Category: Minnesota music

Interview: Walker Kong

If the Twin Cities has an answer to the literate, charmingly tuneful pop songcraft of Belle And Sebastian, or the Kinks songs that populate Wes Anderson movie soundtracks, it’s surely Walker Kong, which enlivened the Minnesota music scene with four albums of breezy indie-rock in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The band took a long break after releasing the stellar but underheard Deliver Us From People, in part because bandleader Jeremy Ackerman and his wife, backing vocalist Alex Ackerman, moved to Wisconsin, where Jeremy is a high-school art teacher. But over time, a new album began to piece its way together, and the group is now set to re-emerge with the new Phazes Of Light. Optimistic and elegiac by turns, Phazes reflects on the journey through life from childhood to adulthood and beyond, a theme inspired in no small part by the untimely death of founding member Sara Vargas in a traffic accident in 2009. In advance of Walker Kong’s upcoming shows June 2 at Bryant-Lake Bowl and June 22 at Amsterdam Bar, Jeremy Ackerman talked with The A.V. Club about the new album and the new phase of Walker Kong.

Originally published June 1, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Interview: Dylan Hicks

Dylan Hicks first made his name in the 1990s as a musician, writing a bushelful of witty, sharply observant songs on his albums Won, Poughkeepsie, and Alive With Pleasure. And although he’s reinvented himself as a fiction writer, the love of music still plays a key role in Hicks’ new debut novel, Boarded Windows. Moving between the 1970s and 1990s, Windows tells the story of an erudite but socially hapless record-store clerk and his conflicted relationship with Wade Salem, his con-artist father figure and one-time bass player for fictional country-music star Bolling Greene. Hicks hosts a launch party for Boarded Windows May 10 at the Loft Literary Center and a record-release show for a companion album, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, May 12 at Bryant-Lake Bowl. He talked to The A.V. Club about writing his novel, returning to songwriting, and crossing the line between truth and fiction.

Originally published May 9, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Interview: Saltee

On paper, the idea of combining cello, beatboxing, and guitar seems like an improbable mix, and maybe even a recipe for gimmicky disaster. And the members of Saltee know it: Terrell “Carnage” Woods, the trio’s breathtakingly inventive beatboxer, even jokes that “We should do a song called ‘Shouldn’t Work.’” But thanks to its formidable talent and improvisational skills, the group makes magic instead, weaving classical, hip-hop and Robert Fripp-style experimental rock with a dazzling musical alchemy. In advance of Saltee’s release show for its new four-song EP CrossPolyNation May 12 at the Cedar Cultural Center, Woods, cellist Jacqueline Ultan, and guitarist Mike Michel talked to The A.V. Club.

Originally published May 8, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Review: Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself

Andrew Bird’s songwriting approach is seemingly paradoxical, at once highly improvisational and long-simmering, with material sometimes taking years to finally gel together. The results are familiar to anyone who’s followed his string of breezily baroque albums over the last decade, full of virtuosic and engaging inter-weavings of melodies and loops spun from violin, whistling, guitar, and Bird’s warbling tenor. While his songs are elegantly crafted and artfully arranged, he’s careful not to lose the sense that music is about creating a space to explore, to wander through and maybe even get lost in. That’s certainly the case with his sixth solo album, Break It Yourself.

Working with his longtime, improv-friendly backing band of Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, and Mike Lewis, Bird recorded Break It Yourself in a loose-knit weeklong session at his barn outside of Chicago, capturing the performances largely live. The approach pays dividends in creating an off-the-cuff atmosphere for songs that have probably been honed and re-imagined frequently, often making Break It Yourself feel as if it’s being created on the spot.

It’s extraordinarily intimate at times, especially given the overarching theme of heartbreak and broken connections that suffuses the album. Which is not to say that Break It Yourself is ever nakedly and painfully personal. That is simply not Bird’s style, and even when his lyrics veer toward the confessional, they’re couched inside oblique and ambivalently calm language. “Lazy Projector” spins out a metaphor on the untrustworthiness of memory as the deliberately crafted fiction of a movie, edited and recast to smooth out the sharp edges of truth, before finally throwing in a direct statement: “I can’t see the sense in us breaking up at all.” From such a normally reserved songwriter, the line explodes like a depth charge.

On “Lusitania,” Bird turns to maritime war history—the ship sinkings that helped launch the U.S. into two wars—for another metaphor on a destroyed relationship, but shifts both mood and metaphor with a gently lilting guest vocal from St. Vincent’s Annie Clark nicely underplaying a verse about the electricity of a new connection. It’s indicative of a beautifully free-flowing set of tunes that soar and waft like a flock of starlings, building to a quietly epic mood that is too ruminative and introspective to suffer from grandiosity.

Originally published March 7, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Review: The Small Cities, “With Fire”

The Small Cities’ guitarist Leif Bjornson and drummer David Osborn (who also split vocals and lyric-writing duties) grew up together in small-town Wisconsin, playing in high school bands before eventually splitting up for college and reuniting again in the Twin Cities. They haven’t lost touch with their rural roots, though—it’s right there in their band name, after all—and the wistful, melodic musings on With Fire are inspired in no small part by those earlier days. It’s an album that is consumed by the idea of memory, and perhaps its greatest strength is the band’s assured sense of storytelling, confessional and novelistic by turns, about the way the past informs the present for both good and bad. “Wonder Years” looks back at the awkward but thrilling days of teen romance, making mix-tapes and enduring the distrusting scrutiny of fathers before taking a girl out on a date, and discovering that love, whatever else it might be good for, is also a gateway to a larger world than you knew existed: “We were young and we would find to lose our hearts was to lose our minds—and our parents fell so far behind.”

The other main thread weaving its way through With Fire is religion—specifically, coming to terms with an upbringing you grow to disagree with, and trying to find a path for yourself that makes sense to you. “Abraham” describes a childhood grounded in tradition that’s both comforting (“in my father’s house / I knew my north from my south”) and toxic in its terrifying fear of the Rapture, the “fire” of the album title, winding up with a regretful head-shaking at “all the wasted days praying the Lord would change my ways.” Heavy stuff, but it’s also catchy enough to sing along to, buoyed by a jaunty guitar line and a driving, handclap-assisted rhythm that drives home what’s ultimately a joyful statement—hey, we’re not all going to die! “Wise Blood” picks up the theme again, with understated and deftly drawn imagery of wine as both religious sacrament and symbol of the loss of innocence in the line “spilled blood of Christ on your Easter dress.”

That energy simmers throughout the album, particularly in its first half, typified by “Laughter Song,” which shares a sense of wonder at the still-unblemished happiness of a newborn. But With Fire often hits hardest on the slow burners like the melancholy “Hospitals,” which goes for the emotional jugular with a story about a father still devastated more than a decade after the death of his son: “I think of him every time I see a child / and I lose track of myself sometimes / my mind goes running wild.”

Like their musical forebears Low, Radiohead, and Pedro The Lion, there’s a churning emotionality woven through The Small Cities’ earnest indie rock, a marbled texture of sadness and, more strongly, optimism—and it’s the latter that seems to truly define what The Small Cities are at their core.

Originally published March 2, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Interview: The Pines

Guitarists and songwriters Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt both grew up in the Iowa folk scene, where Ramsey’s father Bo is a major figure. But they came into their own as musicians when they moved to Minneapolis and formed The Pines, recording four albums of understated but richly resonant indie-folk in the vein of Bon Iver, Calexico, and Mason Jennings, who they opened for on his recent national tour. Their latest, Dark So Gold, gets its release show Feb. 17 at the Cedar Cultural Center. Ramsey and Huckfelt talked to The A.V. Club about the beauty and hope behind sad songs, how they keep their musical partnership going long distance, and their Iowa connection.

The PINES – Cry, Cry, Crow (Official Music Video) from The PINES on Vimeo.

Originally published Feb. 17, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Interview: Martin Zellar

Songwriter Martin Zellar made his name as the leader of The Gear Daddies, which earned a cult following for blending weary-but-wry country-rock with raw, Replacements-style emotional vulnerability on 1988’s Let’s Go Scare Al and 1990’s Billy’s Live Bait. To Zellar’s bemused irritation, though, he’s best known for a jaunty sports-themed novelty song, “Zamboni,” which landed on the soundtrack to Disney’s The Mighty Ducks and still can be heard at hockey rinks around the country. After the Daddies broke up in 1992, Zellar moved on to a solo career, soon forming a new backing band, the Hardways, which plays frequently throughout the Midwest despite the fact that Zellar now lives in central Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende. Despite his busy concert schedule, Zellar hasn’t released a new studio album since 2002’s Scattered—which he’s about to change with Rooster’s Crow, recorded in Texas and chronicling his first few years in Mexico. Zellar and the Hardways play Rooster’s CD-release show Feb. 10 at the Fine Line. While in Minnesota in January, he talked with The A.V. Club about the new album and life as an expatriate indie musician.

Originally published Feb. 9, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Interview: Father You See Queen

After moody electronica duo To Kill A Petty Bourgeoisie disbanded last year, instrumentalist Mark McGee branched out in many directions, founding improvisational group Votel and lending a hand to electro-hardcore act Marijuana Deathsquads. But his chief project is another duo—Father You See Queen, pairing him with vocalist Nicole “Mona” Tollefson and specializing in an elegant, icy, even eerie sound that moves beyond To Kill’s territory without losing sight of its borders. The duo also share a common interest in accentuating their music with visual art; McGee says one reason they signed with Chicago label Flingco Sound System was a common desire “to make the packaging just as important as the actual music.” While their six-song EP, titled 47, isn’t officially out until April, FYSQ’s Jan. 20 show at 7th Street Entry marks the unveiling of a special limited-edition set of 36 handcrafted music boxes—each unique, containing a download code for the album and a scattering of ashes and hair hiding another secret underneath. Created by artists Jason Wasyk and Danielle Voight with creative input from McGee and Tollefson, the boxes have a minimalist and deceptively simple design mask subtle allusive meaning. The A.V. Club talked with the band and the artists about the evolution of Father You See Queen’s sound and the thought behind the boxes.

Originally published Jan. 17 on Read the complete article.

Review: Howler, America Give Up

Although the title of Minneapolis quintet Howler’s debut full-length suggests weary resignation, America Give Up practically glows with youthful energy. Frontman and songwriter Jordan Gatesmith hasn’t even turned 20 yet, and America steamrolls through its 32 minutes with a brash and undeniably exhilarating vitality. Howler’s buzz-creating EP from 2011, This One’s Different, created a huge wave of next-big-thingitude in England, where raves from NME led to a tour slot opening for The Vaccines and a deal with legendary U.K. label Rough Trade. Which almost certainly means a backlash is coming in six months or so, but until then (and even afterwards) America has plenty worth enjoying.

Comparisons to The Strokes have been flung at Howler repeatedly, enthusiastically, and accurately, though it’s fair to note that Howler reaches deeper into the past for its influences, snaring the good bits of high-energy punk guitar combos like The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Buzzcocks, and ultimately drawing from the old-school rock rebels of the ’50s. Which is ultimately both the most endearing thing about Howler and the precisely defined shape of the space it’s boxed itself into. The surf-punky “Beach Sluts” could be a lost Ramones B-side, both for its rough-edged, infectious garage-rock enthusiasm and its inescapable shallowness.

If the members of Howler seem less interested in breaking out of that mold than enthusiastically reveling in it, who can blame them? They’re young, and they have plenty of time to develop a voice that transcends as well as recapitulates their influences. Whether they can do that is a question for the band’s second album—America Give Up is about woo-oo-oo choruses and fuzz-laden, spiky guitar chords, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Originally published Jan. 17 on Read the complete article.

Interview: New Monarchs

The New Monarchs began as a conventional four-piece rock combo, but they didn’t stay conventional for long, boiling down to a two-man electronic collaboration between lyricist-guitarist Sean Hogan and multi-instrumentalist Taylor Nelson. The duo’s 2008 debut, Blueprints, married glossy, processed beats with heart-on-sleeve, emotion-drenched pop, creating a sound the duo refined further on 2010’s five-song Electrocaching. The New Monarchs’ still-untitled sophomore full-length should be released later this year. In the meantime, the band has also put out Repeating Equation: Electrocaching Remixes, a track-by-track reworking of Electrocaching by compatriots in the local electronic scene including Askeleton and DJ Skullbuster. To celebrate the EP, they’ll play Jan. 7 at Cause with Ghost In The Water and Aaron & The Sea. The A.V. Club caught up with Hogan and Taylor to talk about the remix EP, the joys of a diverse music scene, and the benefits of appearing on Gossip Girl.

Originally published Jan. 6 on Read the complete article.

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