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The following articles appeared in Oregonlive.com / The Oregonian, Oregon’s largest media outlet.

MS MR brings macabre, ‘jewel-tone’ pop to Portland’s Crystal Ballroom

By Thacher Schmid for The Oregonian/OregonLive

ms mr
Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow are MS MR. (Photo by Luke Gilford)

The first time she toured through Portland, Lizzy Plapinger saw a “Japanese work-of-art jacket” at a local vintage shop — but passed it up.

The lead vocalist for MS MR, a duo known for its lovely secondhand threads, went back on tour, but Plapinger couldn’t forget about the coat.

“I talked about it for essentially a year and a half,” she said, laughing. “And then the next time I came around to Portland, they still had it and I bought it! I still have that jacket.”

When she and Max Hershenow play the Crystal Ballroom Oct. 21, they’ll bring a sound as unique as their fashion sense. Plapinger’s gorgeous, husky vocals and Hershenow’s nuanced electronic canvases feature colors as exotic as the furs, leather clothes, and Technicolor hair featured in the band’s promotional photos.

MS MR’s lyrics and the emotional pacing of their songs can take the music to macabre places — so it’s fitting a track from their new album “How Does It Feel” is featured on the spine-tingling trailer for this fall’s feature film “Room,” based on the best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue.

“I think the balance between light and dark in the music and the lyrics and the message has always been the greatest balancing act of the band, artistically,” Plapinger said. “The first record was super candy colored, but it had such sort of gothic and macabre and dark undertones. And I think still on (‘How Does It Feel’) even though we’re maybe more in like a jewel-tone, saturated landscape, sometimes the most positive songs are hidden within a dark and brooding atmosphere and vice versa.”

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Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow are MS MR. (Photo by Charlotte Rutherford)

The Columbia recording artists and Vassar College alums started out cultivating mystery with anonymous releases on tumblr before their 2013 debut, “Secondhand Rapture,” which peaked at 116 on the Billboard 200 chart. Plapinger also launched a successful boutique record label, Neon Gold, home to artists including Tove Lo and Charli XCX.

Hershenow and Plapinger are honest about their high ambitions — headlining the UK’s Glastonbury music festival, for example — but also in danger of a sophomore slump. The new album hasn’t quite lived up to high expectations, and Pitchfork called it “timid.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to put us next to Top 40 music when truly I think a lot of the time we are saying things that are more intellectual or layered than just going to the club and popping bottles,” Plapinger said.

Yet MS MR’s new material is more pop-oriented, more complete and detailed. The tunes grow on you, but they’re not as raw or as bold as the band’s early material. The best number, “Painted,” channels synth washes and pulsing basslines into a syncopated Latin piano hook. The repeated lyric “What did you think would happen? / When you put me in unnatural space?” could be a reference to the duo’s recording process.

Hershenow said the pair first tried writing in top-notch studios, but ended up retreating to humbler digs.

“We actually function best in a place that’s totally DIY where we retain absolute control,” he said. “We wrote it in a … little hole in the wall.”

Perhaps MS MR’s “do it yourself” preference and need for down-to-earth surroundings parallels the duo’s taste for vintage clothing. If so, Portland certainly won’t disappoint.

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This piece includes the first photos I published with a major daily newspaper.

EmilyFoto1By THACHER SCHMID

Clad in a white jumpsuit and red hightops, a gold armband and turquoise nerd glasses, Esperanza Spalding returned to her native Portland Tuesday with a challenging new show.

This time, she came with fists raised. Playfully.

Dressed as “Emily,” the star of the jazz-funk-fusion-poetry-theater piece she calls Emily’s D+ Evolution, Spalding took the stage for her sole encore — Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” — as a boxer enters the ring, feinting and jabbing, if only for a moment.

It was a fitting pantomime, one of many moves the diminutive, smiling artist revealed during a virtuosic, challenging, and at times astonishing 75-minute set at the Crystal Ballroom. While the show was modestly attended, the music flowed together and broke apart in glowing, jagged tones, with Spalding’s quintet shifting gears effortlessly. The experience was at once pleasing, groovy, dissonant, progressive and thought provoking; concertgoers rarely danced, but heads bobbed enough to keep local chiropractors busy.

“Funk the fear / live your life,” Spalding and backup vocalists Emily Elbert and Corey King chanted on “Funk the Fear.”EmilyFoto2

“That’s what this show is about,” Spalding said. “You know what? Funk you, man,” she joked.

The set started ferociously and ended cathartically, weaving its way down a complicated emotional path. On “Ebony and Ivory,” Spalding, Elbert and King pantomimed a graduation processional, complete with the triumphant reception of diplomas. The piece then morphed into teletype-y spoken word, with all three speaking so quickly as to be impossible to understand, but also impossible not to feel. Then the energy shifted again, into a heavy funk groove.

Peering out at the audience almost like the 20-year-old instructor at the Berklee College of Music she once was, Spalding recalled the “myth of the noble savage.” Then she personalized it: “I learned, and I won’t do that again.”

Spalding’s previous incarnation along her path to beating Justin Bieber for the 2011 “Best New Artist” Grammy featured her perched next to a standup bass and performing modern but still traditional jazz. Her ability to take a Big Tent approach to the idiom, bringing in classical and Latin sounds (and languages) such as bossa nova while playing standup and singing like nobody’s business inspired some to anoint her as The Future of Jazz.

If she ever was that, Spalding might be even more so now that she’s revealing her rawer side, though there’s a price to be paid: On Tuesday night, the Crystal wasn’t sold out the way it did for her 2012 “Radio Music Society” show. But as Emily, Spalding became an onstage axis between two amazing systems: the first, a power trio featuring her electric bass playing, Matt Stevens’ liquid electric guitar and Justin Tyson’s drums. The second, a trio of voices anchored by Spalding’s soprano, plus Elbert and King’s gospel-inflected vocals.

EmilyFoto3Elbert may have been a recent substitution; Nadia Washington, who sang on shows on the spring leg of the tour, was listed as the fifth member of Spalding’s quintet as recently as mid-July. Washington was not present, but Elbert held down stage left, opposite Spalding, and flowed together with King’s honeyed falsettos — while the trio play-acted with panache.

“Honey, don’t interrupt me,” Spalding said with a laugh, pretending to scold Elbert after a beautiful solo.

Just as Spalding described Emily’s origins as a “sleepless night of full moon inspiration,” the show waxed and waned like the nearly full moon above. At times the three instruments took over, at others the three singers dominated. Stevens and Spalding fed on each other’s energy, cranking out solos, bebop linguistics and chordal patterns to make an old jazzbo cry. Tyson’s drum solo left it all on stage, too.

“No makeup — this is what I look like when I wake up,” Spalding said as she introduced the set’s final song, “Unconditional Love.” Some in the audience cheered.

As brash and experimental as the Emily’s D+ Evolution material can be — and there are moments when the show teeters toward self-indulgence — the songs still bear the compositional stamp of a jazz prodigy who thinks like a bassist. And she has some of the most dextrous fingers and adept voices in the business.

She may be in the midst of a career evolution, but tunes such as “También Detroit,” “Judas” and “Funk Your Fear” feature melodies that stick in your head — and truths that may stick in your craw.

— Thacher Schmid for The Oregonian/OregonLive

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JamesBayBy THACHER SCHMID

Two remote-controlled mechanical spiders, carefully hidden in the shadows of a tour bus. Frequent Nerf gun wars. One well-loved fedora. Many pairs of sunglasses. A planned trip to Lardo.  And a quintet playing bluesy, sensitive-but-fearless rock and roll, anchored by the UK’s ascendant rock star of the moment.

They’re ingredients in James Bay‘s American tour, which stops at the Crystal Ballroom Aug. 5 for an all-ages show with Tor Miller.

Bay’s last year has included a record deal (Republic/Universal); a new album, “The Chaos and the Calm,” that hit No. 1 and was certified gold in the United Kingdom, and went to No. 15 in the U.S.; the 2015 Brits Critics Choice award and others; fawning press coverage and sold-out shows.

While the 24-year-old said the speed of the ride is only increasing lately and admits it can “get a little wearing,” he comes across as an uncomplicated chap.

“If success is anything, it’s the ability to carry on; it’s the ability to do what I’ve been doing,” he told The Oregonian/Oregonlive. “Success would be that I get to do this next year and the year after that, continually.”

Even in front of tens of thousands, as during a recent set at the Pyramid amphitheater in Glastonbury, England, Bay appears at ease. “The crowds, that’s the biggest thing for me,” he said. “They’re what make it, the whole experience, what it is.”

Bay’s sound is straightforward: He and his quintet make music the old fashioned way, rocking out mid-tempo numbers with voice, vintage guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, few effects pedals — not a laptop or blinking anything in evidence.

“I love those classic sounds, those real, organic sounds,” he said. “They sort of showcase emotion.

Bay has caught some flak from critics who called his music formulaic and lambasted his tendency to co-write with industry pros. (Next to Bay’s name, the 12 songs on “Chaos” feature 11 co-composers, including Iain Archer, formerly of Snow Patrol. Archer’s name actually comes before Bay’s in the notes for Bay’s biggest hit, “Hold Back the River.”)

The naysayers don’t bother him, though. Crafting songs is “incredibly personal and incredibly difficult,” he said. When he writes in tandem with others, he’s doing the same thing he did growing up, when he would “back and forth it” with his brothers.

“Those (songwriters) are very talented and if nothing else have fantastic opinions,” he added. “I use them as a filter.”

While Bay’s critics may scratch their heads at his 8 million YouTube video views, one wonders how they manage to overlook his strengths — angular good looks, a perfect snarl-sneer-smile contortion while performing, laser-beam vocals, solid guitar chops

And if songcraft is not his greatest gift, who cares? Not his fans, who appreciate the fat, polished sound and predictable emotional catharsis good pop songs provide, and happily sing along to melodies that lodge in the ears. For his part, Bay comes across as the kind of musician who wouldn’t mind sitting down with detractors, jamming a little, and debating things like authenticity while citing liner notes from 1960s and 1970s albums by Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin.

Not that he’ll have much time to hang out during this tour. Bay said the plan is for just 36 hours in Portland, “unanimously a favorite for everybody” in the band. Plus there’s that trip to Lardo for sandwiches, not to mention all the hijinks and pranks with keyboardist Jack Duxbury and drummer Gerry Morgan.

“It’s always about trying to catch each other out with, like, remote control spiders, because they’re both terrified of them,” he said. “They try to find ones that are as realistic as possible; they just leave it in the shadows and then turn it on.”

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Approved Photo 3_Emily's D+EvolutionBy THACHER SCHMID for The Oregonian/OregonLive

Knowledge may be power, but it’s hardly a sure path to creativity. In music, the more one tries to analyze something, the more it may slip through one’s fingers like a tough chord progression or elusive bebop riff.

Instead of trying to understand music, Esperanza Spalding asks, why not just be curious? Spalding says the heart of her new live show, Emily’s D+Evolution — coming to the Crystal Ballroom on July 28 — is a childish sense of play.

In a phone interview, the four-time Grammy winner and Portland native embodied that same playful energy: She quoted poetry, laughed at some of the questions, laughed at herself, and talked about her new bass ngoni, from Mali. Building on the theme, she read a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “Children, who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men.”

“I love that as a guiding light for this process,” she says, “the abandon of a child or a young person who can actually get to the quick of something that an adult might circle around and analyze.”

Spalding is still guarded about some aspects of Emily’s D+Evolution, declining to “decode” lyrics, maintaining the aura of mystery. But there’s little doubt the Emily persona (Emily is her middle name) has brought twists to her music. She’s playing all new material, and all electric bass guitar — no bossa nova, no “Radio Music Society” songs, no standup. Her quintet weaves together poetry, chanting and theatrical skits, and her stage presence is athletic.

“We’re going to explore that more as time goes on, the theory about how our bodies engage with the music, and what that does to the sound and the coherence of the sound.”

Approved Photo 2_Emily's D+EvolutionVisually, she’s traded her signature Afro for long, dangling braids and added glasses and disco pants — physical changes that she says affect the music.

The kind of braids I have, I think of as antennae that are receiving from the ground. The Afro feels like an antenna that’s reaching up,” Spalding explains.

“This phase of my life is a lot about grounding, getting in touch with my roots and really being comfortable being grounded in something. The weight of the braids on your scalp going down and moving and swinging with this gravity, it can be grounding for my thoughts, reaching for earthy things.”

Those are the big changes, but it’s still Spalding front and center — still the same astonishing bass technique and agile soprano. And If low quality, cell phone video is any measure, Spalding’s knack for song and melody is as strong as ever.

“Nobody’s been walking out and asking for their money back,” Spalding says of the spring leg of the tour. “From our perspective, it takes a lot of love and self witness to be exposed in front of strangers. It’s much easier to figure out a game plan or a spiel that you already know people want to hear.”

Spalding’s working on an album, tentatively slated for a fall release, her media rep says, which makes this tour a traveling laboratory.

The show centralizes the human voice — specifically the pipes of Spalding, Corey King and Nadia Washington — and the sound is lean, a power trio built around Spalding’s bass lines, Matt Stevens on electric guitar and Justin Tyson on drums. Spalding says the group’s been busy “tweaking,” “tightening” and “refreshing” for the summer tour.

Asked about the shift in instrumentation for Emily’s D+Evolution, she insists art can best be understood by looking at the big picture, rather than whether an artist uses crayon, charcoal, oil or spray paint.

“I don’t think it matters what the instrumentation is, it’s more about what we’re saying. I’m not interested in someone’s struggle; I want to know what the fruit of someone’s humanity is.”

Coming back to her hometown should be a big moment, and Spalding gets excited when the subject of Portland comes up. “I love my town,” she says.

“I like the vibe, it’s so unique. If you dropped me off blindfolded in the middle of the city, I would know from the sounds that I was there.”

The scale of Spalding’s talent, and her success thus far, makes it no stretch to consider official recognition of Oregon’s only four-time Grammy winner, or her gorgeous, anthemic song “City of Roses.” The City of Portland has recognized other deserving musical acts, including giving the Decemberists their own day in January.

But Spalding demurs when asked about that possibility.

“Oh no, that’s okay, it’s a waste of energy and municipal funding,” she said. “I think Portland should focus on making the city a better place and a more equal place for its inhabitants.”

Spalding goes on to say that she’s looking forward to returning to the Crystal Ballroom, where she played material from “Radio Music Society” in 2012 and where she used to go swing dancing back in the day.

If one thing becomes clear about Spalding as she discusses the new show, it’s that, like other great musical artists who made sea changes — her friend Prince, Bob Dylan, the Beastie Boys, Ornette Coleman, whose “Shape of Jazz to Come” revolutionized the genre  — Spalding has a restless spirit that won’t stay put.

“There’s some things that you can get to when you’re only doing one thing for a whole lifetime,” she says.

“I have a lot of different things that I want to get to: Composer, poet, instrumentalist.”

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bada$$promofotoBy Thacher Schmid
on June 15, 2015 at 10:48 AM, updated

He is the hip-hop golden boy of the moment, surfing the frothy waves of social and mainstream media. He shares selfies of first daughter Malia Obama wearing his Pro Era collective’s T-shirt. He leads anti-police-brutality marches in New York. He gets thrown in an Australian jail for punching a security guard at a music festival.

Joey Bada$$’s lightning-rod persona is not artifice; rather, it’s the natural outgrowth of his music, which the young rapper brings to Portland’s Wonder Ballroom June 19. Bada$$’s sound, rooted in conflict music, comes from a crossroads: a polished, balanced but still funky blend of cultures, generations, continents and emotions.

Showcased in his January release B4.DA.$$, the 20-year-old’s flow is classic East Coast stuff, reminiscent of fellow Brooklynites Nas and Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def. But Bada$$’s voice also gets raspy and tonal, pure ragga Jamaican dancehall and Buju Banton, invoking his parents’ roots in the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.

“I gotcha back, ain’t gotta worry,” he raps on “Curry Chicken.” “Only thing I ask is for some Curry / Chicken when we land we eatin’ dinner / Mama seen me on TV again looking thinner / But I’m lookin’ like a winner, aye.”

Bada$$’s career took off in 2012, when he was just 16, after he dropped a super-successful mixtape, “1999.” Featuring production from heavyweights including DJ Premier, J Dilla, Statik Selektah and MF DOOM, the recording put Bada$$ (born Jo-Vaughn Scott) on the map, with more than 1 million downloads.

“B4.DA.$$” has sold more than 100,000 copies since January, Bada$$’s Pro Era reps said via email. The album debuted in the Top 5 on the Billboard 200, outselling new records from Portland’s own The Decemberists and Marilyn Manson as well as Billboard regulars Nicki Minaj and Lupe Fiasco —  quite a feat for a young, independent hip-hop artist. But even with better-sounding studio production than “1999,” it remains to be seen if “B4.DA.$$” will continue the fast-paced growth of the Bada$$ brand — or just make more money.

“Cash ruined everything around me,” Bada$$ raps on the track “Paper Trail$,” alluding to Wu Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” He uses the line to underscore the theme of the new album’s title, an abbreviation for “before the money.”

“They say money is the root of all evil,” he continues, “I see money as the route of all people / Because we all follow paper trails / And everybody got to pay their bills.”

The record finds East Coast producers DJ Premier and Statik Selektah crafting thickly-wrought, thumping grooves that feel at once sparse and claustrophobic. The lyrics Bada$$ layers over them reflect a youthful nihilism consistent with his social media photos, which often feature middle fingers pointed at the camera.

“I can’t see what I can’t relate to,” Bada$$ raps on “Hazeus View,” in which Hazeus is pronounced like Jesús in Spanish.

“Hip-hop is the biggest musical genre in the world,” he boasted in a recent interview with hip-hop radio station Hot 97, ignoring the popularity of rock, pop and country.

In the past, Bada$$ has found a balance between hippie rap and the gangsta stuff. “Instead of lead slugs, I spread the love,” he rapped on mixtape track “95 til Infinity.” But when it comes to police, his take is strident.

“If you see a cop, hit him in his baby back ribs,” he wrote on “No. 99.” His slickly-produced video “Like Me” features images that draw parallels to Michael Brown’s death and other police shootings of young black men; 1.7 million have watched online as officers shoot Bada$$ in the back, after which he rises again, a hip-hop zombie.

High expectations haven’t been the heaviest burden the Brooklyn MC has shouldered. He cancelled a scheduled European tour in late 2014 when his cousin Junior B died in a car crash. And in 2012, Pro Era artist and Bada$$ collaborator Capital Steez committed suicide by jumping off a building on Christmas Eve.

But nothing has held Bada$$ back so far, with the exception a heavy-rotation song that could catapult him toward Jay-Z’s or Kanye’s orbit. Sure, he dropped out of high school, but Bada$$ earned his Hip-Hop Ph.D. Check out his dissertation this week at the Wonder Ballroom.

— Thacher Schmid for The Oregonian/OregonLive

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