Sleep Study: catchy roving riffs fit for any era on second album, Ms. America

Sleep Study released their first album since 2012 last Friday night at the Uptown VFW. And when I say album, I mean album. They only released vinyl and download versions.

They are an interesting band. I have wanted to see them for a while but they were on a hiatus of sorts for the last couple years. Apparently at the end of 2014, they returned from a long tour, spending last 4 hours from Des Moines to the Cities with no heat in the car. They had just finished their (until now unreleased) second album. The plan was to take a short break for the holidays and return to their heavy gigging schedule.

But that quick break lasted longer than anticipated. Band members got involved with other projects and life went on until the 2016 election, when Ryan Plewacki found motivation to write again and the band resumed talks with Simon Recordings in 2018 about finally releasing their sophomore album, but wanted to take another crack at it in the studio. Plewacki, Justin Hartke, and Michael Gunvalson spent a hurried weekend tracking with engineer Bryan Hanna and Plewacki finished the project in his home studio.

It was worth the wait. They are like the band you see playing the cool club scene a movie. The music is catchy, like pop music but there’s something cooler about it. Something feels deeper. And it could be the cool band from nearly any era.

The staccato vocals have a very 60s or 70s vibe, especially in a song like Party in Here or Modern Man. The string forward sound falls more retro more album than live. Live it’s more rocking with the players feeding off each other and clearly having a good time. Ms. America has such a twangy sound but in a British way. It’s hard to peg down the sound. There are some very space age sound moments like the echoes in Counting Our Favors.

Although they are from Minnesota, there is a British undercurrent in many of the songs. Sometimes that feels like the Beatles; sometimes Stone Roses. There’s a common thread but part of the fun is the ability to defy era.

It feels like they play what they like – unabashedly. And it works. The set up of the night mirrors that sentiment. A strange but tasty buffet of sound. They started with the Black Widows, a solid garage sound and feminist flare behind the black mascara. Loud, retro, punk. Followed by Farewell Milwaukee, also enjoyable but much more mellow sound. With an ethereal wispy sound of the early 70s, like Sleep Study. A fun, different show.

Drone not Drones 2019: fundraiser for doctors without borders and a fave festival

Drone not Drones is an annual (6 years!) fundraiser held for Doctors without Borders at the Cedar Cultural Center. Luke Heiken is the brain and brawn behind it all – although I think he gets a lot of help from friends, musicians and the folks at the Cedar. It is 24+ hours of drone music. Not music made by drones, as several people have asked me but music with a hum or drone sound to it.

The bands change about every 30 minutes. My favorite part of the show is the changeovers. One band is playing the next one sets up. They play together for a minute or two and the first band sets down. The drone continues throughout.

The music is varied. It’s ambient, it’s aggressive, it’s synthesized, it’s vocals (in different languages), it’s instrumental. Sometimes there’s a performance element, although less so this year than previous. There is a screen going throughout with what I can only call groovy images throughout. I was there for about 12 hours total – most during the first night.

Many people bring their sleeping bags. It’s like an indoor camping ground with way better bathrooms. Some people bring kids. I think that must be such a fun night for them running around the grownups in sleeping bags. There’s a bar and food but it’s not a big boozy event for the most part. It’s really the community-personification of chill. And each year it grows. The room as at least three-quarters full the whole time I was there. And often felt too cozy, in a good way.

I tried to get 30 seconds of each band I saw to give a flavor. I’ve done my best to label correctly, but if there was a change in the schedule, I’m wrong and I could be wrong regardless but it does give you the idea.

You can also get the full schedule or watch the full show.

Six Mile Grove rock 7th album release at the Hook & Ladder

It’s all polish and professionalism with Six Mile Grove on stage. One song to the next with just enough banter to keep it interesting. The songs are so finished and band is on top of everything. Little wonder, since they have been playing together for 20 years. They brought all of their following down to the Hook & Ladder to celebrate the release of their most recent album, Million Birds. It is the first album that they recorded together in one room.

They opened up with an older song, Man of Steel. It’s a great opener. The song gets faster and faster, building an excitement for the show. The drums are holding down the beat of the songs but the strings really take off at the end. Then they moved right onto Shame on Us, from the new release. It’s got the definite country twang. The pedal steel is perfect for it. There are songs that feel more rock and country but that pedal steel brings all back to the Americana side of town.

The band has an interesting story. They played for many years with Bob Wootton, Johnny Cash’s guitarist. There’s an evident impact of playing with someone who is such a legend especially seen in how they took on that old school polish. Play well, play hard and look like you’re having a good time doing it. It’s very appealing. The other comparison I’ve heard to them that I think rings true is Jason Isbell. Their songs are about family life and the good, bad and wistful of family life but generally very upbeat and uplifting.

Not My Fault has a very popular feel. Perhaps given the sentiment of the phrase but also the ease of beat. Damned If I Do is a slower, sweeter song that touches a chord.

Dancing room only at iLLism’s album release at the Amsterdam

Sometimes I forget that the Twin Cities has long history of RnB and a shorter but deep history of Hip Hop, especially positive Hip Hop. Then I get a chance to see a band like iLLism and I remember that Minneapolis brand of RnB is world famous for a reason. They released their new album illuminate at the Amsterdam.

We walked into a crowded, swaying room. Envy and Fancy, the duo known as iLLism are on stage with a full band, nearly too full for the physical space and pleasantly abundant sounding– horns, drums, keyboard and more. And it is hot. It’s a smooth funk with rap entwined. Envy has a solid, cool rap and Fancy has a sweetness in her voice that broadens the appeal. They share a sassy vibe between the two of them that’s very fun to watch. The crowd broke out in what I can only call a line dance, in sync, in step. Such a fun atmosphere!

BLK Magic is a song for the times. (In fact I plan to the Women’s March MN podcast later this week.)  It’s an important message wrapped up in a lot of sugar. It’s a tribute to a friend who died. Despite the solemn theme and reason it sounds like a celebration. The horns are great. The song starts cool and ends like an anthem. It’s the combination of rap and smooth sweetness that gives the songs a quality that feels like it’s going to be big.

iLLism was top three finalist at the Paisley Park Battle of the Bands. The polish of Paisley Park is evident. They’re tight. It is clearly commercially viable, it has a wide appeal. It build on the history of the music of the area but it brings a freshness too in the pairing of Envy and Fancy. They’re a band for the times! I suspect Bet will be an album highlight. It’s very dance-able; their voices really mingle and blend so smoothly. Again, very positive message – about betting on yourself.

Vicky Emerson and Annie Fitzgerald at the Aster Café

Saturday night was a cozy night at the Aster Café with Vicky Emerson and Annie Fitzgerald. The room was full of musicians and music lovers.

Seeing Vicky and Annie is like eating crème brulee – sweet but in different ways. Annie is like the sweet sharp top of the crème brulee and Vicky is creamy base.  A great combination together in part because they are both such good storytellers.

Vicky started with Long Gone, a song that always has a hint of an Irish lilt to me. It might be the violin, it might be the toe-tapping darkness. She played several songs off her new CD, including one of my favorite covers ever, Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue. So sophisticated when you hear it as a kid. Not quite as much when you listen as an adult. But her torchy version brings back the sophistication. It rivals one of my long standing favorite covers, Eleni Mandell doing Don’t Touch Me by Jeannie Sealy.

I was also thrilled to hear The Reckoning, a song that will be on the playlist for Women’s March Minnesota for the March on Saturday. Vicky’s voice sounds like hot chocolate feels.

Annie’s voice has a lightness; to use her own song title, her voice Feels Like Summer. She goes from cheerful imploring on Listen Carefully to a sassiness in Black and Blue. Annie’s voice sounds like lemonade tastes – sweet and refreshing.

Jason Chaffee releases new single and video release at the Aster

I know that Jason Chaffee is a great guy from our conversation when he visited the Mostly Minnesota Music radio show. We had the great pleasure of having him do an in-studio performance but it was even more fun to see him play with his full band to a full room at the Aster Café.

Jason is a rocker hearkening back to the days of John Cougar Mellencamp, maybe even a little Bruce Springsteen. It’s undeniably masculine with a comfortably gruff voice, loud music, heavy beat but the songs are so emotive. The storytelling is honest and touching. And the full band was great. They look like they’re having a good time together and they seem to feed off each other on stage.

He played Going Home, which is one of my favorites. There’s a country undercurrent with a distinct but easy beat. There’s a familiarity in the themes and the tune. On the opposite side of emotion he played, Lost it All. It was a softer start and a compelling story and while there’s still a hint of country, it could also be shelved under rock ballad.

The unveiled video was Un Momento about the butterfly effect – very clever. We’ll have to keep an eye out for the online debut.

Women’s March MN: Playlist interviews with Black Widows and She Rock She Rock

We are working with Women’s March Minnesota to create a playlist and podcast for the March on January 19. You can check out the growing playlist any time. In the next two weeks, we’ll be interviewing musicians for a podcast that we will compile and will play on WMCN once Macalester College is back in session.

Corine Caouette, Pamela Laizure and Kim Mancini of the Black Widows

Last night we had the distinct honor of talking with Corine Caouette, Pamela Laizure and Kim Mancini of the Black Widows. They play awesome old school garage surf music. It’s retro girl band at it’s best with heightened feminist themes in the lyrics. We discussed a few of their songs specifically  – Mummy Mama Boogie, about an ancient age when women were silenced for speaking their mind. The song has specific historical references – and we’re hoping that everyday we’re getting farther and farther away from the theme.

One comment that struck me was the increasing focus on women working together in the music industry – despite differences. I think to move forward we need to continue to get better at that and that the Women’s March is the time and place to renew that pledge.

Sam Stahlman from She Rock, She Rock

The Black Widows were playing a benefit for She Rock, She Rock so we got an opportunity to speak with Sam Stahlman, Co-Director of the organization. She Rock is a nonprofit dedicated to empowering girls, women, trans and nonbinary folks through the art of music. They have music lessons and camps for all ages and have for 13 years. Sam was involved in the first year as a student. Anyone I have ever talked to about She Rock has loved it. Almost makes me wish I were musical. (But I think I’ll stick to dance!)

Also joining the show and shown below are the Bloodies, who are rooted in resistance and Getting By, who list smashing the patriarchy as an interest.

Women’s March MN: Playlist interview with Jenna Enemy of The Von Tramps

We are working with Women’s March Minnesota to create a playlist and podcast for the March on January 19. You can check out the growing playlist any time. In the next two weeks, we’ll be interviewing musicians for a podcast that we will compile and will play on WMCN once Macalester College is back in session. In the meantime we’re going to post interviews as we can starting with (drumroll please)…

Jenna Enemy of The Von Tramps

We saw The Von Tramps at Mortimer’s. I was wowed. The band is co-ed but decidedly led on stage by Jenna. It’s a ska punk band, which is right up my alley. I have to admit though it was the Dolly Pardon themed songs that really drew me in. There’s a feminist version of Jolene. Who doesn’t love the music of Jolene and who has been angered by the singer groveling to Jolene not to take my man? The Von Tramps turn that around. They also do I Will Always Love You. That Jenna girl can sing. That’s all I’m saying. Which takes us to our Women’s March pick from the Von Tramps – Bitch from their album The Future is Female. Hear a bit about it and Jenna’s take on post-March music industry below.

Everyone finds their happy place with The Big Wu at the Fine Line

Everyone should end their year bobbing and weaving to The Big Wu. A jam band that goes back to the early 90s, they slowed down for a while to have families and pursue other passions and now much to the delight of their fans they are back with the first album in 14 years – We are Young. We are Old. They introduced the new album at the Fine Line on Saturday night, including a bunch of old some school favorites as well. It felt like a festival or all ages college campus. OK – maybe like parents’ weekend on the college campus if the school was smart enough to have a band such as The Big Wu to tears down the generational recreation walls.

They played a few of my favorites such as Red Sneakers. Live it’s the ultimate jam song – so many strings on stage, so many solos. You can just feel every person in the audience imagining themselves on stage taking their turn with a solo. It’s not a jealousy; it’s an optimism. Again, that is part of what makes The Big Wu such a great end/start of the year show.

They played We Are Trees from the new CD. There’s a levity to the song that raises it to almost anthem heights. There’s a great balance of guitars, bass, keyboard and drums. It’s like an awesome stew where all of the food is flavorful and the mix is just perfect. And the audience seemed to love it.

Finally I have to mention Tom Sawyer. They play a terrific version of that song. The keyboard is very 70s space age sounding. Mark Jospeh sings accompanied by every single person in the building – smiling and singing.

Video sneak preview: The Minor Fall with Christmas Dream

Sometimes I get fun emails for things like video sneak previews. I love the retro side of the video. It feels like stepping back into your grandma’s attic – seeing the pictures and decorations purchased or made by people who are long gone. It’s nostalgic, a little sad but mostly reflective. It captures the song.

Here’s the official description…

“Christmas Dream” is the first official release of The Minor Fall. They stumbled upon this Christmas tune by Webber/Rice, originally recorded by Perry Como. It was quickly realized that the very reason this was never a huge Christmas hit is precisely why it should be heard today. Lyrics such as; “Every year I dream it, hoping things will change. An end to the crying, the shouting, the dying..” is a tribute to the shared feeling of humanity in these dark days. Where the Como version is masked behind an over-the-top polka, The Minor Fall put the darkness of the lyric in the forefront aided by the chime of the bouzouki and abundance of reverb.

Music Video:

The Minor Fall teamed up with long time friend and local guitar legend, Jeremy Ylvisaker (Andrew Bird, The Suburbs, Haley, Alpha Consumer) to create a visual representation of this song. Jeremy weaved in scenes from Christmases past that honor the aforementioned darkness of the lyric.