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

Thursday, October 29, 2009

CD review - Nneka, Concrete Jungle (2009)

Nneka Egbuna has her feet in at least two different worlds. She grew up in Africa, with her Nigerian father and German mother. Later, she went to school in Hamburg to study anthropology. She's been performing in Europe and Africa for several years and she's attracted the attention of performers like Lenny Kravitz and Lauryn Hill. Even though most of these songs seem to come from her first two albums, Concrete Jungle will be her first release in the US. It's not due to hit the stores until February 2010, but I got an early release copy. Catch her during her tour dates in November (New York, Philadelphia [World Cafe Live] and California), score her digital EP (available in early November), or wait for Concrete Jungle in February -- Nneka is well worth the listen.

Her music has a host of touchstones: lots of Lauryn Hill and the Fugees, some afrobeat, reggae, and classic R&B. This varies from song to song, but even within a song, there can be a lot of stylistic crossover goodness.

The top track is Africans, which is aimed at her Nigerian and other African compatriots, telling them to move beyond their colonial past. The message is delivered in a positive tone, with sweet soulful singing and beautiful music. It starts out with a Hendrixy guitar lick (think Little Wing) and vocals with a hint of Nina Simone. Then a reggae beat and bassline drop in to propel the song forward. The echoed vocals sound full, showing some fine production decisions. It's conscious, but it's also a great dance number.

A close second for best track is Focus, which is an excellent example of her crossover sensibility. Kicking off with an alt-rock groove and a dirty funk bass, that intro slides into a simpler beat and rap vocal. The chorus pulls that alt-rock intro back in. Later, she even throws in some toasting style rap. As with most of Nneka's songs, the lyrics are key:

Is it the drugs? Is it the men?
Is it the money? Is it the fame?
Don't need all this to find myself
Have met my shadow a thousand times
I know how it feels to be untrue to oneself
Say, would you hold back the things
That urged you to speak your mind?
Living in the bondage, in if-clauses for the rest of your life
You want to lie in system's custody, your soul stripped for free
Living in the bondage, in if-clauses for the rest of your life
You want to lie in system's custody, your soul stripped for free
Will you sell your soul for free?

Her delivery on this shows some great lyrical flow and it's all on a positive tip.

Kangpe, featuring Wesley Williams, kicks off with a heavy drum and bass vibe with one foot in techno. The other foot is somewhere between an African groove, Indian scales, and a reggae beat...it's a busy foot. The verse is almost spoken, with cool fills between the lines. Nneka does more singing during the chorus. The chord changes may be simple on this dance song, but the crossover complexity makes it a joy to listen to. The bridge offers some Jamaican DJ style. This should be a club single.

I'll pair this one with some of my friend John's chipotle mead: spicy, sweet, and strong.

Monday, October 26, 2009

CD review - Steven Wilson, Insurgentes (2008)

Steven Wilson is the founder and lead guitarist of the progressive rock band, Porcupine Tree. He's also been an influential producer, working with bands like the prog-metal Opeth. His work on either side of the recording gear has such a consistent aural approach, it's no real surprise that Insurgentes sounds a lot like a Porcupine Tree project. Still, the album shows a wider range than that. The songs run the gamut from dreamy to intense guitar rock in a psychedelic vein. Despite this range, it all flows together very well tonally.

Insurgentes has been released in a multitude of versions, based on what the package includes. So, some have an extra disc of outtakes, some came with a DVD-A (with various mixes and some video), and the deluxe edition includes a hardcover book. There's even a vinyl edition. So, if you're interested in this, it's worth figuring out how much of this good thing you want.

The first single from the album is Harmony Korine. It starts with an echoed, flanged guitar playing a repeated picking pattern. Then, the bass comes in like a typical Porcupine Tree song. A slide guitar wafts over the top, giving it a dreamy/trippy start. The vocals have a mix that's similar to the guitar sound. If it were a little slower, it would be a bit like Pink Floyd's Us and Them. The chorus picks up the tempo and adds a lot of energy, which drops back down when returning to the verse. This is a good choice as a single; it captures some of the album's feel as a whole.

What Harmony Korine is missing, is the harder edge of songs like No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun. That song starts out with an edgy, syncopated bass line and slashes of guitar riff. The guitar is distorted, angry, and dangerous in contrast to the jazzy feel of the bass and drums. Sonic layers slowly accrue, with guitar covering the bass line and the second guitar building into a screaming wail of electric, distorted thrash. It just keeps getting bigger and deeper. Then, suddenly at 3:50, it strips back to bass and drums as the vocals come in for a tinge of MC 900 Ft. Jesus. Still, A couple of verses in, it rocks out again with shouted lyrics. Near the end, it collapses into a slightly atonal piano riff, but the Gothic thrash makes one final appearance. This song has such cool complexity, that I've listened to it several times in a row.

The rest of the album dips in and out of soundtrack oriented music, with a patina of Gothic noise. There are plenty of sounds reminiscent of Massive Attack and Joy Division scattered throughout as well.

Listening to the second disc of "outtakes", most of these would not have been sorely missed. The doleful tension of The 78 or the Alan Parsons Project sound of Collecting Space would have worked on the main album, but they weren't really necessary.

This is a great album for fans of Porcupine Tree or prog rock in general. Pour an Odell Double Pilsner while you listen; the body and assertive hops will fit well with Insurgentes.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Concert review - Apostle of Hustle, Gogol Bordello

23 October 2009 (Aggie Theater, Ft. Collins CO)
The Aggie had a full crowd for this show. I've wanted to see Gogol Bordello perform for quite a while now. I was not alone. This was almost as packed as the Michael Franti show.

Apostle of Hustle
Apostle of Hustle was an odd choice as an opening act. They couldn't be much more different from Gogol Bordello in temperament, stage presence, or musical style. The vibe was laid back easy rock, with some cool syncopation: think the Police with a more indie rock flavor. Online, they appear to be a three or four piece, but this show was just guitar (Andrew Whiteman) and drums (Dean Stone). Occasionally, Whiteman played some keys, too. Andrew Whiteman has also performed with Canada's Broken Social Scene.

The sound was thin and weak, missing a bass player. Stone did some cool percussion looping that filled out the sound a little bit, but it wasn't enough to compensate. The best song of the set was Eazy Speaks, which had a nice guitar riff and lyrics that contrasted sharply with the pretty groove.

Gogol Bordello

As expected, Gogol Bordello delivered an incredible show. They hit the stage running and kept that pace for the whole night. At times, they'd rush to the front of the stage like they were ready to dive into the crowd or assault the mike. The frantic movement and high energy electrified the crowd. We all knew the songs and sang along. The setlist was mostly split between songs from Gypsy Punks and Super Taranta!

The set started off with Ultimate, with some great interplay between the violin and the accordion. When the song kicked into overdrive, the crowd went wild and danced with abandon. By the time they got to Not a Crime, we were all chanting along. The songs just flowed into one another, with almost no talking.

Frontman Eugene Hütz was in great form, with his Zappa-like appearance and expressive face. Violinist Sergey Ryabtsev looked like a friendly uncle, but played like a demon. The rest of the band also played superbly, taking the familiar songs to a higher level. The set ended with Think Locally, Fuck Globally. We were wrung out but Gogol Bordello came back out for their encore almost immediately. They kicked off with Alcohol and also covered Mala Vida by Mano Negra.

Walking out into the cool night, with my ears ringing, I only hoped it wouldn't be another 3 years before Gogol Bordello comes again. Pair them with some grappa and leave the bottle on the table...

More pictures at my Flickr.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Concert review - Mumiy Troll, Future of the Left, Trail of Dead

20 October 2009 (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO) Evidently, when Denver's Bluebird Theater says showtime is 8pm, they don't mean that the doors open at 8pm or that the real showtime is 8:30. No, the first band will be rocking out at 8pm sharpish. As a result. I missed Mumiy Troll's first couple of songs, which was a disappointment. Still, it was a full evening of music.
Mumiy Troll
I've reviewed Mumiy Troll's Comrade Ambassador, I've interviewed front man Ilya Lagutenko, and I've been listening to their new English EP, Paradise Ahead. So, I had high expectations for this show.

As I mentioned, I missed the start of the show. This was frustrating and annoying, but there wasn't any time to dwell on this, because the set was underway. The boys rocked the house, putting on a great show. The audience was packed with expatriate Russians who were hyped to catch the band and sing along.

With sweat flying, Ilya's face was incredibly expressive. YouTube videos give a sense that he's a great showman, but seeing him live was much more impressive. He worked the crowd, building things up. The other guys were very focused on attacking the songs, but guitarist Yuri Tsaler did sing a bit and showed that he could also lead a song.

They played some familiar songs from Comrade Ambassador as well as some older material. These were not "cover the album" arrangements -- there were some great jams. They ended their short set with Sleep Rock'n'Roll, which is normally a thoughtful groove.

This version started out sleeping, but woke up with a vengeance. The arrangement was split into a progression of sections, starting out reflective and laid back. Yuri played a David Gilmour inspired lead here that fit perfectly. Then, as it built into a relentless rock thrash, Ilya added a punchy rhythm guitar and the band followed suit. Drummer Oleg Pungin played rapid fire machine gun shots on the kick drum. It was a great end for the set, I just wanted more.

Hopefully, Mumiy Troll will be back as a headliner next time.

Future of the Left

Next up was Future of the Left, a 3 piece noise punk band from Wales. Their performance was pretty raw in contrast to their online music, which is much cleaner and focused. In either case, their sound is dense and driving. The key feature was the highly distorted bass that took on the role of rhythm guitar. The drums were simple and heavy. The guitar (or sometimes keyboard) usually contributed accenting shards of noise. Although, on one song, the keys reminded me of Peter Gabriel's Games Without Frontiers.

Future of the Left put on a fairly good show. Bass player Kelson Mathias affected a spastic rhythmic motion that conveyed tension and fit the punk aesthetic. The shouted lyrics were hard to understand, scraping a passing grade from the John Lydon school of vocals. The patter between songs was a little more interesting, with great offhand lines like, "It's a shame when anyone who isn't Margaret Thatcher dies."

At the end of their set, Kelson jumped down and jammed in the mosh pit. Then he handed off his bass to someone in the audience to go off exploring in the crowd. So, the show was good, but the music was too raw and abrasive for me.

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
I wasn't very familiar with Trail of Dead before this show. I had always though they were some kind of hard rock band. Reading up now, they've been described as "art rock", but I'd call it progressive rock. Sometimes, they dose their songs with a bit of psychedelia, but it's a focused buzz. This show convinced me I need give them a closer listen. I'll be following up with a review of their latest CD.

The most unique aspect of their show was the elastic organization of roles. Sometimes, a drummer switched to guitar or lead vocals. They had two drummers, each with a separate kit, which gave them room to trade off roles without wasting a lot of time. Often, the drums played in unison, but they still diverged enough to keep things interesting. The effect was almost orchestral, where complexity was revealed through the dual drum parts. This was heady music, with a lot going on.

Many of their songs relied on sonic shifts to keep the audience engaged: a harder rock song might break into a more spacey reverie (1:50) or a thoughtful moodiness would erupt into waves of sound. It was quite reminiscent of My Morning Jacket or the Flaming Lips; though, when they rocked out, there was more of a Jane's Addiction vibe.

The encore included both new and old songs. They started with one of the new songs, then played To Russia, My Homeland, and wrapped up with their first song from back in 1995. As the song thrashed into its final spasms, one of the drum kits was upended and, individually, they drifted off the stage, leaving the remainder to drag things out. At one point, Kelson from FotL came out and contributed to the final mayhem. Ears ringing, it was time to head home.

This show would keep the bar busy, with a host of orders: vodka shots, with a lager chaser, then maybe a touch of absinthe for the Trail.

More pictures on my Flickr.

Friday, October 16, 2009

CD review - The Books, The Lemon of Pink (2003)

Found sound samples and music slip together to create a kind of flow out of disparate parts. The Books create an experimental, experiential sonic scape, where the listener's mindset contributes a large share. The album overwhelms with elements of aleatoric randomness (which they deny) and slight nods to Robert Fripp's Exposure and Eno & Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Many of the songs follow a loose pattern, starting with a rhythmic collection of sound samples, then intricately layering in cello, guitar or piano. Sometimes the tracks coalesce into something resembling a more normal song, at least for a little while. The result is a bit of watchwork complexity, with odd organic elements. It never becomes tedious or repetitious, though, because the sound changes from song to song and the samples shift as well.

The title track, The Lemon of Pink, lays the foundation for the album. Poetic phrases and vocalizations with a repetitive piano/guitar undertone fall into a slightly stiff, awkward rhythm. Snippets of music and spoken word/found sound flow together, but the meaning is unclear. It's like a dream after you've awakened: how can you organize and explain the pieces you remember? It's impossible.

If there is a theme for The Lemon of Pink, perhaps it's a kind of zen-like philosophy. Songs like Take Time, which starts with percussion and some foreign speech set a mood. The tone of voice sounds like storytelling, but the recurring English spoken word samples include phrases like, "That which is now has already been" and "Something is happening, which is not happening at all". The song element reminds me a bit of Feist, but it's more atonal and jerky. The video is beautiful in parts for how it creates the sense of pattern and deeper meaning.

A True Story of a Story of True Love has a sweet arpeggiated guitar that evokes Mary from Robert Fripp's Exposure. The samples of philosophical spoken word seem dissociated from the title and music, so the effect is a bit like coming out of anesthesia. The album has programmed my mood to appreciate the seeming patterns that arise.

The Lemon of Pink needs a beer like Orval, which offers a complexity of flavors. Which do you want to taste now?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Concert review - Magic Cyclops, Har Mar Superstar

13 October 2009 (Hi Dive, Denver CO)
Things started late at the Hi Dive, not getting underway until 10:20pm. So, there was a lot of time to kill before the show. I ran into Har Mar Superstar next door at Sputnik and said hi, but didn't really interrupt him.

Magic Cyclops
Magic Cyclops is originally from Iowa, but lately, he's been performing up and down the Front Range. His act is as much performance art as it is music or comedy or anything else. Kicking things off with, "The show is, thus, started..." in an abominable English accent, he performed rap and other vocals over prerecorded songs. The songs were short and usually funny (but always odd), embracing an amateur aesthetic. Song titles included Teen Pregnancy: Don't do it, Online Predator, and I am the Sex. The music was synthesizer driven and simple, sometimes with vocals already dubbed in. Most of his vocals were fairly processed to shift pitch etc.

Make no mistake, though, this act was not really about the music. It was really about the character he played: "the future of music in one man's father's basement". Self-deprecating, yet convinced of his own animal magnetism, the effect was campy. With gyrations to work the remote control for his laptop, nailing his crotch with the mike, and his accent slipping in and out, it was a crazy show, like Flight of the Conchords with lower quality music. The show ended covering Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart to great effect.

Magic Cyclops was silly, fun, and worth catching if you know what to expect. He'll be playing again at Hodi's Halfnote (Ft. Collins) this Thursday (October 14 2009), and presumably other shows around.

Har Mar Superstar

My preview more or less sets the stage. The short version is that Har Mar Superstar performs R&B/funk/dance club music, playing a much sexier version of himself than is immediately visible. He's serious about the music, which is well written, arranged, and performed, but he has a great sense of humor when it comes to his lyrics and his stage show. For this show, he had a backing band (Jeff Quinn on guitar, Will Scott on drums, and Denver Dalley on bass) whose primary job was to accent the pre-recorded tracks for the songs.

Har Mar's CD, Dark Touches, was also released on Tuesday and he played a lot of songs off the album. Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a funky R&B number with heavy club beats. He sang Girls Only, written for the Cheetah Girls, pumping up GRRL power with absolute sincerity and no self consciousness.

That sincerity is key to his show. The character he plays is sexy, confident, powerful, and attractive. Har Mar is quite comfortable within the skin of this character and this frees him to shake his booty, strip down, and work the crowd while ignoring what anyone may think about his physique or how hokey it might look. The result is completely the opposite of Magic Cyclops: it's not campy, it's great fun, and girls are convinced that he is sexy and attractive. As hard as that might be to believe from these pictures.

A couple of other great songs were a rap number, Creative Juices (wonderful name checking: "streetcar named Desire-a Glass"), and an older number, Power Lunch (exposing his business woman fetish). The lyrics were clever and the beats were infectious. He wrapped up with a cover of Boyz II Men's It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday, which moved the audience to sing along. A perfect ending to a great show.

Har Mar Superstar deserves his own drink, but in the meantime I'll go with gin and tonic, with a splash of of OJ.

More pictures on my Flickr.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Interview - Ilya Lagutenko (Mumiy Troll)

Earlier, I reviewed Russian rock band Mumiy Troll's album, Comrade Ambassador. Now they're on a North American tour, with a stop coming up in Denver on October 20 at the Bluebird. Listen to some of their music and come out to hear them. I had a chance to talk to Mumiy Troll's leader, Ilya Lagutenko, about their music, their lyrics, and their experience here in America.

Jester: Hi, Ilya. I really enjoyed listening to your album Comrade Ambassador. The sound is fresh, but at the same time there are a lot of retro sonic elements. You’ve also got a new EP coming out soon (October 13).

Ilya: Thank you. We’re thankful to our supporters and audience back home. So we do not only rely on new audiences to sell. It’s like you delay leaving your parent’s home and everything is open and there are lots of things to discover. But you know that if you really need to, you can come back to your parent’s house and be more than welcome.

The new EP is called Paradise Ahead and it consists of 5 tracks. Three of those are in English and you haven’t heard them. Two of them are from Comrade Ambassador. When we finished our last tour in the US, there were really good reviews, some were even better than back home. It was our first intention to introduce the band as what we really are at that particular moment. So, Comrade Ambassador wasn’t a “best of” compilation, it was basically our latest songs in the original language. Now, Paradise Ahead is a second start with us. So you could know more about us if you really want to hear more and you would like to understand without taking Russian lessons (chuckle).

How do you think your sound has changed for these new songs or over time?

To be honest, I do not know. Because in my mind, we have not really changed since I first started to write the songs we’ve made since we were just teenaged: 12, 13, 14. Some of those songs we still play live, but the general concept, which is somewhere inside my brain, it’s kind of still the same. This is live music, live instruments. We don’t really use a lot of technology just because we bought it. The moment you depend on those click tracks, you know, computers and stuff, something accidental can ruin your show. Computers crash and then what else do you have to do? We are doing it in a really old fashioned way, having guitars and amps. So, even if there is no electricity… I mean it happened just two days ago, we were in Providence RI. The electricity went out at the club but we still can sit on the edge of the stage and sing those songs to the fans. The general idea didn’t really change. Yes, our fans say “this album’s different” and they can follow some change. I don’t know. It depends on our personal lives and what is happening to us and what’s going on in the music world.

How was it writing the new songs in English?

It’s a challenging task in a way, because I’m really careful about my lyrics in Russian. People in Russia, historically, were really concerned about quality of pen. Bearing in mind, all the greatest authors like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Pushkin came from Russia. We have it in our genes probably. I tried to apply it to our popular music, to be really careful about what to say and how to say it, what kind of words to choose. I don’t want to use too much slang; I don’t want to use too many foreign words. I like to keep it really unique, still like Russian. I’d like to do the same thing in English, but here you have a different mentality, different words, it’s a different time. It’s not about simply translating lyrics into a different language. It should work in the song. Some of it was really just to get a sense of what it’s all about, just general ideas, general sounds. It’s more like the sounds of your soul inside, than the exact translation. I don’t mind making mistakes with grammar. I don’t mind my accent. It simply has to work all together. That’s the whole idea. Whether I succeeded or not, you will judge (laugh). But I really did enjoy creating it.

I don’t speak Russian, but I did find translations for Comrade Ambassador on russmus.net. Are you familiar with this site?

I don’t know. The official translations of the songs were included in our booklet on the CD. But I’m sure that there are lots of different translations which our fans did. We’ve been to Japan, and we met students from a Japan university. They said “We’re studying Russian. Your songs, we’re using them as a textbook. You know it’s got things which are not really stereotypical, but still sound right.” I’m really glad that our lyrics also serve a scientific purpose (laugh).

Reading those translations, your lyrics seem very poetic. It’s a different style than a lot of typical pop music here.

Yes, I guess so. In England, they usually say, “Your songs remind us of the kind of writing that Morrissey would usually do,” which compliments us. He’s one of the greatest lyric writers in English pop music. So, it’s not really the expected pop lyrics, just kind of really good feelings. This is where I started, initially. I wasn’t really interested to describe what is all around me, because I didn’t really find it exciting. So I would imagine “how would it happen if?” If, if, if…and lots of people just don’t really like that “if” attitude. But I don’t mind. You know, inside me, I’m a rather pragmatic and realistic person. I don’t really live in worlds of illusion and stuff. That’s why I’ve never really dreamed of my band being so big. But now, sitting in, where am I now, North Hampton? (chuckle) Knowing I’m on a 40 state tour in United States, Canada and Mexico, playing my songs! Yeah! I could imagine that I lived in that kind of world, and here it is. It was hard work for that and then I made it true. Some people would rather have a magic wand in their hands, but… well, I’d rather have it, but I know it doesn’t exist.

But what does exist? Real people, real me, real you. You’re on the telephone, but we talk, we communicate. The moment we build communication with the outside world, then something’s happening. Maybe I would still write something that, in Russia, they would call it writing to the drawer. You know, when you write it for yourself, and no one would hear it. You think no one will like it or you think you are too genius and other people wouldn’t understand that. But the moment you make the first step, then you realize: it’s not just a couple of friends of yours who appreciate your music. The moment I realized that several million people actually liked what I’m thinking about, that’s probably when I had to give up my day job and not think about doing careers in whatever I tried to do. I had to stick to whatever I enjoyed more and what people enjoyed around me.

You’re playing smaller venues in the US. Are you able to get closer to fans here in the US?

Yeah and it’s been fascinating. We’re doing open air events and big arenas back home in Russia but at the same time, I’ve never been that kind of personality that says, “I’m only doing those big stage shows with lights and all those big things”. Even back in Russia, I sometimes play in small clubs and would go to some godforsaken place in Siberia and basically talk to the people, look in their eyes. And it’s what’s happening here in the United States. There are some big places, like New York or Los Angeles where there are huge crowds, but last time we did Denver, a small club again, it was really, really nice. We had this mixed crowd of Russians, Russian speaking people and the American ones curious about what those Russian guys are really about. It was rewarding.

How does the rest of the band enjoy the time here in the US?

They really like it. It’s been a great change to be in your country and to experience a different lifestyle. Okay, we’re living on a bus, but they can experience things like going to Laundromats (laugh). Little things which are a bit different from how they’re organized back home. It’s nice. I would say it’s not that hard at all. In Russia, we’ve spent a few years traveling on a bus which can’t really even compare to a bus in America. It’s the equivalent of an out of session, junk school bus. And those roads back home in Russia? You can’t really compare them to the nice roads here. And distances: here, we hardly drive more than 3 or 5 hours. It’s really nothing. In Russia, to go to the closest people, you will drive for 20 hours. It means you finish a show, you get on the bus, and you drive for 20 hours on the really bumpy drive, no beds, just sitting. Then, you come to a city and go straight to the gig. No sound check and sometimes they don’t have enough gear. I would say this is some of our best time over here. It’s like a holiday for us.

During your time here, have you had any chance to collaborate, to play with American musicians?

I’m not really a big fan of so-called duets or proper collaboration. We’ve never been signed to any major label. Usually it’s the task of the label to unite a few artists for promotional purposes. In our case, it’s been more of an accidental thing. I remember when Marc Almond (of Soft Cell) came to Russia to do his version of classical Russian songs. We did one song together and it was a really good experience with me singing in Russian and he sang in English. It was one of those old cabaret songs from 1920s and we did it in a more electronic way. It was really good memories. Another time, I got together with Brett Anderson from Suede. It was funny because some Russian movie company thought it would be nice for both of us to perform a track together for one of their action movies for some reason. Some people have odd ideas, but it worked fine. It might be interesting maybe to work with some American musicians, but it’s supposed to happen in a natural way.

Thank you for your time, Ilya. I’m looking forward to seeing you in Denver. It will be good to see the band in person and hear your music live.

Absolutely, come all. It’s probably the best thing you do in your life (laugh). It’s good to get to a live gig. Come to say hi to us, and chat. It’s really a nice place, really we like it. Because we’ve traveled in the Midwest, mostly in the winter and it was something like being back in Siberia (laugh). In Colorado, the weather was nice: warm and sunshine. Right now people, ask me what places I like in America. I like California, basically for the weather. I really like Colorado. I wish we had more time to explore. Maybe get back for a holiday or something.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Concert review, The Ten Timers, The Aggrolites

6 October 2009 (Aggie Theater, Ft. Collins CO)
Hipsters, skankers, and punks, oh my! It was an interesting crowd at the Aggie: pork pie hats and mohawks. Everybody settled in for a fun night of dancing to a couple of good bands. I would have held out for the English Beat on the 7th, but I scored free tickets for this show and it turned out to be a good one (although the English Beat still rock the house).

The Ten Timers
The Ten Timers are a relatively new local band, with members from 12 Cents for Marvin and P-Nuckle. They seem to be the Aggie's go-to local band for ska and reggae: they were also scheduled to open for the English Beat and opened for Mystic Roots Band last month. It's a full line up: sax, trombone, trumpet, drums, bass, two guitars and a harmony singer.

There's a lot to enjoy here. The horns are tight, the bass shakes the room, the drums are solid but fairly versatile, and the harmony vocals are sweet as freedom. David Ochoa is a strong frontman on guitar and vocals. He's got a good range, able to cover some rap/toasting in addition to his more typical R&B style sound. Still, I wish that their female singer could have sung more lead. Her voice is strong and soulful and it would have mixed things up a bit. Also, the two guitars tended to play the same chank for much of the time, so having one throw in a little fill or alt-chank would have been nice. Of course, they could bring in some keys and really change things.

All of that is just a distraction from what they really did well, which is R&B flavored ska, with a side of funk. Ochoa could pull in that modern, boy band soul vocal and work the crowd. Their showpiece song was called (I think) Sinsemilla. This started out with a skankin' groove, shifted into a little bit of toasting and a rub-a-dub reggae beat, then shifted smoothly through several tight rhythm changes with numerous solos. This was serious fun and showcased the band's skills.

The Ten Timers are working on an EP. I'm looking forward to checking that out and seeing them again.

The Aggrolites

The Aggrolites call their music "dirty reggae". It's more ska funk and soul than reggae to me, but why quibble when it's such a hot show. Their stage presence was monster. Bass player Jeff Roffredo and guitarist Brian Dixon stalked the stage, always getting back to the mikes for their vocals. The effect was a lot like some of the old punk bands or Sha Na Na at Woodstock. Meanwhile, frontman Jesse Wagner ran around, goading the crowd up and pushing us all to a frenzy. The attitude may have been defiant punk and thrash, but the music was tight and well orchestrated.

They nailed their harmonies like those old soul records from the mid '60s. The jams ranged from the James Brown style Funky Fire to the ska punk Dirty Reggae to more classic '70s ska sounds, reminiscent of the Specials. All the while, the keys wrapped around and over the beat and the drums were relentless. Wagner worked the crowd like it was his main instrument. On songs like Pop The Trunk, he taught the crowd their part and pushed the mike on the stage hangers up front to pump their voices into the chant.

When they wrapped up the set, we rested for a second, then started the call for the encore. They came out and played two more songs. The first was sort of a Soul Man meets Mustang Sally crowd song, called A-G-G-R-O. This was followed up with an incredible ska sing along version of Don't Let Me Down by the Beatles. I was singing that one all the way home.

It was a relatively short show, but they burned enough energy for twice as long. No one felt cheated. This is a high energy band - since you can't get the original recipe Coca Cola, you'll have to settle for triple espresso black Russians.

More photos at my Flickr.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Preview - Har Mar Superstar

Har Mar Superstar (Sean Tillmann) might be a little more well known in the UK than stateside. He's starting his North American tour this week and I'll be catching him next Tuesday at the Hi Dive in Denver. He's touring behind a new CD, Dark Touches. By all accounts, his stage shows are over the top, so I'm looking forward to checking it out. His tour schedule will be taking him across North America (and beyond come late November).

Underlying the dance club aesthetic of his music is a wicked sense of humor. The story behind the first single, Tall Boy, is that he wrote it for Britney Spears, who gave it a pass. What might have been a coquettish come-on from Britney has a different sense when Har Mar Superstar sings it. The video accentuates this.

The juxtaposition of straight pop dance music, double entendres, and Har Mar's somewhat nebbish appearance is crazy enough to be quite fun. Har Mar Superstar also created the Crappy Holiday video series. These vids push the bounds of good taste (right out the window and into traffic), but they're really funny.

Catch Har Mar Superstar if you get the chance -- I'll post my review after the show next week.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

CD review - Little Dragon, Machine Dreams (2009)

Little Dragon offers a refreshing new listen. Machine dreams provides the perfect soundtrack to normal life, via the ubiquitous iPod. If you're not already living the digital life, you're missing what this music in your ears could offer: a sense of deeper import as you wander around. The basic concept is that Little Dragon plays R&B tinged electronica, but it flows deeper than that.

From the first track, A New, the electronica groove kicks in, but the R&B-style vocals take it more into a Tom Tom Club space. The vocals are distant and ethereal. The song itself is playful, creating a sonic landscape. The effect is trippy. At times, across the disc, there's a sense of detachment, which is a big part of what makes this a good personal soundtrack.

Over the course of Machine Dreams, Little Dragon evokes elements of Missing Persons (e.g. Dale Bozio vocals and a stiff retro keyboard) and Feist (sparse musical elements and simple detached vocals). There are plenty of pleasant moments, but another standout track is Come Home.

Come Home throws a syncopated beat behind a low, bassy groove, with odd synth fills. The chorus comes on synth-orchestral with plenty of space between the parts. The chord progression is engaging (no straight 1-4-5 here) and the noisy bits of the synth sound open up the song for repeated listenings.

Fortune kicks off with a verse that's musically straight out of Atlantic Rhythm Section's Imaginary Lover crossed with Simply Red. Like several of the songs here, there's a progressive rock element here, too. The mood is interesting in a low key way. The arrangement is coherent, progressing through the set of changes: pleasantly surprising, but inevitable.

I'm sipping on a margarita. It's sweet, but the tart, tangy, earth taste still surprises.

Further listening
Tom Tom Club, Genius of Love
Missing Persons, Destination Unknown
Feist, 1 2 3 4
Atlanta Rhythm Section, Imaginary Lover