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

Monday, June 29, 2009

CD review - Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown

I have a soft place in my heart for bands I think of as "Snotty Boys with Guitars". The guitars part is pretty straightforward, but the snotty part is every bit as important: there's a bit of sneer, contempt, and wit. "Boys" isn't meant to be sexist, but to indicate the sort of juvenile approach the band takes. There are scads of these bands about: Lit, Blink 182, the Refreshments, the Ramones, even my favorite German band, Die Ärzte. They're often categorized as punk, but there's always a strong pop music sensibility, too.

Green Day has been one of my more recent favorites in this little sub-genre. They've even proved that within the relatively simplistic world of three or four chord songs great art can be made. American Idiot was a masterpiece with a grander view than single songs. It's hard for any band to follow a great album with something that measures up artistically. There are really two paths: build on the last one to carry that vision forward or turn around and do something completely different. 21st Century Breakdown takes the first path, which means it's always going to be measured against American Idiot. It's a good album that suffers from that comparison.

Like it's big brother, 21st Century Breakdown has the grinding double and triple tracked guitars, declamatory singing, and grand musical gestures. It follows a similar structural approach of songs feeding into each other, with lyrical and musical cross references. Unfortunately, its story is less coherent and the songs don't have the impact of Jesus of Suburbia or She's a Rebel. Even though the new album tries a little too hard, they do manage to evoke some of the grandeur of Styx or Moving Pictures-era Rush. This is partly from the style of the arrangement, but also from the chorused, reverb-laden vocals backed by a wall of grinding guitars.

Green Day shares a lot of their influences, whether intentional or not. Christian's Inferno is a high tempo version of Bauhaus. The verses in East Jesus Nowhere recall Alice Cooper's The Black Widow. Radiohead even lurks behind Restless Heart Syndrome. They manage to avoid sounding derivative because they have a strong enough aesthetic that carries through.

If you can put the baggage of American Idiot out of your mind, there are some good songs that stand out. Know Your Enemy is a bouncy, thrashy anthem. Green Day has written this song before, but I always enjoy it. Chainsaw guitars, a dusting of '80s synth, and their patented dynamic of stripping down to just a simple guitar and voice for part of the last chorus.

Before the Lobotomy reaches for a little of the glory of American Idiot. Hints of the Who filtered through the Knack anchor the pop bridge (A Quick One, While He's Away meets Good Girls Don't). And some of that Rush influence I mentioned. The song has a nice progression of sections that holds my ear each time it comes up. In comparison, The Static Age has more of that Knack sound, but the song isn't nearly as well written.

Murder City is another strong track. It paints a great scene of a lawless land that's falling apart. The energy is manic and it's full of great phrases that grab the ear:
Desperate but not hopeless
I feel so useless in the Murder City
Desperate but not helpless
The clock strikes midnight in the Murder City
Any song that makes me want to sing along by the second chorus gets my vote.

American Eulogy bookends the album, reprising the fake radio broadcast of the first song. But after that's out of the way, they kick into the anthemic rock they do the best. Namechecking Christian and Gloria (the character threads that run through many of the songs), this is another one of those sectional songs that feels more like a medley. It does capture that breakdown feel, though.

If you like Green Day, you'll enjoy this. There are no major surprises; it's just not as stellar as American Idiot. Even though Green Day isn't really a "stout" band, I'd pair this with Tooth Sheaf Stout, which has a complementary roast bitterness.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

CD review - Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is

Except for some of the language, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is could have easily come out in the early '70s. Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears dig deep for a heavy retro soul vibe. The recording and mix take you back, too, with a full band/single take feel. Name your favorite classic soul band and you can probably hear a little bit of them in there. On the surface, the whole package screams, "Soul!". But on a closer listen, there's a bit more nuance from the mix of influences and there's a little something missing.

Most of the songs feature Joe whipping out his strongest James Brown impression with hints of Ike Turner. It's a decent impression, especially on songs like Sugarfoot, but he often slides into just slurring out his lines. The band is more schizophrenic. For the most part, they hold down a solid, horn-based soul funk -- something like the J.B.'s (James Brown's backing band) crossed with Booker T and the MGs. Several of the songs (Big Booty Woman, Master Sold My Baby) remind me of the Animals (e.g. We Gotta Get Out of This Place). On the bluesier numbers, like Please, Part Two, they channel Big Brother and the Holding Company

The album kicks off with Gunpowder, with a wicked blues intro sliding into a solid funk groove. The rhythm and tasteful guitar snippets sound like a very up-tempo G. Love. This leads perfectly into Sugarfoot. This is where the band shines. crossing a Superstition repeating riff with a solid James Brown declamatory funk. The bass rolls with that bouncy precision that Bootsy Collins always provided.

Another great funk blues groove is the instrumental, Humpin'. The horns are what make this work the most, although there's also some nice organ work. The instrumentation says Booker T, but it doesn't have Booker's looseness. Even so, it's a fun ride.

That describes this album, too. It's a lot of fun, especially the first couple of tracks. Without a doubt, Black Joe Lewis would burn down the house in a live show. Unfortunately, it's impossible to reach back and grab a moment in musical time. The songs we remember from back then are the gems that survived all this time. Tell 'Em tries to reach those heights and can't quite pull it off. They're all good musicians with a real love of '60s and '70s soul, but they're trying a little too hard. They're more like students of soul than masters. A few more albums down the road and they may develop a stronger voice.

So, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is isn't at the top of my rotation, but because of the energy and attitude, it's still in the mix. Sip a little Courvoisier (you deserve it) and shake it baby, one more time.

Monday, June 22, 2009

DVD review - Dengue Fever, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong

When I reviewed Dengue Fever's Venus on Earth (2008), I talked a bit about how they formed. Venus was their third album, fitting into a logical progression from the Cambodian covers of the self-titled first album through 2005's Escape From Dragon House, which had more originals. The newly released documentary, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong is sort of a step backwards from the more fully realized sound of Venus. That makes perfect sense; the documentary chronicles a 2005 band visit to Cambodia and the Dengue Fever's original music here is mostly from Escape. The soundtrack also includes a mix of older Khmer rock songs, some as the original version and some covered by Dengue Fever. The package includes the DVD of the documentary along with some extra material and a CD selection of some of the soundtrack material.

The band's visit was only about 10 days long, but they fit a lot in, including a TV appearance, attending the Bon Om Thook Water Festival, several shows, recording sessions with Cambodian master musicians, and a visit to a traditional music school. Sleepwalking follows a format of showing band performances, archive footage of old Cambodia, interviews with band members, and footage showing the band interacting with Cambodians. For the most part, the interviews are focused on the band's reactions. Additionally, though, there was an interview with the music school teacher and the extras included the band interviewing the master musicians. Listening to the masters play the traditional folk instruments is quite interesting. In general, the sound is jangly and meditatively repetitious with lots of drone notes. It's similar to West African music, like Touré Kunda. Taken as a whole, the documentary is structured to give us a sense of Cambodia and see the band's reaction, sort of in parallel with the music. There's a lot of history here, too, of the times and music before the Khmer Rouge rule, as well as the dark genocide of that rule. There is a clear sense of a culture that is still rebounding from that loss.

Still, the fundamental question raised by Sleepwalking Through the Mekong (and Dengue Fever's existence) is one of artistic merit: does an American band (even with a Cambodian singer) have the right to appropriate another culture's musical tradition to create their own unique songs? The documentary approaches the issue obliquely. The band mentions people's positive reactions to their music and the documentary shows people enjoying the shows, but it's not until late in the movie that the question is even asked. And even then, it's just tossed out and dismissed. This deserves more attention.

On the one hand, mainstream American music has adroitly appropriated the trappings of other cultures for commercial success. The "white" rerecordings of race records of the '50s (e.g. Pat Boone, etc) illustrate this. In a more modern example, it can be argued that Paul Simon's Graceland introduced many people to South African music, but it's also a watered down version. To a more familiar audience, musical appropriation looks like a casual foray into a culture without true understanding.

Still, to take the other side, there are musicians like Ry Cooder, who have immersed themselves in other musical cultures to extend their own. Ultimately, Dengue Fever falls more into this category. Through their music, their press interviews, and this film, they go to great lengths to share a love they have developed for the pioneers of Khmer Rock, like Sinn Sisamouth. This intent is what gives their music more depth. Another point in their favor is that Khmer Rock is itself a cultural appropriation of American surf and psychedelic rock into Cambodian culture. So, a return trip seems fair.

The sense of Cambodian heat and the traffic scenes reminded me a little of my visit to Bangalore India. In that spirit, I'll raise a glass of light lager (say, Angkor beer) to an intriguing country.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Concert review - Glass Ceiling, Lez Zeppelin

18 June 2009 (Aggie Theater, Ft Collins CO)
You might remember my earlier article about cover songs, with its mention of tribute bands. Given that, it's a fair question to ask why I'd go see a tribute band like Lez Zeppelin. As I mentioned in that article, the art and artifice of an entertainment event are the main draws. The two bands I saw last night played a lot of cover songs between them and the whole point was to just immerse myself into the groove of the moment.

Glass Ceiling
This local trio plays a diverse set of cover songs. Like Lez Zeppelin, it's an all female band, but I'm not really sure how relevant that is. They're all supremely talented musicians that filled out the room with the sound of a much larger band. They bounced around classic rock, funk, blues, and hip hop. Drummer Audree D keeps a steady beat without sounding overly simple. She also sings lead on many of the songs. Hilary is a fairly showy bass player, with a nice melodic approach. Linda, the guitar player, has an understated stage presence, but some tremendous chops. She also sings many of the lead vocals.

The band kicked off with Stevie Wonder's Superstition, which powered right into Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile. Even though these were covers, Glass Ceiling made them their own, emphasizing the soul of the Superstition and updating the sound of Voodoo Chile to have more of a metal grind. A trio is always a good test of musicianship: there's room to fill out the parts, but it can be tough to keep things tight. Glass Ceiling had no problem here. The fluid joy of the guitar riffs were easily tracked by a dirty bass sound, with it all anchored by the rhythmic pounding of the drums. Aside from playing some Jimi, my other favorite moments were Carlos Santana's Smooth and a funked out version of Sugar Hill Gang's Rapper's Delight. Great leads and energy, some nice breaks, what more could you ask for?

Coming back to the gender issue, it's an interesting question. For the most part, I didn't think it mattered. They simply rocked and that was enough. The only thing that gender might have affected was my interpretation of Linda's stage presence. Although she plays with confidence and has incredible technique, she didn't make much eye contact with the audience and she seemed to fold into her guitar. This was a stark contrast to the stereotypical hot guitarist. Sure, plenty of shoe gazer bands do the same thing without being feminine, so it's probably more of a bias on my part. And this is not to say that the band was shy and reserved. The stage show had some flashy elements, like Audree drumming on the guitar while Linda fretted and Hilary helping out on a lead guitar part. So, it was fun to watch.

Catch Glass Ceiling if you get the chance. You won't be disappointed.

Lez Zeppelin
I've heard that Steph Paynes doesn't like to call Lez Zeppelin a "tribute band". She prefers the term "she-incarnation". Certainly she does her best to evoke Jimmy Page on stage: she's got the clothing and all of the mannerisms. But better than that, she burns up the guitar. The rest of the band doesn't go quite as far to capture the original personalities, but it's still an homage to Led Zeppelin's memory. At some level, it's impossible to recreate the old Led Zeppelin experience because the scene itself was a big contributor to the mythos, much like with the Grateful Dead. Still, the band does their best to reach for a spontaneous feel within the constraints of the Led Zeppelin's style. This is an important difference between a tribute band and a cover band.

This was my first time to see the band and it's not the original line up. Paynes replaced her other bandmates starting with this tour. Everyone has settled into their parts, so there weren't any rough edges showing, but I'm sure it has affected the verisimilitude. Lead singer PJ Flowers sang more like Janis Joplin or Linda Perry, but sometimes Robert Plant could even sound a bit like Janis. Leesa Squyres couldn't beat the drums as hard as Bonzo, but she made a good effort. Jessica Fagre does a decent job on bass and keyboards, nailing the parts.

Even though I think they missed their own target a bit, it was still a rocking show. They kicked off with Immigrant Song, which immediately got the crowd going. The band played more or less non-stop for the rest of the night. They hit much of what you could ask for except for Stairway to Heaven, which they've apparently banned from their setlist. A drawn out version of No Quarter, Good Times, Bad Times, and Whole Lotta Love were the high points of the show. Steph Paynes had all of the expected guitars, including a Gibson double neck. Like Jimmy, she even played the theremin on a couple of songs. The only thing missing was playing the guitar with a violin bow, but that's just nitpicking.

They closed out their encore with Ramble On and came out to greet the fans. The audience was wrung out but happy as they headed out. Though it wasn't the same as seeing Led Zeppelin, it was a serious rock and roll show. The band demanded our attention and Steph stalked the stage, posturing like the Rock God she aspires to be. The songs sounded both right and alive in a way that some cover versions miss. Kick back some whiskey and Coke and let the head banging commence.More photos on my Flickr.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

CD Review - Jill Sobule, California Years

Most likely, you've heard of Jill Sobule because of her 1995 song, I Kissed A Girl (unrelated to Katy Perry's more recent song of that name). She had a couple of major label albums that had some great songwriting and wonderful music, but were not big commercial successes. Ultimately, she was more or less abandoned by the industry or at least the record promoting section. She's managed to make some interesting friends, like Julia Sweeney, Steve Earle, and Billy Bragg. Unlike most of the other one hit wonders, Jill went on to build a solid fan base online and with shows on either coast. Much of her success is tied to freely sharing her music and interacting directly with her fans. On her last album, she polled fans on which songs they wanted to see end up on the album. On California Years, she took it a step further and asked her fans to fund the album. She offered a number of pledge levels with different premiums, but the bigger motivator was that her fans want to see her succeed.

As a writer, Jill tends to split much of her time between making wry observations and digging deeper into an autobiographical, bittersweet vein. California Years leans more towards introspective melancholia, but it's not a bummer of an album. Songs like Bloody Valentine and League of Failures tap into a deeply wounded place, but each seeks for redemption, either from trying yet again or from embracing the situation. My favorite track on the album, Empty Glass, is also a sadder song. It's a collaboration with Elise Thoron (Prozak and the Platypus). The song is intense with a staccato rhythmic drive paired with some beautiful moving poetry. The sound reminds me a bit of early U2 or maybe some of Eleni Mandell's songs. There is such a sense of anger, pain, and loss. Note that the arrangement on the disk is lusher than the one I've linked to.

That brings us to production values. Don Was produced California Years and it sounds quite different from her last one (Underdog Victorious). Most of the songs start with a fairly spare acoustic arrangement which then build as other band instruments filter in. Drums are often pushed into the background when they're present and quite a few of the songs have a nice touch of steel guitar. The building approach and spare percussion provide a smoother bridge between her solo performances and a fuller band feel. While she occasionally performs with other musicians, this feels truer to Jill's intrinsic sound.

As far as wry observations, there are several examples. Palm Springs delivers an autobiographical note on searching for inspiration and change, but looking in the wrong place. Nothing To Prove hits a wonderful balance between standing up to the L.A. music scene and denying the chip on her shoulder. Wendell Lee covers her failed relationships crossed with the perils of looking up old flames.

The disc also includes a mix of familiar songs from the last few years (San Francisco, While You Were Sleeping, Where is Bobbie Gentry, and Bloody Valentine) as well as some newer songs. Pair this with a good California beer, like Anchor Liberty.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


I just wanted to catch up a little. I've got a nice stack of new things to review, including Jill Sobule's California Years, Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown, Los Amigos Invisibles, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, and a Dengue Fever DVD called Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. That's enough to keep me busy for a while.

I don't have much on my concert calendar right now, but I am thinking about going to see the tribute band Lez Zepplin. They're supposed to be pretty good, so I'll probably give them a try.

In other news, I've started looking for a different band situation. In the next week or so, I've got an audition to play guitar with a reggae band, which has some potential, though I haven't heard them yet. There are a few other possibilities, too. I'm excited anyway to find a musical situation where I can get out and play again.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Concert review - Laurie Anderson

6 June 2009 (Lincoln Center, Ft Collins CO)

Laurie Anderson has gone through a number of phases. She's been a performance artist, a storyteller, a singer/musician, a visual artist, a writer, and an inventor. Listening to 1984's United States Live, she was focused on storytelling and creating a certain kind of mood that supported the deeper observations her stories were hinting at. Then she went through more of a musical interlude, with Mister Heartbreak, Strange Angels, and Bright Red. Recently, she seems to be moving back to more spoken word performances with backing music. This show was called "Burning Leaves: A Retrospective of Songs and Stories."

Before the show, they played a bit of new age music: some piano, then keyboard work with a whistling synthesizer melody. The stage was dark except for a few dozen candles, giving a sense of depth, but revealing little except for her podium/control center and the silhouette of an easy chair. This zen-like simplicity still managed to build some expectation.

The show began with some layered violin parts triggered by her violin controller. This built into a sort of Baba O'Riley fugue. Shortly after that, she drifted into her techno-primitive storytelling mode. She uses a fair amount of technology: synthesizers, computers, looping, and her own violin-based controller to create a certain kind of receptivity. But underlying this are the same kind of techniques any oral-history passing, aboriginal story teller would use: repetitive phrasing and rhythm, and fables whose moral and focus relate to issues we face today. With her sardonic delivery and ironic observations, it might be easy to dismiss these pieces as Seinfeld-esque riffs, but there's a deepness to all of this that adds relevance rather than strict humor.

The music part of this was mostly a matter of simple loops and triggered sounds. There were keyboard washes, pre-recorded parts, and simple riffs. She did play Maybe If I Fall, but this was more of an interlude than a full musical expression. The real focus was on the stories.

Some of these were familiar to me: The Ugly One With the Jewels, Aristophanes’s The Birds, and From the Air from Homeland. There were other quite odd observations, especially a few from her show Happiness. Whether it was about her time with a dysfunctional Amish family, her anti-Zen river trip, or working at McDonald's, these tales flirted with irony but the point was more about unreasonable expectations and how our minds (and lives) work. Or don't.

The most interesting of these related her experience of being in the children's ward of a hospital, recovering from a broken back. She told the whole story with a sense of exasperation at the doctor who seemed clueless and the frustrating volunteers. But the twist came with her own recognition that she's told this story often as a way of relating who she is and suddenly realizing that she had forgotten part of the story: the part of the story that included the other suffering children. This omission is part of what we do when we tell stories; part of how we wrap them up into a tidy package and make a point. But these stories are not the truth. They are a way we lie to ourselves. "Everytime you tell a story, you forget it more."

So what are we to make of a whole night of storytelling? It's the kind of question that lends itself to strong Irish coffee and stronger debate.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Just a quick heads up. I'm going back and editing my blog entries where I have photos to include a link to more concert photos. I'll be adding these links as I upload the sets. Please add a comment if you think this is useful.