Archive | March, 2013

The Soulful Sounds of Kwesi Kankam

28 Mar

Kwesi Kankam

Kwesi Kankam is an eclectic musician. Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Kankam (who is of Ghanaian descent) moved to Toledo, Ohio where he was raised. Kankam received a football scholarship to Lehigh University, but his love of music eventually got behind the tacklers and sacked him (hooray for awful football analogies!)

I mention Kankam’s interesting past because his music reflects it. Kankam’s diverse soul-influenced folk encompasses multifarious simplicity. Before you call me out on this contradictory juxtaposition of words, let me explain.

Kankam’s music features everything from orchestral strings to Africana beats to horns, but, ultimately, when stripped down to its bare roots, the music is simple and calm like a relaxed pair of jeans. It is Kankam’s airy, light-hearted croon and an acoustic guitar.

Ultimately, no matter how much music you add to the background, the artist must be a proficient singer and there needs to be an instrument like a guitar or a piano played well. Kankam excels at both.

“Brunettes,” my favorite track off of Kankam’s debut EP, Ran Away From Me, which was released in March of last year, begins with Kankam and his acoustic guitar – quickly drums and keys are added. Kankam’s voice is a sip of hot cocoa in a cozy coffee shop. His smooth croon is one part Danny O’Donoghue, one part Ben Harper or Joe Pisapia. The vocal inflections are skillful, and his layered melodies are wonderful. The repeated riff stays true to the piece as Kankam manipulates the sound with tiny electric guitar segments and creative keys. Tap your feet. Sip your cocoa. The song makes you as comfortable as reclining in a La-Z-Boy.

“Long Days, Short Nights” features eclectic rhythms and instrumentation (almost like a Dave Matthews song) that create a worldly atmosphere. Think rooty folk mixed with modern Indie folk – sort of like Rusted Root mixed with Calexico. The mixture is euphonious and Kankam’s voice fits the music to perfection. Best of all, despite that the song is almost 5:30, I never felt bored. The music flows like water in a small creek, and, like “Brunettes” it is infectious and easy.

Keep up with Kwesi Kankam: Website, Facebook, Twitter


The Bullitts Won’t Die By Dawn

26 Mar
The theatrical poster from Jeymes Samuel' short film "They Die by Dawn" starring Rosario Dawson and Giancarlo Esposito

The theatrical poster from Jeymes Samuel’ short film “They Die by Dawn” starring Rosario Dawson and Giancarlo Esposito

Do not be surprised when The Bullitts’ debut album They Die By Dawn & Other Short Stories drops this summer and quite literally blows up the music world. The multifaceted baby of the tremendously talented English singer/songwriter/producer/filmmaker Jeymes Samuel, the album will feature a diverse assortment of fresh sounds created by an assortment of musicians and actors (Jay-Z, Jay Electronica, Yasiin Bey, Lucy Liu, Idris Elba and Rosario Dawson).

The question is if the hip/hop world is ready to be shaken. In a mercurial market, The Bullitts’ theatrical flair and mind-bending sounds can radically shape a genre that is expanding to include more indie instrumentation, and, in the case of Samuel (who uses the Bullitts as a moniker) a tribute to Spaghetti Westerns.

Samuel, who has been working with Jay-Z to complete what is sure to be a fascinating soundtrack for the Great Gatsby, implemented Ennio Morricone “Dollars Trilogy” panache to create “They Die By Dawn,” a staggering track that effortlessly combines two seemingly conflicting styles (Western and Hip/Hop).



The song begins with heavy percussion much like Stauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” – which generally means something epic is going to happen – and then quickly transitions to a marching acoustic guitar riff and Morricone whistle. The layered instrumentation helps establish the Wild West milieu, and you can envision a brigand like Clint Eastwood slowly riding into the town of San Miguel. As the instruments reach an apex, a narrator speaks a short prayer and the song turns over into rap featuring choppy pieces of the opening in the background. The amalgamation of pure sound is stimulating. I hate to use such simplistic language, but the song is just plain cool, and Samuel deserves some supreme credit for creating a piece like it.



“World Inside Your Rainbow” is another song that will appear on the Bullitts’ release this summer. It’s a subtly powerful track – emotional and contained. The acoustic riff creates a subdued Spanish folk feel but the impassioned lyric and whispery vocal emit power and ardor.

Follow The Bullitts – Website, Facebook, Twitter

A Rat Trap to Get Stuck In

19 Mar
Rat Trap

Rat Trap

Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea had a substantial impact on the 90’s Indie low-fi community when it was released in 1998. It’s heavy acoustic riffs combined with Jeff Mangum’s nasally croon and eccentric instrumentation demonstrated the peak of garage low-fi and its eventual fade. Now, Indie rock has become synonymous with bands like Mumford and Sons and Arcade Fire, and, while this is not a bad thing (for I do enjoy these bands), I often long for the days of Elephant 6. If you do too, you definitely want to read on.

Rat Trap, a Santa Cruz, California-based quintet, has revived those post-punk, garage, low-fi sounds of the 90s and has elegantly combined these sounds with modern influences (Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Ramona Falls). Rat Trap represents a tornado of inspirations wrapped up like a top spinning rapidly into the ears of listeners. Oh, did I mention that none of the band members has eclipsed the legal drinking age in the United States?

That is just one of the many reasons why I find Rat Trap’s blend of old and new so engaging. The band, which formed in 2010, released its debut album in 2011 and has just recently released its new effort, Blueprints of a Paper City, in November of 2012. I had an opportunity to interview the members of Rat Trap, and, instead of introducing them, I will let them do so below. But, before I do, let’s listen to a track from the band’s most recent release.

“Birdhouses” features low-fi instrumentation and Jeffrey Lewis-like vocals. It is authentic and multifaceted. It is a solid incipient track fit with expansive rhythms and riffs. At times the song enters into a contained madness that is refreshing in its creative messiness.


Questions for Rat Trap: Music Court Interview

1.)    Let’s talk about the band a bit. How/where did you start? How old are you all? Give me the name of all the members, and, hey, what the hell, each members favorite band/artist.

Grant Simmons: I’m Grant Simmons, and I’m 16 years old. I write a lot of the material, play guitar, sing, and sometimes play piano. I started really getting into music and songwriting when I was about thirteen years old. I formed a guitar/drums duo in early 2010 with my friend. I formed Rat Trap in the summer later that year adding bass and another guitarist. Oliver came into the band about four months after that. Many a gig, some lineup changes, a lot of side project activity, two albums later, and here we are. I’d say my favorite bands that influence my songwriting are Modest Mouse, Frightened Rabbit, Pavement, etc.

Sean Hoban: I play guitar. My favorite bands include Neutral Milk Hotel and Dr. Dog.

Ben Humy: I played percussion since 5th grade, but it was boring sh*t like hitting triangles twice per song. A few years ago I started taking drum lessons and I was psyched. I met Grant through a friend, and then at some point Grant called me because his previous drummer flaked on a gig and he needed someone to take over for him. I came over, learned the songs they were playing, and went to the gig. That was the first gig I did with Rat Trap. I’m 17 years old. I can see R-rated movies ALL BY MYSELF. My favorite band is Broken Social Scene.

Owen Powell: My name is Owen Powell. I’m 14. I am the bass player, and my favorite band is Animal Collective. I started playing with Rat Trap about eight months ago.

Oliver Mueller-Tuescher: My name is Oliver, I’m 15, and I play violin. I met Grant at Kuumbwa Summer Jazz Camp 2010. He then asked me to join his band a couple of months after. My favorite band at the moment is Half Moon Run.


2.)    The music is really genre-bending. On first listen it was as if a wave of jam-packed musical influences smacked me in the face…which is really awesome. So, first question I have for you all is what are some of the bands/artists who you would say most influence your sound?

Grant: Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, Neutral Milk Hotel, Broken Social Scene, Pavement, Andrew Bird, The Antlers, Bon Iver, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Decemberists, Frightened Rabbit, Grizzly Bear, Explosions in The Sky, Mimicking Birds, Menomena, Ramona Falls, Sigur Ros, Wires in The Walls, The BASED God

3.)    This is your second album, correct? How would you describe the differences between your first and second album? Do you think you are maturing as musicians?

Grant: I think the new album is a lot more rock oriented than our first one. It’s also a lot darker and has more depth. Overall, I think it’s just way better. We’re much more unified as a band now, and I think we’re making better music as a result of it. I’m happy to say that all the members contributed a lot to this new album, whereas the first album was mainly just me doing all the writing. We also sound so much better live. We used to sound insecure when playing.

Ben: I joined the band shortly after the first album was released. At first I was more into just doing my own thing with the drums and not paying much attention to the other members. But now I’ve gotten much better at feeding off of the energy of the other bandmates. When I play now, I feel a lot more connected to the band than I used to.

Oliver: This year I’ve begun playing guitar, singing, and writing songs. The first song I ever seriously put on paper was ‘Raindrops’ off of the new album.


4.)    “Birdhouse” immediately shouted out to me low-fi 90’s Indie (Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeffrey Lewis). Talk to me about the creation of this song.

Sean: I was just messing around on my guitar, and I came up with the chords and main riff.

Grant: Sean brought the chords and riff to band practice, and I expanded it into a full song with all the arrangements. I paired the lyrics, and it was one of the first full songs we completed after finishing our first album, “The Western Boundary”. It is now a staple of ours.


5.)    The instrumental portion of “Towns” is pleasant and well-done. The violin adds so much to the music. You are not a typical Indie band, though. The music is different. What influenced the addition of the violin into the band?

Grant: I was inspired by bands like Modest Mouse, Sigur Ros, Frightened Rabbit, Andrew Bird; basically everything I was listening to at the time I formed the band. Originally, I just planned on having Oliver as a studio member that would play on a couple of songs every now and then, but after a couple of practices with him, I figured the violin could work with every song and give a whole new spin to our sound.


6.)    Fun question time! Let’s say you had to pick one band to play your music. Who do you think would do it the most justice?

Sean: BASED God, definitely.

Grant: I know it sounds kind of typical but probably Modest Mouse or Built to Spill.

Ben: BASED God.

Owen: I think Modest Mouse could play our music well and bring its own twist to the music at the same time.

Oliver: Half Moon Run all the way.


7.)    Question for everyone. You are abandoned on an island. You have everything you need, but no music. What three albums do you bring along with you?


Sean: “Fate” by Dr. Dog, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel, and “Intuit” by Ramona Falls.

Ben: “Everything I Own Is Broken” by B. Hamilton (That album is seriously amazing. B. Hamilton is from Oakland. I saw them with Grant at the Crepe Place in Santa Cruz. Shout out to those guys.), “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank,” by Modest Mouse, which is kind of fitting for being abandoned on an island, and “Forgiveness Rock Record” by Broken Social Scene.

Grant: Of course, my answer to this question is never definite and always changing but here we go. I think I’d bring “Ágaetis Byrjun” by Sigur Ros, “Lonesome Crowded West” by Modest Mouse, and “Midnight Organ Fight” by Frightened Rabbit.

Owen: The three albums that I would bring to an abandoned island would be Merriweather Post Pavillion (Animal Collective), The Fruit that Ate Itself (Modest mouse), and Eternal Champ (Sweet Valley). That way I would have some good variety.

Oliver: I would most likely bring “Ghost” – Radical Face, Dan Mangan – “Nice, Nice, very Nice”, and “Dark Eyes” – Half Moon Run.


9.)    What are the plans for the future? New material? Are you playing some local dates?

Owen: We’ll probably be playing more local gigs and such in the coming months.

Oliver: I have been starting a new project called “Grassroots.” It’s kind of shoegazy and generally just a kind of dreamy sound.

Grant: We have some new material in the works already that we plan to try something totally new with (although I HIGHLY suggest all you readers go check out the new album ‘Blueprints of a Paper City that we released two months ago. It’s streaming on Bandcamp. While I’m plugging us, you guys should also totally go like our Facebook page!). We’ll also be playing more gigs. Our side project, The Perfectly Adequate Whales, a whale-oriented rap group that a lot of us take part in, has a new mixtape in the works that will come out soon (also check out their first mixtape if you have time – you can download it for free off of Bandcamp).

Check out the rest of Blueprints of a Paper City on Rat Trap’s Bandcamp. You can also visit Rat Trap’s Facebook.

Wish Irene a Goodnight – Evolution of the Song

14 Mar

Lead Belly

Think about how many times Irene has been wished goodnight in song? I can safely say that it is more than any other typical name. “Goodnight Irene” is one of the most popular  American Folk standards. It’s catchy repetition and melody is musically pervasive. Start singing this piece and people will join you. It’s as if it is hardwired in our mental music libraries right with “This Land is Your Land.”  We have heard scores of versions of “Goodnight Irene,” but if it weren’t for the man in the picture above and musicologists Alan and John Lomax then we might have never wished Irene goodnight.

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, may very well be the most influential blues musician of the 20th century. His impact on future generations of musicians was unparalleled. “Goodnight Irene” was, like most traditional blues/folk songs, based on a song that predated it that was lost. Lead Belly, though, rearranged the song and put together his ode to Irene, a love he could not have. While in prison, Lead Belly recorded hours of music for the Lomax’s, and “Goodnight Irene” came out of those recordings. It did not gain popularity in Ledbetter’s lifetime, though, and instead became popular when The Weavers’ recorded it a few years after his death.

The Weavers are perhaps most responsible for the folk boom of the 1950s and 60s that spawned artists like Bob Dylan and popularized music from folk pioneers like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly.

Clearly, the song has touched competent hands. And, in those hands, it became a staple of their respective performances. The difference between Lead Belly and The Weavers’ versions of “Goodnight Irene” is worth noting. The Weavers initially pick and chose from Lead Belly’s sometimes controversial lyric. For example, the morbidly humorous verse below was not included in the Weavers’ version.

I Love Irene, God knows I do

Love her till the sea runs dry

If Irene turns her back on me

I’m gonna take morphine and die

I can see why the last line of that verse could have sparked some ill-feelings in the time period. They, though, did keep the other suicidal verse (below) so to each his own, right?

Sometimes I live in the country

Sometimes I live in town

Sometimes I take a great notion

To jump into the river and drown

With that all being said, the song is a wonderful classic, and its eccentric lyric and infectious melody stick with us through the generations. Check out one of Lead Belly’s versions and a Weavers’ version of the song.

The Night Folk Owl – Willie Ames

12 Mar

Willie Ames @ Whisky A Go-Go - 20th Annual Los Angeles Music Awards voting party - by JAMES IRWIN PHOTOGRAPHY

Willie Ames has toured all 50 United States, distributed 35,000 CDs to the public, and won several solo artist awards including the Solo Artist of the Year in the 20th Annual Los Angeles Music Awards and National Solo Artist of the Year and performer in the Phoenix Music Awards 2011.

So, yeah, more people should know about this folk guitarist/banjoist/singer/songwriter. Ames has been playing guitar since he was five years old, and, at 18 decided to pursue music professionally. He added a banjo to his repertoire at 23.

Ames plays a distinctive style of classic folk music that focuses on heavier percussion, reverberated noise, and a guitar/banjo style that combines the flavor of early Dylan and Dave Van Ronk with heavier folk artists like Amos Lee. Ames then adds a banjo to the mix, and, instead of falling into the bluegrass banjo trap, the music has an edge that sets him apart from other folk musicians. Listening to Ames’ music is fit with unconscious toe-tapping and head-nodding. The beats are almost funky. The sound is multifaceted like a bean dip (light guacamole on top and heavy beans on the bottom). Gosh, I just compared music to a bean dip. If that’s not a sign to introduce a song, I don’t know what is.

“Night Owl,” the title track on the album, perfectly represents what I mentioned above. The beat is authentic. The echoed sounds are reminiscent of a dark night in a deep forest. Ames’ voice reminds me of the Holy Modal Rounders (only slightly), a folk duo from the Lower East Side in the 60s who released an excellent version of “Hesitation Blues.” I hate to be so simplistic, but the song is just cool. I like listening to it.

“Stumbling Home” is certainly lighter. The banjo rhythm is catchy and constant. It’s a great song to listen to if you want to unwind. It relaxed me.

Check out more of Willie Ames at his website, Facebook, and Twitter

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