From WNYC Radio

Soundcheck, hosted by John Schaefer, is WNYCs daily talk show about music. Covering all musical genres, Soundcheck celebrates the musical passions of performers, composers, critics, and the public radio audience. Listeners enjoy intimate conversations with and live performances by leading artists from around New York and around the globe.More from Soundcheck »

Most Recent Episodes

We Are All Just Widgets in 'The Song Machine'

Soundcheck host John Schaefer goes inside the modern hit factory with The New Yorker's John Seabrook, to explore the tiny cadre of mega-producers who manufacture the pop confections that get stuck in your head with annoying regularity. And yes, "manufacture" is the right word. Hooks, melodies, beats, and grooves get assembled with astonishing efficiency and remarkable effect: Swedish producer Max Martin is second only to Lennon-McCartney for the Number One records he's amassed since the mid-1990's. It sounds all shadowy and sort of is. But not nefarious: as Seabrook tells Schaefer, "pop music binds the group." That is to say, there's something undeniable about the fact that millions of people have found something valuable and rewarding in this industrial pop. But steady yourself, and maybe stay away from heavy machinery if glossy pop changes your heart rate: herein you'll find two servings each of Ace of Base and Taylor Swift, and single shots of Beyonce, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Kelly Clarkson, Rihanna, Eminem, and Katy Perry. At least Led Zeppelin gets a mention.

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Elkington & Salsburg: A Pair of Ones, with Guitar

Nathan Salsburg is a Louisville-based guitarist who moonlights as the curator of the famed Alan Lomax Archive of American folk music. Or maybe it's vice versa. He joined us as a solo performer back in 2012, but now he's back in a duo setting with the English guitarist James Elkington, now based in Chicago and known for his work with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Richard Thompson, and Steve Gunn, among others. Elkington and Salsburg have just released an album of guitar duets called Ambsace, a Middle English word that today we would translate as "snake eyes" – the lowest roll of the dice. The album is both virtuosic and accessible – you don't need to be a guitarist to like it. Today, the two of them join us to play live and to perhaps explain their choice of album title. Click here to listen to Bert Jansch's live Soundcheck set from 2010, as referenced in the interview.

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Little May: Urgent Harmonies, Anthemic Appeal

Little May is an Australian trio whose signature sounds include dark and poetic lyrics, urgent guitar strumming and, above all, beautiful 3-part vocal harmonies. Their 2015 album, For The Company, was produced by The National's Aaron Dessner and may have a bit of New York in its musical DNA. The band has spent much of the past year on the road, touring with Mumford and Sons, Alabama Shakes, and others, but before they headed back home for the holidays, they stopped by our studio for a live set. Click here to listen to Little May's appearance in our studio last year.

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Quiet Hollers: Roots Music with Indie Swagger

In Appalachia, a "holler" is a colloquialism for a valley or "hollow." So not only is the band name Quiet Hollers a fun oxymoron, it's also a sly shout-out to the band's roots in Kentucky. The group says it makes "weird, sad music for weirdos like you." But they named one of the standout songs from their new self-titled record "Aviator Shades," which might just mean they're going for something cool and even sexy. Find out what went into the making of their self-assured new tunes in this live set from the Soundcheck studio.

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Duncan Sheik's Latest Sleight of Hand

Duncan Sheik's career has followed two parallel tracks: ever since his Grammy-winning, Gold record debut in 1996, with the single "Barely Breathing," he has maintained a career as a touring and recording singer/songwriter. But he has also become a sought-after composer for the theater: his music for Spring Awakening won several Tony awards and a Grammy, and has now been revived on Broadway in a mixed American Sign Language/spoken English adaptation. He's working on a long-awaited feature film version of Spring Awakening, and his musical based on Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho is coming to Broadway this spring. Somehow, he's found time to record a new album, called Legerdemain, and he brings his band to the studio to perform some of it today.

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Raury: On the Highway to Stardom, Looking for a Few Friends

The young rapper and singer Raury is the real deal. His songs draw from a deep well of American music, including gospel and blues, but they're completely contemporary, wrestling with ideas of faith, friendship, the weight of expectations and the weight of African American history. He writes a good tune too. His debut album, All We Need, just came out, but he has already built up a large and loyal following online. Now, at the ripe old age of 19, he's ready for his closeup.

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Benjamin Clementine: From Paris Metro to World Stage

There was a time, not so long ago, when a British musician using Churchill's words to make a pop song might've made Paul McCartney cringe. This is no longer that time. The first words on Benjamin Clementine's full-length debut, At Least For Now, are a repurposing of Sir Winston's famous "The Few" speech, inverted to illustrate Clementine's nomadic life. Until recently, Clementine was a homeless busker in the tunnels of Paris, honing his nimble and articulate wordplay and blues-tinted piano chords. But a change of fortune landed Clementine on one of the U.K.'s most beloved music TV programs, which led to acclaim from the likes of Bjork and Macca, and now—a full-length record. Benjamin Clementine visits the Soundcheck studio to talk about the story thus far, and to play some of the gripping material from At Least For Now.

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Gig Alert: Donnie Fritts

ARTIST: Donnie Fritts
GIG: Wednesday night at Joe's Pub

Donnie Fritts has spent a lot of time writing songs that have made other people stars: Dusty Springfield, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson. He's a pillar of the famed Muscle Shoals sound, and recently reintroduced himself to a 21st century audience with a record called "Oh My Goodness."

Blank Pages and Answer Songs: On Art as Response

Ben Arthur has released six albums and two novels, and is a producer of the songwriting web series SongCraft Presents. His upcoming album, Call and Response, is a collection of “answer songs.”

Starting a new song means the floor gets swept, the laundry gets folded, and my email gets checked and rechecked, all to avoid the oppressive abyss of the blank page.

Though most songs begin in dread, decades of writing have taught me a few useful coping strategies. One of my favorites is to immerse myself in another artist’s work. While this has its own hazards (there’s often a sense, with art that I love, that I’ll never be this good) it can also offer a short cut around the blank page. By beginning a song as a response to someone else’s work, the question part of the equation has been filled in — I only need to figure out my answer.

All art answers other art. No artist, however unique, exists in a vacuum — the work that we love and hate informs every artistic choice we make. The only difference with “answer songs” like those I’ve been writing recently, is that they are more specific about the art that they are responding to.  

There is a long tradition of this in music. “Sweet Home Alabama” responds to “Southern Man,” even calling out Neil Young by name in the second verse. And Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” was originally titled “God Blessed America for Me” in sardonic answer to Irving Berlin’s patriotic song.

For an upcoming performance at the Greene Space, Xenia Rubinos and I will be performing answer songs written in response to a new novel by Rick Moody (The Ice Storm, Garden State). Moody’s Hotels of North America is a wonderfully strange experiment in form: one man’s painful divorce described through a series of online hotel reviews. The novel pivots between acid wit and banality, with Moody’s beautiful prose and carefully studied portraits of human foible holding the experiment together. [Read an excerpt of the book below.]

I wasn’t sure where to start with my answer song – though themes of remorse and uncertainty color every chapter, the main character is deliberately obscure. (The afterword suggests, with a Borgesian shimmer, that he may not exist at all.) But one day while I was thinking about the novel, my ten year-old daughter suggested I should write a song called “Artificially Happy.” To my surprise a pop melody instantly bubbled up in my mind, and a few moments later a full chorus had been sung into my phone.

I liked the chorus, and I knew it would be a fun song to write, but I wasn’t sure it was right for Hotels. The sugary melody was not at all offbeat and unexpected like Moody’s novel. Shouldn’t I try to deconstruct the song somehow, in answer to the book’s challenging format? (I still feel that maybe I should have.)

But inspiration that gives itself freely must be gratefully received, so I wrote the rest of the song with Moody’s main character in mind. I titled it “An Amazon Review of Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America,” but made the verses as unrelated to their titular subject as the hotel reviews in Moody’s book. 

Though I’m not sure I did the novel justice, I am pleased that at least I didn’t succumb to the terror of the blank page. (Plus, the laundry is folded.)

You can see Rick and Ben perform at WNYC’s Greene Space on November 10th. Ben and Xenia Rubinos will play “answer songs” inspired by Hotels of North America, Soundcheck’s John Schaefer will moderate a conversation about inspiration, and artist Michael Arthur will draw a piece inspired by the event, live.

 Hotels of North America by Rick Moody

Excerpted from the book HOTELS OF NORTH AMERICA by Rick Moody. Copyright (c) 2015 by Rick Moody. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.

Weekly Music Roundup: Unusual Tom Jones, Electric Vivaldi, and a Moody Amazon Review

Rescue your Tuesdays with our weekly roundup of music news, videos, and songs that just might help you get through the rest of the week. This week, Tom Jones gets spooky, Rick Moody unintentionally spawns a new song, and rock music infects both Vivaldi and the Great American Songbook.

PREMIERE: Ben Arthur’s New Song Responds To Rick Moody’s New Novel

Singer/songwriter Ben Arthur has been working on a project entitled Call and Response, where he joins the old tradition of the “answer song” – a song written as a response to some other work of art, usually but not always another song. Famous “answer songs” include “Sweet Home Alabama,” written by Lynyrd Skynyrd in response to Neil Young’s song “Southern Man,” and “Bear Cat” by Rufus Thomas, written in reply to Big Mama Thornton’s original “Hound Dog.” Anyway, Ben’s new song, being premiered here on Soundcheck, is a response to Rick Moody’s new novel called Hotels of North America, a darkly comic book about a guy who documents his sorry life through a series of overwritten, self-important online reviews of the places he’s stayed. That apparently explains the title of this song: “An Amazon Review of Hotels of North America by Rick Moody.” 

Ben Arthur, "An Amazon Review of 'Hotels of North America' by Rick Moody"


“Answer Songs” is also the name of a series of events we stage in our ground-floor performance venue, the Greene Space. Next Tuesday, November 10, I’ll be hosting Rick Moody, who will read from his novel, and we’ll hear live music from Ben Arthur and Xenia Rubinos, with live on-the-spot art from Michael Arthur, all done in response to Rick’s work. Arguments over royalties will, if I have anything to say about it, devolve into drunken fisticuffs.

Tom Jones’s Old Weird Americana

The Welsh superstar Tom Jones has had yet another resurgence in his long career recently. Much of this is due to his work with producer Ethan Johns, son of the Rolling Stones producer Glyn Johns. Their latest work together is an album due in December called Long Lost Suitcase, and it includes what has to be one of the strangest, moodiest, most adrift-in-time songs that Tom Jones has ever recorded. “Elvis Presley Blues” is in fact a blues, and it is about Elvis. But its dreamlike imagery and ominous, rumbling electric guitar cast the song far away from the shores of pop music and into some deep, dark place that the names Tom Jones and Elvis Presley would not lead you to expect. 

STOMP Versus Harlem Globetrotters – Game Ends In A (Musical) Tie

The percussion troupe known as STOMP (currently playing Off-Broadway in NYC) got together with some of the legendary Harlem Globetrotters, now celebrating their 90th anniversary, to play basketball. Or to make music, it’s hard to say which. This single-take video, shot in Greenwich Village, shows how much music can be made with just feet, basketballs, and a wall. And the occasional slam dunk. 

Reinventing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Again.

Poor Antonio Vivaldi. His runaway hit tune – okay, collection of four multi-movement hit tunes – has been repeatedly amplified, remixed, recomposed, and otherwise deconstructed and he, being long dead, is in no position to argue. Fortunately, some of these new looks at the old Four Seasons have been winners, including Max Richter’s The Four Seasons: Recomposed, which recast Vivaldi as a post-Minimalist, perhaps Krautrock-influenced composer. But the idiosyncratic English violinist Kennedy (born Nigel Kennedy, but that’s “Kennedy” to you and me) probably has more justification for his reimagined Four Seasons than anyone else. After all, his recording of the Vivaldi music in its “straight” form sold a gazillion copies (I believe that’s the official figure); so now, if he wants to revisit the works and use them as a lattice for his own omnivorous musical appetites, well, he seems to have earned the right. If you’re not that big a fan of classical music, but like electronic music or jazz or any of a host of other styles, you might like this. Kennedy has posted a kind of tasting menu of the sounds on offer; but to get the full effect, you’ll need to hear some of his own “transition” pieces in between the retitled Vivaldi movements. 

Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and… Courtney Love?

Many people think the so-called Great American Songbook basically stopped when rock took over, and it’s true that the songs of Cole Porter, George & Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen and all the rest were from the pre-rock era. But the Songbook won’t stay great if it doesn’t continue to live and evolve, so Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series has unveiled some surprising names for its upcoming 17th season. Perhaps none more so than Courtney Love, who will be part of an evening of songs by Todd Almond (whose music/theater piece Kansas City Choir Boy starred Love). Craig Finn of The Hold Steady gets an evening, and so does Laura Jane Grace, leader of the punk band Against Me! and one of the music world’s leading voices for transgendered people. Foreigner will do an acoustic set. There are more traditional Songbook-style events featuring music by Peggy Lee and performers like Rita Moreno as well, but this year’s festival, running from January through April at various Lincoln Center venues, looks to be working hard to expand and extend the idea of the Great American Songbook. 


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