(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Concert review - Punch Drunk Munky Funk with Miscomunicado

28 August 2014 (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)

In recent years, the "Phish pre-show party" has become a thing. In the days before Phish is due to play, bars in nearby towns throw some jam bands onstage and try to capitalize on the fans' excitement. Without naming names, I've been to a few of these and generally found them to be disappointing because the bands aren't a good fit or they just don't have the chops. This show at Hodi's served up a strong counterargument to my lack of enthusiasm. Both Punch Drunk Munky Funk and their opener, Miscomunicado, put on strong shows and made it a great summer evening of music, regardless of the space-time proximity of Phish's tour schedule.

018 Miscomunicado
As much as I enjoy catching bands I love, one of the best thing about writing these reviews is that I am exposed to music I might never have otherwise come across. Opening acts can make or break the total show experience, so some people play it safe and show up fashionably late, just in time for the headliner. Anybody running that strategy for this show missed a very interesting band. Miscomunicado juxtaposed a few standard ideas into a strange, but cool band configuration. Drawing from electronic acts and hip hop, they relied on laptop driven tracks for the foundation beats and bass. But instead of MCs or turntablists filling out the group, they had a two-pronged guitar attack that expanded the sound into deep-space funk. Rounding out the performance, their live projection artist, skEYEfi, provided a psychedelic visual accompaniment.

017 Miscomunicado
Luke Barone jump started the show with a solid funk groove. Dan Scott Forreal and James Hodgkins quickly joined in with their guitars, pushing the tune into trippier dimensions. The music had a strong improvisational looseness, but the backing rhythm maintained the structure. From song to song, Barone controlled the main mood via his pre-recorded chunklets. The guitars added riff-driven, heady accents for the jam. Barone had the flexibility to extend and mutate the backing, so they could milk the pieces for maximum effect. While several of the songs were instrumentals, Forreal and Hodgkins sang some of the time. For the most part, these were funk style sloganeering -- repetitive vocal accents that could provide a bit of context for the song -- but they also had some lyrics that rose above that simple role.

014 Miscomunicado
While Miscomunicado's music was anchored in improvisational funk, it was usually cross-pollinated with dance pop, electronica, uptempo rock, or psychedelic fringes. This meant that each song had its own character. The projection work adapted to the mood, taking advantage of found footage and movie clips or abstract kaleidoscopic patterns and animations. Given that the art was the primary source of stage lighting, that made it a supreme challenge to get good pictures, but the live experience is pretty fun.

056 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
My introduction to Punch Drunk Munky Funk was the "Funk Your Face Off" show earlier this summer at The Mishiwaka. Their set impressed me then because they were undeniably capable of launching out into creative musical sojourns, but their impressively focused rhythm section anchored the songs. That tight-loose dichotomy lies at the heart of the best jam bands and this made PDMF a good fit for the whole Phish pre-show theme. But from the beginning of this show, the band wasn't going to leave any doubt. An amorphous lead-in created a trippy mood that opened the door for Chris Robbiano's bass heavy funk groove, and it quickly became clear that this was their version of Phish's "Down With Disease".

067 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
Keyboard player Mike Givens handled the vocal duties, doing a passable job of sounding like Trey Anastasio, while Alex Boivin showed that he had the guitar part well in hand. Switching adeptly between sharp funk chordlets and more flowing jazz melodies, he held court at center stage. While Phish can easily make the tune last a good 20 to 30 minutes, PDMF didn't drag it out as long, but it was a solid jam that pumped up the crowd.

044 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
The band went on to play some of their own music, including one of my favorite tunes, "Double Richard". "Double Richard, you found your twin/ A dose of Siamese peace within," the oblique lyrics became a mantra, backed by a cheerful march beat before the band sprang off into well-paced melodic exploration. They'd go on to round out the set with servings of disco funk, jazz (both spacey and cool), and even a bit of folky jam. This stylistic meandering let the band demonstrate their versatility between getting down and dirty on the beat and leaving more breathing room in the mix.

030 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
After a brief intermission, they came out for the second set, where they pretty much became a Phish tribute band. "Down With Disease" had gone so well, but let's face it, Phish is not an easy band to imitate in longer form. Most aspirants don't have the technical skills to sustain a full set, and those that do, often get there by slavishly recreating the originals. Either way, tribute bands usually leave me pining for the real thing rather than satisfied. Punch Drunk Munky Funk's second set broke that pattern about the time they slipped into their cover of "Stash". Boivin casually tossed off the trademark opening guitar riff and the rest of the band joined in, staying fairly true to the original: the tight percussion fills and electric piano vamps perfectly hit their marks as they supported the guitar line. The crowd loved it, providing the staccato claps on cue to help out the percussion. The band went on to make the tune their own, with the band members showing off their abilities without merely imitating Trey and company.

050 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
Michelle Pietrafitta's drumming, which blew me away at The Mish, was equally amazing here. She could find space to nestle some impressive open fills within her tight snare and high hat work. This relaxed the beat just enough to create both tension and a sense of inevitability as the beat, never lost, reasserted itself. Similarly, while the mix didn't always accentuate his contribution, Robbiano's bass playing helped drive the dynamics of the songs, drifting between flashy punch and bubbling melodic lines.

047 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
The set was packed with classic Phish tunes, with "Punch You In The Eye" and "Mike's Song" being standout moments. By the time it was done, I was flying with their versions of the songs, feeling little need to listen to the real band on the ride home. The encore performance of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (AKA "2001") was just icing on the cake. This was a different side of the band compared to their Funk Your Face Off performance, but I'm eager now to hear what else they can do.

055 Punch Drunk Munky Funk
More photos on my Flickr.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Recording review - Wunder Wunder, Everything Infinite (2014)

Retro rehash, with occasional glints of interest

Is anyone else getting tired of the glut of twee retro bands? Sure, jangle and reverb are cool, but there’s got to be a limit. Wunder Wunder’s spin on this old game is to aim for the sound of a pop psychedelic band plucked from 1967 and whisked forward to the present, where a modern producer introduces them to electronic tones and helps them make a record that bridges the decades. If they had succeeded at this, it would have been great. Unfortunately, they don’t achieve that degree of originality or excitement. Instead, they’re just another band obsessed with the past that can’t quite let go of their modern instruments and sensibility. Ironically, they produce their strongest material when they fully indulge their craving for headier times, but Everything Infinite hits the wall on the tunes where they break character and slip into more recent pop fluff. Since their two extremes can’t quite meet, the album is disappointingly uneven.

The opening run of songs shows most of what the band has on offer. They lead off with the title track, a beautiful Beatlesque bit of psychedelia. The intro is starker than the Fab Four would do it, suggesting a power pop setup, but it quickly finds its footing with echoing vocals and a strong McCartney style bass line. While they decorate the tune with occasional fountains of anachronistic synth arpeggios, this is as close as they come to any kind of time traveling ideal. “Coastline” gamely throws in some old school flanger and the same echoed singing, this time summoning more of a sunny ’70s sound. Unfortunately, the skinny keyboard tone and flat mix feel cheesy after the richer sound of “Everything Infinite”. As they continue, they completely lose their mojo early into the third song, “Hail the Madmen”. The track is a muddled mess of random ideas, executed as an animatronic interpretation of danceable ’80s music. The chorus celebrates a mundane mindlessness with inane lyrics, “Hail the madmen/ Help me get you off the street/ Hey, you madmen/ You need some time off your feet.

Then, Wunder Wunder pulls it together for another gem, “Trouble in Utopia”. They can’t resist some programmed percussion, but the trippy radiance overwhelms the cross-time distractions. Meditative repetition and bubbling tones create a wonderfully skewed sense of surrealism, which is propelled forward by the steady pacing of the arrangement. The tune peaks with a chaotic jam that feels like they’re self-consciously sifting for the perfect frequency combination to blow our minds. The lyrics declare trouble, but Utopia trumps. Still, as nice as this is, it definitely whets my appetite for the real thing, like The Moody Blues or Strawberry Alarm Clock. This only grows stronger by the time that “Sure Stuck” kicks in. The verses borrow heavily from The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian” and while the other sections turn up the paisley, they still can’t make it sound original.

Wunder Wunder is certainly adept at harnessing sunshine spaciness on Everything Infinite, but that’s hardly a unique skill. Their compatriots, Tame Impalas, have that ground well covered and have done a better job of updating the ideas beyond their nostalgic value. To break out ahead of the retro pack, Wunder Wunder will need to find their voice and work out a better melding between the Summer of Love and the summer of 2014.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Recording review - Sia, 1000 Forms of Fear (2014)

Too natural to be a diva, great material spawns an uneven flow

Let me tell you a story about a girl who missed her first shot at pop stardom. Although her debut release was poorly received, she eventually found some success as a singer, but it looked like writing for others, such as Rihanna, Flo Rida and Beyoncé, was as close as she’d get to her dream of achieving big-time pop glory. Health problems and panic attacks threatened to sideline her into performance retirement, but she finally tapped into her well of struggle and pain, partnered with a talented producer friend and made her bid for the spotlight.

Sure, there’s a surface fit, but anyone familiar with Sia would recognize that this is not her narrative. In particular, she’s always been an introspective person with ambivalence toward fame, to the point that it seems she’s intentionally stayed to the background. Her latest release, 1000 Forms of Fear, is a reinvention because she’s putting herself back in the center with a strong array of songs that she could have easily sold to the pop superstars she’s helped in the past. But the biggest break in the patter is that she doesn’t embody the pop diva ideal, even if her songwriting satisfies all the pop tropes. Beyoncé, Rihanna, Shakira and the others are all packaged with fashionable production, catchy melodies and vocal showcasing, but more importantly, they also have an instinctive knack for staging and constructing an over-the-top public persona. This album is a credible attempt at gaining entry to the diva club, but, although Sia picks up on all the trappings, she can’t quite find the right image to make it click.

That’s not to say that she should sculpt her stage façade with an eye to the pop audience, but, if that were her intent, she’d likely fall short. Ultimately, Sia lacks the necessary larger-than-life character, but, to her credit, she is still just the right size to fit her own life and imbue it with a natural poise. Rather than a cardboard cutout, she’s like any other real person; she doesn’t have only a single face and she expresses that complexity here with a scattershot collection of songs. Each one aspires to some flavor of pop perfection, but together they make a cracked mirror reflection of the current pop scene. From track to track, it’s interesting to imagine the right star to run with the tune, but Sia’s rawer voice and personality give the songs a depth they might have otherwise lacked.

The first track and lead single, “Chandelier”, sets some immediate expectations. The sparse start sets up a soulful groove as her pouty voice slurs through the first verse, but the chorus goes big and she soars to her upper register. It’s all too easy to let the lyrics glide past and just hang onto the tagline of the chorus, “I’m gonna swing from the chandelier,” hearing it as an indulgent brag. But the opening line, “Party girls don’t get hurt/ Can’t feel anything,” casts the whole tune into a more damaged space. A closer listen reveals that this song is a cry for help and the club party sound is just a mask. That charade may not slip until the third or fourth time through, but once it’s seen, it can’t be forgotten. That frisson of fear and desperation is a direct connection to the album’s title.

My favorite track, though, is “Straight for the Knife”. Like “Chandelier”, the musical mood and the lyrics are at odds. Sia sings the languid ballad with a distant detachment as the words run through a codependent tale of mistreatment. Her bruised fatalism captures a kind of doomed beauty as she sings again about swinging, but this time from the rafters instead of the chandelier. The song works, in large part because her vocals are not overproduced, which would have glossed over the expressiveness of her performance.

Most of the other tunes are pretty good, too. But it doesn’t take long to feel distracted by the uneven flow, because these tracks really mix it up. Swooping soulful singing in “Eye of the Needle” sits alongside the bouncy pop of ”Hostage”. The raw vulnerability of “Fair Game” is pressed up against the choppy defiance of the Dido-produced “Elastic Heart”. While that lack of polish might keep 1000 Forms of Fear from propelling Sia’s career to the next level, it still makes for an enjoyable listen.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Concert review - Future Islands with Operators

12 August 2014 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

Ft. Collins is quite lucky, it seems. As Future Islands winds their tour across America, they managed to squeeze in a single show in Ft. Collins on the way to Salt Lake City. After looping through California, they'll pass through Denver later in the month at the Gothic, but that show is already sold out. So, we got to see them first and, although the turnout was good, it wasn't over-packed like a sold-out show.

It didn't turn out to be an particularly late night either. Tour mates, Operators, were the only opener and Future Islands followed them with a good show and still wrapped up their encore around 11ish.

005 Operators Dan Boeckner, from Wolf Parade and Divine Fits, kicked things off with his latest band, Operators.
The line up features his previous bandmate Sam Browne (Divine Fits) on drums and electronics artiste Devojka tweaking buttons and dials. Their opening song blended a classic synth pop sound with Tom Tom Club dance beats. Crowded against the front of the stage, the trio offered a study in contrasts. Brown was deeply focused as he pounded out the rhythm, barely noticing the audience at all. Boekcner, on the other end of the line, was full of anxious energy as he paced forward and back. In between these two extremes, Devojka directed most of her attention towards her table full of toys, but she still engaged with the crowd.

008 Operators
As the set progressed, Operators settled into an electro-pop flavored post-punk feel, somewhat like Shriekback partnering with a laptop artist. Looping synth arpeggios and beep-boop punctuated dance grooves kept the crowd moving. While the bottom end was covered well enough, I would have appreciated a real bass player to partner with Brown's solid drum work.

013 Operators
While I enjoy listening to the gear-driven beats, to some extent, they leave me cold during a live performance. The obsessive knob-work and frantic activity can add a serving of sweeps and laser tones, but they never quite relate to the steady roll of the backing track. Fortunately, Boeckner's charisma and stage presence were exciting enough to carry the show. The crowd was primed with plenty of his fans, several of whom called for tunes from his older bands. Eventually, Devojka got irked enough to ask the audience member if they could play the song ("If not, shut up"). In any case, the energizing pop repetition of the music was a good warm up for Future Islands.

033 Future Islands There is an aesthetic concept called the "uncanny valley", which quantifies how people react to things that are near, but not quite human. For example, robots, dolls, and clowns can each trigger a kind of aversion when they fall into that space between clearly artificial and a natural human appearance or behavior. The more times I see Samuel T. Herring perform, I can't help but revisit that concept as I watch his stylized movements and unnatural dance moves. He doesn't trigger a sharp repulsion, but  he's off by just enough to make his performance riveting in its strangeness.

049 Future Islands
While he was actually singing, he tended towards overly emotional theatricality, with melodramatic gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. In between his lines, though, he surrendered to his inner muse and chaotically danced with wild lunges and stiff-postured positions. On the one hand, this physicality was cool; there was the sense that Herring was channeling the song with his outsider-artist choreography. But as he waved his arms and crouched like a gorilla, mimed tearing away the mask of his face, or spasmed into a fixed-stare duck walk, it was hard not to be gobstopped. That oddness is certainly part of why the band has hit it so big in the wake of their David Letterman appearance.

066 Future Islands
Fortunately, Future Islands had more going for them than a sideshow performance. First of all, the band was remarkably tight. They casually delivered perfection in form of danceable tunes where every note was polished and carefully placed. That distilled performance could have turned cold and mechanical, but between the deeply personal tone of the songs and Herring's expressiveness, the music was surprisingly emotional, especially for a synth-driven pop band. In sharp contrast to their frontman, William Cashion, Gerrit Welmers and their touring drummer all played with a restrained economy. Cahsion moved the most as he played his bass, but seldom got further than two steps from where he started. Welmers almost melted into his keyboards, barely acknowledging the audience or the rest of the band, even when Herring introduced the players during "Spirit".

051 Future Islands
Future Islands slid through their set with little pause, moving from hypnotically danceable interludes to driving bass-driven darkness and then shifting into soulful brooding. Late in the set, Herring surprised me, though, with an unexpected bit of humor. During "A Song For Our Grandfathers", he spent much of the tune gazing up to his right, as though looking up to Heaven. After wrapping it up, he paused and then gestured up at the large posters that decorate the walls of the Aggie. He pointed up at the one he'd been staring at and said, "By the way, my grandfather isn't Tech N9ne." That little bit of self-deprecation made up for a lot of crazy dance moves.
043 Future Islands
Vocally, Herring veered from a strained soul tone reminiscent of Roland Gift (Fine Young Cannibals) to hoarse, death metal growls. Those changes were all in service to the whatever raw sense he was trying to evoke at any given moment. He apologized a few times about his voice, but seemed to give everything he had to his performance. By the end of the night, his tight black shirt was soaked with sweat and he looked a bit drawn. Future Islands finished out their three song encore with "Little Dreamer" and Herring was finally able to take a well-deserved break.

More photos on my Flickr.