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Review: 22, A Million

PSA: The new Bon Iver album is out! This is a big deal in my circles because I’m from the same town as Justin Vernon, the guy writing under the Bon Iver nom de plume. (We have mutual friends and had some classes together, but we were hardly “friends”, so this fact doesn’t make me very cool.)

This is the same album Bon Iver premiered at the Eaux Claires festival back in August, and the full album was released today.

I think Vernon made some brave choices on this record. Extended sax techniques on a pop record? Yes. The style is definitely is a departure from For Emma, but the songwriting and vocal stylings are similar. I’m glad he didn’t feel pressured to stick to one formula, and that he no longer has to start an entirely new project just to experiment with his sound.

Unpopular opinion time: While I love most of the digital effects, the harmonizer is just not doing it for me. I get that it’s a nod to the post-production layered vocals and auto-tune that made him famous, but it’s too much. (Also “too much”? Those titles.)

I also think that he tried too hard for an arena sing-along in “22 (Over S∞∞n)” and “00000 Million”. Somehow they’re a far cry from “Skinny Love” and “Holocene”. He would have done better by not pandering to his audience. Having said that, though, “22 (Over S∞∞n)” has gotten stuck in my head more than once.

My favorite on the album is “666 ʇ”, where he and the band get everything right – the reverb-heavy guitar, light electronics, juicy bassline, buildup driven by the drums, etc.

Overall, this one is growing on me, but I don’t think it will be my go-to listen. What I do love about this album is that it will likely have ripple effects of inspiration throughout the industry, in the same way that For Emma and “Woods” (off Blood Bank) led to some real shifts in the pop music world (amid the many second-rate copycats).

Review: Eaux Claires Festival 2016

I never did get around to writing a review of last year’s inaugural Eaux Claires music and arts festival, located in my hometown area (Eau Claire, WI). It felt a little too personal to write about. It was a mixture of people I knew from school and famous acts making music together. I felt nostalgic and proud as I saw people travel from all over the world to an area that still feels like home.

This year was not much different in that regard, though overall it felt a little more predictable, and therefore less magical to me. Nobody really expected Kanye to take the stage anymore, and I probably wasn’t the only local who’d given up hope of a Mount Vernon reunion. The rain that plagued us all day Friday, which only let up when Bon Iver took the stage, probably didn’t help our spirits.


The lighting and art displays, however, were even more enchanting than last year. After sundown, the woods became awash again with color from powerful LED lighting. Winding paths encouraged discovery of art installations and a small hidden stage where my friend Sean led several performances (under the name S. Carey). My favorite installation was an odd boxy creation sculpted from what appeared to be chicken wire. When the sun went down, its true form was revealed through a lighting trick: it was an illusion of a church organ. The keyboard part was real, and performers used it for interstitial music between headliner sets.


While I would have loved more electronic, rap, and R&B artists, the music was the festival’s worthy focus. The musicians all seemed at ease despite the muggy/rainy weather.

My favorite acts, in no particular order: Mavis Staples (who could have benefited from a later set with a loosened-up audience); Erykah Badu (who showed up late, teased “Didn’t Cha Know?” and “Window Seat” without actually performing them, left early, and still managed to show everyone how it’s done); So Percussion (because percussion); Vince Staples (the often beleaguered sound techs were at their best for him); Jenny Lewis (who mercifully stopped a song to have those sound techs fix her monitor levels, then filled her stage with women and sang about domestic abuse); my friends Phil Cook and S. Carey (who I can’t write about without bias, but trust me when I say they were great); Eighth Blackbird (who had a fantastic performance of Steve Reich’s Double Sextet featuring members of yMusic and So Percussion); and, of course, Bon Iver (who performed their upcoming album, 22, A Million, which will only get better with repeated listens).


Review: Apple Music

I find myself missing that Beats Music more than I’d expected. I liked the look and feel of it. Most everything I searched for was there (with the exception of streaming holdouts like The Beatles). I had a sentimental attachment to Beats after all the work I’d personally done for them.

Because I relied so heavily on Beats Music, I find myself somewhat out of the loop when it comes to other services. As a way to find my new favorite, and educate myself about what’s out there, for the past few months I’ve been checking out other “on-demand” music services.

First up:

Apple Music.

Initial Impressions: Ugh. I don’t understand why I have to download iTunes. A streaming service should require an app download on a mobile device, but it shouldn’t require a desktop download. It’s an outdated approach, and a barrier to entry. Why should I have to download a desktop client in order to get quick access to on-demand music?

From there, I found the Apple Music portion surprisingly difficult to find. It seems like an odd branding decision to keep iTunes and Apple Music somewhat separate, but one has to be accessed through the other. To find Apple Music, I had to click the “For You” tab on iTunes.

Beyond the initial hurdles, setup was relatively straightforward. Weirdly enough, it probably helps in my case that I haven’t been using a lot of Apple products lately. I have an old iPod, but I’ve never had an iPhone or iPad. My desktop computer doesn’t have a lot of music on it. Most of the issues I’ve heard about setting up a new Apple Music account have to do with the match feature, which didn’t apply to me. I wasn’t able to move my (small) music library from Beats to Apple, but that probably had more to do with me using a different last name and email address than anything else.

Search function: One of the things I miss about Beats is that an artist’s page would list albums that were deemed “essentials”, as well as “latest releases”. I think Apple’s search results are a little jumbled, and their search might not be as powerful. For example, while searching for Anthony de Mare’s Liaisons — Re-imagining Sondheim From The Piano, I see the artist Anthony de Mare show up, but I don’t see the album, and I can’t seem to find it while clicking through Anthony de Mare’s page. What makes it weirder is that the album art has been selected for the artist’s art, so it’s probably intended to be available for streaming, but I can’t find it.

Recommendations: Perhaps what interests me most about each service is their ability to recommend music to me. Apple has learned a little more about my tastes since I set it up, but it’s still a little off. My first recommendations were an intro to Spoon playlist (no) and an Alt-Country playlist (after I’d let them know I hate country). Radiohead, Kanye West, and Wilco are a little more attuned to my preferences, but that’s because I selected them from the bubbles when I signed up.

Aesthetics: Apple is nothing if not sleek. The artist’s image is nicely integrated, and all the info I’d want at a glance is there. However, the UX isn’t perfect: I don’t love the way the search results look, especially since it seems to take a while to load. I’m also annoyed by the way the current song is displayed: it shows or scrolls across the top of the window, separated from all the other pertinent info, in a too-small font.


Playlists: I think Apple brought a lot of the Beats playlists over with them, including the wide array of curators (Downbeat, Pitchfork, etc.; they seem to have lost Naxos, whose witty playlists I miss). I like the “Intro” playlists, and there seems to be a fair amount of activity-based playlists. I spend more time listening to curated playlists than anything else, so the only improvement would be an even greater number of them, and I wish the playlists recommended to me were changed up on a more frequent basis. The other downside is the roundabout access to Playlists. I’m not sure whether this is the best way, but I’ve been accessing them via the “All Genres” pull-down menu on the “New” tab.

Mobile app: I tend to do most of my listening via desktop, so while I’ve heard negative experiences of the Android app, I haven’t encountered many issues during my limited usage of it. However: it’s frustrating that there isn’t an Apple Music app for my Android tablet (running Marshmallow), but there is one for my phone (same OS). Maybe that’s Google’s fault, not Apple’s. The other main issue I have is that it doesn’t have Chromecast support, so I can’t cast it to my TV at home. When it comes to playing music at home, we usually opt for Spotify for that reason.

Summary: Apple’s vast music library and lovingly-curated playlists shine. The UX is decent, but reliance on iTunes is a deal-breaker for me. The lack of an Android tablet app and Chromecast make it even more of a chore to use. I’m looking forward to checking out other services, and will only return to Apple if I find other services’ playlists lacking.

Quick Review: Jon Benjamin, Jazz Daredevil: Well I Should Have… Learned To Play Piano

Comedian H. Jon Benjamin released a jazz album (Well I Should Have… Learned To Play Piano) in November of last year, but I didn’t notice until this week, when it was suddenly all over my Facebook feed. You may recognize Benjamin as a voice actor from shows like Bob’s Burgers, The Venture Brothers, and Home Movies. 

The premise, as you may have figured out from the title, is this: a comedian plays piano on a jazz album without having learned how to actually play the piano.

The punchline of the joke, as you may have also guessed, is that it actually kind of works. But to accept it as a robust critique of the genre would be to discount the contributions of Scott Kreitzer on sax, Jonathan Peretz on drums, and David Finck on bass. Finck in particular does a lot of heavy lifting by creating wonderfully melodic lines. The combo as a whole makes it obvious, even to someone without musical knowledge, when it’s time to solo. To be able to have that conversation without discussing anything verbally – and for listeners to enjoy it, even when one of the participants is hilariously inept – is one of the best features of jazz music.

My overall impression: This is definitely worth listening to. For added giggles, put it on at work or a party and see if anyone notices. Also – comedians Aziz Ansari and Kristen Schaal are great in the intro track.