Record Release Roundup: Spring 2011

June 16, 2011 by  

Brooklyn correspondent Justin Colletti listens to new releases every day of the week except Sunday. Here, he shares the twelve Spring releases that best broke through the noise and captured his imagination.

1. Booker T.  Jones – The Road From Memphis

From 1962 to 1970, Booker T. served as one of the essential sidemen who helped shape the sound of classic soul and R&B. As part of Stax’s integrated house band he played back-up for Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, and Sam and Dave. As bandleader for the MGs, he brought instrumentals to the top of the charts with the iconic cut “Green Onions.”

Booker T. Jones "The Road From Memphis" (May 2011, Anti- Records)

Jones’ latest effort, The Road From Memphis is a rootsy hybrid of hip hop, funk, and soul that makes the rock/fusion hybrid of his GRAMMY-winning 2009 release Potato Hole sound gimmicky by comparison.

Even with his name on the cover, Jones maintains the soul of a sideman. His playing is casual, relaxed, almost conversational, as he cooks through a cover of Gnarles’ Barkley’s “Crazy” on the Hammond B3, or supports Sharon Jones on an original tune.

There’s little musical grandstanding on this record, which features an all-star band of ace musicians who stay firmly rooted in-pocket throughout.

The Road From Memphis was produced by ?uestlove of the Roots and Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliot Smith). It was recorded by Gabe Roth of Daptone (interviewed here over the winter), and features guest performances from Sharon Jones, Lou Reed, Matt Berninger of the National, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.

Watch the album preview (with studio footage and interviews).

2. Dennis Coffey: Controlled Aggression

Here’s a release that reminds us why we should never look to television or glossy magazines for music recommendations. Although you might not think it by the looks of him, Dennis Coffey will melt your face off with the funk.

When he’s not busy swapping fashion tips with George Costanza or posing to reassure you he’d do a great job adjusting your tax returns, Coffey leads a double life as a former guitarist for Motown, and the man behind the steaming new release Controlled Aggression.

Thanks to the good graces of the internet, this unlikely gem of a record doesn’t have to go undiscovered. Click the link below to hear the track “Space Traveller,” selected as NPR’s song of the day on May 31st.

When listening, don’t be afraid to turn up your speakers. Not only does this cut feature an old-school sensibility when it comes to musicianship, it features a refreshing lack of the aggressive over-mastering that’s had musiophiles up in arms for more than a decade. In a welcome blast from the past, the louder you crank this record, the better it sounds.

Listen to “Space Traveller” at NPR.

3. Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts

Thurston Moore "Demolished Thoughts" (May 2011, Matador Records)

Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore had a new release last month. This largely acoustic, gracefully orchestrated collection of songs was produced by Beck for Matador Records, and has music geeks across Generations X and Y asking, “Where the hell was this record when I was a teenager?”

In some ways, Demolished Thoughts is Moore’s equivalent to Beck’s Sea Change. Although much of this record is as wizened and reserved as Beck’s navel-gazing opus, the tone of Demolished Thoughts remains notably less melancholy than that easy touchstone.

Arrangements are generally sparse and intimate, with subdued strings that are startlingly pretty and never overwhelming. On the production end, the album’s tone is spacious and milky, unafraid to stay just a little boxy and decidedly natural.

Listen here…

4. Kate Bush: Director’s Cut

If you’re a Kate Bush fan who’s disconcerted by musical revisionism, you may have mixed feelings about Director’s Cut. On this album Bush revisits and revamps songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.

Unlike Brian Wilson’s 2004 revisit of the Smile sessions however, it’s doubtful any of these re-interpretations will be accused of ruining old favorites. Bush’s voice has stayed strong, and some of these cuts improve on the source material, which is largely culled from The Red Shoes, an album generally considered to be one of her weaker efforts.

After years of trying, Bush finally obtained permission to re-appropriate Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from the James Joyce’s novel Ulysses as the lyrics for this album’s opening track. It’s unusual to hear a woman of fifty-three take on some of the overtly sensual themes that drive the opening tracks on this record, but she does so with an effortless, unconcerned grace that belies her age.

So, is it worth listening? For those who are not yet fans, the now-classic 1985 album Hounds of Love is probably still a better place to start. (Like, yesterday.) For the already initiated? It’s definitely something to hear.

Listen here…

5. Eddie Vedder: Ukulele Songs

Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder has come out with a solo album. It consists exclusively of him playing songs he wrote for the ukulele.

Eddie Vedder "Ukulele Songs" (May 2011, Universal Music)

Diehard fans of Vedder’s voice are likely to connect with the album’s intimate and un-ironic delivery. The rest of us could always use good excuse to gawk slack-jawed at our computers for a few minutes, wondering if our eyes are fooling us, so Vedder’s Ukulele Songs occupies slot 5 on our roundup of interesting spring releases.

But, is it good?

For a solo album that almost exclusively consists of Eddie Vedder playing songs he wrote for the ukulele, sure, it’s absolutely the best one I’ve ever heard.

How about compared to the rest of music throughout recorded history?

Well, it’s less weird than you might expect, and features strong, naked performances from a distinctive singer that you probably really love or can’t stand at all.

As for a rating? No matter which camp you fall in, Ukulele Songs is an odd, but well-realized effort that stands somewhere between the transcendent (Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” “Kind of Blue,” the first four Black Sabbath albums) and the laughably mediocre (Bruce Willis’ solo record, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Christmas album, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”).

Listen to “Can’t Keep” off Ukulele Songs…

6. Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part 2

There’s a good chance you heard about it when the Beastie Boys dropped a new album last month. If you missed it, you still have a chance to stream it below.

It’s all too easy to harbor low expectations for any album this far into the band’s career, but once again, the ‘Boys refuse to disappoint: “Hot Sauce Committee” plays out like the Beasties of Check Your Head meeting up with the Beasties of Hello Nasty to compare notes.

Although some disinterest can be expected from early fans whose tastes have changed over the decades, this record is sure to please the ears of anyone still ready for more high-powered and irreverent jams from America’s favorite bratty-New-York-whiteboys-turned-socially-conscious-hip-hop-all-stars.

Listen here…

7. Alfonso Velez: Alfonso Velez

Alfonso Velez is a stunning and rare find: an undiscovered Singer/Songwriter worth watching out for.

Mere moments into “Teddy,” the first cut on Velez’s self-titled LP, I found myself slack-jawed, remarking aloud: “Wow. Dude can sing.” Songs here feel like real performances, unfolding stories that sound refreshingly human and open up over time.

With a production aesthetic that’s informed by The Flaming Lips and Radiohead as much as it is by The Beatles and James Taylor, Marc Alan Goodman’s mixes on Alfonso Velez balance the organic with the epic, the subdued with the sublime.

Listen here…

8. Cults: Cults

Any journalist writing about Brooklyn-based band Cults is obligated to marvel over their “un-googleable name” and (historically) limited presence on social media.

Cults self-titled debut (June 2011, Columbia Records)

Up until Sony picked up the band in response to the extravagant media buzz that surrounded their debut 7”, the band subsisted with a spare Bandcamp page and a text-only website that listed upcoming shows.

Bloggers marveled over their ability to ignite interest sans Facebook and Myspace, much like the rest of us wonder how we were ever able to meet in public at a pre-designated time before cellphones.

Blog-buzz aside, Cults are easily one of the more compelling new artists to release an album this spring.

Their sound is somewhere between the Ronnettes and Peter Bjorn and John. Co-producer and engineer Shane Stoneback provides giganticlly cloudy, reverb-drenched mixes that complement their casually cultivated air of mystery.

At their best, Cults offer simple, unpretentious, catchy pop tunes with a startlingly retro production aesthetic. After repeated listens there’s some question as to whether there’s a ton of substance behind the style. In the meantime, the style they do have is somewhat substantive in itself and thankfully, it’s of the sonic, rather than visual variety.

Listen here…

9. Sondre Lerche: Sondre Lerche

Earlier this year, we visited Rare Book Room Studios in Greenpoint to spend an afternoon with producer Nicolas Vernhes and Norwegian-born songwriter Sondre Lerche.

Vernhes, who’s explored distinctive and sometimes jarring sounds with Dirty Projectors, Black Dice, and Deerhunter, might seem like an unexpected choice for Lerche, an artist best known for his easy charm and earnest pop sensibility.

With Verhnes at the board and Kato Ådland co-producing, Lerche is able to embrace sonic colors in a more raw state than ever before. The new material is mature: both accessible and unusual, friendly to a casual listener, but challenging enough to attract a new kind of audience.

10. Here We Go Magic: The January EP

Here We Go Magic "The January (March 2011, Secretly Canadian)

On this record pillowy textures and contrapuntal rhythms form a blurred bed of sound for Here We Go Magic songwriter Luke Temple’s ephemeral, high-reaching vocals.

From the first plodding bass notes of the opener “Tulip,” Here We Go Magic’s newest release doles out twenty-one minutes of big, fat chamber pop.

It’s dense, atmospheric, ambitious, and invites comparisons to some of the innovative work by Caribou and Grizzly Bear, or the most forward-thinking moments of 60s cult favorites The Zombies.

Like Pigeons before it, The January (covered here in May),  stands a far cry from Temple’s sparse solo effort on HWGM’s self-titled debut. The January serves a satisfying soup of sound that asks for repeat listening and suggests an unexpected expanse of space between the speakers.

Listen to “Hands in the Sky” off The January here:HERE

11. Hotels: On The Casino Floor

Since I’ve taken it on to write about the twelve albums this Spring that at least broke through the noise, and at best, captured my imagination, it would be dishonest to leave the Seattle band Hotels off this list, even if I have worked with them on prior releases.

Hotels has a new album On The Casino Floor, and, associations aside, I think you should hear it. They’re easily among my favorite bands playing today.

If band names like Devo, Black Sabbath, Joy Division, Kraftwerk, Wipers and New Order randomly strung together in a sentence holds any appeal to you, this is the offbeat, electronic, post-punk, synth-heavy surf-rock band for you.

Listen here…

12. Bon Iver: Bon Iver

Bon Iver's self-titled sophomore album (June 2011, Jagjaguwar)

Is it just me, or do self-titled releases seem like a growing trend this year? If I had something profound to say about artists declaring their identity in a culture of fleeting interest I would. Until then: Gee. What’s that shiny thing?

Fans of the sleepiest moments of Iron & Wine and TV On The Radio may enjoy Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore effort. This is music that’s sometimes unusual, and perhaps more pleasant than it is engrossing.

Atmospheric, moody, bold-yet-unobtrusive, the laconic Bon Iver is a thoroughly well-realized album, even if it occasionally bores this reviewer to the point where he forgets he’s even listening to it.

Listen here…

Lady Gaga and the Great Race to Cloud Storage

In other news, you may have caught wind that Lady GaGa’s label was so afraid her sophomore album would fail to make waves, they decided to effectively bribe fans into buying it. Hawking the entire record for $0.99 and giving away 40 GB of storage on Amazon’s new cloud server, they managed to sell 1.5 million copies in total, including a reported 750,000 at the $0.99 cheaper-than-free price point.

If you haven’t yet seen the video for the lead single “Born This Way,” don’t worry. You’ll be fine.

GaGa takes post-modern pastiche to a fever pitch of ADD, referencing more often and more directly than Family Guy. The only problem is that it’s rarely funny (at least not on purpose) and she staunchly refuses to admit to her influences, unlike the early post-modern pop-master, Beck.

Fittingly, GaGa’s latest video begins with music that isn’t even hers. The video version of “Born This Way” opens with Bernard Hermann’s classic score to the Hitchcock thriller Vertigo, which she somehow makes sucky by adding some comically pretentious narration and half-baked visual imagery culled from Frank Herbert’s Dune.

To her credit, GaGa has the theater of music down to a certain degree. She’s followed the playbooks of Freddie Mercury, Madonna, and Britney Spears, but forgot the rule about occasionally putting out an inventive song. Even Britney had “Toxic.”

Once the actual music kicks in, the problem is not that it’s awful. Rather, it’s amazingly plain – befuddlingly mediocre. The actual single serves as a remarkably bland backdrop to over-the-top visuals that are generally too racy for children and at times too vapid for self-respecting adults.

Those who maintain that her first record featured a few worthy pop songs obscured by a questionable production aesthetic will be disappointed to find nothing here to approach even that level of “interesting.” When listened to with any seriousness, “Born This Way” makes Cher’s most questionable 80s moments seem hip and current.

For the few who have cast GaGa as a secret champion of counter-culture, this release continues to reframe hers as work that panders to the easily entertained rather than suggesting a shred of the subversive.

At best, GaGa may have been able to achieve a level of insta-kitsch to rival John Waters. Only this time, it’s by accident.    – Justin Colletti

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based producer/engineer who works with uncommon artists, and a journalist who writes about music and how we make it. Visit him at www.justincolletti.com.

Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore and Yoko Ono Making A Record at Sear Sound

March 2, 2011 by  

A number of interesting artists have been recording at the legendary Sear Sound in Midtown Manhattan — Walter Sear’s legacy of audio excellence lives on!

Yoko Ono + 1/2 Sonic Youth recording at Sear Sound

First, Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore and Yoko Ono are making a record together. And they’ve been recording it at Sear Sound, with Chris Allen engineering.

Both Sonic Youth and Ono have a history with the studio — Sonic Youth having recorded multiple albums (Rather Ripped, Sister, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star) in Studio A with its Neve 8038 with Flying Faders. Apparently Walter Sear even recorded one of their earliest records at his former studio in the Paramount Hotel. And Ono recorded and mixed her last record Between My Head and the Sky at Sear with Allen engineering in Studio C, on the Avalon/Sear custom console.

Meanwhile, Bjork has been working at Sear Sound as well, recording tracks for her new album, with Damian Taylor engineering on the Avalon/Sear with David Schoenwetter assisting.

In other recent sessions: the NYC-based blues band JD and The Straight Shot have also been recording for a new album with Dave Natale engineering and Mark Atkins producing. The band, led by James Dolan with Charlie Drayton on drums, reportedly have their own live performance setup in the studio, with speaker wedges and a submixing Yamaha board.

And singer/songwriter Harper Simon (son of Paul Simon) has been tracking a new album, with Ruddy Cullers engineering. John Scofield also tracked and mixed his new record at Sear on the Neve 8038, with Brian Blades on drums, Scott Colley on bass and Larry Goldings on the studio’s B3 Hammond and Steinway ‘C’ grand, and James Farber engineering. They mixed down to RMG 900 1/2″ on the ATR 102.

Producer Craig Street recorded singer Madeleine Peroux with Matt Cullen engineering and a band that included Drayton again on drums, and Mark Ribot on guitar. And Scarlet Johansson was in recording overdubs for an album with Lucien Gainsbourg, with Jeremy Loucas engineering. Prior to Johansson coming in, Gainsbourg has been recording his larger album project at Sear as well.

Singer Nicole Henry recorded with producer Matt Pierson and Allen engineering, with John Stoddardt on piano, and arrangements by Stoddardt and Gil Goldstein. And Japanese outfit New Friends, Inc. were in tracking the pianist / vocalist Akiko Yano for a film. She played the Steinway ‘D’ – 9′ concert grand, and Aya Merrill engineered the sessions.

This is just a sampling of the recent sessions, according to Sear Sound’s manager Roberta Findlay. Visit www.searsound.com for more information on the studio, and its equipment and history.

John Agnello: Dinosaur Jr. & Sonic Youth Producer On New Indie Rock Sounds, Classic Techniques

September 23, 2010 by  

JERSEY CITY: In 1979, a Brooklyn teenager and avid record collector named John Agnello landed an internship at one of Manhattan’s most prominent music studios. Thanks to some hard work and genuine affability it wasn’t long before he found himself assisting on major releases from contemporary heavyweights like Aerosmith, Cyndi Lauper and Twisted Sister.

John Agnello. Photo by Andrew Kesin.

It’s an unexpected beginning for a Producer most known for his involvement with classic Indie Rock darlings, many of whose records still pepper the favorites lists of young fans. Success on early releases with Dinosaur Jr, Screaming Trees and Buffalo Tom made way for work with The Breeders, Sonic Youth, The Hold Steady and Nada Surf.

We grabbed a quick bite with John near his Jersey City home between sessions with Kurt Vile at Williamsburg’s Headgear Recording Studio.

Looking through your early discography, we see you listed as an assistant on some pretty mainstream releases. It’s interesting to see your credit list take a left turn in the early 90s toward more bold and unique artists, branded back then as “Alternative Rock.” It looks like you’ve never turned back. I’d like you to take us through that journey a little. How did you get your start?

I started assisting at the Record Plant in ’82, and started engineering in ’84. I was engineering for a long time, all through the 80s and into the early 90s. It took a while to really get considered to produce records. And with good reason! (laughs) I wasn’t really a “Producer” at first.

What changed? Were there any seminal records that acted as a turning point for you?

The first Dinosaur Jr. record was a really great experience. I was credited as an engineer, and I wouldn’t say I was a “producer” on those records. But I definitely helped J. [Mascis] get to a different sonic level. When we worked on together, Dinosaur Jr. records started to sound like classic records, not just gnarly discs with great songs covered in “Ka-Kssshhhhh” (makes sound effect of gnarly midrangey goodness). Once those records were doing really well and A&R guys noticed what I was starting to contribute to the process, things began to change.

How does your approach as a producer differ from that of your engineering days? Is there a learning curve?

John Agnello working at Headgear Recording in Williamsburg. Photo by Scott Norton.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot about what a producer can do, and pushed the envelope a lot more. When I started producing, it was in the middle of this Indie/Alternative Rock explosion. Things were really open.  What a producer had to do was create a vibe, get the bands to perform, and let them do their thing. You might help with an arrangement here or there, but that was it. Bands were being signed because somebody somewhere liked them.

The attitude was: if a band like Spacehog or Nada Surf or Jawbox hit the charts, great! And if they didn’t… they didn’t. In that way it was a totally different world.

Today, I spend a lot more time in rehearsals with bands really working through arrangements and giving them actual direction. Things these days are so much tighter. There are so many records coming out, indie-wise at least, and it’s so much more competitive because everyone posts their songs online.

For an unknown band to have a chance of getting noticed, it’s really important for the record to be concise and bring out the best of what they do. Sometimes we’ve got to leave out all the extra filler that makes listeners go: “Boring!” Attention spans have gotten to be…miniature.

So do you find yourself working more as a musical gatekeeper than you would have in the past?

Absolutely. I’m in pre-production rehearsal with bands right now, and you have to bring these things up: “The song’s too long, let’s cut the chorus here in half here,” or “The key’s not right for your voice, let’s try modulating there.” When you’re making good suggestions, bands are really receptive. And it’s fun too. You feel like you’re even more a part of the band and a part of the record. It’s great to notice: “Hey the verse… It’s really this song’s chorus, isn’t it? Let’s build around that.”

Let’s face it: anyone can be an engineer these days. That’s no slight against the guys who are great engineers, because there are some really good ones. The point is: Any one of these bands *could* stay at home and make their own record. These days just being an engineer isn’t enough to separate yourself from everyone else out there. You’ve got to bring something else to the table.

So here you are being hired for your ability to filter and to make perceptive musical choices… but you didn’t even start out as a musician?

No, not at all!

How did that happen? Did you become a player as things wet along?

I didn’t. That’s another thing that’s interesting to think about: when I first started assisting, I really had no concept of pitch. I was just a kid who loved listening to records. I wasn’t a musician, I wasn’t trained. I had to learn to listen and understand what pitch was and to focus on it. It’s just another one of those things that you learn to do well through repetition.

You’ve done a lot of work with promising bands as they’re discovering their sound. But you’ve worked with established artists as well. The last two Sonic Youth records you’ve worked on have featured some really masterful sounds.

Considering how long they’ve been around and how long I’ve been around, it’s been really great to finally work with them. It made me feel really good about my station in life, to be able to make two really wonderful records with a band I’ve always loved.

Sonic Youth are a band known to have a lot of vision and often share production credit on their records. How is your role different with a band like that?

Oh, they know what they’re doing. A big difference between working with a Thurston Moore or a J Mascis and all the other bands we’re talking about, is that you don’t need to tell either of those guys anything about songwriting (laughs). What’s the point?! What a band like Sonic Youth really requires is that we’re on time delivering the record, and I can help keep them on track while they have so many other projects going on.

Rather Ripped in particular made some waves for helping put the band back on the map after some rare time away from critical acclaim. That album took a distinctly punchy and muscular sonic direction compared of their prior records. The guitars in particular command an unusual amount of power and clarity. Can you tell us anything about your approach there?

Rather Ripped (2006) and The Eternal (2009) both have Lee on the left and Thurston on the right. That’s how they stand on stage. I just love the clarity of stereo. It’s great to hear each dude doing their part, and it’s really cool to hear that in headphones, especially when one part steps out a bit from either side.

Agnello produced/engineered Dead Confederate’s “Sugar.”

Definitely. It leaves a lot of room for power in the drums too. I hear that kind of spread on one of your newest releases as well. Dead Confederate’s Sugar came out this past month, and in some places the guitars are also really wide, but much more textured and layered sounding.

They have a cool sound. I joke that’s almost like “Freedom Grunge.” You know? Like Freedom Rock + Grunge, with some shoegaze mixed in. It combines a lot of things I like.

I’ve heard you tend to use the same mics a lot on guitars: a classic combination of [Shure] SM57, [Neumann] U87 and [Sennheiser] 421 mixed together. Is that true of those two records, even though they have such different sounds?

Yeah, a lot of it comes from the amp, and the player. That’s the first place to change things. If there’s something that ties those sounds together it’s that I really like my guitars close-miked, even if they have a lot of effects on them. If your amp is really blowing and you have the mic right on it, that’s where you get a lot of intensity. If you start to move it back, sure you can get some more air and some room maybe, but you sacrifice that intensity.

When you use a blend of mics like that, which mics are you listening to in the control? What about the players?

I’m old school. I’ll blend them together and print it to tape or to Pro Tools. If I’ve got a great sound that’s moving me, I don’t want to have to think about how I got it ever again. When I’m producing, I want to shut up the Engineer-guy in my head as much as possible so the Producer-guy can take the wheel. Sometimes I’ll even print my snare top and bottom on one track.

What about kick drums? Some of your records have a powerful-yet-organic sound you don’t hear a lot these days.

I think both those Sonic Youth records and a lot of the Dino stuff is a double-headed kick drum, no hole. It’s really hit-or-miss though. If you put a mic up on either side and it sounds good, you’ll have an amazing sound. If it doesn’t, you could struggle with mics and anything else for hours and you’ll never get there.

What else are you excited about? I hear you’re in the studio with Kurt Vile now, making a record for Matador.

He’s great. Really quirky, unique stuff while also being classic and beautiful. My daughter Bella is in love with him and sings his songs in the car all the time!

Have the digital and home studio revolutions changed the way you work much?

Agnello often works out of Headgear in Williamsburg, Magic Shop in Manhattan or Water Music in Hoboken. Photo by Andrew Kesin.

Not a lot in my niche. Every once in a while I’ll get a record to mix that was recorded by a new band at home. You wouldn’t get projects like that years ago. And sure, I use Pro Tools and edit digitally, but other than that, I pretty much work the same way.

I feel like you can’t make the same record all the time, and each album should be unique, but I use the same tools a lot.  I pick my favorite studios like Water Music, Headgear and Magic Shop because they have tape machines that work and the monitoring is great. It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but I’ve been using the same stereo bus compressor for almost 24 years! (Laughs.)

— Justin Colletti

For more on John Agnello, visit his website at www.johnagnello.com and follow him on Twitter @John_Agnello.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer and music producer who’s worked with Hotels, DeLeon, Soundpool, Team Genius and Monocle, as well as clients such as Nintendo, JDub and Blue Note Records.