Category Archives: B-side

Arts, lifestyle and culture blog.

A Night Out with Rose Street Collective

Snapping their fingers under lights of purple, blue, and yellow hues, Julia Spelman, Lilly Dukich and Erika Polner spend the majority of a Friday night set perfecting harmonies as a powerful vocal trio, while reserving a few songs for solo performances highlighting individual strengths.

 Rose Street Collective, a new band consisting of five UVM students, surrounds the three singers while playing songs the group has meticulously mastered.

Filling two venues in one weekend, the Skinny Pancake and Radio Bean, the Collective shares their own perspective on jazz by playing both original and familiar tunes.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. From left: Lilly Dukich, Julia Spelman and Erika Polner performing at the Skinny Pancake on February 3rd.

Since November, the band has played about 10 shows and is quickly becoming a  staple of the Burlington music scene.

The magic of Rose Street Collective lies in their ability to pay tribute to the history of jazz by taking the audience through a dynamic tour of the genre, from Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues” to a nostalgic yet energetic rendition of Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things” and, finally,  covers of today’s hit indie songs.

The band consists of Adam Sullivan on keys, Ian Mack on guitar, Kevin Nikolaides on bass, Ethan Shafron on drums, and Rayne Bick playing the alto sax.

Members share a respect for jazz’s rich history, a reverence that resurged years after taking lessons as kids.

“It has always been a part of our lives, even when we didn’t realize it,” Spelman said.

Most of the members met through the UVM jazz ensemble, while Mack and Bick connected with the group later on through mutual friends.

The ensemble helped them further develop their skills and the group quickly became eager to branch out from campus once they recognized their common love of many different genres of music, from soul to funk to rock.

The group’s ultimate goal was to mimic their favorite musicians, incorporating classical jazz standards into the modern music they listen to.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Rose Street Collective at the Skinny Pancake on February 3rd.

Their interpretation of funk group Vulfpeck’s hit song “Back Pocket” illustrates this perfectly as they replace keys with an alto sax and turn the volume up, taking the song to a new level.  

While it may seem that there is a meticulous strategy to their setlist, it mostly just pays tribute to the songs they all love, which they compile into a Spotify collaborative playlist or suggest via Facebook messenger, Shafron said.

Nikolaides uses Google Sheets faithfully in order to avoid chaos, keeping ideas and song choices organized. 

At the show, the band members seemed completely in their element on stage, exchanging glances and smiles in the midst of their solos.

They’re quickly making their way from one Burlington venue to the next each weekend, which helps to immerse them into the “hopping” music community, Spelman said.

To keep up with their movements, the band suggests liking them on Facebook and possibly following their Instagram in the near future, Shafron said. They have a show this coming Thursday, February 16th at Radio Bean, 11:00 pm.

The Anti-Sport

     Skateboarding is set to be in the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo. I’m confused. The Olympics are for usually for sports, and skateboarding can’t be a sport. Seeing skateboarding in the olympics is akin to McDonald’s offering dry cleaning. Skateboarding can’t be a sport, sports have clear objectives and points. In a basketball game, everyone knows what they should be doing: trying their darndest to get the ball in the net. When they do, they don’t wonder what happens next, they know they will get points for it.

   Skateboarding is nothing like that. Skateboards don’t come with instructions. Some people choose to use a skateboard purely as transportation. Some people decide to ride huge boards exclusively down steep hills. Some people aim only to flip their board in complex ways. Some people strive to hop down huge sets of stairs. The only wrong way to approach skateboarding is to not approach it.

    There are no points in skateboarding. When I landed my first ollie, there wasn’t a scoreboard flashing numbers at me. There’s no way to score skateboarding. Some people can naturally do things without trying, while it might take someone else years to learn. That one guy at the skatepark that’s struggling to kickflip may turn around and do something twice as hard.

   Sports encourage competition. Competition encourages animosity and hostility amongst competitors. Every time a team celebrates scoring a goal, there’s another team that hates them for doing it. Skateboarding is the opposite: it encourages camaraderie and friendship. When I see someone do some trick I’ve always wanted to do, I can’t be mad at them, I can only be excited for them.

   Calling skateboarding a sport is like calling a grilled cheese a burger. Or calling high heels tennis shoes. Or calling 9 hours of sleep a nap. While they may share some minor similarities,the connection is not quite there. I propose a new word, something to signify an activity that requires physical exertion and developed skills, but does not contain an inherent goal or point system. How about ‘hobby’? Skateboarding is a hobby. I’m all for making an Olympics of hobbies, but I’d like to keep skateboarding out of the current hyper-jockish, athlete-childhood-extinguishing Olympic culture.

And The Kids Share Lovers

“I’m trying to wrangle everyone into a group costume…but it’s a secret!,” said And The Kids frontwoman Hannah Mohan. Mohan and her bandmates are gearing up for a two-night run at Signal Kitchen Thursday and Friday, excitedly rallying friends and assembling outfits for the weekend’s festivities.

“We love playing in Vermont, there are so many amazing bands playing with us,” Mohan said, “I have all my best friends so it’s really fun.”

The band has been touring with their new album, “Friends Share Lovers,” for the better part of 2016, and are finishing off the year with shows in the U.S., Canada and Europe. They’re coming back home to New England with friends to see and old times to revisit.

Mohan hails from western Massachusetts, where she and the band spent their formative years living in tents, playing residencies and growing together. “When we started the band, we decided ‘ok, no jobs for us, we’re not gonna pay rent,’” Mohan said. “We found this piece of land in Hadley right on the [Connecticut] river and payed this guy 100 bucks a month to live on the property while we were on tour.”

And The Kids. COURTNEY CHAVANELL.
And The Kids. COURTNEY CHAVANELL.

With a makeshift practice space crafted from a Pods container, Mohan and drummer Rebecca Lasaporano roughed it during the band’s inception. Mohan testified to the importance of place in her life ever since, which seeps into her music as well.

“I’m a cancer and our whole thing is we revolve around home,” she said. “I’m also a crab, so my home is on my back. There’s a huge inspiration for me to write about habitat.”

Even on tour, Mohan’s connection to place inspires her. “Out of nowhere, I loved Madison, Wisconsin,” she said, “I got really attached — we bought a tape deck at this vintage store, I just really didn’t want to leave.”

Anchoring to home has been problematic for And The Kids, too, as Canadian synth player Megan Miller’s visa troubles have kept her from touring with the band in the U.S. “We wrote “Friends Share Lovers” before our keyboard player got deported, so there are some songs about her,” Mohan said, “we had to come up with power songs we could play as a two piece.” 

And The Kids. COURTNEY CHAVANELL.
And The Kids. COURTNEY CHAVANELL.

Despite Miller’s absence on tour, she is anything but missing from the album. Her synth riffs float through the album’s most atmospheric tracks, like “Creeper” and “Picture” with exquisite and ethereal spookiness.

“Creeper is my favorite because of Megan’s fucking synth part at the end,” Mohan said.

“We went deeper into the ocean of experimenting with sonic shit on this album,” she said, “We recorded it on tape, too, so that’s fucking amazing.”

The album is nebulous and playful, resounding with anxious emotion and confusion, yet remarkable sophistication. “We were trying to have more of a concept linking all the songs on this one,” said Mohan.

Along with strikingly evocative sounds is And The Kids’ glittering and gorgeous album art by Brooklyn, New York  artist Chase Carlisle.

“Aesthetics are really difficult because we have different visions, some of us want a more mature look and some want sketchy drawings,” Mohan said. “Now I just want fucking gorgeous stuff that doesn’t take two seconds to make.”

“I’m gonna hang out with a bunch of my friends and go to my old house in Colchester, maybe build a fire,” Mohan said. “We’re trying to make a music video with Joey Pizza Slice too, he makes awesome VHS videos.”

Gone, sadly, is their trademark inflatable deer, Andrea, that Mohan rescued from the woods in Washington, D.C.

“Andrea the deer…she had a really rough tour with Ra Ra Riot and she’s kind of out of commission now,” she said. Regardless, And The Kids has incredible music, lovable antics and a guaranteed sprinkling of glitter to offer when they return to Vermont. Catch the band at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 27 and 28 at Signal Kitchen and in the station at WRUV Friday at noon.

Grand Point North Celebrates Burlington

With summer officially coming to an end next week, Grand Point North music festival serves not only as the perfect ode to warmer weather, but also as a celebration of all things Vermont music, art and food.

        Years ago, Grace Potter approached promoter Alex Crothers with a vision of a Burlington music festival that would revolve around the local bands that inspired her as well as her and her friends’ smaller, up-and-coming bands. In its sixth year, Potter and her brainchild, Grand Point North, have grown beyond the bounds of Burlington to national success.

RICK LEVINSON PHOTOGRAPHY, Grand Point North 2016.
RICK LEVINSON PHOTOGRAPHY, Grand Point North 2016.

        Potter’s constantly growing fan-base attracts people from all around the country, with people from out of state  making up about 50 percent of ticket-buyers. Crothers describes the event as the “mecca for Grace Potter fans,” as it’s an intimate performance in her hometown, where she will be surrounded by family and lifelong friends. Music fans from all different parts of Vermont will make up the other half of attendees, shipping up to Vermont’s biggest city to enjoy the capstone music event of the summer.

Support for the burgeoning Burlington and New England music scene will bring great diversity of sound to the stage, from punk to Americana to funk to rock and beyond.

        The same goes for food. With Skinny Pancake as the chief caterer of Grand Point Local, the festival’s culinary component, Crothers says the they will offer local food for everyone. Pingala offers vegan eats for veggie lovers, while Southern Smoke BBQ offers Cajun and Caribbean barbeque for meat fanatics. Farmers & Foragers and Green Pasture Meats offer wholesome farm-to-table meals, while Duino Duende and Caja Madera offer flavorful tacos.

RICK LEVINSON PHOTOGRAPHY, Grace Potter at Grand Point North 2016.
RICK LEVINSON PHOTOGRAPHY, Grace Potter at Grand Point North 2016.

        In addition to music and food, Crothers says attendees can check out the “visual eye candy” at Grand Point Weird, the art installation located on the festival grounds. Professional glass artist and sister of Grace, Charlotte Potter, will feature an “intensive collaborative project” between Brooklyn-based painter Esteban del Valle and artists from Vermont Governor’s Institute of the Arts.

        Before festival gates open, yoga instructor Taraleigh Weathers will lead hour-long free classes at noon on the Great Lawn. With live music and yoga mats provided, the lessons will offer an ideal environment for anyone wanting to try out yoga for the first time, and for expert yogis looking for a fun, laid-back experience.       

RICK LEVINSON PHOTOGRAPHY, Grand Point North 2016.
RICK LEVINSON PHOTOGRAPHY, Grand Point North 2016.

Crothers describes the festival as “convivial,” with a fun and art-driven atmosphere. Though it’s conveniently located in the heart of Burlington on the lake, the festival will feel far from chaotic, with short and quick lines. The festival emphasizes the importance of community through maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere, kids 12 and under are free, making the crowds welcoming to everyone. As the final outdoor event of the year, Grand Point North encourages all to soak in the last moments of summer in the ultimate celebration of Burlington.

Wit and Wisdom with Matteo Lane

Matteo Lane is a master of many trades: he’s a painter, an illustrator, an opera singer and now, a stand-up comedian. Lane will be at the Vermont Comedy Club Sept. 9 and 10, treating audiences to his trademark sarcastic wit.

Opera may not seem like the traditional path to comedy, but for Matteo Lane, everything is connected.

“I tried to get my start as a singer in Chicago and i joined a group of drag queens and strippers and it was a year and a half of hell,” Lane said, “so stand up seemed glamorous in comparison.”

His past experience continues to influence his stand-up today. He told me he’s found similarities in all his artistic pursuits.

“The most important thing in all art forms is to surround yourself with people better than you. That’s the only way to get better at any art,” Lane said.

His transition to stand-up was inspired in part by his large Italian-American family.

“I’m mostly shaped by my family. They’re the funniest people on the planet,” Lane said, “You have to compete; you learn what is and isn’t funny. You learn your timing at a very young age.”

Lane paused here to refill his coffee and tell me the fried chicken he was enjoying from the comfort of an NYC diner was delicious, before we began to talk about what makes stand-up unique as a form of entertainment.

“Stand-up is one of the rawest forms of performance,” Lane said, “it just requires a microphone, your thoughts, and a lot of hard work; singing, you can hide behind the music, acting behind the character. Stand up is just a dialogue between you and the audience.”

This “rawness” Lane values in stand-up, which he compared it to a combination of sexting and Catholic confession, has increasingly allowed more and more diverse voices to break into the business.  

“I think there’s been a shift even in the past five years in what people in the industry are interested in,” Lane said, “I’m not someone who’s like ‘straight white men suck,’ but I do find it refreshing that more people are seeing themselves reflected on stage.”

His experiences as a gay man have provided material for his stand-up. Lane particularly values comedy as a kind of coming to terms with his past.

“I’ve found humor in healing all the shame I held onto as a child,” he said, “the stage will heal whatever I’m going through.”

Although Lane unapologetically embraces all aspects of his identity, the comedian also does not feel the need to limit himself to only performing to certain audiences when speaking on certain issues.

“I don’t think of myself as a spokesperson for anything but I’ve gotten a lot of outreach from kids in the closet and it means a lot to them to see me,” he said, “if you’re LGBT, you’re doing a lot just by being yourself. Anything else is extra.”.

Lane’s ability to create humor from  the shameful, the scary and the awkward is what has allowed him to connect with so many audiences, from his work on MTV’s GirlCode to his growing career as a touring comedian.

“When you are really honest, it’s not so much shocking as it is interesting,” he said, “I’ve said things that make people’s skin peel off them. But it’s a relief to say them. It can be dark and intense but life is dark and you have to find the light in it.”

Reviving Rock Classics with the Sheepdogs

      ‘70s rock and roll lives on, and not just on Beatles-filled throwback playlists. With sweet harmonies and classic three-chord guitar rhythms, Ontario based rock outfit the Sheepdogs are reviving the genre’s golden years.

        The band released their fifth studio album “Future Nostalgia” last year, and is set to play Signal Kitchen May 4.

        “Future Nostalgia” is chock full of crisp and sunny windows-down rock and roll, immediately evoking the southern rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. All the while, neo-blues tracks like “Darryl & Dwight” align the band with fellow rock revivalists like the Black Keys.

        Ewan Curie, the Sheepdogs’ lead singer, spoke about the band’s preference for older sounds. “I don’t really like modern rock, so I don’t want to sound like it,” Curie said, “I think rock and roll should be more fun than it is.”

        For Curie, making music isn’t about doing something that hasn’t been done. “We’re going to keep on playing the music that we love,” he said, “People can play whatever they want and hopefully find an audience for it.”

        At the same time, the Sheepdogs aren’t set out to be a cover band. “We love all these acts, but we’re not just trying to be the Stones,” Curie said.

        In terms of influences, Curie sticks to the greats. He said Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills and Nash are two of his favorites. “With Zeppelin, you get the power of blues rock; with CSN you get a singer-songwriter sound but still a band that rocks,” Curie said.

        He said he  seeks to strike a balance between the two ends of the classic rock spectrum, landing somewhere between explosive riff-driven tracks and light, folksy jams. “We work really hard on our singing—we want to record songs that connect with people on a personal level,” Curie said.

        While he holds rock renaissance acts dear, contemporary bands like Wilco and My Morning Jacket are among the bands he loves. “I admire them for sticking to their guns and making the music how the way they want to,” Curie said.

        “[Wilco] might have had a moment when they were a hip and cool new band, but they just kind of do what they want,” he said.

        The idea of doing what they want, how they want to do it, seems to be a defining aspect of the Sheepdogs. “We play the music we love, and we’re gonna keep on playing it,” Curie said.

        After cutting their last album in a secluded cottage on an Ontario lake, he said the band is refocused and ready to head out on another tour. Come this fall, the band will begin work on their sixth studio album which, at the pace the band is going, will likely become a new classic.

Cricket Blue’s Io: An Exploration of Music, Myth and Agency

“Myths and old stories feel unresolved. You want to explain them,” Taylor Smith told me as we sat down to discuss Burlington folk duo Cricket Blue’s new EP “Io.”

Their new EP opens as Smith and the duo’s other half Laura Heaberlin softly croon: “When the woods were full of wolves, the girls tied back their hair. They covered up their hands because it gave away their age.”

With this first track, “Angela Carter,” Heaberlin said they were “emulating Angela Carter’s  weird fractured fairytales.”

Carter’s fiction, with its combination of feminism and magical realism, is the perfect fit for Cricket Blue’s mythological folk.

This desire to explore and complicate traditional myths and fairytales is an undercurrent in much of Cricket Blue’s music, from earlier work like “Forsythia,” a love story set in the garden of Eden, to “Angela Carter’s” investigation of what lurks after the words “once upon a time.”

Their lyrics read like missives from another time or place. They remind the listener that the myths and stories they were raised on often have a dark underbelly lurking behind their apparent innocence.

“I think I have sort of a tendency to mythologize places,” Smith said.

This attention to place is evident on “Kentucky,” a song inspired by the state where Smith spent his formative years. He both wrote the lyrics and arranged an impressive cello part for the song.

Lyrics like “lost like a boy with his lord bound around him with cords” and “the staff and the rod of the terror of God have finally gotten to you” are almost visceral in the way the violence they discuss is made concrete through metaphor.

However, even at their most melancholic, Cricket Blue does not make music for cynics. In “Kentucky,” kernels of hope glimmer as Smith and Heaberlin sing wistfully: “Let all that is old be made new.”

Unlike Smith, who is more influenced by place, Heaberlin said she thinks she is more influenced by the theme of time when she writes.

““For me, it’s not so much place, as era,” Heaberlin. “I write in the past a lot.”  

The influence of past eras on Cricket Blue’s work are obvious not only in their fondness for myth but in their song “Eleanor,” a ballad of young wife who has an affair when her husband ships off to war.

One of Smith’s personal favorites of the album, the song exemplifies the eerie and complex harmonies that make Cricket Blue so intriguing.

Although “Io” has much in common with their previous work – the attention to mythological detail, the bluesy orchestration, the recurrence of the figure of “Eve” (“because feminism,” Heaberlin quipped) – it also is a departure from their previous work.

This is the first album the duo has recorded in studio, and because of this they were able to collaborate with other musicians and had access to more resources than they have had in the past.

“We were a little worried about bringing a creative partner in, but it was wonderful,” Smith said of their experience working with Beehive Productions.

Thematically, “Io” is more “character driven,” than their previous EP Heaberlin told me.

Named after a myth where Zeus pursued a woman against her will, only to transform her into a cow in order to hide her from his wife, “Io” takes up the plight of the downtrodden and trapped.

“We were writing about characters who had lost agency in one way or another,” Heaberlin said.

From the fairytale women who so often are reduced to archetypes, to Eleanor the suffocated 1950s housewife, to the namesake of their album, Cricket Blue uses their music to provide a voice to those who have been rendered voiceless.

This reclamation of agency is what makes their music so interesting to return to. You’re lulled in by the sweetness of their melodies that are reminiscent of traditional Appalachian folk or literary indie rock like Andrew Bird and find yourself suddenly surprised by the epiphanies that their songs so often crescendo to.

“We haven’t run out of stuff. We don’t get sick of each other,” Heaberlin said when I asked what it was like to work with Smith.
“Io” is something else you can count on not getting sick of. The EP is replete with literary and mythological references that don’t yield themselves up upon first listen. “Io” begs to be played over and over.

An Education: Lessons Learned from Converse Hall

Incoming college students can arm themselves with myriad study guides, syllabi, and workshops that promise to deliver academic success. What they don’t prepare you for is the various oddities of day-to-day dorm life.

My education has been delivered to me courtesy of UVM’s oldest (and spookiest) dorm: Converse Hall.

My first rude awakening was that locking your door here is a necessity. Coming from the Living/Learning Center, where we left our doors open 24 hours a day and were unfazed to come home to people in our rooms who didn’t live there, this was a weird adjustment.

Attic, Converse Hall. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.
Attic, Converse Hall. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

I came home not long ago to the smell that was part opium den, part Easter vigil, and part Seattle basement. The smell was expected. The bedraggled middle-aged man wandering my hallway and knocking on doors was not.

 After kindly telling me many stories of his time at UVM in the ‘70s, he went on to explain an elaborate conspiracy involving banks and invite me to an “all ages, BYOB barn dance.” I still can’t decide what my favorite part of that concept is.

I turned him down. Don’t get me wrong, he was a nice dude. But even I knew that sounded like a bad idea. Apparently there was a naked man running through the building the other day, too, which should have been surprising news when I heard it, but wasn’t.

Converse Hall. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.
Converse Hall. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

Anyway: I lock my door now. I feel pretty good about that decision.

I’ve also stopped expecting anything to really be where it’s supposed to be. Couches routinely turn up part way down stairwells. There’s a graveyard of unwanted bed frames in the attic and someone has managed to tear a sizeable hole in the ceiling. Like, big enough to hide treasure or a dismembered body in.

Some mornings, I’ve walked down to the basement to find all the pool cues stuck in the ceiling and the floor strewn with underwear and empty bottles. A miniature garden of potted plants and trays of germinating seeds clutters one of the the fourth floor window sills.

Somehow, the plants have made it this long, so I assume someone is taking care of them. Or at least taking as good care of them as college students take of themselves.

IMG_9822
Attic, Converse Hall. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

There aren’t any secrets in Converse. Other than the ghost, that is. We don’t have your typical idiot-proof cinderblock dorm walls. I hear everything. I see everything. If you ever wondered what it would be like to be omniscient, just live in a centuries old dorm building. You will know everything you possibly could want to know.

I knew when the person living above me had the flu for a week. I know the fourth floor plays an impressive amount of Kendrick Lamar. Weirdly, I know a lot about the recent shares purchased on the stock market by the guys who smoke outside my window every night. Apparently Chipotle’s stock isn’t doing so hot. 

One of the more obvious, although most enduring lessons I’ve learned is that buildings built in 1895 behave exactly like you think they would. The pipes make this incredible banshee like shrieking noise whenever you turn the heat on and rattle against the wall. The tile on bathroom wall is falling off, leaving gaping holes. Ice freezes over the inside of the windowsills.

Attic, Converse Hall. MAGGIE RICHARDSON.
Attic, Converse Hall. MAGGIE RICHARDSON.

This fall, the fire alarms started going off everyday for absolutely no reason. We would all stumble outside in our barefeet and bathrobes and sulk until the fire department came. It was kind of bonding experience, I guess.

My favorite, though, is the attic. It’s like a room where Victorian gentlemen locked up their insane wives was redecorated by a carpet salesman from the ‘70s. You can’t really go for a cooler vibe than that.

Stairwell, Converse Hall. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.
Stairwell, Converse Hall. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

People complain a lot about Converse. And to be honest, I get it. The decrepit haunted mansion crossed with a frat party life isn’t for everyone. 1 AM fire alarms aren’t anyone’s favorite and thin walls (despite my newfound knowledge of the stock market) have their drawbacks.

So I don’t blame you if the Converse life isn’t for you, but if you need me, I will be hanging out in my creaky, weird, possibly haunted dorm room. Knock first— the door will be locked.

Kendrick and Kanye: Artistry versus Ego

Kendrick Lamar just released a new record, “untitled unmastered,” and it is a great listen. The quality of the music onboard the LP is astonishingly layered: every instrumental lavish and fleshed out and every lyric codified to mean three things at the same time. Even though it was drafted from B-sides and incomplete song sketches, the album feels remarkably filled in and complete as an experience.

From his debut record to last year’s multiple-Grammy-nominated “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar has been consistent in just how, well, consistent in the amount of time and effort he appears to place into the music.

The interludes and spoken-word mantras of “Butterfly” become celebratory shout segments on “untitled,” with every appearance of Kendrick hooting “Pimp pimp, hooray!” serving as a reminder of dedication to craft and thought toward how the music feels for the listener.

The album has already received accolades from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Consequence of Sound and other outlets for its impeccable musical quality. It is terrific.

However, we’re not here to talk about Lamar as a stand-alone. Instead, his latest effort is an important point of reference, to break down how creativity and ego can come together to make or break a work of art. King Kendrick masterfully avoids what could only be called Kanye-Sickness: the illness which occurs when artistry is overtaken by Artistry (the attempt to look like an artist).

Kanye West. EVA BARTELS . B-Side.
Kanye West. EVA BARTELS . B-Side.

Kanye West is someone dealing with an awful lot of Kanye-Sickness. His newest record, “The Life of Pablo,” was released about one month before Lamar’s, is a hodge-podge of multiple ideas. Where “untitled” carries an intentional improvisational looseness, “Pablo” does not carry much feeling of forethought.

The album received numerous name changes before its release and was put out exclusively on Tidal, a streaming service he owns. You cannot buy it.

Not only that, but he’s said he hasn’t even finished the album, and is still mixing some of the songs and replacing them for streaming (for example, the mix on Taylor Swift-dissing track “Famous”).

The album comes at the tail-end of a songwriting peak for West. Just like Lamar, he has walked a golden path of critically-acclaimed records, from “The College Dropout” to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” All of this success was built atop a wave of bold and brash confidence, creating a much-lauded portrait of a brilliant, misunderstood iconoclast. This act of projection went to such lengths that Kanye implying he was a Christ figure wasn’t far enough – he had to literally name an album, “Yeezus.”

And, like one would expect from a structure put together on a wave, eventually it crashes with it. This is where Kanye-Sickness comes in.

Let’s define this disease: the absolute intersection of egoism and brilliance. When an artist goes far enough into the self and loses sight of their creative process, they are dealing with a lot of Kanye-Sickness (see: Kanye West’s Twitter feed).

If one exhibits too much creativity and not enough confidence, that person is cured of Kanye-Sickness altogether. For reference, think of what kind of music white bread would play if it was human, or a Kings of Leon album.

Kanye is too Kanye-Sick now – but he’s not alone, and lately the disease is hitting some of the music industry’s finest.

Kid Cudi’s latest output, “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven,” is a stark reminder that the man once responsible for such radio smashes as “Day n’ Night” and “Pursuit of Happiness” is now making slow moans over Nirvana-lite grunge guitar with a metronome plinking in the background.

Kid Cudi. EVA BARTELS. B-Side.
Kid Cudi. EVA BARTELS. B-Side.

Just like Kanye, Cudi built his position in the rap canon as a unique “loner,” a misunderstood figure with a kinda-okay singing voice when he wanted to use it. He is always the “man on the moon,” isolating himself from the outside world.

Cudi’s early music showed promise through its artistic portrayal of this figure, but now there is no distance – he’s gone so far away from who he’s playing to that it seems he doesn’t care how the music sounds.

From his first rock album, “WZRD,” he’s shown no signs of slowing down his descent into blandness by way of strongly wanting to be Frank Black of the Pixies.  

Elsewhere, Miley Cyrus is recording sex-themed psychedelic-trap tunes with The Flaming Lips under the name the “Dead Petz,” releasing songs satiated with cheap reverb-laden synths and cringe-worthy lyrics (see: “f**k me so you stop baby talkin’”).

She and her Petz are an active rebuttal to her Hannah Montana days. Their public debut was on the MTV Music Choice Awards, playing a song with the opening phrase, “Yeah, I smoke pot.” The only reason this music seems to exist appears to be to contribute to Cyrus’ own public image.

Even Jay Z’s last record, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” made his legendary rap career feel like a memory How does he describe his wife, one of the most envied and successful women in pop music? “Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa/The modern day version with better features” – poetics! Jay took mediocre raps over trap beats and tried to pass it off as Artistry, and even co-opted Maria Abramovic (“The Artist is Present”) to make “Picasso Baby” seem like a statement.

The only statement made was as empty and hollow as a Donald Trump tweet: all bluster and no higher thought. Ultimately, the determining factor as to whether an artist can resist Kanye-Sickness enough to make a masterful song, while carrying enough ego-blessed confidence to have resonance with an audience, is effort.

The difference between Lamar’s “untitled” and West’s “Life of Pablo,” both being altogether unfinished works, is the amount of time and care placed into making the album whole and the art complete and satisfying. The former was produced through the creative process as odds-and-ends – as Lamar put it on Twitter, the songs are “demos.”

Yet the project uses interludes and field recordings to carry a solid listen the whole way through. By contrast, “Pablo” is still incomplete according to West himself, existing in an ooze state, as semi-complete musical plasma.

This could easily be attributable to the idea of “Kanye being Kanye,” in the same vein that fans make excuses for other artists to take nosedives into Kanye-Sickness denial. After “WZRD,” I must have had the notion of “Cudi being Cudi” go through my mind at least ten times. The Cyrus-Lips collaboration sounded cool on paper, but once my headphones began to play its material form, I lost hope: Miley was just being Miley.

“X being X” in turn is the colloquial form of Kanye-Sickness. It is not art as exemplified through an artist’s personality, but instead the opposite. It is an artist’s personality exemplified through artistic expression…and that’s not worth much praise.

To compare: if you overheard someone saying the loved a Nickelback album because it was “Nickelback being Nickelback,” you’d question their taste in music, as well as probably everything else. You would not laud Nickelback for “truly channeling the persona of Nickelback in an incredible, fluid fashion,” or something similarly pretentious.

When an album comes out that throws a full frontal assault of an individual’s artistry at the listener and avoids the pothole of self-indulgence – that is when we should give high praise out of our pockets.

Cricket Blue Haunts with Ethereal Folk

    Cricket Blue makes exactly the kind of music you would expect when you hear their name.

    The folk duo is comprised of Middlebury College alumni Laura Heaberlin and Taylor Smith, who play what they have deemed “botanical, spooky, umbilically-resonant folk.” With soft vocal harmonies and carefully constructed guitar rhythms, Heaberlin and Smith craft a fine balance of eerie mystery and intriguing warmth that engulfs listeners.

      Cricket Blue’s allusive and poetic folk music is rooted in Heaberlin and Smith’s long-standing love of writing. Poetry was Heaberlin’s main focus at Middlebury, with a book of poems serving as her final thesis. Poetry, for her, started “as a tortured unrequited love,” said Heaberlin, which evolved into a fascination with the art.

laura and taylor
Taylor Smith and Laura Heaberlin of Cricket Blue. SAM HELLER. The Vermont Cynic.

    Despite their seemingly similar natures, Heaberlin insists that poetry and songwriting are not as connected as they may seem. Poetry tends to be “more abstract with more room for free-writing,” she said, while lyrics tend to come from more of an “emotional base.” In fact, Heaberlin’s career as a songwriter didn’t begin until after her graduation from Middlebury in 2012.  

        While it’s not uncommon for Heaberlin to draw upon her free-writing notebook for inspiration after figuring out the instrumental elements, the opposite is true for Smith. Most of the time, the words come to him before the melody. Sometimes, however, the two come together as a package.

       “There is something special about the marriage of words and music,” Smith said. While poetry tends to be “static,” with words on a page, the melody “makes the words more active,” he said. Both Heaberlin and Smith agree that poetry and songwriting occupy, as Smith said, “different parts of the brain.”

        Regardless of how the duo writes the lyrics, it’s clear from their self-titled EP that they are well-versed in literature. Their songs make allusions to mythology, and explore themes such as  “love, wishes, disappointment, friendship, potential future and the ends of things,” according to Cricket Blue’s Bandcamp bio.

      With lyrics like “Forsooth, forsythia! Yellow and sad / You lost all your blossoms in May / But take it from me – a forsythia tree – / our love comes the strongest too late,” Cricket Blue manages to convey through fictional imagery a strong sense of relatable remorse, with a melody that matches.  

Taylor Smith. SAM HELLER. The Vermont Cynic.
Taylor Smith. SAM HELLER. The Vermont Cynic.

        For Smith and Heaberlin, writing is always a personal matter, and can’t be done together. Instead, they present songs to one another once the songs are 75 percent complete; never less and never more. A certain creative balance between Smith and Heaberlin makes the song writing and editing process easier. Smith, who said he feels “energized by meeting new people and discovering new places,” practices improvisation and experiences “rapid bursts of inspiration.” However, Heaberlin, who “likes to go home at the end of the night,” leans towards quietude and takes her time on each word when songwriting.

        Perhaps the combination of extroversion and introversion is why they work so well together. Even after many long car rides they “still find new things to talk about,” Smith said, in part because they both enjoy exploring and observing the quirks of the towns they perform in. In fact, they’ve created an excel sheet with random observations to base judgement off of. For example, a small town in Pennsylvania was especially memorable because “parking was cheap and everyone in the coffee shop was having a deep conversation,” Heaberlin said.

        Given that they do what they do so well, it’s surprising to learn they experiment with different sounds in their free time. Smith describes his earlier music as more raw, loud and “complaining,” truly epitomizing teenage angst.

Today Smith remains dedicated to the Cricket Blue project, but also plays saxophone in four alternative bands on the side, including Abbie Morin, The Peasant Dramatic and Grundlefunk. Heaberlin said she feels less of a need to play around with different genres. When Smith is touring with his other bands, Heaberlin often plays solo shows performing Cricket Blue’s music.

        It’s evident from the logistical standpoint that Cricket Blue is on the rise. Their first and only EP was recorded at home on a laptop. Their second up-and-coming EP, which has no release date yet, was recorded with the record label Beehive at a studio in Saranac Lake, where Smith and Heaberlin perform separately. However, there hasn’t been one specific breakthrough moment for them; the progression has felt gradual, Smith said.

        Part of this is because they can foresee the next big thing, such as an EP release or an exciting show, and they worked hard to achieve their milestones, Smith said. The pursuit of success is not always as glamorous as it may seem. Even though they have no doubt that they’re living their dreams, the reality is that they “still have to write emails,” said Smith.

“More time is spent on the business side and driving than actually performing the music,” Heaberlin said.

        Both Heaberlin and Smith celebrate every little step. For example, Cricket Blue has started to get “a lot of cool junk mail, like watches to sell at shows,” said Heaberlin. The band now also has its own bank account, further proving the band is growing up.

        What makes a Cricket Blue listener?

      “A genuine love for lyrics and wordplay,”  Heaberlin said.

   “People who like stories, ideas, and feeling a little melancholy,” Smith said.

     Heaberlin and Smith said they have a lot of respect and gratitude for their listeners, as they got the band to where they are today. This is one of the reasons why they veer away from the word “fan” in general, which implies a “weird power structure,” Smith said. In the end, nothing means more to them than people truly paying attention to their music.

Taylor Smith of Cricket Blue. SAM HELLER. The Vermont Cynic.
Taylor Smith of Cricket Blue. SAM HELLER. The Vermont Cynic.

    Afterall, having “four people really listening to the music is more meaningful than having 70 people talking,” Heaberlin said.

   “One person really liking it makes all the difference,” Smith said.

    Smith said he often feels inspired by songs where “one line can just hit you.” The irony is that with lyrics like “I’ve loved you for years—glad to finally meet” and  “I wanna give in, I wanna make waves,” Cricket Blue essentially creates exactly these kinds of songs.

    When addressing the Burlington music scene, Smith said it is a “fantastic scene that differs from our sound.” Performing frequently in the local area at venues like The Skinny Pancake and Radio Bean, Cricket Blue is in high demand and seems to have captured the hearts of music lovers throughout Burlington.