Learning Music Monthly Allegro / Matchstick Monument

[Vosotros; 2009]

Rating: 4 3.5/5

Styles: indie pop, indie rock, chamber pop
Others: of Montreal, The Bird and the Bee, Mad Gregs

The question of how musicians can best transmit their music to audiences is one that remains perplexing, to say the least. As much as I enjoy celebrating National Record Store Day, it only serves to remind me that this institution that so defined my own formative musical growth is quickly becoming more of a nostalgia outpost than a necessary commodity. It's no secret that the internet (including the very website you're reading now) is the culprit in this shift. No longer subject to the same limitations of physical space and capital, digital music files move rather freely, both legally and "illegally." In recent years, it has been the industry and a handful of established acts that have made gestures towards either restricting access (e.g., Metallica) or expanding and supplementing it (e.g., Radiohead).

Still, the question remains: How will the indie community and up-and-coming musicians in general ultimately respond? One such artist making an attempt to answer is John Wood. As a keyboardist, Wood has been a contributing member of the grassroots LA chamber pop scene, including bands The Bird And The Bee, Obi Best, and Mad Gregs. Having seemingly boundless creative energy, Wood and the label Vosotros have organized a rather inventive and customizable way of getting music out to an audience. Under the moniker of Learning Music, he has created the Learning Music Monthly series, which offers several degrees of "subscription" options for the potential listener. Committing to a release schedule of an album a month, one can buy single installments or sign up for various multi-month packages. Should one want the physical artifact — a CD in a custom made sleeve — these subscriptions have set prices that start at $9; however, for those interested in digital music files alone, they can choose how much they want to pay, starting at as little as $0.01. Furthermore, the material is covered under a Creative Commons Music Sharing license that invites listeners to take the reigns and create remixes, reversions, and covers.

Debuting in March 2009, the first release, Allegro, actually marks the opening of the second season of this enterprise, following its inaugural 2006-2007 series of releases. As an opening shot, Allegro packs a surprising wallop with its effervescent take on indie pop eclecticism. With a sweet bit of brassy fanfare as intro, the organ-driven "Ask Me No Question" is a sneakily anxious stomper that sets the pleasingly accelerated pulse of the album. You can feel Wood's restless and adventurous spirit in the subtle shifts in tone, style, and arrangement throughout the album, evidenced by the sly chamber interlude of "That Time..." and the jazz-house bubbliness of "echo echo echomon." Still, the core consists of the punchy but sophisticated pop songs that even in their occasional earnestness belie a humble but sharp wit.

Matchstick Monument is an altogether more restrained affair, which makes sense for the second release in a planned sequence. It's both less demanding on the listener's energy and a more intimate experience overall. There are still well-crafted arrangements supporting the songs, but in a gentler manner. It skews more towards a peculiarly ornate, quirky folk sound that one might imagine if Devendra Banhart was more Burt Bacharach than Bert Jansch. The rustic, live-sounding "Young Men Run" is as far as it gets from sounding studio-polished, and it's actually nice to hear that Wood's material stands up in a lo-fi environment. While it doesn't have the infectious buoyancy of Allegro, Matchstick Monument is more grounded and revealing of Learning Music as a constantly changing project.

Whether Wood's business model will take off remains to be seen, but based on the first two months, this 2009-2010 season of music is sure to be on the sonar of anyone with an interest in innovative contemporary pop. As various guests collaborate on Learning Music each month, the releases are sure to be different, and with Woods at the helm, each one is likely to be an indie pop gem unto itself. Given its high quality and digital accessibility, there's no excuse for not at least getting a little taste.

Allegro

1. Ask Me No Question
2. Gypsy Davey Redux
3. Conspiration
4. That Time I Explained How to Know When Spagetti Is Done
5. (LM) Labor Day
6. Short Tempered
7. Sole Worn Slipper
8. echo echo echoman
9. Nature's Cup
10. Really Thinking of the Beach
11. We Went Outin Warm Rain and Fireflies

Matchstick Monument

1. Catch
2. Prelude 1
3. Our Prairie Home
4. Vow
5. Matchstick Monument
6. Young Men Run
7. Electric Letter
8. Man's Life a Vapor
9. Paper Snakes
10. Prelude 2
11. Stockholm Town

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