Bands to Sweat to

Our critics recommend ten music acts to get your blood pumping.

Beatbeat Whisper

This decade’s stubbornly ascendant folk revival has put a banjo in the hands of many a musician who’d best stick to guitar. With American roots music hip again, some of its younger practitioners are making their own rules — and learning that with experimentation can come failure. Oakland indie-folk duo Beatbeat Whisper, on the other hand, has put its awkward years well behind it. Raised by a musical family in Sonoma County, brother and sister Davyd and Ayla Nereo have been toying with folk instruments almost all their lives. So when they joined forces as Beatbeat Whisper in 2006, the siblings had an advantage in more than just chemistry. Their self-titled debut earned immediate attention within the indie-folk scene, and its mellow, charming 2008 follow-up, Wonder Continental, is bound for national buzz. Whenever an insular movement like neo-folk yields something as universally appealing as Beatbeat Whisper, people take note. All this with nary a banjo to be heard. (N.S.)

Black Cobra

The Bay Area has such a glut of quality metal bands that fans can afford to be choosy. And the name that has been floating off a lot of tongues lately is San Francisco’s Black Cobra, a duo whose brutal sound was borne from Florida’s Cavity (whose minor key brooding would’ve fit perfectly at Gilman in the mid-’90s, and spawned the similarly excellent Torche) and San Francisco’s own stoner rock royalty Acid King. Black Cobra’s 2006 debut Bestial mixed dirt ‘n’ drone with pockets of hardcore eruptions and brash barking from singer-guitarist Jason Landrian. Last year’s follow-up, Feather and Stone, however, elicited comparisons to High on Fire and Mastodon for the twosome’s focused emphasis on dizzying riffs and assaultive force, especially from drummer Rafael Martinez, and helped secure tours with the Sword, Saviours, and Pelican. But perhaps Black Cobra’s most distinguishing trait is its live show, reportedly so ferocious that it renders its recorded material almost irrelevant. Among discerning listeners, that rarity is as treasured as a favorite black hoodie. (K.R.)

The Federalists

The phrase “indie rock” will soon become a cliché, if it isn’t already. So when a band like the Federalists comes along — one that rocks in the cool and classic Elvis Costello sense, and makes great music without artifice or label support — it’s mighty comforting to be able to lay down that old saw in confidence. The Federalists formed in Concord in 2005 and captured their essence the following year by converting two days in the studio into a full-length debut. They took a lot more time with this year’s follow-up, which in turn makes a claim for Bay Area rock record of 2008. The Federalists won’t launch any trends or shatter tradition, but it doesn’t need to; few young bands have the skill to craft simple beauty, and even fewer have the restraint to leave it well enough alone, but these six guys are covered on both fronts. (N.S.)


If you’ve dabbled in East Bay nightlife much over the past few months, chances are good you’ve heard the name Hottub. The Oakland group seems to have coalesced out of musty dance-club air and promptly infiltrated every hip spot on both sides of the bay. But who the hell are they? The short answer is three women smitten with vintage fashion, obsolete synthesizers, and early hip-hop. Co-Co Machete, Loli Pop, and Ambreezy exhibit an affinity for ’80s nostalgia likely shared by many of their twentysomething fans, but that’s merely an entry point — an invitation to the dancefloor. Once you’re in, things get a little more interesting. “Superfriction” lathers disco bass, funk accents, alternating rap verses, and modern DJ techniques into something pure, while “That Sound” splices chopped vocals between heavy beats and techno breaks without leaving revelers hanging. And that, it seems, is the long answer. (N.S.)

The Jacka

Though he’s always had a fervent underground following, it took a while for Richmond rapper the Jacka to really catch on; his new single “All Over Me” only recently made it to KMEL’s most-requested list. But Jacka’s been around a long time. In fact, some of the cuts you’ll probably start hearing are actually from his 2005 album, The Jack Artist. They have a disarming combination of gangsta content — the product of a guy who raps about the life — and sweet, melodic R&B vamps, courtesy of Mob Figaz producer RobLo. While he doesn’t have the outlandish stage performance of, say, DMX, Jacka can convey his rap persona in his delivery (which is, by turns, sinister and seductively cagey). Most of his radio hits pale in comparison to the lesser-known album cuts, but it’s still exciting to see the guy finally get his due. (R.S.)

Kev Choice

If you find yourself running for some important political office, get at your man Kev Choice. His paean to Barack Obama, sung over an aptly chosen Sam Cooke hook — the song, “A Change Is Gonna Come” — is perhaps the most sincere piece of campaign rhetoric to emerge from underground hip-hop this year. Indeed, Kev Choice is coming up at exactly the right time; hip-hop is finally getting nostalgic for its political past, and it’s once again trendy for rappers to use the medium as a way of articulating values. But Kev stands above the average emcee, because he’s also a competent bandleader. Trained as a jazz pianist, he leads an ensemble that includes some of the Bay Area’s best horn players. He transposes samples for live instrumentation, and his original tunes are more studied than what you’ll find elsewhere in hip-hop. It’s rare when you can call a rapper “a monster of a musician.” Thankfully, this guy really is. (R.S.)


In 2007 Oakland R&B singer Ledisi really got on and got over, though Bay Area fans have been waiting for it to happen for years. Long acclaimed for her husky interpretations of jazz standards, Ledisi opted for a more heavily vamped, groove-driven sound on this year’s Grammy-nominated Lost and Found, with which she finally attained commercial success. It’s not quite as exciting as her jazz work, but shows Ledisi’s preternatural groove and ability to shore up the pathos in lines that would sound banal from anyone else. Even with her newfound market viability, Ledisi keeps it gritty on stage. She’s not afraid to holler or mmmhmmm in the middle of a canonical jazz tune, or throw in some racy lyrics: But I really love caramel cho-co-late/Especially with the nuts in it, baby. Performing at this year’s KBLX Stone Soul Picnic on Memorial Day weekend, she’s sure to be phenomenal. (R.S.)

Mike Relm

Only recently did San Francisco turntablist Mike Relm start headlining his own shows, but he’s truly an electrifying performer. Dressed in his signature uniform (suit, tie, Coke bottle glasses), he harks back to an era of Ivy League and Neo-Edwardian styles. But the guy has got enough chops to manage multiple machines, synchronize his stylus with video clips, and use his turntables as a percussion instrument — meaning he’ll occasionally switch the groove from standard 4/4 to a dotted swing rhythm. Most of his material is fairly accessible (Peanuts, The Dave Chapelle Show, Dr. Dre, old Zeppelin videos, The Usual Suspects) and has kind of a “party jam” feel, though he’ll occasionally sneak in a more cryptic reference for those who really know their pop culture. Relm said he’ll be retiring the current set this year, but probably not before he performs this June at Live 105’s BFD concert. (R.S.)

Shuteye Unison

The small town of Cotati along north 101 probably doesn’t register on many radars. Shrouded in dense fog and dotted with nostalgia-inducing symbols like rusted-out old farm equipment, it also happens to be the birthplace of the Rum Diary, a band whose gorgeous post-rock compositions came like clear revelations from the roiling Pacific. After some members departed, tried out new projects, had a baby, and started a record label (Parks and Records), the latest incarnation is Shuteye Unison. Though they’ve moved further south, guitarist Daniel McKenzie and bassist Jon Fee (both singers), plus drummer Jake Krohn, picks up where the Rum Diary left off, but with a clearer focus. Its just-released debut is festooned with dreamy guitar and melodic bass, and hushed vocals riding coolly over the beautiful yet somewhat melancholic terrain. In the realm of atmospheric rock, they couldn’t have come from a better town. (K.R.)


The music can be jarring; its imagery and lyrics squirm inducing. Yet for all the visceral uneasiness Triclops! tries to provoke, the band’s debut, Out of Africa, also has moments of pure clarity — albeit under a cloak of the unexpected. The start-stop riff of “March of the Half-Babies” undulates (and ingratiates) in soothing distortion, but layered under echoing chipmunk vocals, transforms into an unrecognizable monster. Elsewhere, scribbles of surf guitar explode into a blizzard of psych-rock noise; and live, singer John Mink flails about like an inebriated zombie, groping audience members, pulling grass out of his pants, or writhing on the ground — confrontational, but not combative. Formed from such Bay Area punk notables as Fleshies, Bottles and Skulls, Victim’s Family, and Lower Forty-Eight, Triclops! is making its name as a band whose next move you can’t quite anticipate. In this case, it’s clearly part of their charm. (K.R.)


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