20 Watts

Editor’s Pick #200: The Theremin

So November 4, 2009, I gained another year of experience in life. Throughout my day of yearly reflection and festivity, I wondered what my dear friends would do for me on this particular day of days. One of my fellow editors here chipped in with a few others and handed me an origami card. Upon opening it, I found a picture of the inimitable Léon Theremin working his magic and a speech bubble coming out of his theremin and saying: “I am coming for you in the mail.”

What is a theremin, you might ask? It’s a box (mine is white) that senses the position of its players hands relative to two antennae, one vertical, the other horizontal and looped, and emits sounds at varying frequencies and volumes to correspond to it.

The theremin is well-known for being the instrument used to make those really weird, oscillating noises in scary movies. Its filmography includes The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Red House, Spellbound, Ed Wood, The Machinist, and Hellboy. Moreover, pop musicians the world over have used it throughout music history, including The Beach Boys, The Flaming Lips, The White Stripes, Pink Floyd, Pixies, and Of Montreal, among others.

Because of the method behind its operation (waving your hands around the antennae), the theremin is notorious for being difficult to play properly. I know I can’t wait to start learning!

— Eric Vilas-Boas, Managing Editor

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The winning grin and other tales from the O, Morning Records Showcase @ Funk N Waffles 11/6/09
Sarah Aument Pic for REVIEW2

Sarah Aument and the rest of O, Morning Records rocked Funk 'n Waffles on Friday, 11/6

You never know what to expect while stumbling down the stairs of Syracuse’s Funk ‘n Waffles on the night of a show. Acts can alternate between amateurs and professionals, hip-hop and folk-rock. Lucky for the college crowd that O, Morning Records was on the job last night, serving an aesthetically and musically eclectic platter of shoegazing, dancing and hand-clapping.

Sarah Aument, O, Morning’s very first signee, headlined the show with her new band. Before her came stellar performances from Bears in AmericaMouth’s Cradle and The Northbound Traveling Minstrel Jug Band. Not many student acts in the Syracuse area can realistically follow The NTMJB, the liveliest of the night and probably the biggest crowd-pleaser. Continue reading

20 Watts Reviews The Swell Season’s Strict Joy
The Swell Season - Strict Joy

The Swell Season give us a more-than-worthy third album

PREVIEW: DOWNLOAD The Swell Season’s “Fantasy Man” MP3
WE GIVE IT: 16/20 Watts

Steven Spielberg said of the film Once that it “gave [him] enough inspiration to last the rest of the year.” Undoubtedly, the 2007 indie singer/songwriter scene belonged to Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The Academy fell in love with them, they later guest-starred on The Simpsons, and hipsters the world over fawned over the pair’s creative instrumentation and lilting duets.

So how do you follow up an internationally acclaimed soundtrack and reignite two years of dwindling fame? Fortunately for fans everywhere, The Swell Season are continuing to do exactly what they’ve always done: make beautiful music. They need nothing else. Continue reading

20 Watts Reviews Star & Micey’s Star & Micey
Star & Micey

Star & Micey fulfill their ambitions, but that doesn't make them great

PREVIEW: DOWNLOAD Star & Micey’s “I Am the One She Needs” MP3
WE GIVE IT: 12/20 Watts

Star & Micey got their name from a story a hobo told frontman Joshua Cosby about his ex-wife on the streets of Memphis. Unlike that chance encounter, their self-titled debut to the wider world of music functions as a concise, calculated effort to fulfill the label of “soulful folk pop” they’ve given themselves.

Star & Micey kicks off with bluesy, angular, acoustic guitar lines complementing lyrics referencing a tarnished relationship. Reminiscent of Jack White’s lighter output, “Salvation Army Clothes” would work as a song if its central conceit wasn’t structured around, “[L]etting all the good people go / Like Salvation Army clothes.” While not quite as trite a line as, “I’m serious as cancer / When I say rhythm is a dancer!” from Snap’s “Rhythm Is a Dancer,” it comes close. Continue reading

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20 Watts Reviews Daniel Johnston’s Is and Always Was
Daniel Johnston's return to independent music soars on the strength of hi-fi production

Daniel Johnston's return to independent music soars on the strength his songwriting and hi-fi production

PREVIEW: DOWNLOAD Daniel Johnston’s “Tears” MP3
WE GIVE IT: 17/20 Watts

Daniel Johnston — literally indie-rock’s resident madman — steps production up ten-fold on Is and Always Was, his first release in six years. With multiple rock instruments where there used to be just a voice and piano, Is and Always Was tends towards both the mainstream and more mature songwriting from the secluded genius with bipolar disorder. Drum fills and electric guitars breathe new life into previously recorded track “I Had Lost My Mind.” Meanwhile, unconventional ballads like “Tears” and “Light of Day” prescribe life lessons from a man who’s had plenty of them over the past 30 years.

Check our full review in the latest issue of 20 Watts!

— Eric Vilas-Boas

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Editor’s Pick #188: Elaine Brown and The Black Panther Party
Elaine Brown's music is Civil Rights era's underappreciated Molotov cocktail

Elaine Brown's music is the Civil Rights era's underappreciated Molotov cocktail

PREVIEW: DOWNLOAD Elaine Brown’s  “Seize the Time” MP3

“Yet, I see they’ve taken liberties / With your souls and your lives.” Elaine Brown led the Black Panther Party from 1974 to 1977, while party leader Huey P. Newton was in Cuba on the run. These lines from the title track of her 1969 album Seize the Time effectively map out Brown’s party, life and activism.

Brown’s music is explicitly African American. In “The Panther” she describes her “hero” clearly: “His name is man / His face is black.” On her second full-length release, 1973’s Until We’re Free, she sings love ballads to dedicated revolutionaries (criminals in the American political structure) George Jackson and his brother Jonathan. Continue reading

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20 Watts Reviews Default’s Comes and Goes
Default put out a pretty bad album in a time when

Default have put out another pointless, unoriginal album with Comes and Goes. But in the age of Passion Pit and MGMT, they have little market or leeway for making one.

PREVIEW: DOWNLOAD Default’s “All Over Me” MP3
WE GIVE IT: 8/20 Watts

Is it a coincidence that the winners of “Best New Group” at the 2002 Juno Awards sound exactly the same as the winners of “Best Group”? Nickelback, who built their mainstream success on paltry post-grunge paragons like “How You Remind Me” and “Someday” are all-but-forgotten (or rather, blocked out) today with shifting cultural tastes in music.

Nonetheless, despite their mainstream appeal, most people in the early ‘00s knew they were never good musicians, but accepted them regardless. Post-grunge radio-rock trends and Spider-Man soundtracks leaned in their favor. Default has no such boon in the current music industry.

With lyrics that scream cliché as much as the boring instrumentation does, Comes and Goes has very little working in its favor. But apart from being one-dimensional and unoriginal, Default has even less to rely on in an age where bands like MGMT and Passion Pit dominate the airwaves. Continue reading

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