! = recommended
* = all-ages
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Hey, Seattle. Got a minute? We need to talk to you about something. Pull up a seat.
Here's the thing: you do a lot of stuff right. Those are great shoes, and we saw you out at that show last week. You're real cool! You listen to good records. You support small businesses. You like that weird shit that nobody else likes but you, and you've got all those rad posters to prove it. You're doing good work! But we're not sure if you're down with Tennis Pro yet. Are you? Because there's no excuse for you not to be. They've been putting albums out for the better part of a decade, and if you're not totally hooked, you're kinda doing it wrong.
Thankfully for you, this is an easy fix: Small Basement Encore was released last week, and it's a great place to start building out this corner of your wheelhouse. SBE is the very best of Tennis Pro's intelligent, infectious releases to date, and it's available as a digital-only release through iTunes (and cdbaby). It's kind of like your BFF made you an all-Tennis-Pro-hits side A to your new favorite mixtape.
What starts off as an intelligent, hilarious trip through some killer chord choices quickly turns the corner into a veritable symphony of awesomeness. If you don't catch the depth these guys dive to on the first listen, plug in your headphones and give it a second play. Then a third. Soon you'll be hollering "Rock Over Tokyo" in the shower before work, and tapping your pencil in a daydream to the tune of "Caught The Wrong Wave" without even realizing it. Scratch your symphony itch with "Rounding Up The Frightened Pets," find a new smart-kid fuck-you power jam in "We Put The Punk In Punctuation" -- whatever you do, just buy this album today and let it be your gateway drug to the band's catalog.
If it’s the frozen, outer space soundscapes of Sigur Rós that floats your soul, it can seem like your only hope is a genre of one. But as Yoda said, “No, there is another.” Also hailing from Iceland, also active since the late ‘90s, and equally bizarre, múm use electronics embellished by ethereal, child-like vocals that make Jónsi’s falsetto sound like a baritone to provide the same experimental, atmospheric trip. Of course, most fans of Sigur Rós are probably already familiar with múm. But in case you’ve somehow missed them, former member Ólöf Arnalds did a very nice history/interview in the Grapevine.
With their new album, Smilewound, múm present a slightly more accessible side of themselves.
I am obsessed with Artificial Daylight, the second album from the independent Icelandic folk-pop band 1860. Far from a sophomore slump, Artificial Daylight draws inspiration from the same well as Fleet Foxes and the Waterboys, hitting the sweet spot between artsy-fartsy indie and totally accessible pop.
When I talked to them last year, the boys in 1860 were still chafing at a reviewer’s classification of their debut album, Sagan, as “mom-friendly pop,” and promised the follow-up album would be “dad-friendly.” With Artificial Daylight they have indeed delivered a more aggressive sound – thicker production, demanding drums, and guitar leads that have largely supplanted Sagan’s mandolin.
The sound has advanced from echoes of the thirties to a more seventies vibe, with chewy, funky bass lines (the one in “Socialite” is a high point) and proggy-sounding guitars scattered throughout. The period detail on “Blue Ease” is so convincing it makes swallowing blue pills and slipping into a hot tub with naked strangers start to seem like a good idea.
It’s simply amazing to me that a group from the drizzly grey of Glasgow could consistently creates such effervescent, make-you-want-to-sing-along head-bopping pop music -- but that's exactly what Camera Obscura does time and again. Their fifth album, Desire Lines, is a stunningly bright ray of musical sunshine.
This latest release is grounded in beach music and the classic sounds of 50’s rock. Not that lead singer Traceyanne Campbell channels The Ronettes or anything, but the influences are subtly present. Absent are the soaring horn runs and orchestration of past hits like “French Navy,” replaced rather by soft-about-the-edges string melodies. Campbell’s voice is the real star of the record, wonderfully supported by subdued instrumentation. Her range is amazing, dreamily lilting into the atmosphere on “This is Love (Feels Alright)” and then breaking like delicate china teacups on “Every Weekday.”
The addition of Neko Case (!!) on backing vocals lends perfect symmetry to the feel of the record, even sounding very similar to something she could have created herself. Case’s and Campbell’s voices blend in such tummy-warming harmony, maybe we can look forward to further collaborations in the future? I can only dream.
Maybe you’ve noticed that Iceland is having a moment? Between volcanic eruptions on the news, nonstop flights between Seattle and Reykjavík advertised on the side of every bus downtown, and oodles of on-air love from KEXP, it seems like Iceland is in the spotlight wherever you turn. The attention is well deserved; despite housing a population about half the size of Seattle, Iceland boasts a quality music scene as diverse as our own. But if you didn’t win KEXP’s Iceland Fly-Away contest to attend the Airwaves festival in Reykjavík, how can you find all that deserving music?
Iceland Music Export has your back. Each year, IMX puts out a compilation CD highlighting tracks from some of Iceland’s hottest new albums you never heard of. Bands like Of Monsters and Men already spend more time abroad than at home in Iceland; the IMX Made in Iceland VI compilation introduces you to what’s next.
A few highlights are worthy of everyone’s attention. Government official by day, mad genius rapper by night, former Sugarcubes member Einar Örn contributes the track “Dreamland” by his project Ghostigital. KEXP favorite Ólafur Arnalds will be playing Decibel Festival here in Seattle in September. Prepare for that show by listening to “Old Skin.” Because Agent Fresco’s Arnór Dan is one of the most moving singers alive, the Pascal Pinon track “When I Can’t Sleep” featuring his guest vocals is required listening.