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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Recording review - Chui Wan, Chui Wan (2015)

Fringe music from the Middle Kingdom

3.75/5.0

From skewed savants like Roky Erickson and Syd Barrett to modern mystics like Jim James and Wayne Coyne, psychedelic artists thrive out in the borderlands where the rules are flexibly vague and no one expects explanations. Beijing's Chui Wan has set up their own camp out in the fringes and, listening to their latest self-titled release, they've been raiding the ruins and scavenging from a host of influences to create their unique blend of experimental, new wave neo-psychedelia. Call it crypto-psych, where bits of avant garde Pere Ubu coexist with the Velvet Underground and Beatlesque musing drifts past Gothic new wave moodiness. Like steampunk fashion, it’s intriguing to encounter familiar things in unusual settings, but this album digs deeper than mere aesthetics. Psychedelic music is often invested in capturing a mood and Chui Wan’s music seems to reflect the uneasiness of change in their native country.

At its most positive, that nervous energy can be tied to opportunity and the most upbeat track, “Vision”, seems intent on grasping the chance even as it continually mutates and slips away. The tight rhythm and jungle beat drums are fixtures, along with the guitar pushing simple melodies to the forefront, but the song evolves in several directions. Initially, despite the guitar, it has an electronic feel that reminds me of the programmed rhythm on the.Clash’s "Overpowered By Funk". By the time the vocals come in, the tone has shifted into a Bauhaus cum Krautrock groove. Chameleon-like, the focal riffs come and go in waves, until the piece transcends the relentless reinvention to reveal that the true answer can be found in the hypnotically syncopated drum jam. It seems to say that, faced with constant change, the best thing to do is move with it. It would be easy to imagine a 20 minute extended version rattling the walls in a dark, trippy basement club, but the four minutes on Chui Wan is merely a tease.

After this restless drive of “Vision”, the band shifts gears for “On the Other Ocean”. If the former was strongly directed, the latter offers fun house reflections of a hallucinogenic expedition. The jangling new age start suggests a spacy milieu somewhere between Star Trek and music from the “Hearts of Space”. Once the vocals come in, the context becomes more overtly psychedelic but retains the unanchored feel. Chiming melodic harmonies suggest a more traditional Chinese influence, but the detuned and watery, off-kilter vibe adds a spacious decadence. If this is the start of a journey, it’s hard to tell what it might be in search of. Ultimately, the track slips into an even looser jazz interlude before faltering and melting into a puddle. That ending isn't a disappointment, though. Rather, it’s just a natural waking from the dream.

The rest of the tracks on Chui Wan find still stranger worlds to visit, from the off-balanced Pere Ubu carnival of “Seven Chances” to the nervous new wave tension of “Only” or the Velvet Underground folk-psych pop of “Silence” (think of Nico singing, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”). The weirdest is the hot mess that closes out the album, “Beijing is Sinking”. The metal flake guitar intro gives way to an odd poppish bounce. Imagine bits of Pink Floyd's "San Tropez", John Lennon's "Number 9 Dream ", and maybe a touch of OK Go coming together in a mulligatawny stew. Some three minutes in, there’s a solo section that develops a nice meandering riff. Enjoy it while it lasts, because, all too soon, it’s overwhelmed by chaotic guitar and transitions into an extended psychedelic outro that’s longer than the initial structured interval.

But the stylistic mashups and nomadic song development are hardly detrimental to Chui Wan’s mission. Out where they play, landmarks shift -- Beijing is still sinking, after all -- and the point is to step beyond the maps.

Here's a taste from the album:

Monday, May 18, 2015

Recording review - Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes/Under the Pink reissues (2015)

Who's that girl? Tori Amos reveals her assertive vulnerability

4.25/5.0

How does the advice go? If you want to be successful, just be yourself. If anyone can attest to that, it’s Tori Amos. She got her start fronting a synth-pop group, Y Kant Tori Read, that never made much of an impression. For better or worse with that band, she let the record company call the shots and dress up her image, and none of that connected with a larger audience. Rather than give up, though, she turned around and came back with two solo albums that overturned everyone’s assumptions.

It's no coincidence that the cover of Little Earthquakes (1992) shows her emerging from her box. The airbrushed redhead from Y Kant Tori Read returned to her classical piano roots and found her sound, but more importantly found her voice. At first glance, she may have seemed like a normal singer-songwriter with solid vocal chops and pretty keyboard riffs, but she turned out to be a feminist poet with a talent for strong imagery and a yen to draw back the curtain on her own experiences. The piano and backing string arrangements reminded people of Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush, but her lyrics had a touch of Patti Smith and Lou Reed, yielding songs that flowed fluidly between ethereal beauty and self-aware grit. On Little Earthquakes, she processed and rejected a lifetime of repression, especially seen through lenses of gender and religion. Her authenticity was as honest as punk rock, but its strength came from its assertive vulnerability: she embraced her emotions but had the distance to put them into perspective.

That honesty actually increases the impact of her more confrontational songs. The provocative religious imagery in “Crucify” or righteous anger on “Precious Things” (“So you can make me cum/ That doesn’t make you Jesus”) are more shocking because they’re woven from her own life and frustrations. Amos also demonstrates a good sense of emotional dynamics. For example, the curdled fury of “Precious Things” gives way to crystalline calm on “Winter”, which stays with the theme of self-discovery, but dresses it in metaphor. The culmination, though, is the a capella lament, “Me and a Gun”, which recounts a rape experience with stark and ugly brutality.

Despite those challenges to gentle sensibilities, though, Little Earthquakes is also stunningly musical. String flourishes occasionally add some orchestral depth, the melodies develop rich complexity over time, and Amos repositions her classical origins into a pop context. She also introduces her idiosyncratic phrasing, both on the keyboard and in her singing. Like Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, or Elvis Costello, she instinctively knows how to stretch time and then catch up to color the meaning of her lines.

If that first solo album tried to erase the bitter memory of Y Kant Tori Read, two years later, she had become confident enough to integrate more of her rock and pop side into her music. Under the Pink still had the piano foundation, but Amos was willing to tap into a stronger rock feel on some songs, adding fuzzed guitar and harder edges. The richer stylistic palette gave the collection a more immediate feel. Like Little Earthquakes, though, these songs were the opposite of pop fluff. Even when she followed a verse-chorus structure, her progressions offered nice surprises and she gave her artier side free rein on songs like "Bells For Her".

The opening salvo of Under the Pink whipsaws between extremes of texture and emotion. The wistful piano line of "Pretty Good Year" provides sonic continuity to Little Earthquakes, but it incorporates a trigger moment accented with a gut punch of bombastic guitar before settling again. Then, Amos begins the album in earnest with "God", where she breaks loose from her past with spiky cactus guitar riffs, a funky rhythmic groove, and the cleansing fire of sarcasm. She had appropriated religious imagery on "Crucify" to make her point, but now she challenges the whole order, offering heretical condescension for the Patriarchy. The chaotic guitar noise seems symbolic of both the outraged reaction she expects and her own childhood conscience. Either way, it's unable to break her cool rationality, "Tell me you're crazy, maybe then I'll understand." It's a powerful moment, and Amos wisely leaves room for it to digest by changing gears with the dreamy "Bells for Her", which features a softly chiming prepared piano.

Both "God" and the catchy "Cornflake Girl" were rock hits, but Amos hadn't ignored her lusher musical side. The sprawling "Yes, Anastasia" revels in rich piano expression as it references both Joni Mitchell and Aaron Copland. But rather than a sharp divide in her musical persona, these two extremes were now integrated and gave a truer sense of who Tori Amos was as person, performer, and composer.

These two reissues celebrate that milestone, not only by cleaning up the mix -- Little Earthquakes sounds quite a bit crisper now -- but also by collecting most of Amos' early B-sides and several live versions. Many of the bonus tracks on Little Earthquakes were rejected songs from the recording sessions and demos she did for Atlantic Records. Some of these, while good, don't fit the mood she established on that album, but others like "Upside Down" and "Take to the Sky" would have been right at home. The peak is her stark performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which is as far from grunge as possible, but it captures Kurt Cobain's intent better than any other band has managed to do. The concert takes that round out the bonus material are all fairly good; in particular, her arrangements of "Mother" and "Little Earthquakes" are both quite intense.

The Under the Pink extras include "Honey", which was cut late from the album for "The Wrong Band". It's a tough trade-off and Amos has publicly regretted it. Head to head, "Honey" is a stronger song, but "The Wrong Band" lightens the mood between the introspective "Baker Baker" and the bitterness of "The Waitress". Some of the other bonus tracks for Pink feature Amos' improvisational skills, including the Gershwin-esque "All the Girls Hate Her", and the live material gives a great sense of how confident she got playing with the rhythms of her phrasing.

With so much extra music, there are a few misfits -- C.J. Bolland's remix of "God" doesn't do it any favors, "Humpty Dumpty" and "Home on the Range" are both fairly weak -- but these deluxe editions do a great job of showing how Amos recovered and reclaimed her Self and found her path towards becoming such an iconic musician.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Concert review - Southern Culture on the Skids with the Revelettes

7 May 2015 (Shubas Tavern, Chicago IL)

4.75/5.0

Fort Collins, CO has a decent music scene and I often make it down to Denver for shows. This time, though, I went a little further afield. My friend, Brent, invited me to Chicago to see Southern Culture on the Skids, and I couldn't say no. In a stroke of brilliant timing, I arrived for possibly the nicest two or three days Chicago has had since before the winter. The days were warm and clear and it was a pleasant evening walk from Brent and Lu's place to Shubas. The venue was relatively small, but SCOTS' enthusiastic fans made it a party evening. Great music, killer weather, and warm hospitality made this a wonderful vacation trip.

010 The Revelettes
Finding the right opening act is always a challenge . Most bands are either thrown together by the venue or they partner up for a tour, but that doesn't always turn out well. Sometimes the problem is that the audience resents anyone that makes them wait for the headliner. Worse, the opener can foster the wrong mood and make it harder on the main act. Southern Culture on the Skids solved that problem handily by bringing in local go-go troupe The Revelettes as their cheerleading squad.

004 The Revelettes
The show started with a pair of  dancers shimmying in retro campy style accompanied by pre-recorded music. Then, the remaining three Revelettes tag teamed in for the next song. After a bit of choreographed fun, they got down to business. SCOTS has recently re- recorded their 1994 album "Ditch Digging" and the Revelettes brought up an audience member to help teach us all some dance moves for the title track. The volunteer picked up the steps quickly and soon fell directly into formation with the troupe. She had such a good time that she stayed on stage for the remaining songs.

006 The Revelettes
The fun vibe and enthusiastic dancing made this a perfect warm up for the band and, later, we'd get the chance to prove we remembered the "Ditch Diggin'" steps.

041 Southern Culture on the Skids
Southern Culture on the Skids had a casual start as bass player Mary Huff and guitarist Rick Miller sauntered out first and picked up their instruments. Huff briefly launched into Lynn Anderson's "(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden", but it was just a tease before Dave Hartman came on stage on drums and the show officially began with the sharp-edged twang of "Skullbucket". Huff's solid bass vamp gave Miller all the foundation he needed to shred his way through the surf-style instrumental, and the crowd reveled in the bright distortion of his overdriven Silvertone.

046 Southern Culture on the Skids
As the set progressed, I was struck by the communal feel between the band and their fans. They somehow bridged the relaxed celebration of a Southern pig roast and the congregational fervor of a faith healing service. Even as they tapped into a campy sense of fun, the trio imbued the songs with a respectful intensity. They smoothly flowed from surf to garage rock, chicken-picked pedal tones to thrashy punk rhythms, and bluesy vamps would give way to honkytonk country. The crowd tracked every twist and turn, intimately familiar with the songs, ready to sing along or feel the beat deep in their bones.

011 Southern Culture on the Skids
SCOTS' playful attitude was at the forefront, with the tongue-in-cheek Southern themes of the lyrics and the band's stage presence and appearance. They pulled out some of their classic audience participation moves: volunteers distributing oatmeal pies from the stage and launching fried chicken into the crowd during "8 Piece Box". It was fun to watch Miller get a mischievous twinkle in his eye before he launched into those songs whose title says it all, like "Liquored Up and Lacquered Down" or "Put Your Teeth Up On the Window Sill". And while his green visored fishing hat and Huff's bouffant wig may have played to some campy stereotypes, they wore them comfortably, with little sense of affectation.

020 Southern Culture on the Skids
But while we all laughed with them at the silliness and spectacle, it was clear that the band and the fans took this music seriously. Surf numbers like "Meximelt" locked into a psychedelic swirl, driven by Hartman's relentless tribal drum pounding while Miller intently channeled the legendary Dick Dale with a brambled wall of guitar notes. "Papa Was a Preacher, But Mama Was a Go-Go Girl" could have been a one-joke tune, but the honkytonk rhythm cradled Huff's twangy vocal, and it wasn't hard to think that there's a grain of truth in that: SCOTS understands the surety of the preacher, the physicality of the dancer, and the balance to love both equally.

049 Southern Culture on the Skids
After the show, the band wandered out to sign autographs and chat with the fans, many of whom had seen them the night before in Berwyn. Plenty of performers do the meet-and-greet ritual, but even here SCOTS distinguished themselves. Rather than rush people to clear through the lines, they took the time to connect with each one. They'd humbly deflect the gushing praise and try to have a real conversation.Audience members understood that and waited patiently, knowing they'd get their chance to reminisce about their favorite show or tell the adventure of how they had made it to the venue that night. It was great way to show why, on stage or off, Southern Culture on the Skids are a class act.

043 Southern Culture on the Skids
More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

What's cool? Martin Gore, Europa Hymn

Unscripted reflection

When I was a kid, I loved to go to the natural science museum and look at the dinosaurs. There was something cool about seeing the articulated skeletal fossils next to artists' renditions of how they might have appeared in life. It was a while before I realized that those sketches were basically just guesswork, but that epiphany opened up possibilities in my mind as I imagined alternatives to what had been put before me. Even now, I prefernot to have everything all spelled out. The best books, movies, or music leave a bit of mystery that pushes some of the work onto the audience.



That's exactly why Martin Gore's new single, "Europa Hymn" is so enjoyable, It's more like a gesture drawing than a fully developed song. Even though it's barely more than three minutes, Gore takes his time to place a small set of elements -- synthesizer swells and electronic beats -- and he lets them just reverberate within the sonic space. The track is moody and reflective, but the sparse arrangement doesn't provide much additional narrative direction. It rises from the synthesizer waves, builds up some rhythm to suggest a kind of down-tempo electro-pop, and then sinks back under the lonely surface, leaving room for a world of interpretations: it could represent the arc of a relationship, the ebb and flow of life, or even the sense of a sculptor finding the shape that hides within a block of marble.

Gore is best known as one of the founding members of Depeche Mode, and it's easy to hear the connection between this and his band work. But while the palette is familiar, this song distills synth-pop down to its electronic essence, discarding the urgency and tension to focus on an ethereal sense Zen purity, where the listener project their own meaning.

"Europa Hymn" is one of 16 tracks from Gore's new album, MG, which came out at the end of last month.