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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

What's cool? No Valentine, "Bowl of Cherries"

In praise of simplicity

When Link Wray played "Rumble", it was never about capturing a virtuoso performance. Ray Davies didn't set out to make a poetic masterpiece with "You Really Got Me". "I Want to be Sedated" didn't arise from the Ramones agonizing over an aesthetic ideal. All of these powerful songs were based on artists tapping into what they could play and how they felt. They're simple songs, but their no-frills approach makes them universal.

Like the long chain of garage and punk rockers before them, No Valentine locks into that same mindset. Cindy Pack's simple pentatonic riff on "Bowl of Cherries" is instantly familiar and gives the track a perfect serving of distorted guitar jangle. Mike Linn on drums and bassist Laura Sativa provide a pounding accompaniment that only pauses periodically to give that riff room to ring out again. Pack's lyrics are full of dead simple truisms about life sucking, but the tune never sinks into nihilistic surrender. Instead, Pack settles for detached annoyance and takes a couple of shortish solos that echo the song's small scale frustration.

It's easy enough to imagine that every teenager with a guitar has written a version of this song at one time or another and there are plenty of well-known examples on this theme. It's also true that No Valentine isn't breaking new sonic ground like Wray or the Kinks did. But it doesn't matter if you've heard this sort of song before; the punch lands because you already know it in your gut. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt, it just lowers your defenses, letting the band waltz in with swagger and just the right amount of sneer.

It's a good lead-off track for No Valentine's new EP, Can't Sleep, which is chock full of cathartic rockers. Drop by their Bandcamp site and give them a listen. Aside from "Bowl of Cherries", I also really liked the closer, "You Don't Care". 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Recording review - The Myrrors, Arena Negra (2015)

Rich psychedelic details lurk below the desert surface


The desert is a potent symbol. It can be unwelcoming and dangerous even as its solitude can be cleansing. In Michelangelo Antonioni’s jaundiced commentary on late 1960’s counterculture, Zabriskie Point (1970), the desert was a haven offering the possibility of a new start. The Myrrors may be from Arizona, not Death Valley, but their desert psychedelia reflects Antonioni’s sense, taking inspiration from the beauty and surreal feelings found in such a stark environment. Their new release, Arena Negra, captures those facets along with the majesty of wide open spaces and vivid backdrops. The music itself is timeless; free jazz and avant garde contributions keep it from being strictly anchored in the retro golden age of head music, but it avoids the intellectual gamesmanship that often accompanies those approaches.

The album opens with the expansive title track. The twelve minute run time gives The Myrrors plenty of room to slowly ease into the song and develop the feel. It’s fitting that the pensive bass motif at the start evokes Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”, which turned up in Zabriskie Point, albeit under a different name. This intro section, with the bassline supporting the sun glare shimmer of violin and flute drone, taps into the mystery of the desert, especially when the unintelligible chanted vocals join in. The dreamy haze slips away when the drums finally punch their way to the front to drive up the intensity. The band slips into a Velvet Underground guitar raga mode, where they tread the same ground repeatedly, layering in all kinds of noise and subtleties without really moving very far from the initial groove. Guitar dominates as the music turns in on itself, but the flute adds a chaotic flutter, like lizards gazing impassively through heat waves of distortion. The song hangs in that dervish whirl without respite until the last minute and a half, when it gradually retreats from the climax to fall back to the sleepy sway that still lies at the root. Then, it fades like consciousness surrendering to anesthesia before finally winking out.

Just as their music wanders without getting completely lost, The Myrrors have passed through their own twists and eddies. They started during high school, recording a 2008 demo that would take another five years to find a wider audience. By that point, the band had drifted apart with college plans and finding their way into adulthood. Against expectations, they’ve come back together, comfortably falling into old habits but their scope has grown to incorporate world music and a mix of other influences.

Dome House Music” shows off that maturity. Like “Arena Negra”, it starts slow with a meditative repetition, but there’s also a rhythmic complexity that drives the song. The piece is in nine, but the emphasis on the last two beats pulls it off balance, always lurching forward. The track builds inexorably, collecting a buzz of horns that swirl in free jazz riffing and smear together to create a thick wall of tone. When the drums and horns drop away near the end, it’s relief. Nothing of the relentless chaos and tension is left but the resonant hum of guitar, which slowly fades away before the remaining twenty-odd seconds has fully elapsed. Even though “Dome House Music” doesn't conjure a direct set of images, its oppressive sound taps into the darker danger of the badlands, suggesting disorientation and dehydration.

Arena Negra packs a lot into a mere four tunes, but it's a full length release, not an EP. Just as the expanse of the great outdoors is impossible to capture with point and click camera, pop length songs are too short for The Myrrors to paint some of the sonic pictures they want to convey. Instead, they give long play pieces like "The Forward Path" space to evolve and find their way forward. Dewey Bunnell (America) may have said, "In the desert, you can remember your name," in "A Horse With No Name", but The Myrrors don't just find themselves, they discover all kinds of hidden dimensions.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What's cool? Amanda Palmer, "Bigger on the Inside"

A poignant sense of perspective

The haters aren't all wrong about Amanda Palmer. Of course they're suspicious of her near constant attempts to be outrageous and provoke reaction; Palmer herself drives most of the controversy and her innocent surprise at the fallout seems a bit disingenuous. The Dresden Dolls gave her a theatrical platform and, with the help of her fans, she's erected that into a ziggurat of overwrought emotion. While she sometimes plays the martyr, she is certainly no saint.

But -- and this is the key -- as much as she courts indignation, her image is more grounded in her personal truth than any other pop performer I can think of, especially the queens of shock facade, Madonna and Lady Gaga. I believe that most of the time, Palmer knows exactly what kind of response she'll get and she embraces that. But it's also clear that her own expressions of outrage, pain, and childlike joy are truly sincere reflections of her inner life. That's what makes a song like "The Killing Type" so powerful: she's not afraid to face the contradiction of her pacifist front and her sublimated anger. and the juxtaposition gives both sides equal weight.

Palmer's latest piece, "Bigger on the Inside" has a very similar sound to "The Killing Type" and it also crosses her higher ideals against the reality of her feelings. This time, though, instead of fury, the track is grounded in heartbreak. Her voice skips right along the edge of falling apart as she chides herself for her own bitterness and frustration in the face of real pain, like dying friends and abused children. A big part of the impact is that those examples are specifically grounded rather than generalities. It's particularly poignant that Zoƫ Keating plays cello on this piece, which was recorded during her late husband's illness.

The song starts out a bit defiant, with the hook admonishing Palmer's critics that she is "bigger on the inside" and they're "only hating other people's low-res copies," but by the end, she's comforting us and herself that everyone is deeper than their surface looks from outside. A resonant discord of string buzz builds for the final line, but drops away on the last word to punch the resolution. "Bigger on the Inside" is maudlin and a bit melodramatic, but it touched me because it captures an emotional truth.

Drop by her page on Patreon to download your own copy.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Concert review - Beardyman with Shank Aaron and Sureshot

13 March 2015 (Beta Nightclub, Denver CO)


I've been to my share of nightclubs, but I'm much more a denizen of the bar show and concert hall. Unfortunately, DJ sets and electronic acts are always a bit out of their element at concert venues when they try to recreate the dance club/rave feel. It's hard to overcome the wrong geometry, the lack of a real dance floor, and a very different atmosphere.

By contrast, catching Beardyman at Beta delivered the genuine dance club experience. They had the lighting setup, including lasers and a pixelated display around the DJ, not to mention a sound system capable of massaging internal organs with bass throb. While the show never caught the wild rave feel of a Beats Antique or Glitch Mob show, Beta was a decent venue. Unlike most of the clubs I've been to, the space was voluminous and could have accommodated a much larger crowd; the dance floor was fairly full, but the back and edges offered plenty of room to move around.

The first thing to remember is that this evening was all about the club vibe rather than a concert. So, there were no breaks or rests as one DJ melted into another. Sureshot led off with fairly standard set of electronic mood music, but he never even spoke to the crowd. The transition to Shank Aaron picked things up a bit, with a harder edge bass and a buddy on the mic, but the emphasis remained on driving the insistent beat and keeping people moving.

Soaking in the experience on the dance floor, it reminded me about the power of variable-interval reinforcement schedules. Okay, I lost a few of you there. This is what makes gambling, email, and Candy Crush Saga so addictive: a stable pattern interrupted with tiny rewards. The DJs provided this by constantly manipulating the sonic signature with grinding bass or free-fall washes, all without dropping the beat. Each novel twist -- is that the sound of industrial robot mating calls? -- triggered a new wash of dopamine and flush of satisfaction. In the club sensorium, where the volume dominated and the visuals provided pseudo-random shifts, the effect was electric. The only real way to react was to move and dance, and there was joy in that surrender.

Beardyman slipped into the booth at the end of Shank Aaron's set and did his systems check while the final changes propagated through the mix. But once he took up the reins, the difference was huge as he demonstrated the difference between mere DJ and performer. It wasn't just how he layered his vocal loops to create an order of magnitude more complexity; it was his playful sense of improvisation and the amount of personality he injected. He warmed up by showing off some of his musical chops, then he got on the mic and riffed for a while on Denver, mentioning his last tour through here that ended early when he got sick. Then, apropos of nothing, he shot off on a tangent. He mentioned, "I probably shouldn't have taken that acid 30 minutes ago," which pulled its comic effect from the vocal mutation that added the requisite disconcerting echoes and pitch shifts. It was a cheap gag, but it worked to loosen up the crowd.


It was interesting to contrast this nightclub experience with his more concert-oriented shows. He never got quite as antic or creative because he kept the set in full service to the dance floor, but the performance element distinguished Beardyman from his more prosaic competition. It's not just that he was live looping the mix and tweaking vocal samples on the fly to create his grooves, it's how he toyed with the electronic dance structure and kept his audience off balance. If the normal dance club formula builds on short attention span twists on the beat, Beardyman upped the ante by whipsawing his set between inciting the crowd with intensely powerful rhythms and then shattering the mood with comic or surprising side trips. So, he broke up the heavy pounding beat with an introspective instrumental piano interlude that was disrupted yet again when it picked up a grinding dubstep bass. Later, a bouncy pop song was deconstructed and deformed into weirdness. But he never forgot his milieu, pushing the dancers into constant motion. He also handled these shifts organically as he flowed between them.

Throughout the night, he made it clear that all of his set was relatively improvised, sometimes with subtle moves, like lyrical riffing specific to Denver, but just as often by overtly bragging about it and explaining what he was doing in a sing-song dancehall style voice.  This looseness meant that he could build up some elaborate ideas, but then abandon them if they didn't connect as well. Having seen some of his other performances, there were some familiar bits, although they had their own flavor here. One of these, "Ghost Town" by The Specials, reworked  the uneasy darkness of the tune until it unwound into glitched out blocks of tone.

This show at Beta wasn't as polished or clever as that Seattle show linked earlier, but it was exactly what the venue called for. It was a full night of tribal dance rites powered by visceral bass and tight syncopation, and Beardyman's special touch made it something to talk about afterwards, trading memories of odd references and riffs.

(Note: Lighting and logistics made it hard to get any other usable photos)