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

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Concert review - Jill Sobule, John Doe and the Sadies

28 July 2009 (Lion's Lair, Denver CO)
I found out about this homecoming show through the Jill Sobule mailing list, but was happy to hear she was opening for John Doe. He's most well known for founding X, a seminal rockabilly-punk band from the '80s. This promised to be an interesting show, since Jill has an acoustic pop-folk focus and Doe's work with the Sadies is country rock. It would be interesting to see how much crossover there was with the fans, too. I got there early enough to hear both acts do their sound checks.

Jill Sobule
I recently reviewed Jill's California Years, so I won't spend much space reminding you who she is. One point to reiterate, though, is how she's built her strong fan base by sharing her music and connecting with her fans. Before and after her show, Jill was very approachable and happy to talk with anyone. Aside from introducing everyone to her mother, who was working the merchandise booth, she also expressed her frustration over Warner Brothers pulling her I Kissed a Girl video off of YouTube.

During the soundcheck, she played a bit of All the Young Dudes, at one point throwing in some lyrics referencing the sound man. Then she asked us if we'd sing along on the song during the show.

There was a good crowd on hand for her set, although it wasn't as packed as it would be for John Doe. Most of the audience knew her songs and were happy to see what Jill would play. As the opening act, she only had about 45 minutes. There was still time for a nice range of material, including a couple from California Years. While I really enjoy her amusing songs, like The Rapture or her cover of Nelly's Hot in Herre (with her mother adding vocals), the high point for me was Mexican Wrestler. This is a love/loss of love song that showcases the kind of raw vulnerability that Jill can bring to a stage with just the right amount of vocal break and facial expression. Eric Moon sat in on accordion and, with a subtle touch, added a sweet sentimentality to the song.
Jill closed out with an older song, Bitter, which talks about wanting to take the high road and avoid becoming a cynic. In this version, though, she improvised a number of things she is bitter about, name checking the loss of a lot local Denver memories that have faded away. It was a great end to the set.

Oh, and we all sang the chorus of All the Young Dudes when it came around in the middle of the set. We didn't want to let her down.

John Doe and the Sadies
I wasn't familiar with John Doe's work with the Sadies before the show. I had just heard that it was serious country music, as opposed to most of what Nashville does these days. The Sadies, a Canadian rock and alt-country band, have collaborated with artists like Neko Case and Blue Rodeo, so meshing with John Doe's rockabilly vibe makes perfect sense. While they did play a couple of X songs and Sadies' originals, most of the set focused on the material from their album, Country Club. This album, delivers loving covers of classic country hits from the late '50s through the early '70s without a speck of irony.

The whole band brings some serious energy and great chops, which delivered a knock out set. Brothers Travis and Dallas Good provided contrasting if not dueling guitars. Each has his own tone and sound, from the chiming jangle of a Gretsch to the icepick punch of a Telecaster. They also each contribute some vocals and Travis pulls out the fiddle for a couple of tunes. Sean Dean plays a steady bass drive on the upright and Mike Belitsky pounds the country cut time beat on the drums. John Doe sings most of the lead vocals and plays acoustic rhythm guitar.

John's voice is a natural fit here. Whether he's conjuring Hank Williams for Take These Chains From My Heart or channeling Webb Pierce's There Stands the Glass, he evokes the same kind of solid truth. These moments are about as pure as the originals. When Travis or Dallas sing lead (like Travis on Marty Robbins' Big Iron), it sounds good, but it doesn't quite hit that same place that John seems to naturally gravitate to. Normally, I'm not as interested in covers, but John's delivery carried the night, from sentimental to emotional to joyous exaltation.

The peak was Ray Price's Night Life. This was less of a straight cover, with a jangly echoed overdrive straight out of the Beatles She's So Heavy crossed with an Oh, Darling bridge. It started out mellow and built up to a psychedelic hard blues jam. The second most impressive moment came at the end of the regular set on Tiger Tiger. At this point, the Good brothers blew me away by playing twinned leads on each others' guitars (watch at about 2:15). Unfortunately, I didn't get a clean picture of this, but here's one I found by Jason Carlin (http://www.flickr.com/photos/the2scoops/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Look carefully at the hands. Lots of fun!

The song was fast and loud, in the spirit of X. Speaking of X, the band did do some X covers, like The Have Nots and New World, which were a bit faster than the originals. They weren't bad, but they really needed Exene Cervenka's voice to complete them. The encore closed out with Call of the Wreckin' Ball. With ears ringing and a drive ahead of me, it was a topper on the night. Given the dive nature of the bar, I should have been drinking the Old Style they had, but I had Bass Ale instead. It didn't seem to hurt the Sadies' hard, honest country.

More photos on my Flickr.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Essay: Discouraging words?

Ultimately, this essay comes down to a question that I hope you'll answer: how useful or interesting are negative reviews?

Music is a central part of my life: songwriting, playing, and listening. I started this blog to share some of what I've discovered or experienced. I listen to a lot of different styles of music and I tend to be quite open minded about what constitutes interesting music. This does not mean that everything I hear is necessarily worth sharing.

For example, I scored promotional copies of a couple of disks that I listened to and chose not to review. Commercial by Los Amigos Invisibles was billed as sort of alternative Latin rock/funk. Excellent. In truth, though, the album sounded like '70s pop and disco layered onto a Latin beat. I'm sure there are some people who enjoy this, but it did nothing for me.

Similarly, Cazwell's Watch My Mouth was promising. It looked like it might be amusing, with a single called I Seen Beyonce at Burger King. Cazwell is gay and Studio 360 recently did a segment on "homo hop", so it should have had some cultural relevance. Unfortunately, the single was repetitive and not particularly clever. Cazwell has studied Eminem's style and, though he works hard to be shocking, none of this was very entertaining.

I chose not to write extended reviews of either of these disks because they didn't hold my interest and they weren't even that fun to tear apart. It's not so much that I'm trying to be Mr. Positive, but I assume that no one really wants to read several paragraphs that I summed up in a few lines. I think that the most entertaining negative reviews are short and punchy, like Lester Bangs' rants or Dorothy Parker's barbs. It also takes the inspiration of a deserving target to take that path. On the other hand, the most useful negative reviews are for the incredibly overhyped dross that people might be sucked into. The examples I gave here don't meet either criteria. But what do you think? Should I have taken the time and space to pan these albums? Would it be worth even posting the short review of Cazwell's CD?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

CD review - Sonic Youth, The Eternal

Sonic Youth has always had their influences: Velvet Underground, Robert Fripp, and Patti Smith are a few. But they've always taken these sounds and transposed them into an edgier thrash that forms the band's basic sound. On The Eternal, they raise these idols and also a nod to Pink Floyd and Wilco's noisier sound. Typical of their albums, the full effect rolls between psychedelic thrash and dark punk drive. Fundamental to their sound is the tight meshing of the guitars into satisfying noise. The two or three guitars each contribute a fraction of differing beats, phrasing, and tones. And it all comes together into a complex, cathartic, insistent drive. This transcends all of the technique used to produce it (prepared instruments, odd contrasting tunings, etc).

The vocals add the right level of distance and angst, with Kim Gordon sounding like Patti Smith and Debora Iyall (Romeo Void) and Thurston Moore reaching for Lou Reed and Robyn Hitchcock. Some of the lead up hype talked about black metal, but I just hear their typical progressive punk art-noise. The disc is full of great tracks, but a couple are amazing.

Anti-Orgasm starts with a grungy jam, but throws in some dive bombing guitar noise. The sloganeering vocals are not that interesting, but the intense head trip guitars build the song into a frenzy and then into aftermath, where is settles into fragments anchored by the bass. At this point, Sonic Youth is playing a kind of Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun (Pink Floyd) jam with echoed noise swelling behind it. This moodiness balances the over the top noise of the frenzy section. This is some wonderful head candy.

Antenna starts with an echo box feedback artifact that simulates radio interference. This sets the mood. This song has a definite Wilco sound, but the chorus lifts directly from King Crimson's Court of the Crimson King. This shifts into more of a free jam structured noise. Once again, the sound is trippy with one guitar contributing noise, another plays some simple arpeggios, and the third plays a moody lead that is eventually heavily abused.

The disc closes out with the epic Massage the History. At almost 10 minutes long, it goes through a number of sections. The intro is a sort of folk rock jam with David Gilmour slide work. Kim Gordon's distant vocals come in a breathy voice that slides into a forced falsetto to add a kind of vulnerability. Once the singing starts, things build into more of a progressive rock sound. The song evolves through several sections before eventually losing energy and recapping to the intro piece and some more vocal angst. This is the perfect closer for the album. Some may think that it drags things out or loses energy, but it complemented the shift of moods that The Eternal runs through.

There are plenty of other good songs, from the Robert Fripp infused Malibu Gas Station to Poison Arrow's Velvet Underground riffs. All told, this is a single malt scotch kind of disc: smoky, a little harsh to the beginner, but rewarding to those who make the effort.

Friday, July 17, 2009

CD review - Victor Wooten, Palmystery

Victor Wooten is a master of the bass guitar. He's been an integral part of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (a jazz/bluegrass band) as well as a solo performer. He's often mentioned in the same company as Jaco Pastorius or Stanley Clarke, but his combination of technical brilliance, nuanced performance, and positive attitude make him stand out as a virtuoso.

Palmystery is his latest solo album. It covers a mix of styles, with emphasis on jazz fusion with nods to more of a smooth jazz feel. The flow of songs keeps things interesting as the mood shifts from the modal approach of 2 Timers to the soul jazz of Miss U. Along the way, Wooten even dips into an African pop sound for I Saw God. Throughout the disc, he steps out with some amazingly technical performances that still maintain musicality and heart.

Many funk and rock bass players are familiar with a technique of playing very fast, bass lines with a lot of incidental passing notes that are as much percussion as they are melody. Les Claypool of Primus has built his musical style around this approach. Victor's solo in Song For My Father (right around 3:05) demonstates how he can shift from some sweet melodic playing into this percussive style to kick a song into high gear. This cover of Horace Silver's song is one of the high points of Palmystery.

I Saw God has that South African sound that Paul Simon introduced to America with Graceland. One of the few non-instrumentals on the disc, it has a strong positive humanist message and wonderful backing vocals. A collaboration with Michael Franti on this kind of material would be a joy to listen to.

Even though both those songs are great, the best track is The Lesson, a simple instrumental with just bass and light percussion. It begins with a simple enough descending bass line that has a mild percussive element. It builds complexity and then the melody kicks in. Shut your eyes and slip into the flow of this beautiful piece of music. Some of the speedy percussive pops are just amazing. Though the song is largely contemplative, it evolves to bring in some tension and energy to the middle section. At times, it's hard to believe that this is a single bass with no overdubs.

Oftentimes, Wooten plays in the higher register of the bass, creating a sort of guitar sound. But he still has some big name guitar players sitting in on some songs. Mike Stern, Alvin Lee, and Keb' Mo all lend their talents. So there are all kinds of peaks here. On the other hand, there's only one valley: Happy Song. But that's because I'm not that fond of smooth jazz, which dominates that track.

Pour some fine Syrah and let the peppery fruit complement Victor's bass, with some dark plum notes and a fine spiciness.

Monday, July 13, 2009

CD review - Death From Above 1979, You're a Woman, I'm a Machine

Another recommendation from a friend (thanks, Steve).

Death From Above 1979 were an interesting duo out of Toronto, with Jesse F Keeler on bass and synthesizers and Sebastien Grainger on drums and vocals. They officially called it quits in 2006. You're a Woman, I'm a Machine was their first full length album. It's hard to believe this thick, grungy bit of hard rock excess was delivered without the benefit of 6 string guitars. The sound is defined by straight ahead drums, heavily distorted bass, compressed vocals, and occasional keyboards. The bass sounds like Keeler used a harmonizer or octave pedal along with a heavy amp distortion. The bass tone is full enough that it gives a sense of power chords and guitars playing heavy metal riffs. Sometimes this has the simple retro style of Black Sabbath, other times it sounds like sped up Soundgarden or Mudhoney. Grainger's vocals remind me of T. Rex's Marc Bolan with elements of more modern singers like Perry Farrell. The heavy compression make them sound thinner and distant.

There's no real theme across the eleven songs that make up You're a Woman, I'm a Machine. It's a lot of great headbanger action with consistently interesting melodic lines. The tunes are generally fairly up tempo without turning into thrash. There are no bad songs, but there were a few standout tracks.

I can't quite place what Blood on Our Hands reminds me of. Maybe it's a bit of AC DC's You Shook Me All Night Long. The bass and drums start out tightly coupled, but by the bridge, the bass is twinning the vocal line. This technique adds intensity; they use it throughout the album. The song ends with a break, then an odd sampled drum with a simple keyboard line. This is confusing because it doesn't even serve as a reasonable intro to the next song.

Black History Month has a staccato bass line with some interesting melodic transitions. In this song, the vocal sounds like Beck and maybe a little bit of Robert Plant in the chorus. There's tension and foreboding. The song has a perfect balance between the riffs, the steady drumbeat and the vocals.

Trippy, psychedelic lyrics drive Little Girl, but a driving chop borrowed from Black Sabbath's Paranoid overwhelms any hint of flakiness. This song is a great example of that Marc Bolan vocal sound. Before and during the last bridge (around 2:48), there are some short, fun fill breaks at the end of each musical phrase while the whole section is covered with a wash of ride cymbal. The song builds complexity at the end just before a sudden stop.

Hard rock, hard beats, and heavy bass. In honor of their Canadian nationality, I'll pair this with a pitcher of Molson's.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

CD review - VNV Nation, Empires

"Victory, not vengeance." A friend recommended VNV Nation to me and I tracked down Empires, which is considered their breakthrough album. (Thanks, Constance, for the tip.)

VNV Nation is really just two guys, Ronan Harris and Mark Jackson. They play a mix of dance style music crossed with industrial. There are elements of New Order and Depeche Mode, but also a fair amount of Front 242 and more modern trance and electronica. Empires is based largely on an Electro-Industrial approach. Throbbing synth beats with layers of sounds and an energetic, relentless feel are typical. The album as a whole is driven and focusing. There are also a number of interesting lyrical themes that run through the songs: the search for meaning, the need to be understood, unclear paths, and redemption of a sort. While these are big ideas, the sum total is coherent, moving, and satisfying.

The album leads off and closes with the same musical theme in the form of firstlight and arclight. The songs start out with synth "boop" sounds and a beat. Pads and washes layer in complexity, but they stay in balance. This produces a pensive feel of reaching for majesty, but sensing something darker.

The first song with lyrics is kingdom, which paints an image of an evil, spent world. Rather than submitting to this, the song dedicates itself to a higher ideal. There are some elements of progressive rock here (and throughout the album). If the beats were toned down and some guitar were added, these songs could fit in on a Porcupine Tree album. Of course, those beats are a fundamental part of the song, with ratcheting relentlessness that set the mood to match the lyrics.

The mood shifts with a more orchestral sound on distant (rubicon II). The beginning is sad and moving, with a sense of loss and ruin. The lyrics are assertive and uncompromising, almost embracing ruin.
the solitude and anger that do battle inside me
will always guide me to the answers that I know I may not see
they are the bonds that hold me tighter
they are the chains that weigh on me
one day, I know they will be gone
This introspective shift from the drive of the previous song provides a nice interlude. It also leads into standing, which begins with an Alan Parsons Project feel. Echoed synthesizer notes push the song forward as the beat builds into a full dance groove. This is where a ghost of New Order is evoked. standing balances the loss of distant with a sense of deep significance of the moment.

The next to last song, darkangel starts with an organic groove, then picks up drive. When the full dance beat of the verse comes in, there's a sense of inevitable determination. The interaction between the synth groove and the percussion sounds is intricate and interesting. There's some deep orchestration here that reveals more detail with repeated listenings.

Even people that aren't really into "dance music" can dig some value in Empires. The lyrics and prog-rock aesthetic propel this out of the dance club and make it a satisfying bit of mind candy. At first I was thinking some flavor of martini, but there's something here that a blended Irish whisky would complement.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Catching up and staying in the loop

I'll split this post into a couple of sections: catching up on news and a little bit about my latest musical obsession. Neither of the topics is that lengthy, so it makes sense to combine them.

Catching up
On the review side, I've posted the new things I want to write about. Los Amigos Invisibles is the only CD that I didn't write up. I decided not to write that one because it's mostly a '70s pop/disco thing, which is not very interesting to me. On the other hand I do have a couple of new things coming in: Sonic Youth and VNV Nation. A friend recommended the VNV Nation, so that should be interesting. Another friend recommended Chris Joss, so I'll look into that too. Finally, I'll be writing up the story of my recent copyright conflict once it's resolved.

As far as playing goes, I'm still on my own. The reggae band did not pan out. We never got together. Also, they were talking about 12 hours of rehearsal a week spread over 4 nights, which isn't workable. So, I've got several solo shows coming up and I'm still in the market for a band. The solo gigs are fun, but it's not quite the same. In fact, I need to keep it all a little more interesting...

Staying in the loop
...which leads nicely into our next topic. I've been evolving in my use of the Boomerang phrase sampler. This is a cool toy that lets me record what I'm playing, then it repetitively plays that recording in a loop. I can overdub and add parts if I want to. Additionally, I can record a second looped section and shift back and forth between them. This comes in handy for recording verse and chorus pieces. This lets me have a one man band sound in my live performances. In my initial work, I would simply record the verse and chorus while I played and sang. Then, I could take a lead over the two whenever I wanted. Nice, but fairly trivial.

The next level is taking the bass and layering that onto the recorded loop. This involves laying down the initial loop with guitar, switching to the bass, and then overdubbing the bass line. After that, I can switch back to guitar and add parts or just play along while I sing. Sometimes, I even tap on the guitar body to get a percussion part. Most of these songs are one guitar and one bass part, but I do have a couple where I layer on a number of additional guitar parts. My cover of Drive by Incubus is a good example. I lay down the initial changes, then add bass. Then I layer in another two or three textural guitar parts to build a funkier sound. By the time I'm done assembling all of this, it's thicker and has a fuller groove.

Lately, I've started working on this to assemble more jam oriented parts, where I might start with guitar or bass, then I build up. The difference here is that I have a looser idea of where the piece is going to go. I'm almost ready to bring out my drum machine to fill out the rhythm section and turn this into a real band arrangement.

There are musicians out there like Keller Williams, Arthur Lee Land, and Zoe Keating who take this to a much higher level (with better equipment than me, too;-). They help me see some of the potential of what I can create. The key, though, is to remember that this is supposed to be fun for the audience. So, I can't let myself turn into a loop-obsessed shoe gazer, where the technical challenge overwhelms the entertainment aspect. Those artists keep it very interesting, but I have seen boring loopers, too.

Unless I find a band soon, I anticipate getting a lot better at this.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Concert review - Action Friend, Sex Glove

4 July 2009 (Hodi's Half Note, Ft Collins CO)
Maybe it was the holiday or maybe it was summer break, but there were only about 20 people at the show. Most of them seemed to know the bands fairly well. I didn't know either of them. I just came because I had a free evening and the genre was listed as psychedelic in Hodi's email. With fireworks in the air, that seemed like a good match.

Action Friend
The show kicked off with one of the band members calling, "Scrumptious!", which I'm guessing was a song title. The guitar started with a fast, grindy, atonal distortion. Not so much psychedelia as it was just therapy for the band. But after about 45 seconds, it suddenly shifted into more of a song, with chord changes and structure. As it turns out, Action Friend's songs all seem to be constructed as more or less random medleys of song snippets. These snippets come from all over the map: jazzy, jammy, Zappa-esque experimentalism, metal thrash, or just noise. Each snippet tends to last a minute or less. I couldn't make much sense of how they were combined except that the pieces were generally assembled to emphasize contrast. A given song might switch back and forth between a couple of bits or just progress through a series of them.

The band is very tight in their coordination between the song sections. They turn on a microdot, navigating the changes in rhythm, key, and style with apparent ease. This technical adeptness carries over into the snippets themselves. Some of these are loose and dreamy, some require great speed and dexterity, others run through some complicated jazz chords. I have a lot of respect for their musical ability. Many of the parts would have been great to hear as songs in their own right. Unfortunately, the moments were too short and the changes were too random for me. I can hear influences of John Zorn's Naked City band, but Action Friend's version feels less coherent.
Sex Glove
If Action Friend was more experimental than psychedelic, Sex Glove was more punk. Elements of the Dead Kennedys, Bauhaus, and Devo surfaced at different points, but this was much more accessible than the opener. Sex Glove can still be edgy, they just aren't random.

In the first song, the lead singer confronted the mike with manic punk energy. The second song had a cool descending section that reminded me of Bauhaus, complete with Peter Murphy style vocals. This vocal versatility is a major asset for the band. Beyond that, the other guys certainly pulled their weight. The bass player provided a good punk stage presence, but he was also fairly versatile, shifting from thrash to more melodic playing. The drums were steady, especially on the more driving rock bits. And the guitarist had a good range, from metal through garage band psychedelia to some spacey edgy bits. The keys weren't always strong in the mix, but they still added a lot of texture, especially a Devo-style riff on one of the songs.

The biggest problem with the band is that they played a relatively short set. They left the crowd calling out for more as they claimed not to have any other songs. They also didn't have any recordings for sale. They've got a couple songs on their MySpace page, which I recognized from the show, but that seems to be the limit of their recording.

For Action Friend, I'd recommend a Suicide (a drink with a sampling of everything), but for Sex Glove, a Vodka Red Bull would be nice.

More photos on my Flickr.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

CD review - Hugh Cornwell, HooverDam

Hugh Cornwell was the frontman for the Stranglers. They started out as a punk band in the '70s but evolved into a more mainstream sound through the '80s. Truth be told, they were never really punk like the Sex Pistols: they always sounded like the Kinks playing new wave music, mostly because of musical dexterity, use of keyboards, and relative lyrical sophistication. The biggest hit I remember came from the early '80s (Golden Brown).

Cornwell left with the band in 1990 and has released a lot of music since then. HooverDam is the latest album, which is available for free from his website. He's also selling packages combining the album along with other material.

Taken as a whole, HooverDam reminds me a lot of Robyn Hitchcock performed with a new wave/rock aesthetic. The comparison is largely due to some similar odd rhythmed vocal phrasing along with some peculiar musical and lyrical elements. The verses on Delightful Nightmare or the bridge on Beat of my Heart give a good sense of this. It's not a direct influence or homage, though. The songs have an enjoyable retro feel (new wave isn't so new anymore). The guitars usually have a fairly tattered distortion which make even the slower songs sound more edgy. Most of the songs are fairly simple, without overly complex lyrics.

The biggest exception to this simplicity is my favorite track, the instrumental Phillip K. Ridiculous. Here, a throbbing bass trails a guitar playing a repetitive, slightly discordant scale run. This "verse" sounds a lot like early Yes. It relaxes briefly into a short bridge that opens up into an accepting wash of chords to shift the mood. It's a nice bit of progressive rock and I also like the clever title, referencing Phillip K. Dick (which probably accounts for the paranoid sound of the verses).

Wrong Side of the Tracks is another great song. The main riff is lifted straight out of Jimi Hendrix's Crosstown Traffic. Despite the theft, it's a tight rocker with a good rolling bass. The lyrics fit the crime, too. The lead is a Beatles driven bit of psychedelia.

Delightful Nightmare rounds out my top three. The gothic sound of the intro fits the title. The verses are contemplative, but the chorus goes back to the intro sound and evokes Alice Cooper. The bass line is wonderfully menacing. The song ends with that bass line pierced by Psycho-worthy shards of guitar.

The rest of the album is pretty good. The only weak link in the chain is The Pleasure of Your Company, which is labored and jerky. But it's still listenable. Pull a pint of ESB to enjoy with the rest of the album.