Off Beat Music Guide

Album Review: Bon Iver, Bon Iver May 27, 2011

Filed under: Album Review,Music,Music News,New Release,Uncategorized — bethstephenson84 @ 12:13 pm
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Let’s get it out of the way, apart from Justin Vernon’s trademark falsetto, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is nothing like For Emma, Forever Ago. And in my opinion it didn’t need to be. Justin Vernon’s pining and isolation resulted in a full and complete album. He put it all on the table and left little room for a Part 2.

So much of what I love about that album is the story of its creation; the months of isolation in the woods writing songs about lost love and heartbreak, never expecting anyone to hear them. We did, of course, hear them and we fell in love with them. He captured lightening in a bottle. For Emma was absolutely perfect for the collectively heartbroken world in 2008, but now it’s time to move on.

And here we are a couple of years later, ready to move on. And it feels as though the Bon Iver boys are right there with us, writing our soundtrack on Bon Iver, Bon Iver.

Over the past 3 years, Vernon has given us hints about the direction he would take with this album. The Blood Bank EP eased us into a bolder sounding Bon Iver and the title track easily became my favorite song of 2009.

Where For Emma is stark and minimal, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is intricate and lavish. Vernon mixes synthesizers with pedal guitars and creates sounds that Vernon himself described as “Civil War-sounding heavy metal.” It’s odd for sure, but then Vernon has never been an easy read. I remember reading once that Vernon often has no idea what his songs are about; it’s as if the words just come through him and he is little more than a scribe. Way to rub it in, Vernon. We get it, you are a genius.

Much like For Emma, this album is full of challenging and breathtaking lyrics. It reads much more like poetry than music, and much like poetry, I think the meaning is meant to be personal. The listener is supposed to take ownership.

I’ve had the album for couple of days now, and I can say without any hesitancy that I like it. My favorites so far are “Perth,” “Minnesota, WI” and “Calgary.” I anticipate, much like my experience with For Emma, that my favorites will change pretty regularly though. I am sad to say that “Beth/Rest” is currently my least favorite song on the album, despite multiple attempts to LOVE it. Maybe that will change when I hear it live.

This album is all about journeys and destinations. Many of the song titles are places, both real and imaginary, and even the album’s title is a destination. Destination doesn’t necessarily have to mean the end though. I like to think Bon Iver, Bon Iver is just a stopping point on this band’s journey and that we’ve got many more gorgeous miles ahead of us.

Track list:

1. Perth
2. Minnesota, WI
3. Holocene
4. Towers
5. Michicant
6. Hinnom, TX
7. Wash.
8. Calgary
9. Lisbon, OH
10. Beth/Rest



Concert Review- Sufjan Stevens November 10, 2010

Filed under: Album Review,Concerting,Music,Now Hear This — bethstephenson84 @ 12:18 pm
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Where: The Tabernacle-  Atlanta, GA

When: November 6, 2010

Let me first say, in the very likely case that you only read this first sentence, that this was my favorite concert experience to date. I have been accused in the past of maybe overselling music and artists, but let me assure you, there’s no amount of selling I could do that would even marginally describe this concert.

Being a fan of Mr. Stevens, I blindly enjoyed The Age of Adz because I thought it was interesting and different. And the fact that we got the bonus EP All Delighted People not a month earlier made this a more or less Sufjan Stevens-themed Fall for me.

But it wasn’t until I saw Sufjan’s live show that I truly understood either album. I accepted long ago that there will be aspects of Sufjan Stevens’ music that I would just never get and that was okay because what I did understand was so wonderful.

Before seeing the show, I hadn’t made a very conscious effort to even try and understand The Age of Adz because it’s definitely one of his more difficult albums, which says a lot.  Instead, I opted to enjoy his melodies, which he seems to be a master of.

But hearing his explanations for songs and seeing the AMAZING visual elements he incorporated into the show really provided that (as Oprah would say) A-Ha moment for me.


View from the nosebleed section

He did a lot of dancing and a lot of talking during the almost 2 hour show. He and his back-up singers/dancers did several costume changes in full view of the audience, which provided some really funny moments. And the costumes were in keeping with the Intergalactic theme of the night. Think shoulder pads and glow sticks…

The sound and sound mixing for this show was simply breathtaking. And while it was loud and blanketed the entire building, it never felt abrasive. Sufjan’s mic was set a little louder than all the other instruments so his voice was crystal clear over all of the beats and unusual sounds that characterize most of The Age of Adz.

He opened the show with the very soft “Seven Swan” and closed with the crowd favorite “Chicago,” but everything in between was new material. Even the 24+ minute masterpiece “Impossible Soul” was played, much to my delight.  S.S. used the encore to play old familiars like “Jacksonville” and “Casimir Pulaski Day,” and the crowd wasn’t angry about that.

Here’s the setlist:

  1. Seven Swans
  2. Age of Adz
  3. Too Much
  4. Heirloom
  5. I Walked
  6. Futile Devices
  7. Vesuvius
  8. Now That I’m Older
  9. Get Real Get Right
  10. Enchanting Ghost
  11. Impossible Soul
  12. Chicago


  1. Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
  2. Casimir Pulaski Day
  3. Jacksonville

The feeling I walked away with, a feeling of pure what-the-heck-just-happened, was what makes this my favorite concert to date. The crowd sat in silence most of the show, in what I can only describe as pure awe.

Sufjan Stevens is an incredibly odd man with an incredibly brilliant and weird and funny mind. During those couple of hours, we got a sneak peek into that mind and his world and it was like nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced before.

I was in the nosebleed section because the show was sold out, but I managed to get some video footage. Here are a couple of songs from the show. To see the rest of the video, check out my YouTube page at



Get Real Get Right



Best of 2010 (so far) June 25, 2010

In honor of Paste Magazine releasing their Best of 2010 (so far), I thought I’d take a stab at my own list.

Thinking back to the beginning of this year, I was anticipating so many wonderful albums from some of my favorite bands, and for the most part I haven’t been let down.

So here’s my list, in no particular order (I know that’s a cop-out, but I will save the numbering for the end of the year.)

Laura Marling I Speak Because I Can– Judging by the tears that always creep into my eyes while listening, you might think Miss Marling’s sophomore album wouldn’t make it onto my list. But then this girl has always known how to make me cry, and I love her for it. I’m convinced that she has to be the oldest 20 year old on the planet; but whatever her troubles, she certainly knows how to pen a song.

Frightened Rabbit The Winter of Mixed Drinks– These Scotsmen easily won me over with this rip-roaring album (which is coincidentally mostly about loneliness and reflection). I got a chance to see these guys live a couple of months ago and it was just fun, just like this album.

The Black Keys Brothers– This was a no brainer for me. These guys have had me hooked for years and this album’s experimentation with soul and funk is solid gold. When I listen to this album, it feels like I’ve known these songs my whole life.

Vampire Weekend Contra– Apart from releasing this album of great summer anthems smack dab in the middle of one of the coldest winters in my city’s history, I can’t say enough good things about this band’s second LP. I love this album from top to bottom.

Beach House Teen Dream– If Victoria LeGrand’s voice were any lovelier, I would send out a memo to all other songstresses to just throw in the towel. Teen Dream is just what the title suggests; a perfectly lovely dream. I can enjoy this album in any mood.

The National High Violet– There are moments in this album that physically take my breath away. I was confident that they couldn’t top Boxer, but then I heard “Afraid of Everyone” and I knew they had really outdone themselves with this one. And then there’s the fact that Sufjan Steven helped collaborate on the album… (full on swooning going on over here)

Mumford & Sons Sigh No More– This folky London based quartet stole my heart in early 2010 with this fun (and surprisingly pensive) album. At moments it has a distinct Americana and bluegrass feel and at other times it feels very foreign, like Irish pub music. The superficial part of me loves their accents, while the true music lover in me really appreciates the good songwriting.

Local Natives Gorilla Manor– I only picked up this album when it was release in February and yet it already feels like very old friend. I wish all pop music was this clever and fun.

Suckers Wild Smile– I had heard rumblings about this band for a while, but I finally got to see them live a couple of months ago, before the release of Wild Smile. The only thing I love more than their Afro-pop, Bowie infused musical style, is this band’s insane personal style…a Saint Bernard printed cape, really, really?

Janelle Monae The ArchAndroid– She’s got funk. She’s got soul. She’s got style. Love, love, love this album.


Album Review: Fanfarlo’s Reservoir January 22, 2010

Filed under: Album Review,Best of 09,Music — bethstephenson84 @ 12:02 pm

I hate to sound whiney, but there’s just too much music to listen to these days. And right when I (arrogantly) think I’ve got a handle on what’s going on in the music world, I realize I don’t even know the half of it. I battle with spending lots of time listening to a few good albums or spending a limited time exploring the endless abyss of music available in this indie era.

I shudder at all of the bands I overlooked or simply didn’t have time for last year. And of course I shudder at the bands I wasted time trying to like (Animal Collective. Sorry, but there it is). One of the bands I’ve gotten a delayed start on is the London- based indie band, Fanfarlo. They released their debut album, Reservoir, in October of 09, and I didn’t start listening to them until late November when I had pretty much mentally wrapped up my list of the Best of 2009. So although this is not a new release, I want to give this album a proper review, even if it is a few months late!

There’s something to be said for an album’s opening song. Unfortunately  many bands completely neglect to put thought into this particular song, which to me is the equivalent of wearing Crocs to a job interview or burping in someone’s face when you first meet them. I know I’ve beaten a dead horse on this blog talking about how much I value track placement in albums, but it’s because I truly believe placement can make or break an album. The first song has to set the tone.

Fanfarlo’s Reservoir, has one of my favorite opening tracks of the year with their song “I’m a Pilot,” a song that’s beat doesn’t feel like it’s produced by drums at all, but instead some atmospheric elements of another era altogether.

The whole album has that feeling of another lifetime.  And while their use of more orchestral instruments like the violin, trumpet and mandolin may account for that nostalgic element, I think it’s lead singer Simon Balthazar’s whimsical voice that does it for me.  ( I need to make a side note here that Simon Balthazar has to be the coolest name in the world.  If I were a man, that’s what I’d want my name to be.)

The songs on this album are fairly fun and upbeat with lyrics that are bit darker. I really like every single song on this album, but my favorites are “Luna,” “The Walls Are Coming Down, “ “Drowning Men,” “Harold T. Wilkins” and of course “I’m A Pilot.”

What I like most about Fanfarlo and Reservoir is the same thing I like about Elvis Perkins in Dearland. These bands both push past the limits of the current musical climate and make music in a way that is beautifully and uniquely their own.

And I feel that’s it’s only fair to give this band and album an honorary spot on my Best of 09 list because I think if I’d gotten around to listening to them in October, they surely would have found a spot there.


Album Review: Beach House’s Teen Dream January 20, 2010

Filed under: Album Review,Music,New Release — bethstephenson84 @ 7:23 pm
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If I were to compose the soundtrack to my life right now at age 25, it’s pretty much a given that Victoria Legrand would have a mighty powerful presence on that list. Her recent collaboration with Grizzly Bear on the track “Slow Life” has kept me in a dreamy trance for the past few months, impatiently awaiting some new tunes from Beach House, the band she shares with the oh-so-talented Alex Scally.

As luck would have it, NPR recently began streaming Beach House’s upcoming album, Teen Dream, on their website for all of us anxious fans who have spent the past year annoying friends and family with repeats of the same Legrand song over and over to the point where said friends and family have threatened bodily harm on the fan in question if the madness didn’t stop. Okay, so maybe that was just me.  Whatever the case, God bless NPR for finally sharing.

If I were to say the basic Beach House elements are still intact in this new album, I would strictly mean Legrand’s voice and vocal stylings are still intact. The stripped down, minimal style of Beach House albums gone by has been replaced with a smooth 80’s synth vibe that only highlights Legrand’s haunting vocals. The result is a pure pop/indie/synth sensation.

For the record, I wouldn’t dare describe Victoria Legrand’s voice as “pretty,” mostly because I think even the underlying implication of vulnerability in that word goes too much against the grain of the strength and power that her voice commands.  It feels like she’s evoking vocal powerhouses of the 1960s like Marianne Faithful with her smoky, sultry voice, and yet there’s less femininity in her sound than Faithful.

The feminine quality Legrand may lack in her vocals is more than made up for in her lyrics. This album beautifully captures the rollercoaster ride of emotions that comes with falling in and out of love. It’s bright, cheery, moody, thoughtful, exciting and lovely all at once. And yes, I realize that last sentence was extremely melodramatic, and I can only blame my growling stomach and lack of sustenance for my overuse of adjectives.

Here’s the gist: the album is good. Make sure to check out “Walk in the Park” because it’s my favorite.

Oh, and I realize that I went on and on about Victoria Legrand and sort of made a mockery of Alex Scally by leaving him out during the majority of this. Forgive me, it was completely unintentional. He’s great! Listening to the album will do him far more justice than any words I could write.

More to come later but I must eat now before my ramblings become even more incoherent than usual.


Album Review: Vampire Weekend’s Contra January 18, 2010

Filed under: Album Review,Music,Music News,New Release — bethstephenson84 @ 6:02 pm

Vampire Weekend’s Contra couldn’t have come at better or a worse time for me. Providing us the brilliant gift of eleven sunny songs in the smack dab middle of winter has brightened my mood considerably; but then when I step outside and it’s not at all like the dreamy, warm landscapes Ezra Koenig and the boys create in this album, I seriously consider leaving my life in North Carolina for a life of peddling shells on some island in the Caribbean — something my parents and student loan lenders wouldn’t appreciate.

But then that’s the best summation of this album I can give. Much like their self titled debut album, Contra just feels warm and exciting. Koenig’s soaring voice and distinct enunciations complimented by surfer pop and African-inspired rhythms creates a mind-blowing musical journey that only requires a little SPF and a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers.

The album starts out with a homerun in “Horchata,” a song that really drives home my greedy longing for summer.  I almost get the feeling they are mocking my pain with lines like “Winter’s cold is too much to handle” with the peppy steel drum laughing at me in the background.

The next few songs breeze by with the same carefree sound as “Horchata,” until you get to “Taxi Cab” which shines both in its lyrics and the performance. I could go on and on about it, but Koenig has such an amazing voice that even in its softest moments demands your attention. He plays with words and the enunciations of words in such a way that it makes you feel like you hearing them for the first time. It’s truly breathtaking, and this talent is particularly showcased in this song.

Traveling down the album list, the next standout is “Diplomat’s Son,” which features an intro from the delightfully eclectic M.I.A. who brings even more pep to these guys’ already bouncy sound. And then there’s the album ender “I Think Ur a Contra” which has many of the same endearing elements as “Taxi Cab” but with an even softer, smoother sound.

After listening to this record on repeat for the past week, I can’t help but draw a comparison to Paul Simon’s Graceland, a compliment that I have been hoping to extend for years to some band. Koenig has the same crispness in his voice that popularized Simon, and the band explores the same African sounds as Simon did in his beautiful Graceland. But while the similarities are there, make no mistake: this album is Vampire Weekend from the first note to the last, and it truly is a delight.


New Moon Soundtrack Review November 24, 2009

Filed under: Album Review,Soundtrack — bethstephenson84 @ 3:31 pm
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Okay, so I wanted to put off writing this post until after I had seen the movie. Part of this I must credit to my laziness  (which I’m sure is evident from my lack of posts) and the other part is my belief that a soundtrack can be really amazing just as a musical compilation, but if it doesn’t fit in the context of the movie, well then it kind of defeats the purpose.

So, if you know me, you know that New Moon’s opening date has been marked on my calendar pretty much since the date was announced.  And while I have a lot of thoughts on the movie (verses the book), some bad and some good, I will try to stay focused on the soundtrack and keep my extreme fandom to a minimum.

Those who’ve read this blog at all will know that I was chomping at the bits for this soundtrack if for nothing else but the contributions of some seriously bad ass musicians, the likes of which include Bon Iver (with St Vincent!!!), The Killers, Thom Yorke (of Radiohead), Grizzly Bear and Death Cab. The lineup read like a follow-up to the oh-so-brilliant Dark Was the Night album which was released earlier this year and has yet to be taken out of constant rotation. But enough of that plug…

The immediate stand out in this album for me was the Grizzly Bear track “Slow Life” which features the talented Victoria LeGrand on vocals. It’s moody and lovely, and lyrically fits the storyline without slipping into the realm of cheesiness.

Bon Iver’s “Roslyn” and Thom Yorke’s “Hearing Damage,” while both highly anticipated, could only be described as mediocre upon my first few listens.  I have the exact opposite opinion now. In fact, I now consider “Roslyn” the best song on the entire album. Part of that is due to repeated listening, but it’s mostly due to their placement within the film.  The Bon Iver track fits beautifully into the melancholy of Bella’s life without Edward, and the Thom Yorke track provides an amazing backdrop to arguably the best sequence of the film where the wolves seek out Victoria and Bella decides to make the leap. I still get chills a little thinking about those few shining minutes of the movie.

A few other standouts on this soundtrack are Eskimo Joe’s “Thunderclap” which sounds like a fist pumping 80’s power ballad (uhh-mazing!) and Lykke Li’s “Possibility” which was used during Bella’s time lapse after Edward leaves. And “The Violet Hour” by Sea Wolf couldn’t be more catchy and fun.

The most bittersweet part of this soundtrack has to be the instrumental song “New Moon (the Meadow).” I say bittersweet because it is exactly what “Bella’s Lullaby” should have been:  soft, sweet and a little heartbreaking.  And when you listen to this piano solo compared to Catherine Hardwicke’s clumsy choice for the lullaby, it makes you wish someone would just go back and redo the first movie just to include this song.

My biggest disappointment with this album is the Death Cab for Cutie song “Meet Me on the Equinox.” It’s not that it is a bad song, it’s just not as good as the rest of their stuff.

There’s been a lot of talk about this album being a failure in terms of how it compares to sales of the Twilight Soundtrack.  This doesn’t surprise me at all. There were huge marketing/public relations efforts saturating the production of the first film of the franchise, aimed at making these sweet and charming novels into emo-loving Hot Topics driven melodramas. And the Twilight soundtrack was a huge part of that push.  The idea behind it, of course, was to hock as many Twilight branded products as possible and maximize profitability. Not a bad plan from a marketing perspective. But as a fan, it’s heartbreaking. What does underwear, lip gloss and perfume have to do with this story?

But then that is my whole complaint with the first movie and soundtrack. Bella and Edward weren’t cutters who donned star printed black hoodies and nose rings.  In fact, Bella was very understated and demur preferring t-shirts and jeans over anything trendy, and Edward was a fan of classical music, for goodness sake! That just doesn’t scream Linkin Park and black lipstick to me, but I have strayed from the topic again…

No, the only thing that has surprised me about this soundtrack is the fact that someone at Summit had enough sand to compile an album that uses fairly popular bands to draw attention while still staying true to the mood of the book. It’s a melancholy book, but it’s not angsty and doesn’t require the gimmicks of the first soundtrack.  This album doesn’t feel forced at all, but instead compliments the movie wonderfully. I wager that even the most anti-Twilight people who appreciate music couldn’t help but fall in love with this album.