Sunday, March 8, 2015

EMP: Sound Off 2015 Finals Thoughts and Observations 3/7/15


I found myself with some "extra time" lately so I've been exploring the local music scene once again, seeing if there were any new artists out there that resonate with my eclectic taste in music.  Before we get into the review, let me say a THANK YOU to Dick Solid and The World Famous Ratchettes (AKA Cancerslug) for driving all the way to Seattle on 2/15/15 for their first gig here in my fair city.

It was because of their gig that I looked at what was coming up at El Corazon.  Lo and behold I saw a band called Bleachbear.  I was like "who is this?"  One search later and I found out they were an under 21 local band that were competing in a competition called Sound Off! for young bands under 21 (or 21 and under - I forget which).  I was intrigued so a friend and I went to the finals performance last night at the EMP (Experience Music Project).

Three finalists advanced from the semi-finals - Naked Giants, Bleachbear, and Emma Lee Toyoda  One wild card band was picked to round out the finals:  One Above None Below.  Each artist had roughly 35 minutes to perform a set of tunes in front of judges and an enthusiastic crowd at the EMP Sky Church.

Based on the criteria the judges were using, here are my impressions of each artist.  I'll try to be as objective as possible.

Naked Giants started off first (randomly selected order).  A trio playing what I consider new wave rock (yeah I made that up), the band was clearly well rehearsed.  Tight and in the pocket, it was hard to believe they were a young band.  The vocals didn't do much for me (but this genre doesn't do much for me to be honest) but there was no denying these guys could play and there were no weak links in the band.  Full of energy that their instruments were second nature to them, it made for a tough act to follow.  The band was having a great time and the crowd was clearly into what Naked Giants brought to the table.

Bleachbear were up next.  I'm guessing they were the youngest of the bands last night (I could be wrong though).  The band plays a mix of pop, folk, and indie influenced music.  There is a clear introspective quality in their tunes, lyrically, while musically they (for me) were the only band of the night to actually create a mood during their tune "Happy Birthday My Friend" (sorry if I got the title wrong).  Beautifully written and performed, the trio of young musicians took the front of the stage to perform this tune.  This song could be on a television show or film soundtrack, easily.  The audience reaction was positive but the energy waned from the first band.  I'll give my thoughts on this at the end of this review.

Unfortunately, they were plagued with sound problems throughout their set.  I wasn't sure if it was the EMP's sound crew or the equipment of the bands - or perhaps both.  But there was a noticeable low end feedback as well as some mic issues.

Third up was Emma Lee Toyoda.  Such an odd band to describe.  A five piece with Emma Lee Toyoda front and center playing banjo, guitar, and ukelele with vocals of course.  Lots of vocal harmonizing, with upright bass, violin, as well as drums, clearly she can write songs.  I didn't connect with any of the music, though.  The band was loose but professional and unique.

Lastly was One Above None Below.  A four piece hip hop act with two MC's, a live drummer, and a producer on the laptop, the guys delivered a new set of songs for the performance.  I'm not the biggest hip hop fan but I have heard some tremendous local musicians in South and West Seattle pour their hearts into their raps so I was hoping for the same here.  I found the beats/samples very generic and one dimensional.  The time signatures rarely changed and it made for a very one note musical performance.  If the samples were improved, it would allow the MC's to mix up their rhymes and create more dynamics in their tunes.

So what was my prediction?  My friend and I talked before they were announced.  I went back and forth but for me it went something like this:

1.  Naked Giants
2.  Bleachbear
3.  Emma Lee Toyoda
4.  OANB


1.  Naked Giants
2.  Emma Lee Toyoda
3.  Bleachbear
4.  OANB

Yes, even though I went to see Bleachbear, I objectively did not think they were the best band of the night (sorry girls) based on the judges criteria.  So who won?


My friend and I were like WTF???  I was absolutely stunned and shocked by the first place winner.  No disrespect to that band but I've heard better hip hop coming from high school cafeterias during lunch breaks than what I heard last night.  Do they have talent?  Yes, absolutely.  But all the bands did.  How they ended up with the most points is just baffling to me.  I've been a life long music lover of almost all genres.  A musician (performance and teaching) for over 30 years.  An audio engineer for a computer company who's clients included Sony, Shockwave, Maverick (Madonna), etc.  I've reviewed more music releases than I have time for (for my magazine) from artists from all over the world.  I went to my first concert when I was 9 years old.  I've been to so many since I can't even rattle off a number right now.  I'd like to think I'm an educated listener and reviewer.  Even now as I type this, I just feel nothing but disbelief - like when the Seahawks' threw the ball in Super Bowl 49 only to have it picked off.  Sigh.

At the end of the day, all the bands were winners.  They got some new gear, some got new gigs, they got an opportunity to share their brand of music with lots of new people (and possibly convert some into fans), not to mention play in a very cool venue.

But from my perspective, the EMP needs to fix the format of Sound Off for next year (it's 15th).  Comparing a hip hop act to a dream pop act to a rock type band to an indie folk act is SO apples and oranges it's not even funny.  I'm sure logistically it would be just too much to have separate final categories, let alone sponsor prizes, but I call shenanigans on how the winner was picked last night.

Oh, and KEXP guy who MC'd the event, Naked Giants had a louder audience response than Emma Lee Toyoda.  Yet you gave the audience award to Emma Lee Toyoda - prize being on the bill for a gig at the EMP in April.  Next time use a meter to measure the crowd response if you can't honestly tell with your own ears.  Again, I'm sure it's somewhat subjective but it just bugged me.

One point I agree on wholeheartedly - there is some amazing young talent here in the NW.  I hope each of the artists last night continue to pursue their passion in music and put Seattle on the musical map in the future!


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