May 23, 2014

Time Travel with Justin Robinson

This is a piece I wrote for Red Thought Media back in the day. Since that URL is no longer supported, I thought I'd post it here. This was based on an interview with Grammy winner Justin Robinson, one of the most interesting people I've ever talked to. 

Time Travel with Justin Robinson
by Jesse McCarl

Recently I had the chance to chat with Justin Robinson. Justin is a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and current member of his own project – Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes. His sound and style are unique, to say the least. I wanted to figure out where his inspiration came from, and he wound up describing eras long past and the End Times still to come. Join us for time travel with Justin Robinson.

December or January, Few Years Back

Evening dew had become an icy casing for the dead leaves that littered the ground. Justin Robinson tried to avoid their crunch as he prowled from tree to tree, lest it scare off his prey. His trusty canine companion crept close behind. Eventually Justin reached a clearing where he saw a swamp, or at least what used to be a swamp. The chilled air had turned the place into an ice-skating rink. Trees jutted from their murky, frozen bases. The entire area had a warm, calming glow from the moonlight being reflected off the ground.

Perhaps the discovery should have been eerie: the full moon, the swampland, and the late hour. But instead the image was beautiful. It was nature, in it’s purest form, and it had been paused just for him. Justin circled the clearing, trying to absorb every ounce of the beauty that surrounded him. After that, there was no point in continuing this hunting venture; he had seen all he needed to see.

The evocative visual affected Justin in ways he could not have expected, down to the very sound that would define his future musicianship. Whenever MySpace or Facebook asked him to list his influences, the first thing to come to mind was always the same: Moonlight on a Frozen Swamp.

This Week(ish)

You probably won’t realize it if you run into Justin Robinson this week. He studies at North Carolina State University, where he is pursuing his graduate degree in Forestry. This may not seem to be the logical follow-up to the undergrad in linguistics he earned at the UNC, but it’s whatever. He loves his iPad and his car and other modern luxuries like not dying from gonorrhea. He hits the gym in the morning and the books at night.

If you run into Justin Robinson this week, you probably won’t realize that he has a Grammy at home. You won’t know this summer he’ll be on tour to support his latest genre-defying record. You’ll have no way of knowing that some of his biggest creative influences come from eras past.

When Justin Robinson Became Grammy-Award-Winner Justin Robinson

Justin Robinson was one of the founding members of the Durham-based Carolina Chocolate Drops. This all African American band countered modern stereotypes of folk music by adding hip-hop elements for an often more playful sound. On February 12, 2011, they won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. The album was Genuine Negro Jig, for which Robinson shared vocal responsibilities and played a variety of instruments. A week prior to their monumental win, however, Robinson had publically announced his departure from the group.

A year later, Justin still doesn’t say much about his split from the Chocolate Drops. He will say that he is on good terms with his old band mates, and has a strong feeling that they’ll work together again in the future. He is happy for the continued success of his former group, but says their popularity wasn’t what made the split difficult.

“Those are the folks I’ve played music with for the last five and half years, the folks I’ve been in really intimate situations with for so long,” says Justin. “And that not being a thing anymore is difficult. It’s not unlike a break-up. Well… it is a break-up. That part was hard. But the success had nothing to do with it. Success was not really an important factor for me. Being a full-time member of the band just isn’t in the cards for me right now.”

Formation of the Mary Annettes

Following his departure from the Chocolate Drops, Robinson continued to write and play his own weird brand of music. He decided to assemble a group that could play behind him while he experimented with new styles and influences. He took members of other bluegrass groups and mixed them with employees from instrument repair shops and then threw in a drummer he found on Craigslist.

Together, they formed Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes.

As the group worked together more and more, they transformed from Justin’s backing band to an ensemble with a distinct sound.

Post-Civil War

In the wreckage of a nation divided, there was one movement that brought the people back together in the 1870s. A new type of music blended the styles of black and white folk, North and South. It featured string instrumentation of classical artists from centuries ago, and infused the rhythm Confederate soldier chants. The music that resulted was bouncy and playful, but the lyrics placed over were thematically heavy and dark. The genre became known as Post-Civil War Hip-Hop.*

* None of the previous paragraph is not backed by so much as an unedited Wikipedia article, but it somehow captures the aura of Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes. Some members of the ethnically diverse group are classically trained, while others taught themselves an instrument based on their Southern upbringing. They don’t like to be classified by something as simple as folk or bluegrass. One of Justin’s friends once off-handedly described their genre-blending sound as “post-Civil War hip-hop,” and the title just kind of stuck.

The Release of Bones for Tinder

The first LP of Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes, Bones for Tinder, was released January 17, 2012. Anybody expecting an extension of his Carolina Chocolate Drops sound was surely disappointed, but new fans found a diverse record that transported them to another time and place.

Justin wanted to make sure no two tracks sounded the same, but still keep them thematically united via a quality he refers to as “shimmering darkness.” Many of the tracks have a full band sound with lovely harmonies, but are still laced with intense lyrics.

“I’m highly suspect of music that is just too unabashedly happy,” Justin says. “I assume there’s something wrong with it. Songs should be more complex than that. I like the layers.”

There are multiple tracks (Kissin’ and Cussin’, Ships & Verses, and Brook Street) that don’t feature the Mary Annettes at all; he’s playing all the instruments. They were written years prior and stored in his back pocket for when he had freedom to be a bit more obscure with his music.

The CD release coincided with the creation of a music video for their first single, “Vultures.” Justin describes the debut video as unintentionally creepy, but he’s thrilled with how it came out and he wouldn’t change a thing.

Less than a month after the official drop, the band hosted their release party in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The band wore elaborate and elegant attire. The men wore entirely white tuxedos and the women glammed out with jewelry and rhinestones to complement their old-fashioned, hoop skirt dresses. They like to dress up for every performance, but the release party got the best of their costumes so far.

“Costumes make it more fun,” he says. “You get to wear something you don’t wear every day. I’m never going to put on a tux again unless I’m getting an award or something.”

December 23, 2012 (and Beyond)

Besides moonlight on a frozen swamp and post-Civil War hip-hop, Justin Robinson is also known to list “the apocalypse” as a major influence. The group is preparing for the End of Days by getting as much accomplished as possible with what’s left of the Mayan calendar.

They are currently preparing the video for a second single, “The Devil’s Teeth.” Over the summer, the band will tour to continue to promote Bones for Tinder. Justin says they are already working on another CD, and that their next release will be a more collaborative effort by the Mary Annettes, now that the group is more familiar with each other.

So Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes definitely have more in store, but are they a permanent fixture in the indie music landscape? Each member seems to move to the beat of a drum no one else can hear; is there the risk of another break-up?

“If you focus too much in one spot, your music tends to get weirder and then it suffers. I like making music and that will probably never change. Whether it will be this exact group of people or some variation, who knows? But I will say I like what we’ve done so far and what we can accomplish musically.”

Only time will tell.

Dec 19, 2013

10 Best Albums of 2013

It's time for a year-in-review for music this year. Here are my personal favorites, some honorable mentions, and of course the biggest disappointments:

The 10 Best Albums of 2013

10. Heartthrob by Tegan & Sara -- This album is just delightful from start to finish. It's so catchy that you'll be singing the hooks in the shower before you realize how deep they duo is lyrically.

Gateway Tracks: Closer, I'm Not Your Hero, Love They Say

9.  good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar -- 2013 will be remembered as the year everyone acknowledged Kendrick as the next king of rap. Seemingly without effort, he was suddenly ranked with Jay-Z, Eminem, and the like. His featured parts for other artists are all over the place, but this record tells a coherent story from start to finish. He is honest about how he caves to peer pressure and wants more than anything to be remembered after he dies. He demonstrates humility that you just don't see in the game, and he can get away with it because we all know he's the best. 

Gateway Tracks: Backseat Freestyle, Poetic Justice, The Art of Peer Pressure

8.  The Civil Wars by The Civil Wars -- Musically, the country duo developed in a way the first record didn't indicate they had the capacity for. That, sadly, is not what this record will be remembered for. This will be revered as their final CD, made under the tension of a creative split. Even when it plays like a collection of B-sides (which, it basically is...) it stays themed and transcendent. 

Gateway Tracks: Same Old Same Old, From This Valley, Dust to Dust

7.  When the Night by St. Lucia -- I just couldn't stop coming back to this album. St. Lucia wasn't on my radar at the beginning of the year, or even when his debut came out late summer. And yet anytime I can't decide what I'm in the mood to listen to, I end up going with this brilliant dance record.  

Gateway Tracks: Elevate, All Eyes On You, Closer Than This

6.  Beyonce by Beyonce -- Well, you certainly can't accuse her of ever doing the same thing twice.

Gateway Tracks: Partition, XO, Heaven

5.  Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves -- This CD is brilliant for what it does to the country scene. Musically, the Musgraves debut pays homage to the genre's roots. Thematically, this is the most progressive banjo-laced stuff you'll hear (and she was widely hated for it). Each track is so unique, but when I finish the last song, I know exactly how I'm supposed to feel. I love every minute of it. 

Gateway Tracks: Silver Lining, Merry Go Round, Follow Your Arrow

4.  If You Leave by Daughter -- This is the darkest music I can recommend with a clean conscious. This trio touches on lost love, abortion, and the sins of our ancestors. The happiest sounding track on the album, "Human," ends with the haunting line, "I think I'm dying here..."  Despite the weightiness of it all, I found it on rotation even on the happiest of summer days. Easily the most lyrically transcendent record of the year. 

Gateway Tracks: Youth, Human, Shallows

3.  Let's Be Still by The Head and the Heart -- I thought I was bound to be disappointed by The Head and the Heart's follow up to their euphoric self-titled debut. I was so wrong! Whereas the first CD deal with painful pasts and the elusive hope of a redemptive future, this one was just about being fully present in the moment. It's a message my generation needs to hear from a group that's becoming iconic for said generation.

Gateway Tracks: Let's Be Still, These Days Are Numbered, Gone

2.  The Bones of What You Believe by CHVRCHES -- Sure, the message behind this record gets deep at times, but I'll still insist these twelve songs are the most fun you can have with your clothes on. This group was my favorite discovery of the year.

Gateway Tracks: The Mother We Share, Tether, Under the Tide

1.  Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend -- The instrumental diversity and spiritual flirtation of this record immediately ranked Vampire Weekend among Death Cab for Cutie, The Shins, and the like as one of the greatest indie artists of all time. Whatever you do, don't miss this one!

Gateway Tracks: Step, Everlasting Arms, Ya Hey

DIShonorable Mentions

  • Indicud by Kid Cudi -- Proof that drugs are bad, kids!

  • Hummingbird by Local Natives -- After an extraordinary debut, this LA quartet decided to make the same album again, only slightly more depressing this time.

  • Honorable Mentions -- This year's blockbuster records may not have lived up to the hype surrounding them, but they were still incredible CDs that you'll be listening to and talking about well into 2014.

    • Yeezus by Kanye West
    • The 20/20 Experience: The Complete Experience by Justin Timberlake
    • Random Access Memories by Daft Punk
    • Beta Love by RaRaRiot -- OK, I know this isn't a blockbuster record like JT and these other guys, but this was on the original draft for my Top 10 list, and then at the last minute Beyonce was all like 'Don't forget about me!' so this fantastic record had to take a back seat...

    Dec 17, 2013

    Best Album of 2012 That I Didn't Mention in 2012

    Every year, before I publish my Top 10 Albums of the Year list, I make an apology to an album from the year prior. When I fall in love with a record, I fall hard. I get so consumed with my passion for the record, that I miss when there are better fish in the sea. And then, as with most of my relationships, I fall back out of love with the record and actually start to despise it a little.

    This exhausting process clears me up to find the slow-burners of the year before. This year, there was one artist that stuck out to me from 2012 that I've never acknowledged before. It's far from a debut effort, but I still consider him one of the strongest artists on the rise:

    The Way We Move by Longhorne Slim and the Law.

    Funny, I spent 2012 saying that folk music was effectively ruined by crossover artists like Monsters and Men, Lumineers, etc. (All of whom, by the way, are perfectly fine musicians. But their title of "folk genre" is wildly misguided.) But all the while, there was the raw, gritty, and somehow still exuberant master of twang waiting to be discovered.

    The album opens with title track, The Way We Move, which serves as a thesis for the whole album. It demonstrates optimism regardless of circumstances. The record progresses in this vein as he takes responsibility for ending up alone on Salvation, cheerfully begs for his true love's return on Someday, and ultimately moves forward into the cold winter alone on album closer Past Lives.

    The sense of hope, no matter how upsetting the subject matter, is undeniable. Yet it is never cheesy or naive. Perhaps it would be if the instrumentation - usually just a couple strategically chosen instruments per track - weren't handled so masterfully to back up their vocalist. As a matter of fact, I would argue that the vocals are the least mastered instrument on the CD, as he often sounds like he's pushing his vocals too far in a raw energy that would translate best on a stage before a rambunctious crowd.

    The whole thing is remarkably accessible considering how minimally produced the audio is. I think this record will resonate with any audience today, even if I am over a year late in letting you know about it. 

    Dec 12, 2013

    Beyonce Just Did What?!

    Just over an hour ago Beyonce released her fifth studio record, called 'Beyonce.'

    If you're surprised, you should be. There was absolutely no warning that this album was going to drop. It just all of a sudden went from not existing to existing.

    First and foremost, as a huge Beyonce fan since childhood, I cannot even handle the emotions that are happening to me in this moment.

    Second, we need to pause and realize that this crazy chick just changed the music industry in multiple ways. I'm only a few tracks into the record, so I can't speak with authority on it, but the innovation is evident. Here's the gut reaction:

    1. The Record You Didn't Know You Needed

    I cannot wait to read the articles about how the Queen kept this under wraps. In 2013, this just doesn't happen. Albums leak all the time. For an A-lister like Beyonce, it's actually more rare for the album NOT to have leaked by the time it officially drops. But no one had any idea. As a matter of fact, the day before she released some Instagram photos that led people to believe the release date would be some time next August.

    And by going with a surprise release, she generated more hype than if she'd had three successful singles leading up to it. Take me for example, I rarely buy albums because I have my Spotify subscription. But in the sudden hype and jolt of excitement, with the knowledge that it would be an iTunes only release for at least a week, I bought it on impulse. Did I have $15 to spare? Absolutely not. Do I regret the impulse decision? Not one little bit.

    She will also have everybody talking about this for the next week. If she had marketed the record in a traditional sense, it could easily come and go. As a matter of fact, from what I've heard, there aren't any obvious radio singles yet. But she won't need them because the songs will garner more hype with this method anyway.

    2. What the Heck is a Visual Record?

    The album is available as an ALBUM ONLY release right now. You can't purchase individual tracks until December 20. The reason is that you have to get all the music videos that go with the songs.

    She is calling it a visual record. With interludes and an outro, there are actually more music videos on the album than there are individual tracks.

    Being about half way through the record as I write this, I highly advise you watch the visual version of the record. It kind of explains why there are no radio tracks... That wasn't the point of the record. The point was to create this aesthetically euphoric listening experience. And she nailed it.

    By the way, I've never described a CD as an aesthetically euphoric listening experience.

    The videos are very sexual, so consider yourself warned. But they're unlike anything you've ever seen before and no matter the different messages between tracks, it's just fun to watch.

    Obviously similar projects have been released. The most famous example that comes to mind is Pink Floyd's The Wall. But this isn't just a supplement to a successful record... This IS Beyonce's record.

    In Conclusion

    So there you go, no matter the reception of the music overall when the dust has settled, the record already holds it's permanent place in music history. Remember this day.

    Oh and apparently the record is actually called "Beyonce pt. 1." So she could be dropping Pt. 2 on us at any moment...

    Edits Now That Initial Shock Has Worn Off..

    • This is ARTPOP without spending a year advertising art/pop. 
    • Upon further consideration, no one else could have pulled this off. I still think it will change how music is released. But honestly, even if an A-lister like Kelly Clarkson went the same route with an album, no one would care. Jay-Z or Kanye could maybe get away with it. Justin Timberlake probably. But it's not something that can be this successful right away. 

    Dec 10, 2013

    Why Classic Artists' New Records Fall Short with Young Audiences

    2013 is largely marked by classic artists putting out new music. We saw releases from My Bloody Valentine, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Elton John, and more. Heck, in the same day, albums dropped from Paul McCartney and Pearl Jam. 

    The problem is, I only made it all the way through a couple of the big "reunion records" this year. Even Pearl Jam, an artist I was alive for the peak of, only got a handful of rotations. And I don't know anyone my age (23, by the way) that cared any more than me...

    Were these records bad? Absolutely not. All the ones listed here, and many others, did a great job of picking up where they left off however many years ago and continuing to carry the torch. They have a feel that they didn't "need" to be made. There was no studio breathing down the artists' necks. These LPs are love projects, from start to finish. And that's a beautiful thing. 

    So why did they fall so short in drawing a new fanbase? Here's a few theories:

    1. They're not innovative. Great musicians? Absolutely! But their sound is something that already exists. It's nothing personal, but younger listeners want talent than can build off the music of yesteryear, not tributes to the past. The problem with this theory? Most of the big artists, with My Bloody Valentine as the best example, actually developed as musicians; not rely just same-old sound. It's certainly true for some of the big reunions, but it's not an encompassing theory. Perhaps the problem was as simple as picking poor singles on otherwise more-developed records. 
    2. An appreciation for classic sound is dead. This isn't meant to be an insult to young listeners or older artists. It's just a fact. Music has taken the decades before an gone one way with it, while the artists--for better or worse--went another. Even if the artists are as innovative as could be expected, it doesn't mesh with what the younger generation has been trained to appreciate. 
    3. They're not sexy. This is the most likely theory. I know there are still plenty of women who would throw their panties at Paul McCartney, but his relevance falls extremely short of the reverence young listeners have. Today's audiences are defined by a hipster mentality, and I do mean this in a bad way (even though I too, am guilty). We get off by saying we knew about so-and-so before they were on commercial radio. No one is impressed that you've heard of David Bowie when there's an all lesbian rock quartet the world needs to know about!
    All of these theories pass judgement on someone, whether it's the boring old musician or the pretentious young hipster. And I'm sure it's not just one element, but a combo. Still, it's something to consider as we enter a new era of music and a new year of trends.