Nas preaches positivity while closing out this year’s Sound in Focus series in style

Sound in Focus - NasBy Josh Herwitt //

Sound in Focus: Nas with Wild Belle //
Annenberg Space for Photography – Los Angeles
July 23rd, 2016 //

It’s hard to beat summer in LA. With longer days and warmer nights, there’s always so much to do in the City of Angels during this time of the year. But part of what makes summers in LA so special are the countless opportunities to see live music and best of all, for free. From the Twilight Concert Series on Thursday nights at the Santa Monica Pier to Saturdays Off the 405 at the Getty Museum, you can catch a show — if not multiple shows — in LA every week from July to September for little to no money.

Right along those lines, KCRW’s Sound in Focus concert series is just another reason why summertime in LA has its advantages. For the past few years, the NPR member station has shown its appreciation for photography by welcoming a wide array of musicians, including indie-rock stalwarts like Portugal. The Man, Band of Skulls, TV on the Radio and Cold War Kids (read our review of their 2015 show here), to what was once unchartered territory as far as concert spaces in LA go. And in many ways, the Annenberg Space for Photography, as a result, has proven to be the perfect location for KCRW to combine its love for music and the arts by offering fans of all ages the chance to explore the museum’s newest exhibit and see well-established artists perform for free with a simple RSVP online.

After last year’s roster, which featured old-school hip-hop group De La Soul and country music legend Dwight Yoakam as headliners, it was somewhat surprising to see Grammy-nominated rapper Nas (born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones) listed next to psych-folk collective Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and eventually Senegalese singer/guitarist Baaba Maal when the 2016 Sound in Focus lineup dropped last month (Maal’s performance was revealed at a later date). Not because KCRW had booked a hip-hop act for a second straight year, but more that it had booked a hip-hop act of Nas’ stature. You don’t have to look much further than his two million Twitter followers, in stark contrast to Edward Sharpe’s 105,000 and Maal’s 5,750, to understand that. It should go without saying then that Mr. Jones is easily the biggest artist KCRW has ever booked for Sound in Focus in its three years running.

Sound in Focus 2016 - Nas

On the other hand though, Nas hasn’t released an album in more than four years. Better yet, it’s been more than three since the Brooklyn native disclosed he had begun work on his 12th studio album, the follow-up to 2012’s Life Is Good. In this day and age of instant gratification, that’s often three years too long to keep fans waiting. With so many options to choose from, it’s becoming harder and harder to remain relevant, even for a hip-hop artist of Nas’ caliber.

But there’s also something to be said for releasing eight straight platinum records, even if Nas doesn’t have any Grammys to go along with them. So, if last Saturday’s show was supposed to be Nas’ reminder to the world that he’s still working and grinding like he always has since the early 90’s, then a whole lot of fans got to hear that message loud and clear after Wild Belle’s opening set.

With the anticipation building, Nas arrived onstage with energy and purpose, immediately diving into his I Am…. anthem “Hate Me Now” that’s almost two decades old at this point. A little bit later, he would end up waxing poetic on “One Mic”, the third single off his 2001 LP Stillmatic that was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award. Yet, more important than the songs Nas chose to perform or the albums he drew from was the postivity he preached to the crowd before calling it a night. At a time of racial and social unrest in the U.S., he imparted optimism and encouraged everyone who stood before him to chase their dreams, whatever they may be. For an emcee who once proclaimed that “hip-hop is dead,” that’s seemingly quite a change in rhetoric.

Deap Vally’s hard-rockin’ sound is gritty, raw fun

Deap-Vally_postPhotos by Marc Fong // Written by Nikki de Martini //

Band of Skulls with Deap Vally //
The Regency Ballroom – San Francisco
May 22nd, 2014 //

The little ladies of Deap Vally brought big, bluesy rock sounds to The Regency Ballroom when they opened for Band of Skulls last month.

The LA-based duo took the stage in SF looking like “bandaides” straight out of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous as they rocked a bohemian hodgepodge of ruffles, feathers, leather and lace. Yet their bold music emulated the 1970’s rock ‘n’ roll bands of which the movie is based.

Fans cheered as the hard-rockin’ grunge-sludge heard throughout their debut album, Sistrionix, roared off the stage, engulfing the room with gritty, raw fun.

Ripping massive guitar and pounding-heavy drums hit the crowd, leaving them head-banging and toe-tapping along to every outspoken song.


Shouting hardly ceased as the set rolled on and grew louder when Lindsey told fans how happy they were to be back in SF, showcasing their fun loving wit by adding “it just smells better…if you know what I mean.”

The pairing of Lindsey Troy tearing it up on guitar with her deep, almost raspy, vocal range combined with her redheaded counterpart Julie Edwards killing it on the drum kit is comparable to the likes of The White Stripes. Like The Stripes, Deap Vally are two passionate musicians, playing undisputable garage-blues rock, making a lot of enjoyable noise while being damn good at it.

Deap Vally left San Francisco more than ready to keep rockin’ with the headlining act, Band of Skulls.

Next time they hit the road, it should likely be as headliners.



Deap Vally setlist:

1) Baby I Call Hell
2) Gonna Make My Own Money
3) Ain’t Fair
4) Lies
5) Grunge Bond
6) 6 Feet Under
7) Walk of Shame
8) End of the World


Band of Skulls hit LA for special acoustic show

Band of SkullsBy Josh Herwitt //

A Special Acoustic Evening with Band of Skulls //
Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever – Los Angeles
May 21st, 2014 //

Fresh off the release of its third full-length album Himalayan (read our review here), English alt-rockers Band of Skulls stopped off in LA last week for a special acoustic performance at the Hollywood Forever’s Masonic Lodge. Playing alongside a four-piece string quartet for less than an hour, the Southampton trio ran through cuts from its new LP as well as 2012’s Sweet Sour and 2009’s Baby Darling Doll Face Honey. Josh Herwitt hit up Hollywood mid-week to catch all the action at the KCRW-sponsored event.

Asleep at the Wheel, Sweet Sour, Bruises, Himalayan, Hoochie Coochie, The Devil Takes Care of His Own, Honest, Cold Fame, Impossible, You Are All That I Am Not, Nightmares

New Music Tuesday: Thievery Corporation • Band of Skulls • Nickel Creek • Cloud Nothings • JAMAICA • Mac DeMarco


Every Tuesday, we focus on new music releases by naming our top tracks, album highlights, lowlights and important takeaways for select albums.

Thievery CorporationSaudade

3-BamsTop Tracks:
“Quem Me Leva”
“Sola In Citta”
“Le Couer”

Album Highlights: Saudade is a Portuguese word, difficult to define in English. Thievery’s press release defines it as “a longing for something or someone that is lost, a contented melancholy, or, simply, the presence of absence.” The vocal arrangements are gorgeously sung in Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish and English. This album features vocals by LouLou Ghelichkhani, former Bitter:Sweet singer Shana Halligan, Elin Melgarejo, Nouvelle Vague singer Karina Zeviani and Natalia Clavier. The tracks featuring LouLou and Elin stand out the most. Longtime Thievery singer LouLou’s sensual vocals are the perfect alluring compliment to the calm and jazzy Brazilian rhythms.

The album is a more conventional homage to bossa nova than previous efforts. This is their seventh full-length album and arguably their most traditional, drawing a considerable amount of influence from classic Brazilian performers, such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Gal Costa. Clocking in at 42 minutes, the entire album is a beautifully simplistic musical time travel to 1960s Brazil. This is great news for fans of the artists that inspire Rob Garza and Eric Hilton.

Album Lowlight: After listening to a few songs, I find myself wanting to listen to my Elis & Tom album. While the songs are well-structured and the vocals can be quite enticing, the album itself leaves something to be desired. And that something is in the classic Brazilian music of yesteryear. The issue with this album is similar to the issue with defining a word like “saudade”; you can try, and people who don’t speak the language will probably understand. But there will be some aspect of the word that you can’t define, that which gets lost in translation. Many ideas cannot be recreated. This is a great effort by Thievery. But that indescribable thing is missing. Whereas other albums can fill that void with the mixing of musical genres, this album stays in one place. There are some great moments here, but as a whole, it’s a good thing that the album doesn’t go longer than 42 minutes.

Takeaway: If you are a fan of bossa nova or have been a big fan of Thievery Corporation throughout the years, definitely buy the album. If you prefer listening to a “Best Of” album, stick to the choice notes on this one. Rob Garza will be performing a DJ set and signing CDs at Amoeba SF on Friday, April 4th at 6 p.m.

~Krystal Beasley

Band of SkullsHimalayan

4-BamsTop Tracks:
“Asleep at the Wheel”
“I Guess I Know You Fairly Well”
“I Feel Like Ten Men, Nine Dead and One Dying”

Album Highlights: After a successful sophomore effort that earned them the chance to tour with Muse and Queens of the Stone Age last year, these English alt-rockers didn’t waste a lot of time before they decided to jump back into the studio. Only this time, Ian Davenport, who produced both 2009’s Baby Darling Doll Face Honey and 2012’s Sweet Sour, didn’t come along for the ride. Instead, those duties were passed on to Nick Launay, one of the music industry’s most sought-after producers right now. While the change isn’t readily noticeable on Himalayan, Band of Skulls’ third full-length record still boasts plenty of firepower.

It begins in typical BOS fashion, with Russell Marsden’s fuzzed-out blues riff serving as the foundation for the album’s first single “Asleep at the Wheel”. Nevertheless, you won’t find yourself head banging to every track, whether it’s the group’s new hit “Nightmares” or the ensuing “Brothers and Sisters.” Unlike Band of Skulls’ two previous LPs, Himalayan sees it branching out sonically with songs like the surf rock-inspired “I Feel Like Ten Men, Nine Dead and One Dying” and the Spanish-flavored “Toreador” (which means “bullfighter” in English, naturally). There is no doubt there are risks being taken here, but they don’t compromise what Marsden, bassist Emma Richardson and drummer Matt Hayward set out to do from the beginning — and that was to make one badass record. Well, mission accomplished.

Album Lowlight: It’s strange to hear Band of Skulls hold back, but when it does on Himalayan, things start to get a little flimsy for the Southampton power trio. Following three rock-heavy cuts to open the album, “Cold Sweat” features Richardson on lead vocals as the band flirts with balladry for more than four minutes. A few tracks later, “You Are All That I Am Not” follows a similar course, relying on Marsden’s soothing vocals and exquisite guitar work to save the song from being completely forgotten amongst a number of better offerings. While we won’t knock Band of Skulls for exploring different musical avenues on Himalayan, we’d be lying if we said it hit all 12 songs out of the park, too.

Takeaway: The mark of any good band these days is for it to show a steady stream of progress, and that’s certainly what Band of Skulls has done with each album it has released. At the same time, it’s hard to say which record is its best at this point. For some BOS fans, Himalayan will be it. After all, it’s pretty impressive that there is this much sound coming out of only three musicians — a real testament to how in sync Marsden, Richardson and Hayward can be with a little fine tuning thanks to Launay’s highly-coveted production skills. But for a burgeoning band that has yet to reach its ceiling, Himalayan is simply a step in the right direction.

~Josh Herwitt

Nickel CreekA Dotted Line

2.5 BamsTop Tracks:
“Rest of My Life”
“21st of May”

Album Highlights: The musicianship on this album is top-notch Americana bluegrass with a twist of progressive folk. This may seemed a bit too far-fetched for any band, but for this trio from Southern California it’s just second nature. Chris Thile is one of the best mandolin players in the scene, and matched with the brother-sister duo of Sara and Sean Watkins on fiddle and guitar, you’ve got yourself one hell of an acoustic trio. With the band’s sixth studio album and the first since 2005, they started right where they left off, playing deep emotional songs, yet they seems to keep their songs fun and lighthearted.

The first track on the album, “Rest of My Life,” showcases Sean Watkins on vocals, and he seems to have really come into his own during the hiatus. His vocals stand out on this album, and the songs truly come to life with his singing style. The Chris Thile penned folk song “You Don’t Know Whats’s Going On” is the standout track on the album, as it blends pop, folk, Americana, and all things string, which will surely be great in a live setting, as these guys have been known for outstanding live performances.

Album Lowlight: I felt the cover of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft” is an extremely odd choice for this band. Even though it features master drummer Matt Chamberlain laying down a very interesting beat, it falls into the “Why?” category to me. It definitely showcases the lighter side of this band, but I think they could have chosen a way better cover than this one.

Takeaway: Nickel Creek haven’t played together for seven years, and they’ve put out a relatively solid album with A Dotted Line, but I feel there is something lacking from this album. I fell in love with the young, gritty, and virtuoso playing that they had in their early days. They have matured through the years and now have cleaner sound, and that holds them back. These guys can outplay most of the musicians out there, but this album doesn’t fully show that. There are some gems, but overall this album lacks a lot of substance that used to be there.

~Pete Mauch

Cloud NothingsHere and Nowhere Else

4-BamsTop Tracks:
“Now Here In”
“I’m Not Part Of Me”
“Pattern Walks”

Album Highlights: Some of the best albums are the ones that start and finish strong, and that’s what we have here with Cloud Nothings’ fourth LP, not to say that everything in the middle of Here And Nowhere Else is sub par — far from it. Continuing the post-hardcore noise rock Cloud Nothings carved out with their excellent 2012 album Attack on Memory, the bookend tracks, along with the album’s penultimate track, contain the best moments and most strikingly embody the core of the new effort.

Most every song begins with classic punk propulsion, with guitar, bass and drums screaming along while frontman Dylan Baldi delivers songwriting that is bent toward indie sensibilities. Although, the best part of Cloud Nothings’ output comes on the latter third of the tracks, finally breaking from chorus/verse repetition to bridge out into massive, emotive crescendos.

“Now Here In,” the first track, masterfully executes the extended bridge crescendo in the song’s last minute, but right away the song establishes hyper-hooky garage punk that feels somewhat familiar. Channeling adolescent adrenaline, the song is confrontational yet withdrawn with lyrics, “I can’t feel your pain, and I feel alright by this…And now there’s nothing left to say.” “I’m Not Part Of Me,” the last song and album lead single, hits home on the theme of Here And Nowhere Else being a breakup record. “Not telling you everything I’m going through…” opens the doorway to the squashing repetition of “I’m not you, I’m not you, you’re a part of me, you’re a part of me.”

“Pattern Walks,” the second-to-last cut, bucks the typical songwriting form to deliver a thrilling song that’s double the length of all others, while being twice as intense. Dissonant noise extends out midway through until it drops into a thunderous, driving jam, and Baldi’s voice drowns in reverb as the song builds toward a dizzying plateau. Squarely against the concept of change, the extended second and third sections, bathing in noise and Cloud Nothing’s patented outro crescendo, mimic the idea of change by shifting the sections in a quick heartbeat. Change, as it happens, often happens quickly.

Album Lowlight: Low points are rare, but some of the early tracks feel a bit generic. “Quieter Today” almost sounds like a Japandroids song at first, but sure enough it proves to be an intricate cut. It contains a tad of hope with the line “I keep telling myself love is real,” and the positively-toned guitar-led outro keeps it from being anything close to a bad song. “Psychic Trauma” is one big confrontation, and the time signature changes keep this track appealing. The screaming, hardcore singing in this song, along with “Giving Into Seeing” and “No Thoughts,” might be a bit much for some — but hey, you gotta tickle the metal/punk/rage part of your brain sometimes, right?

Takeaway: The lyrics are bitter throughout, yet the overall instrumentals create a sound that is so freeing. The more you listen, the complexity of the angst-filled eight compositions begin to reveal themselves more and more. Mashing gritty aesthetics with mostly accessible singing and guitar work, it’s hard to pigeonhole Cloud Nothings, as they’ve created a record that is progressive, both pushing and blurring the boundaries of rock into new terrain.

~Mike Frash


3-BamsTop Tracks:
“2 on 2”

JAMAICA’s “Ventura” is the second album from the French duo off the independent label Control Freak. Boasting an all-star production team spearheaded by the Grammy award-winning audio engineer/producer Peter Franco (Daft Punk, Justice), the sophomore effort follows suit with contemporary Parisian pop protocol. Although not groundbreaking, the album expands upon their synth-laden rock formula, successfully giving fans of Phoenix, The Wombats and Hot Hot Heat something to satiate their appetites in 2014.

Album Highlights: A pure pop-driven album, each song’s composition is pretty straight forward. Simple sing-along verses, catchy hooks and guitar solos repeat. It’s been a while since there has been a danceable piano rock band in the scene, so it’s nice to hear an experienced key player represented in the group. The songs that are most successful on the album focus heavily on rhythm based sections, demonstrating that this band is more than just a manufactured group altered efficaciously in post-production. Clearly established in the stand out instrumental track “Turbo,” these guys have some serious shredding capability. Advanced musicianship easily bounces back and forth between sing-along pop gems “2 on 2” and “Hello Again,” and on more complicated arrangements like the piano driven “Ricky.”

Album Lowlight: In a way, the tracks that are most effective on the album also serve as a double-edged sword. Whereas they introduce us to a newer, more cutting-edge version of JAMAICA, they cast a negative shadow over the less superior attempts on the album. The isolated ballad “Rushmore”, for instance, is completely lost amidst the steady flow of guitar-driven pop rock. Absent of much creative ingenuity, the track comes across as a half assed effort at including some type of introspective reflection jam. Falling abruptly between two of the most riveting tracks on the album, the song is highly skip-able and ultimately a waste of recording space. Both this lackluster ballad and the band’s proclivity to “play it safe” with radio friendly cuts such as “Ferris Wheeler” and “Golden Times” are a bit disappointing, especially in relation to how far they creatively pushed themselves with the rest of the album.

Takeaway: Ventura has the potential of gaining positive traction in the mainstream market. Riding off of the disco-centric French domination of modern day pop music, JAMAICA can easily coattail the success of their genre’s counterparts into some radio friendly singles and airplay. The band makes a viable effort to expand upon their sound with this second album, however they leave the listener without a clear direction of where they intend to go with their musical advances. A good album to start the summer months off with, the band is definitely club-ready. Currently sticking to solely European dates, anticipate the duo to expand their tour horizons into US territory once the live show is polished enough to jump the pond.

~Molly Kish

Mac DeMarcoSalad Days

4.5-BamsTop Tracks:
“Salad Days”
“Passing Out The Pieces”
“Goodbye Weekend”

Album Highlights: Jangly, poppy guitar licks ring out as soon as you start-up this album. Mac DeMarco’s signature style is here, it’s still fresh, and in ways stronger than ever; it’s more pointed, focused, and accessible. His quirky guitar melodies are still cathartic and gently unsettling. The topics broached are spoken with a nonchalant attitude but deal with love, honesty in relationships, the insignificance of life and his resulting ambivalence, and the hectic solitude of being on the road. DeMarco is able to write in a way that allows the listener to easily empathize with him, as he turns his issues into ones that most of us have dealt with at some point. In “Chamber of Reflection”, it’s easy to really feel a sense of solitude. “Goodbye Weekend” sounds like a stoney Sunday afternoon coming to a soothing end. Every track has a personality of its own while holding up the overall ethos of the album.

Album Lowlight: The first few tracks start strong out of the gates but the album loses some steam after the seventh track, “Passing Out Pieces.” DeMarco has a tendency to be a tad self referential (“Far as I can tell she’s happy / Livin’ with her Maccy”). However, it doesn’t come off as overly pretentious, even leaning toward endearment. Also, it may seem a little strange taking sage advice from a 23-year-old, and some of the love songs may take on a concocted or forged feeling.

Takeaway: This is probably DeMarco’s most accessible work yet, so look out for this increasingly-rising young star. The guy is only 23 and is putting out his third fantastic album, so his future is very bright. This album is lighthearted enough for multiples listens in a row with its breezy beach vibe, but also easily induces deep thoughts with its many lyrical gems. Perfect for a Sunday morning or an afternoon drive.

~Steve Wandrey