protesting is not good for business,” LeCorte said. “But if we fans do this – petition, boycott, make phone calls, send letters and stand up for the musicians we admire – if we make our voices heard, there will be a change.”

Keep reading:

Review: Lupe Fiasco

Chuck D looks forward in reverse

Review: “How to Rap”

(Below: Howard Beale’s ever-relevant rant from the 1976 film”Network.”)

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(Above: The only acceptable version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A fun game has been going around the internet recently: Name 15 albums that influenced your taste in music today in 15 minutes. Because we never play anything straight up at The Daily Record, we twisted the rules a little and came up with 15 songs we dislike by artists we like.

  1. Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven.” Might as well get this heavy out of the way first. Classic rock radio has destroyed this great band’s best-known song. I’ve heard it so many times at this point I can conjure it up in my sleep. I never need to hear it again. Let me go one step further: I’d rather hear a half-hour live version of “Moby Dick” than have to sit through “Stairway” again.
  2. Joni Mitchell – “The Circle Game.” Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song about the cycles of life is actually a remarkable song. It works too well, though, leaving me completely depressed and feeling like I care about has decayed around me in just under 5 minutes. No wonder Mitchell selected this song to close her classic album “Ladies of the Canyon.” After this there’s nowhere to go.
  3. Beastie Boys – “Fight For Your Right To Party.” The Beastie Boys were a lot more creative and fun than the frat boy stereotype this dumb song earned them.
  4. Van Halen – “Love Walks In.” The Sammy Hagar period of the band is rightly painted as inferior to the original lineup, but you can’t help when you were born and I came of age right in the middle of Van Hagar. I never had a problem with Eddie switching from six-string to synths, but the sugary melody combined with lyrics about aliens made this song more than I could handle.
  5. Boogie Down Productions – “Jimmy.” Usually a master of the message, KRS-One’s sermon on safe sex comes off as both preachy and simplistic. The idiotic chorus destroys what little credibility may remain. The track did inspire the Young MC cut “Keep It In Your Pants” from his follow-up to “Stone Cold Rhymin’.” I wish I didn’t know these things, but I do and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
  6. Anyone – “The Long Black Veil.” First performed by Lefty Frizzell in 1959, this country classic has become a staple for Johnny Cash, The Band, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and a dozen more. I can’t argue with any of those artists, but for a reason I could never put a finger on, it never resonated with me.
  7. Radiohead – “Creep.” This song introduced Radiohead to America, and for that I should be grateful, but “Pablo Honey” is the outlier in their catalog for me. In my mind, the catalog officially starts with “The Bends.”
  8. James Brown – “Killing Is Out, School Is In.” This song became the unintentional center point of Brown’s 2002 concert at the River Market. A lackluster set had already been derailed by a couple Janis Joplin covers by Brown’s then-wife and mayor Kay Barnes onstage proclamation of James Brown Day. Several years after Columbine, the message was not only no longer timely, but embarrassing. The song was later released as a single. Thankfully few heard it.
  9. David Bowie – “Changes.” Yet another song ruined by radio and turned into lazy shorthand for its era by television and movie producers.
  10. The Beatles – “The Long and Winding Road.” Dislike may be too strong a word for this song, but Paul McCartney had already delivered a better ballad for the “Let It Be/Get Back” project. This one feels like a syrupy afterthought to me.
  11. Steve Earle – “The Devil’s Right Hand.” This number brought Earle acclaim as a songwriter before he established himself as a recording artist in his own right. I think Lynyrd Skynyrd covered the same turf better with “Saturday Night Special.” The verses aren’t band, but the song is overly reliant on the repetitive chorus.
  12. The Who – “Behind Blues Eyes.” This sensitive number never seemed to fit in with the rest of “Who’s Next” and it seemed even more out of place as a single. Pete Townshend usually struck the right balance of being tough and vulnerable at the same time (see “The Song Is Over” or “How Many Friends”). He sounds weak and whiney on “Blue Eyes.” Limp Bizkit’s cover confirmed my instinct. Sympathy for Fred Durst? Never!
  13. Anyone but Muddy Waters – “Hoochie Coochie Man.” In the hands of Waters and the Chess studio pros, this is a blues masterpiece. For just about anyone else, it is usually a lame attempt for a middle-aged white guy to show he’s hep to the blooze. I’m looking at you Eric Clapton, Alexis Korner, Steven Seagal and Dion.
  14. Jay-Z – “Young Forever.” Alphaville’s 1984 hit “Forever Young” worked perfectly as the soundtrack to Napolean Dynamite’s dance with Deb. In the hands of Hova, however, it is ridiculous.
  15. Louie Armstrong – “What A Wonderful World.” There’s nothing wrong with Satchmo’s sublime performance. He manages to walk the tightrope between sincere and saccharine as the strings underneath support his presentation. Unfortunately, no one understood the song’s message, as it has a crutch when movie producers want to tug on heartstrings. Joey Ramone’s version was great upon release, but in the decade since it has become a hipster version of the same cliché.  I guess this leaves me with Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips’ weird yet heartfelt reading. I don’t think mainstream America is ready for that to be thrust down their throats – yet.

Keep reading:

Review: Flaming Lips New Year’s Freakout

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

Review: “Pops” by Terry Teachout

Read Full Post »

By Joel Francis
Ink Magazine

Steddy P takes care of his fans. Since Steddy’s debut album in 2008, fans have never had to wait more than a few months between new offerings. This month Steddy dropped the While You Were Sleeping EP/mixtape to keep fans happy until the emergence of his next full-length album. But While You Were Sleeping is more than a stopgap release. Six new cuts show Steddy’s recent activity in the studio. But more fun is the second part of the album: 13 tracks from the back catalog, remixed by DJ Mahf.

Mahf, who oversaw Steddy’s 2009 album, Style Like Mind, clearly had a blast marrying “Kenneth Arnold” to the “Super Mario Bros.” video game soundtrack. “Miss Your Coffee Table,” one of the few odes to the fairer sex on the mixtape, incorporates both Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.” Other tracks pay tribute to early Kanye West, Jay-Z, DJ Shadow and the Nappy Roots. That Steddy’s original verses stand up against such recognizable backgrounds is a testament to his clever wordplay and intricate delivery.

At times Steddy’s delivery recalls that of Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab. Steddy does a good job of changing textures when necessary, and recruits great guests such as Ces Cru, Mathias and Jbomb to further vary the vocal patterns. Steddy’s best performance across the 19 tracks comes early. “BARS (Loser’s Club Remix)” is Steddy’s answer to repeated invitations to freestyle battles. After calling out so-called Midwestern rappers who quickly vacate to the coasts he revs into double time. It’s not quite Twista-fast, but impressive nonetheless.

Although they appear first, the new tracks almost seem secondary. Steddy comes strong out of the chute on “Enough” and “Bars,” but the production falters on “Steddy Persistence Pt. II,” the third cut. Each song is handled by separate producers. The tracks don’t flow together well, and the quality fluctuates.

On “No Doz” Steddy uses a violent slasher/horror film metaphor to establish his lyrical dominance. His words are threatening, but try as it might, the chintzy synthesizer loop can’t be considered sinister. A similarly vanilla loop is featured in “And It’s Like That,” which manages to include a shout-out to Steddy’s former home turf of Mizzou, to KU and even to the UMKC Roos.

The final new song, “WindOverHead,” is the most successful. The production includes hints of the ambient and industrial, as well as snippets of saxophone and opera over an understated piano melody. Steddy shines across this landscape, calling out Tech N9ne and Mac Lethal and marking his IndyGround territory.

Despite a few minor missteps, While You Were Sleeping is a nice place for longtime fans to regroup and experience Steddy’s catalog in a different light. Newcomers will find the album a handy place to catch up. Best of all, it’s free.

Keep reading:

KC’s MCs throw down this weekend

Nas and Damian Marley – “Distant Relatives”

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

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