Tag Archives: music

Sufjan Stevens


I believe that all of these words accurately describe one of my absolute favorite artists, Sufjan Stevens.  Some might also include terms like pretentious, over-the-top, or eccentric.  Though I wouldn’t consider the music or individual of Sufjan to be pretentious, I can agree that the style and scope of his work is not very everyone.  Upon first hearing his album ‘Illinois’ in college, I was not immediately taken by the exuberant and overwhelming sound of Sufjan.  Much like a bottle of fancy wine or smelly cheese (forgive the crappy similes–I don’t really like wine or cheese, for that matter) I needed to give the record some time to age on me.  Given this time, however, I came to realize that beyond his slightly strange nature and bubbly sound existed a highly gifted musician and a genius composer.

‘Illinois’ is a masterpiece.  A concept album with beautiful orchestral music and powerful lyrics based on personal stories (not his stories–but engaging ones nonetheless) and historical references, I would be shocked to see him create anything else that comes near to this achievement.  I do think it might be unfair to downplay his remaining body of work, which may not measure up to this particular album, but displays his ability in a multitude of ways.

‘Michigan’ is the album that precedes ‘Illinois,’ and is the most similar in terms of construction and overall feel.  This very well might be because it is a similar concept album (both focusing on their respective states–obviously).  I just think that Sufjan was in a particular place in his evolution as an artist, and both of these albums demonstrate that.  Before ‘Michigan’ he wrote ‘Seven Swans,’ which has more of a soft, acoustic feel, but very well might be the most sensitive and emotional of all his albums.  The ‘All Delighted People EP’ was very, very good, and came after ‘Illinois.’  I think that Sufjan took some steps away from the type of music he created in his previous two concept albums, but for the most part created a similar product.**

Having become a huge fan of his music, you can imagine my excitement when I discovered he was to release a new full-length album in October 2010.  The result was not what I expected and I was initially disappointed.  ‘The Age of Adz’ was ambitious, grandiose, experimental, orchestral, and eclectic, but it was also largely electronic (a genre I never listened to).  However, much like my experience with ‘Illinois,’ I found that time and repeated listens made the album thoroughly more enjoyable and quite an experience.  While I still prefer ‘Illinois,’ I love ‘The Age of Adz’ and cannot wait to see what Sufjan Stevens thinks of next!

**I could have mentioned a few other instrumental, seasonal, and “extra” albums that consist of material not included on previous albums (demonstrating his ability to put out not only quality, but quantity as well), but I will refrain from doing so.  At the very least, please find a copy of ‘Illinois’ and give it a try.  It really is an amazing album.

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Finding Love: My Musical Journey

Music has long been a huge part of my life.  Around the time I hit puberty and started thinking more about girls, music helped me sort out and identify my emotions.  I can still recall the artists, albums, and songs I listened to as relationships emerged or fell apart.  While the music might not have always been of the highest quality (see: Nick Lachey), it could easily be paired with the way I was feeling.

As much as I loved and needed music, I never studied or learned how to analyze or create it.  Though there are exceptions to the rule, I tend to believe in the sports-music dichotomy: at a young age one tends to choose between the two.  In my case, I took the athletic route.  I studied Tae Kwon Do, played competitive soccer, excelled in basketball, and earned All-League honors on my high school tennis team.  At the time, I was never encouraged to pursue music.  It just didn’t seem to be written in my DNA.

After finishing my degree at UC Davis, I came back home to begin my life as an adult.  It turned out to be one of the most difficult times of my life.  Many factors contributed to serious anxiety and hopelessness, including unemployment and the end of my first serious relationship.  Slowly, I was able to pull myself out of the darkness.  I made some key life changes and channeled my energy and emotion into a newfound hobby.

In January of 2010 I began playing guitar.  At first, it was a real struggle.  I couldn’t seem to figure anything out, and at times I would get frustrated.  All I wanted to do was recreate some of the beautiful music that I loved so much.  With practice, I could play simple chords and piece together popular, identifiable songs.  I was proud of myself, and with this improvement came the desire to create something that I could call my own.  From the fire of pent up emotion that I had stored within myself rose the ash of artistic expression.  I began writing very cheesy songs with honest lyrics and simple chord progressions.  While I couldn’t sing, I decided it didn’t really matter.  It was always my goal to “not sound terrible.”

Over time, I compiled a number of songs.  Some were better than others, but all tracked my emotional growth.  At one point in early February of 2011 I wrote a song called “Love is a Hoax.”  As the title indicates, I was distraught with the direction my love life was headed–nowhere.  I had been actively using a few different online dating sites for nearly a year with no success.  I was unhappy and on the verge of giving up.

Then, miraculously, she entered my life.  Browsing one of the aforementioned dating sites, I came across a familiar face.  I couldn’t place where I had seen her before, but immediately sent a message to find out.  As it turned out, we had been in the same kindergarten class.  The memory of her adorable five-year-old class picture flashed into my mind, and I couldn’t believe the odds.  She responded to my initial message and we began to ‘catch up’ on a regular basis.

I tend to be on the cautious side and I have never been particularly skilled in the art of charming women.  Nonetheless, I decided early on this was a girl worth taking risks for.  I quickly weaseled my way into her plans, meeting up for a walk at a local park that we both frequented.  She was easy to talk to, gorgeous, and seemingly out of my league.  When I found out she was a true blue Golden State Warriors fan (a hard thing to find), I concluded that she was truly something special.

This was on a Monday. On Wednesday we played tennis (she put me to shame and had me racing all over the court) and ate dinner.  I still remember her telling me some sort of story involving one of her students farting, and it had me cracking up.  That Friday we saw a movie (Unknown with Liam Neeson) and ate some food while we watched the Warriors get their asses handed to them by the Hawks.  I drove her home and we shared our first kiss when I walked her to the door.  We spent the next day in San Francisco, and I will never forget laying on the grass in the Yerba Buena Gardens looking up at the city skyline.  I knew at that moment that I had found something remarkable.

I think one of the scariest things out there is telling someone ‘I love you.’  A few months into the relationship I knew that I felt love and desperately wanted to tell her.  Unfortunately, fear had the best of me and I postponed the occasion for a good one or two months.  I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to turn my car around after leaving her house, just so that I could make it known to her in a big romantic gesture.  I channeled this love into perhaps the most meaningful song that I’ve written, ‘Something Unsaid.’  While eventually I was able to tell her and it ended up enhancing our relationship tenfold, I’ll never forgot composing this song. We’ve been together for nearly ten months now.  I’m so lucky that I can wake up everyday knowing that I have her in my life.

“I was lost and lonely on a mixed up ride; But since I met you I’ve felt so much inside; The other night I left something unsaid; So here it goes in this song instead, I love you”



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Gorilla Manor by Local Natives

“And the award for creepiest mustache in a band goes to… The lead singer of Local Natives!”

Okay, that was uncalled for… My apologies. The truth is, Taylor Rice and Local Natives are an unbelievably talented group of musicians that composed a stellar debut album in Gorilla Manor. The band itself has drawn a number of comparisons and when I listen I do hear many similarities to bands like Vampire Weekend and Band of Horses. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Not at all. I love these types of bands that have command of a unique sound in the world of indie music.

Gorilla Manor is strong from start to finish. The tracks have a great deal of depth, with strong, meaningful lyrics and really impressive instrumentation. The result is songs like ‘Wide Eyes,’ which has spiritual/religious undertones combined with a rhythmic percussive beat, beautiful harmonies, and magnificent instrumental solos.  ‘Airplanes’ is an emotionally driven tune focused on the loss of a loved one. Each and every track brings something special to the table, making for an enjoyable listening experience. Some of my favorites include the aforementioned tracks, ‘Shape Shifter,’ ‘Sun Hands,’ and ‘Who Knows Who Cares.’

The song from the video below is not from the album (it’s a Simon and Garfunkel cover), but it’s just so badass that I couldn’t resist sharing. I have NEVER seen anyone play the tree so vehemently!

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The Damnwells

I’m thankful for a lot of things in my life. Without the support of my family, friends, and girlfriend, I would be lost. Like many, I can take these things for granted, which is understandable (but not acceptable). On this day of showing thanks and appreciation, I want to introduce an underrated band that deserves some recognition.

The Damnwells are an alternative/indie band that has been around for the better part of ten years. I had no clue of their existence before I watched ‘Chaos Theory’ with Ryan Reynolds, which featured a number of their songs from various albums. In the climax of the film, an orchestral version of ‘Electric Harmony’ (listen to the album version above) framed the scene so beautifully that I couldn’t help but shed a tear (or two–granted, I can be a softy). Realizing that so many of the brilliant songs from the movie came from this seemingly unknown artist, I needed to find out more.

Anchored by lead singer Alex Dezen, the Damnwells manage to create deeply emotional tracks with running guitars and gorgeous melodies. In terms of song-writing ability, Dezen matches up with the best in the business. Dezen’s voice is understated, with a deep, raspy quality that complements the band’s wonderfully arranged instrumentation. It’s a real shame that the Damnwells haven’t received the kind of public attention that they deserve, but I suppose that’s the nature of the music industry: talent does not always mean success.

If you have forty-five minutes to spare, I suggest you listen to an acoustic set with Alex Dezen (posted below).

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Blood by The Middle East

One of my favorite movies from this year was ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love.’ It was really funny, genuine, well put together, and had a great cast. I was also surprised by the quality of the soundtrack. One standout song was Blood by The Middle East, an Australian collective of very talented musicians. The combination of acoustic guitar and tender lead vocals with several added elements (various percussive instruments, xylophone, harmonizing, humming/whistling, etc.) result in a beautifully composed  product. Unfortunately, The Middle East split earlier this year, which is a real shame. Don’t be surprised to see a post for their latest studio album ‘I Want That You Are Always Happy’ in the near future.

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Crooked Still

Like most people, I enjoy listening to various genres of music. Alternative, folk, indie, pop, rock, hip hop… If it’s pleasant to the ear and I consider the product to be completed with tact and care, I’ll almost always give it a chance. However, there are a few genres that I have trouble connecting with. Perhaps I simply haven’t given these areas of music enough attention to fully appreciate them. While some types of music continue to suffer from this lack of understanding (e.g. country and heavy metal), one in particular has crept its way into my heart through the vessel of an unbelievably talented group of musicians.

I suppose Crooked Still would most fittingly be labeled an alternative bluegrass band. Aoife O’Donovan provides the lead vocals, and I must say her voice is stunning. The band as a unit is one of the most technically proficient I have ever witnessed live. Each and every individual is ready to improvise a masterful solo on a moments notice, with the other members providing strong support. I think it’s so amazing that fiddler Brittany Haas, banjo player Gregory Liszt, or cellist Tristan Clarridge have the ability to take over a song and put the crowd into a frenzy.

Perhaps you are like me and aren’t sure if an alternative bluegrass band is for you? Put your doubts aside and look no further than Crooked Still!

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Camp by Childish Gambino

Alright, so the verdict is in, and Childish Gambino is officially the shit! After listening through his first commercial release Camp (November 15) a few times, I’m absolutely hooked. His talent is undeniable. As a rapper, there are few out there that can compete with his brand of clever lyricism (in my opinion, Gambino is nearly at Kanye’s level). When a hip hop album can sustain my attention solely through the magic of its words, I consider that a special record. ‘Camp’ definitely does that for me. Several of the songs on this album are Glover sharing his experiences from childhood, and the honesty is refreshing. The content definitely reminds me of Kanye West’s early work (à la ‘College Dropout’ or ‘Late Registration’), before his ego exploded.

The composition of the music and beats is wonderful. Songs were produced by Glover himself and Ludwig Gorannson, a Swedish composer. Some of the songs stick to club beats, whereas others use a variety of instruments such as (but not limited to) guitar, violin, piano, and xylophone. Gambino’s voice as an R&B singer is impressive. The fact that he can carry the verses as a rapper and the choruses as a singer is proof of his versatility.

Donald Glover is a triple threat. He can act, do stand-up, and put together a very solid hip-hop album. Two of the songs from my previous post on Childish Gambino are also off of ‘Camp.’ Enjoy!

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Childish Gambino

I have been familiar with Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) since the debut of Community, but I was not aware of his talent as a rapper, singer, and producer (beyond the goofy raps he delivers with Danny Pudi on the show). Considering the fact that I just started listening to Childish Gambino today, some might consider a post premature. I have already come across a number of tracks that I really enjoy, so I figure why not share and continue to research.

Childish Gambino holds an arsenal of weapons to slay beats, namely a strong lyrical sense (e.g. Kanye) and the ability to sing R&B (e.g. Drake). The beat on ‘Bonfire’ reminds me a bit of the production on Kanye’s ‘Power’ (tba: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), but Gambino’s raspy delivery is all his own. ‘Got This Money’ uses a variety of instruments and sounds, including a nice guitar riff, what sounds like a xylophone, and a dance-worthy electronic beat. Because I am just getting to know this artist, I would love to hear some more opinions about how you think he compares to other rappers.

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Goodbye Sky Harbor by Jimmy Eat World

I have been a fan of Jimmy Eat World since high school. They’re an awesome band that have paved the way for many alternative, emo, and punk artists. One of my favorite albums of all time is their self-titled record (more commonly remembered as the Bleed American album), which contains a slew of hits including ‘The Middle’ and ‘Sweetness.’ Lucky for me, I have been able to see J.E.W. in concert twice, the most recent time being at the Fillmore in San Francisco. They performed the Bleed American album in its entirety, and I was truly in heaven. I don’t think I’ve ever worked up more of a sweat at a concert…

The thing is, the album only runs around 47 minutes for 11 songs. The crowd pretty much expected a lengthy encore, and we were NOT disappointed. Their opener in the encore was a song I had never heard, but I was completely blown away. Goodbye Sky Harbor is the closing number from their ‘Clarity’ album. It features some really nice instrumentation and great buildups throughout the song. I must say that I was most impressed by the looping section that begins at around the three minute mark (and dominates the majority of the song). Lead singer Jim Adkins really shows off his vocal abilities and blends multiple layers of sound to create something spectacular.

The album version might be a bit excessive and ambitious for some, so I will include the condensed live version from the Fillmore show below.

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William Fitzsimmons

In 2010, I stumbled upon the remarkable William Fitzsimmons. This guy has what I consider to be the silkiest voice around, and understated talent to boot. Much of his material is emotional, clearly dredging up negative memories of failed marriages, the divorce of his parents, and a difficult home life growing up. Fitzsimmons was raised in a home with two blind parents and went on to become a therapist at a mental hospital.  His compassion, intelligence, and ability to communicate emotion shine through the beauty of his music.

I’d also like to make note of ‘Derivatives,’ an album where a number of his songs from a previous record have been remixed in an electronic fashion. ‘So This Is Goodbye’ was one of the best tracks I discovered last year (take a listen below).

Trying to select the perfect songs that demonstrate William Fitzsimmons’ genius is a daunting task. If you are unfamiliar with his work, do yourself a favor and check him out. I recommend that you watch the entire Deep Rock Drive show, which can be accessed on YouTube.

Oh, did I forget to mention his gargantuan, luxurious, epic, and god-like beard? My bad.

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