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

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

CD review - Wonderlick, Topless at the Arco Arena (2009)

Wonderlick is like my high school friends, after all these years. There's a band that I still miss today called Too Much Joy. They were clever, they were alive, and they were snotty boys with guitars. Tim Quirk and Jay Blumenfield were half of that band. They've matured (a little) and, while there are elements that remind me of TMJ, this band is all grown up. There are plenty of familiar bits, like Tim's vocals, some of the chord changes and guitar sounds, and hints of the wicked humor and spunk. Still, Wonderlick is not so smartass or funny; they've got their own aesthetic. Which is largely one of "I'm not sure how I ended up here, since it's not what I was aiming for, but I wasn't really aiming anyway. This is what I've got." In many ways, this is a natural progression. It's what happens to us all when we get older if we don't get lame.

Topless at the Arco Arena is Wonderlick's second album, with 17 songs of fairly strong material. The real negative is that some of the tracks have been loaded with heavy vocal processing. When She Took Off Her Shirt, for example is almost unlistenable. AutoTune is really annoying when it's not trying to be ironic or funny (e.g. AutoTune the News). As you might guess, I don't like T-Pain either. Fortunately, the album as a whole isn't buried under that.

A lot of these songs are observational or about thinly fleshed out characters to get at a deeper truth. All Boys Want is a good example, contrasting a simplistic view of boys (really all of us) with the core truth that our needs are a more complex as superset of the simplistic view. "It's not all boys want, but all boys want it..." The music is a thoughtful pop ballad groove. It's fun to listen to and it's more satisfying than some kind of pure pop fluff.

The range on Topless is a sign of a more mature band, too. You First musically evokes Sinead O'Connor's You Cause as Much Sorrow. The drum beat is simple, carried by bass and organ. Church hall echoes. The lyrics are vulnerable, about opening yourself to another person and hoping for the best. The title reference holds a glimmer of Too Much Joy, saying effectively, "let's bare our souls, but you go first..."

Several of the songs sound more like Too Much Joy, like A Different Kind of Love, but the best of these is The Possibilities, which sounds like it came off Cereal Killers or Son of Sam I Am. This song talks about a bygone time and what could have been. The story orbits around references to the Tennessee Three, Johnny Cash's old back up band, drawing parallels between the band on stage and the other characters in the song. Referencing the Tennessee Three is obscure enough, but the keyboard riffs at the end quoting from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's Lucky Man are just another layer of detail for a music aficionado.

Another stand out song is Fuck Yeah, which starts out sounding like a Jill Sobule cover. The lyrics are about self indulgence and self-surrender, carried by a country tinged ballad feel: angst-ridden, yet sedated. Without the AutoTune tweaks, it would have been one of my favorites.

If you liked Too Much Joy, you probably already know about these guys. If not, check out Wonderlick and their old TMJ material. Topless at the Arco Arena is available for free streaming. Give it a listen and buy a copy. Then, pour a grown up drink, like bourbon on the rocks, and "smash a glass and cry".

Further listening
Too Much Joy, King of Beers (other older stuff is here)
Sinead O'Connor,
You Cause as Much Sorrow, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got
Jill Sobule, Bloody Valentine, California Years

Sunday, September 27, 2009

CD review - Phish, Joy (2009)

Phish is back again. After splitting in 2004, it wasn't clear whether they'd be recording again. Then a summer tour followed their reunion concert earlier this year. Now, Joy, their 14th studio album has been released.

The band has always been somewhat schizophrenic between their live shows and their studio albums. In fact the weakest part of early albums like Junta or Lawn Boy is that they tried to capture the energy and excitement of their live shows and missed the mark. By Rift they were starting to take advantage of the studio to produce a more album oriented sound. They'd play many of the songs live, but their albums and live shows diverged.

Joy fits into the progression of their studio sound. Their five year break, where all the members worked on solo projects, didn't really add many new influences or sounds. They picked up more or less where they left off.

Trey is responsible for most of the writing (along with Tom Marshall). Bassist Mike Gordon and keyboard player Page McConnell each contribute a song as well. Trey's fluid playing and Mike's bouncy groove are all over the disc. Jon Fishman's drum work is most interesting on Sugar Shack, Time Turns Elastic, and Light. Page also contributes some strong keys on Light.

Light is easily my favorite track - there are a lot of remnants of Quadrophenia-era Who influence. The melody has elements of The Real Me and Doctor Jimmy. Mike channels an impressive John Entwistle bass line. The song starts with a looser intro, that drops into a driving bass/keyboard section. The song builds at the end with layered vocal parts that slide into a capella repetition.

Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan sounds like a reworking of Wilson along with some of the other material from The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday.

The official "jam song" of the album, Time Turns Elastic, clocks in at 13:30. It breaks into sections, with a relatively formal shift between the parts. This lacks the fluidity of early grooves like You Enjoy Myself.

True fans will love this unquestioningly. There are some decent songs as well as a couple of weaker offerings (I Been Around and Ocelot) but not much new ground. Those less familiar with the band might be better served by digging deeper into Phish's catalog to Picture of Nectar or A Live One, depending on their tolerance for looser free form jams.

Something about Joy makes me long for a nice frosty mint julep. Pour me one and I'll enjoy myself.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Concert review - Dwarf Planets

19 September 2009 (Waterloo Ice House, Louisville CO)
Listening to Dwarf Planets online, they come across as an eclectic, jazzy jam band. Maybe a little bit like String Cheese Incident, but certainly worth the drive down to Louisville. As it turns out, they were less interesting than I had hoped.

At 8:45, they were still serving dinner at the Waterloo Ice House and tables crowded the stage. This didn't change once the Dwarf Planets took the stage. It was a low-key scene: the musicians were serious about playing and didn't move around much. Similarly, the audience kept to their seats. Eventually, a table opened up and we were able to get a bit closer.

The sound mix in this long skinny room was miserable. The vocals were muddy and hard to distinguish. It was easy to hear one of the guitars, the bass, and the drums. The other instruments (violin, guitar, and mandolin) were overpowered and hard to hear. The stage was tiny and crowded. I wish they had sounded this good.

In general, the songs weren't bad. Musically, they were eclectic: moving from a ska beat on one song to poppy Americana, then to a sort of South African groove. The violin and mandolin solos were jazzy, when they could be heard. The band claimed that most of the songs were originals, but they seemed fairly derivative. For example the song Suddenly It's Over was a gypsy jazz groove straight from Gogol Bordello. Stew Bailey tried to channel Eugene Hütz, but lacked the wild energy required. Suddenly It's Over had elements of Illumination and Ultimate.

Other songs captured some Grateful Dead vibe, a taste if Iko Iko, and Steely Dan's Do It Again. This had a shotgun effect that robbed the sets of continuity. They're competent players and I'm sure I'd have liked them better with a decent mix, but this show was missing the spark of originality and energy that an audience deserves from live music.

Avery IPA was the drink of the night and it stood up much better than the band.

More pictures on my Flickr.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

CD review - Pretty Lights, Filling Up The City Skies (2008)

Pretty Lights is Derek Vincent Smith's project, with some assistance from drummer Cory Eberhard. The pair come from Ft. Collins Colorado, but they've hit the national electronica and jam band scene. Smith has a background as a standard musician, but Pretty Lights is all about mixing and DJing. A key element of their success is providing their music for free online and collecting donations.

Some people see DJing and mixing as being less musically creative than directly playing an instrument. By contrast, when I listen to DJ Danger Mouse or DJ Schmolli, I'm impressed with the vision they bring to creating cool music. These works may be derivative, but no more so than a cover song or rehash of blues, country, etc. The key is that vision, because there are plenty of less talented mixers.

Pretty Lights walks a fine line here. Smith has some cool ideas of how to take a set of unrelated, obscure samples from a variety of eras and mash them up into a decent mix. The two big problems with Filling Up The City Skies are that two full discs (26 songs) is overkill and his approach becomes a little formulaic.

The typical ritual begins with a moody slow start, playing older jazz, pop, or R&B samples mixed with enough light echo to make them sound distant. Then the tempo picks up and a more modern club sound drops down on top with grindy synth beats. Smith also has a fondness for what I'll call chop-cutting: using a beat track that is strategically muted and restored to give a choppy sound where the rhythm is formed out of the silences. He also likes to process rap samples to remove much of the spacing between the words, maintaining the flow, but speeding them up. Smith is also great at layering a lot of little pieces to create a complex collage of sound

Pretty Lights would definitely be a great live show, but Filling Up The City Skies begs the listener to cherry pick high lights. There are plenty of decent songs here, but it's too much sameness. The songs don't quite fully develop either. Many, like Summer's Gone or Hot Like Sauce, sound like they need some rappers laying it out over the groove.

One of the best tracks is Something's Wrong, which starts out acoustically like Led Zeppelin's Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You. But it's actually an old Janis Ian song, The Come On. They've taken Ian's cool descending riff and filled it out with into almost Beatlesque complexity.

Another good one is The Time Has Come, which sounds like an alternate version of Fight Test by the Flaming Lips. The processed guitar sound and mutant keyboard riffs sound great.

More Important Than Michael Jordan starts out like Tubular Bells (Mike Oldfield), but quickly adds a reflective club beat. Very psychedelic with a number of interesting sections and samples. My favorite part is the heavily processed use of Buffalo Springfield's For What It's Worth.

Dirty martinis are my drink of choice for this one...

Further listening
DJ Danger Mouse, 99 Problems, The Grey Album (mashup of JayZ's 99 Problems and the Beatles' Helter Skelter
DJ Schmolli, In-A-Gadda-Blue-Monday (mashup of Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and New Order's Blue Monday)
Janis Ian, The Come On, Between the Lines
Flaming Lips, Fight Test, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Buffalo Springfield, For What It's Worth, Buffalo Springfield
Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

CD review - Elvis Costello, My Aim is True (1977)

Elvis Costello is one of my strongest writing and singing influences. I didn't really hear him until his third album, Armed Forces, but I immediately became a fan. He was a nerdy looking guy who was constrained by a throttled, nasal voice. Still, he rose out of the nascent punk/new wave scene and crafted flawless pop gems that spanned those styles, as well as ska, country rock, and jazz. His first album, My Aim is True is a masterpiece. Over time, he would reinvent himself several times, but even on this first album his musical versatility was clear. His pop songs sounded simple, but on closer examination, they'd reveal some satisfying complexity.

Costello's musical fluency is impressive, but what really captured me was his lyrics and singing style. Sarcastic, dark humor one moment, biting social commentary the next. But he could still pull out some deeply emotional, sentimental moments, too. His delivery was unique, with odd phrasing. Uneven lines that drew out at first, then a staccato rush of syllables to finish it out. This approach gave me room to move beyond simplistic couplets in my own writing.

Listen to Alison, a sentimental sounding pop song that owes a lot to Hal David and Burt Bacharach. A complex little intro with some silky smooth guitar. Once the lyrics start, the guitar throws in some fills to accent the holes. The first line is stretched out a little, the syncopation at the start of the second line ("And with the way you look, I understand") propels the song forward. His phrasing provides these subtle jerks that make the song so compelling. Linda Ronstadt had a big hit with it, but her version is a lot less interesting even though her voice is much better. The song sounds sentimental and longing, but the lyrics are more bitter than their delivery.

Contrast this with the bouncy Welcome to the Working Week. Off the cuff sarcasm and Costello's voice has the perfect bit of sneer. It's less than a minute and half long, but it satisfies.

Elvis shifts into a more serious mood on Less Than Zero, providing social commentary about the British fascist, Oswald Mosley. Audiences in America assumed that the Oswald mentioned was Lee Harvey Oswald and later, Elvis would record the "Dallas version" of the song pushing the JFK theme in a fairly rank parody. But in the original, he captures the nihilistic mindset that he's dissecting: everything means less than zero.

For another great example of phrasing, listen to the moody "song noir" of Watching the Detectives. A stark ska beat drives the song with a jagged guitar riff. The tightest lyrical delivery comes in the bridge (at 2:12 on the live version I've linked):
You think you're alone until you realize you're in it
Fear is here to stay, love is here for a visit
They call it instant justice when it's past the legal limit
Someone's scratching at the window, I wonder who is it
The detectives come to check if you belong to the parents
Who are ready to hear the worst about their daughter's disappearance
Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay
It only took my little fingers to blow you away.
The rhythm of "call it instant justice" or "ready to hear the worst" are perfect.

Scotch and splash of soda are a perfect companion...

Further listening:
Linda Ronstadt, Alison, Living in the USA (1978)
Intersection, Man On Fire, Meet Me At The Corner (1999)

Friday, September 4, 2009

CD review - Spiral Beach, The Only Really Thing (2009)

Spiral Beach is a quartet out of Toronto. The Only Really Thing is their second album. They have a thick layer of retro in their sound. Some of this comes from the arrangements, but the bulk arises from the heavier reverb, a bit of noise in the mix, and the tight, paired vocal arrangements. With an aesthetic that's informed by the Go Go's, the B-52's and Debbie Harry, it's a fun, punky, new wave with a taste of danceable pop.

In a tie for best song of the album, Raising the Snake and May Go Round (In a Mania) each have a bit of Bollywood soundtrack groove. The arrangements feel quite foreign (Dengue Fever anyone). Raising the Snake sounds a bit like Ghost Town by the Specials, with a spooky groove and ska beat along with the choral effect on the vocal. It ends with some Pink Floyd spaciness. This feeds immediately into the club beat intro of May Go Round. This has a similar scale driven, foreign sound but a lot more frantic B-52's in the vocals.

There's plenty to back these songs. The disco drive of Cemetery features a Debbie Harry style vocal and shimmery guitars. A little syrup in the keyboard string sound, but not overdone. Domino sounds like the B-52's jamming on the theme to The Munsters. A driving beat, surf/garage guitars, and tight vocal harmonies all fit together. These songs sound like they need to be heard live.

The closer, Shake the Chain, has an old, old Tom Waits influenced sound. Moody and jazzy, singer Maddy Wilde evokes a weary chanteuse vibe which fits the song perfectly.

Pour me a gin and tonic and I'll tap my foot to this retro groove (but not totally living in the past).

Other listening recommendations:
B-52's Planet Clair
Dengue Fever, Ethanopium
Tom Waits, Hang On Saint Christopher, Shore Leave

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Multimedia review - Ian Curtis and Joy Division

Binging on Ian Curtis and Joy Division is not for the weak of heart or those prone to depression. I recently read Touching From a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division (1995), written by Ian's wife, Deborah Curtis. Then I watched Anton Corbijn's film, Control (2007), which is loosely based on Deborah's book. Finally I watched Grant Gee's documentary, Joy Division (2007).Much like interviewing witnesses to a train wreck, a rough consensus develops, but each recollection has it's own flavor and agenda. They all agree on the basic story. A relatively quiet young guy, obsessed with the glam and punk music of the day, wants to be part of it. He marries young and has a troubled marriage. He becomes the face and voice of a talented band, contributing lyrics and a dark kind of energy. He has an affair and suffers through the impact on his marriage. He develops epilepsy, which has a profound effect on his ongoing depression. He attempts suicide and finally succeeds the day before he and the band are due to tour in America. Everyone around is shocked.

I was fairly familiar with the story back in the early '80s, after listening to Joy Division and New Order, which rose from the ashes. At the time, the common wisdom was that Ian Curtis had history of depression and was unable to cope with the idea of success. The part of about depression rings true, but my sense out of all of this is that things were not so simple.

Touching From a Distance is interesting because Deborah had a lot more private knowledge of Ian, both his past and his time with the band. Of course, given the conflicts caused by Ian's infidelity and moodiness (plus any normal marital strife), it can't all be taken at face value. Still, Deborah Curtis paints an image of an interesting man: depressive but social within his own network of friends, quiet offstage but a mesmerizing performer, angry and tortured but emotionally invested in his civil service job, and a follower of the nascent punk scent that created a large part of the post punk new wave aesthetic. She seems to come to the conclusion that Ian Curtis had a longtime fascination with death and that his suicide was almost pre-ordained. She points to an early overdose experience in his youth and his lyrical imagery as evidence.

Even though Control is loosely based on Deborah Curtis' biography, it's more of a muddle. This story is too complicated if the book is followed closely, so Anton Corbijn sacrifices much of the explanatory history in order to hit the highlights. It's a whirlwind tour of concerts, a marriage, recording, and an affair. Sam Riley has the right look and captures Ian's mood swings, but he doesn't have enough of a narrative to help the audience get him. The only thing Corbijn successfully emphasizes is the distance between Ian and Deborah. In this view, Ian is tired, desperate, and depressed. Suicide has become his only escape. While this was the weakest of these three pieces, the music is what saves it. There's some great old songs on the soundtrack and the actors do a passable job of covering Joy Division's live performances.

Grant Gee's documentary is richer than Control and offers a good contrast to Touching From a Distance. Joy Division is more band focused and is built on a combination of interviews and band footage. It does a great job of explaining the music scene at the time and giving a sense of how Joy Division influenced that post punk era. The recollections don't always mesh perfectly, but they seem coherent. Ian is portrayed more a regular guy than just a tortured artist. The band and others talk about his sense of humor and moxie. There's much less emphasis on his epilepsy, but that may be because he downplayed that despite his onstage seizures. There's more attention on his girlfriend, Annik Honore, including some brief screen time. Interestingly, Deborah Curtis is never interviewed or shown, although some quotes from her book are included. In this view, Ian's suicide is seen more as either a stupid accident or a way to keep from holding back the band.

So, what's the truth? It won't be found here or in any other book. Given Ian's depression and all of the stress he was going through, it probably wasn't so much a long time plan as an immediate escape. The real point of all of this is to listen to Joy Division. Hear the driving tension of Transmission or She's Lost Control. Listen to Love Will Tear Us Apart and wonder why no one saw the end coming. Sip some Irish coffee and savor the bittersweet sound of Isolation.