SONG OF THE DAY: July 31st

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Music

My Morning Jacket, “Highly Suspicious”

Don’t hate this song: It’s too awesome. You may initially be a little freaked out by it, simply because it probably sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before and MMJ frontman Jim James is singing about a “peanut butter pudding surprise” in an eerie falsetto. I’m not really sure what a peanut butter pudding surprise is myself, but this song makes me want one. The track’s heavy bass line and crunching guitar provided a stark contrast to James’ ungodly high lead vocals. “Highly Suspicious” shouldn’t work on so many levels: the lyrics are gobbledegook; the music feels like it’s ripped from a 1980s sci-fi movie imagining what “the music of the future” would sound like; and it seems that Jim James’ creepy laugh somehow escaped from your local haunted house last October. Yet, despite all of these completely logical reasons, MMJ still rock my face off every time. I can’t tell you why I love this song; I just hope you do too.

Listen to: My Morning Jacket, “Highly Suspicious”

SONG(S) OF THE DAY(S): July 29th and 30th

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Music

The Killers, “Smile Like You Mean It”
Tally Hall, “Smile Like You Mean It”

As some of you who actually pay attention to this daily feature have noted, there was no Song of the Day posted yesterday. In order to remedy the situation, I have posted two songs for today — or, more accurately, two versions of one song. Hope they help heal the wound.

The Killers‘ “Smile Like You Mean It” was one of the many highlights on their iconic 2004 album, Hot Fuss. Featuring a moaning synth line and Brandon Flowers’ hook-laden chorus, the song was the band’s third single in the U.S. and contributed to the band’s meteoric rise to worldwide fame. Even as the Killers have become more self-assured and (by extension) polarizing over the past five years, “Smile Like You Mean It” remains on of the great alternative pop songs on the decade.

Michigan-based pop group Tally Hall covered the track for the final season of FOX’s The O.C. back in 2006 and, I must say, did so magnificently. The band’s unique sound and tight vocal harmonies give the more stripped down arrangement its own expanded feel. Tally Hall relies on swelling harmonies in place of Flowers’ trademark synthesizer line to augment the sing-along chorus and even throws in a delectable vocal transition to the song’s bridge to boot. Altogether, a great cover of an excellent song from a band that I’ve never quite been able to pin down stylistically. Hopefully both versions will help our loyal Song of the Day fans fan forgive our tardiness.

Listen to: The Killers, “Smile Like You Mean It”

Listen to: Tally Hall, “Smile Like You Mean It”

MUSIC: RuRu Goes Big

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Music

Isaac Russell

Isaac Russell

Provo’s favorite folk-singing son Isaac Russell, formerly known to fans as RuRu, has made the big time.

The 17-year-old Rhombus-approved phenom recently signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia Records, one of the few major labels left standing in an industry increasingly decimated by online file-sharing. Russell recently told Rhombus he is excited about the possibilities the deal will present for his music.

As part of his transition to the national stage, Russell will drop his longtime stage moniker, RuRu, and will record simply as Isaac Russell for Columbia. While it remains unknown exactly why the title was thrown aside, it is possible that the label wanted to avoid confusion with (and lawsuits from) a Japanese animation company with a similar name.

Russell began negotiations with Columbia following an April showcase he and his brother, Spencer (of local band Mudbison), played for record company scouts, including representatives from Universal and indie label Asthmatic Kitty. While it has taken a few months to hammer out the legal and compensatory details of Columbia’s buyout of Russell and his songs from local label Northplatte Records, the deal is now done.

“[I am an] exclusive recording artist of Columbia Record label,” Russell announced via his Twitter account on Tuesday.

The newly minted star plans to re-record portions of his 2008 album, Elizabeth, and lay down new material in a month-long recording session beginning August 7th. The recordings will be helmed by producer Dennis Herring, who has worked with several prominent artists, including Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello, Counting Crows, Ben Folds and the Hives.

The new album, which will be recorded at Herring’s Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, Mississippi, will likely include old fan favorites like “Elizabeth,” “Excuse” and “Why,” but also feature fresher tracks like the heartfelt “Made Me A Man” and the rambling “Anniversary Song.” Russell recently told Rhombus that Columbia is shooting for a late 2009/early 2010 release.

Meanwhile, Russell and his band will tour the country this fall in support of the upcoming disc. He has been in California over the past week, playing shows in Los Angeles, Bakersfield and even a set at the California Mid-State Fair, alongside the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Journey and — Lord help us — Judas Priest. Unfortunately, Russell may not grace the stage at Velour for awhile with his new found fame, but his many local fans hope their favorite teenage folkie won’t stay away too long.

For an interesting look at Russell’s skyrocketing career, watch this video from Bakersfield’s NBC affiliate, KGET 17. To hear more, visit Russell’s MySpace page.

Steve Pierce is editor and co-founder of Rhombus. His weekend plans will take a serious nosedive now that RuRu isn’t playing local shows.

SONG OF THE DAY: July 28th

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Music

Camera Obscura, “French Navy”

Camera Obscura‘s brand of indie pop tinged with ’50s girl group flair is perfect summer music. “French Navy” is the kind of melodic fun that is ten times better with the windows down and the stereo up. Featuring a traditional rock accompaniment tastefully augmented by restrained horns and strings, the song is a little gem of pop perfection off an album (My Maudlin Career) full of them. People wondering what happened to the glory days of pop music (before Top 40 radio was ruled by T-Pain and his gang of buffoons) should give Camera Obscura a spin.

Listen to: Camera Obscura, “French Navy”

SONG OF THE DAY: July 27th

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Music

The Hold Steady, “How A Resurrection Really Feels”

The Hold Steady are one of my all-time favorite bands and I’m never quite sure why. By all accounts, they shouldn’t even be close. Lead vocalist Craig Finn’s gravelly growl is far from beautiful. His lyrics deal almost exclusively with tales of parties, alcohol and drugs — all things with which I have little to no experience. They are the quintessential American bar band — and I can count the number of times I have been to a bar on one hand. For all intents and purposes, I should be completely unable to relate to the band’s music.

Yet I do — completely. Finn’s exceptionally literary stories of young people coping with life by any means possible are familiar in the same way as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: they are tales of adolescent debauchery that fascinate and enrapture even the most straight-laced of audiences. You come to know and love Finn’s revolving cast of characters as friends; You care about them. As he weaves metaphors of religion and faith throughout his narratives, the songs become about much more than a couple drug-addled Minnesota twentysomethings looking for the next high. They become a series of diagonoses of an entire generation (our generation) set to crunching power chords and fluid keyboard licks. These people exist in real life — they are your friends, your neighbors, maybe even your family members. And that’s why the Hold Steady’s music is so salient: Craig Finn is writing music that provides the soundtrack to our generation’s lifestyle of decadence and excess, whether or not we choose to indulge ourselves.

Listen to: The Hold Steady, “How A Resurrection Really Feels”

SONG OF THE DAY: July 26th

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Music

Jeff Buckley / Rufus Wainwright / Imogen Heap, “Hallelujah”

A fitting selection for a Sunday, Leonard Cohen‘s classic “Hallelujah” has been covered by half the world by this point. There’s a reason for that: It is one of the all-time great songs. It makes my top five without a second thought. However, it is also a song that has the unique distinction of being done better by artists other than the original creator. Sure, Cohen is brilliant and his version is wonderful, but anyone who has heard the late Jeff Buckley‘s cover on his debut album, Grace, knows what the song can be.

That being said, I’ve included three cover versions of the song below. Each is unique and great in its own right. Buckley eschews Cohen’s traditional piano in favor of his trademark electric guitar and croons the tune like no one before or since. He owned this song, which has become his most iconic recording in the time since his tragic death. Rufus Wainwright also turns in a stunning performance in the way that only Rufus can. Accompanying himself on the piano, Wainwright’s heavenly tenor breathes an air of desperation into Cohen’s words of love, loss, faith and doubt. Though the arrangement follows the original more closely, Rufus makes the track his own. Lastly, ex-Frou Frou songbird Imogen Heap provides the most starkly different take on “Hallelujah,” singing the song a capella in her digitally enhanced warble (and with only a handful of the original verses.) Without accompaniment, Heap strips the song down to its barest elements: Cohen’s simple melody and beautiful words. Though the recording is rough (it never appeared on a major release, but did score Marissa Cooper’s death on The O.C.), the imperfections seem to augment Cohen’s message of human imperfection and weakness even more so. Each version is special in its own way and worthy of a listen on your Sunday afternoon. These artists’ great performances are a testament to the genius of Leonard Cohen and the masterpiece that he penned so many years ago. Take the time to listen to each and let us know which you prefer in the space below.

Listen to: Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah”

Listen to: Rufus Wainwright, “Hallelujah”

Listen to: Imogen Heap, “Hallelujah”

SONG OF THE DAY: July 25th

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Music

Wilco (feat. Feist), “You And I”

To commemorate the great Jeff Tweedy gracing the cover of the August issue of Spin Magazine that showed up in my mailbox yesterday, we’ll enjoy the sublime “You And I” off the band’s latest disc, Wilco (The Album), as today’s Song of the Day. Chances are many of you probably aren’t/haven’t listened to Wilco — and that is a huge mistake. While their later releases have never quite measured up to 2002′s iconic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy and company remain one of the best American rock bands in a generation. Disarmingly consistent, Wilco brings the heat every time; I remain unsure if they’ve ever recorded a substandard song.

Featuring the vocal brilliance of Canadian songstress Feist, “You And I” is a sweet little ditty that proves Wilco’s ever advancing ages do not translate into a correlating musical irrelevance. Not exactly a barn-burner rife with the experimentation of their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Summerteeth days, the song evokes a more mature, self-assured side that shows Tweedy (whose 13-year-old son writes a pretty prolific blog) settling down without settling for mediocrity. The vocals are stunning, with Feist and the Wilco frontman’s voices blending together in a gorgeous duet, while the band sounds as tight as ever on the sparse accompaniment. Included below are the album version of the track and the group’s excellent recent performance (with Feist in tow) on Letterman. Enjoy.

Listen to: Wilco (feat. Feist), “You And I”

TECH: Your Online Music Guide

Written by Colton Chesnut on . Posted in Music, Tech

Technology and distribution have had an exponential effect on how we’ve listened to our music over the last 50 years. Back then, we were a people who only listened to what was played on the local radio, mixed by some guy with slicked back hair and rolled up jeans. Next, it was the mania of the latest gramophone at the local retailer, because you wanted to personally contribute to the boys who brought you “Eleanor Rigby.” Then it was on to long-haired portability, because head-banging was born for your sick Camaro. Now we are an “on-demand” society. Why should we have to drive all the way down the street to buy the newest installment of Nickelback (not that we’d ever willingly do that) when we could download it from our living room couch via iTunes? There’s no use in owning the antiquated physical version of your music when it will only limit where you can listen to it. Like myself, may were introduced to digital music through illegal means (see Napster). However, it is my goal in this article to either introduce or refresh you on some of the better, more legal avenues for listening and obtaining music in 2009.

It just seemed natural to get iTunes out of the way first. Obviously Apple is the big fish here in this digital sea, so I won’t spend too much time talking about using iTunes. If you don’t already know, that’s probably because you are a rebellious Amish boy that sneaked into the nearest library because of your devotion to reading Rhombus. (Thanks for the commitment.) As for the rest of us, you may have noticed the spotlight these days on iPhone apps and HD movie rentals, making it hard to remember that the iTunes Music Store still sells music. Rest assured, because not only do they sell music, its now 100% DRM-free. Not so fast though: That license freedom did not come without a price. Aside from some deeper cuts and older releases being discounted a smidgen, almost all new releases and top selling tracks now bear a $1.29 price tag. 30 cents may not seem like a lot but, based on my library (which I did acquire solely via iTunes), if I had paid the current prices I would be out an extra $350. Overall, I would say that you would use iTunes primarily out of convenience. You probably already own an iPod, so going this route is as simple as one click to purchase and plug in to sync.

What a journey the crew at Napster has been on. They were the premier illegal source for mp3 downloads around the turn of the century. Even my Ninth Grade P.E. teacher used their service: he had me download shady versions of the Doobie Brothers in return for class credit. Despite their illegality, Napster was an important part of ushering in our current age of music distribution. However, their offering has changed a bit different since my junior high days. First off, it’s now legal, which is a plus for me. Until recently their service was a flat monthly fee of $12.95 and if you didn’t buy an official “Napster to-go” device, you were essentially paying for a glorified version of Pandora (without the clever recommendations). If your specific mp3 player of choice is “to-go” status, you can still opt back in to that plan. As for the rest of us, we get their new web-only service. For $4.99 a month you have all the access to their online library you can handle. They do have a Windows-only desktop client (sorry, Mac users) that allows you to listen and build custom playlists, but requires an internet connection to function. Included in the fee, Napster also allows you five full mp3 downloads every month. So if you find yourself only purchasing a song here or there from iTunes, this may be the perfect hybrid option for you. (For those of you who are interested, Rhapsody is another alternative service similar to Napster. CNet did a comparison of the two here.)

Online radio at its finest.  Pandora takes your favorite song or artist and builds a radio station around them. Sounds almost too good to be true, right? Well it pretty much was until May of this year when they added some usage limitations. Pandora has always been ad supported — that’s how they stay afloat. However, now there is a max time usage of 40 hours per month, in addition to your individual radio sessions timing out after 1 hour. You can thank/blame their new service, Pandora One: There are no monthly usage restrictions, it’s higher quality music (192 kbps), you can use their lightweight AIR desktop app and — last but not least — no more ads.

LaLa seems to have taken a different initial approach than the others. I suppose they assumed most people already had some sort of music collection on their computer already, so they decided to integrate with that. The Windows/Mac sync program called “LaLa Mover” will analyze the music on your computer and place the matches in your online LaLa library. If they cannot find certain songs you own on their site, they will automatically upload those tracks until all your music is on the Interweb. Their idea is allowing you the flexibility of filling your library with either 79 cent mp3 tracks or 10 cent online-only tracks. The LaLa ecosystem is not quite as straight forward as others, but accounts are free and there is no monthly bill. For those of you familiar with imeem, you will feel right at home with LaLa.

Colton Chesnut is co-founder and Web editor for Rhombus. He doesn’t really like Nickelback. We promise. Send him a tweet @coltonjchesnut.

SONG OF THE DAY: July 24th

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Music

Chris Merritt, “Dance Karate”

Unlike many in Provo, I’m not a huge Chris Merritt fan. Don’t get me wrong: he’s a fine musician and certainly listenable. But he’s not phenomenal, his live shows sometimes get a little long in the tooth and his style can become abrasive at times. Ultimately, Merritt makes enjoyable (if still largely disposable) pop music. This is not a crime and I do not condemn him for it. (Hey, it’s 80 million times better than what Nickelback does.)

However, Merritt does have one great song that outshines all others and single-handedly legitimizes him in my mind: “Dance Karate.” This song is pure energy. It’s like injecting Red Bull into your veins, only if Red Bull also contained “magic dancing juice.” Written for a songwriting class when he attended BYU, the artist claims “Dance Karate” was hastily composed right before a deadline, due to procrastination. To his surprise, the song received an “A” from the professor, who hadn’t awarded Merritt above a “C” up to that point. I concur wholeheartedly with the assessment and think you probably will as well. So take a listen to the track below and shake your groove thing right into this holiday weekend. You won’t regret kicking things off right.

Click here to listen to Chris Merritt’s “Dance Karate”

SONG OF THE DAY: July 23rd

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Music

Arcade Fire, “Wake Up”

Today’s selection comes courtesy of Rhombus tech correspondent Ben Wagner and his current emotional funk. In his fragile state, it seems Wagner has discovered Arcade Fire and their fantastic 2004 debut, Funeral. “Wake Up” is the album’s climactic apex, an epic blast of electric guitars, horns, group vocals and assorted drums. Every second of the song’s five-minute-plus run time is phenomenally perfect. It’s the kind of track that you absorb as it washes over you, then immediately play it again.

As this year marks the five year anniversary of Funeral‘s release, now is as good a time as any to reintroduce our readers to Arcade Fire. Though the Toronto-based septet haven’t released new material since 2007′s excellent Neon Bible, they remain as relevant as ever. Their expansive sound provides ample fodder for a kicking live show, which Arcade Fire delivers in spades. It is my opinion that great music is best experienced live, and Win Butler and crew validate that position. In order to illustrate the point, I have embedded a YouTube video of the band’s otherworldly performance of “Wake Up” at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival in Somerset, England as today’s Song of the Day. Between the music and the crowd, the video provides a picaresque glimpse of what music can and should be. I hope you agree.

(Here’s one for you, Ben. Enjoy.)