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

Friday, October 29, 2010

CD review - Various Artists, U.N. Disco (2010)

Kingem Records' has released a heartfelt tribute to the bygone Euro dance music of the 1980s. Italo disco, as it is more properly known, was one of the earlier forms of electronic dance music. U.N. Disco is a blend of old and new, updating the earlier inspiration into a Neo-Italo sound.

Organizer Mark Zonda drafted his manifesto and describes it in the liner notes:
The rules to follow to be part of the project were simple:
* lyrics had to deal with the future, the Celtic world, Russia, Japan, USA or nightlife fascinations, and above all not necessarily having to make sense.
* Rhythm had to be on 2/2 with a hit and a clap,
* the artists has to take part to the project moonlighting with a made up name related to a female Italian name or a reference to a classic book or tale.
Each band participating brought their own take on the classic style, but the overall tone of U.N. Disco is not so far from modern dance music. This is largely because disco elements have been warmly embraced throughout dance pop lately. Some of the bands strayed from the purely electronic sound of the original Italo disco, throwing in a touch of guitar or bass, but most of the tracks preserve a dance pop/synthpop sound.

The album starts off with Into the Night by "Silvia Paradiso" (Friday Bridge). The sound is jaunty synthpop. The breathy vocals are somewhere in the Missing Persons/Berlin style, while the music features some nice keyboard work. The lyrics also set the tone of looking back: "There's a place called Paderborn, in case that you forgot. Filled with moonlight, filled with promise...". The guitar part fits more with early American disco, but that's a small quibble.

One of the prime exemplars of the style was Hot Times by "Barry Bianco with Vanessa London" (Carlos Valderrama of Fitness Forever). The tongue in cheek Barry White reference shows they're not taking this too seriously, but the music calls that into question. It's a tight dance pop groove with a perfect disco bass line. Despite the steady drive of the beat, there's a languid feel. The male and female vocals have a good chemistry, each providing a different feel: serious and cool versus playful and expressive. If I had to pick the perfect Italo disco tagline, I'd be fairly tempted by "Intercontinental playboy, super macho".

Another interesting track is Camoflage Detection by "Nitelife USA" (Sean Rawls from Still Flyin'). It starts out as a reflective arpeggio sliding into a sparse synthpop progression. Before long, some experimental elements creep in. The vocals slide in and out of a hoarse falsetto and the song builds into a low-fi, clipped audio sound before it eventually self destructs. It's a story song, with interesting lyrics.

Zonda's first rule is probably one part of what made U.N. Disco an appealing album. The lyrical content through the songs was a lot more interesting than the fluff I think of in American disco. Musically, the modern dance pop sounds worked well, too. I'm not sure what the appropriate drink is, perhaps a Campari martini...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

CD review - Red Mass, Red Mass (2009)

Anarchy as artistic technique. Red Mass is a pick up punk band out of Montreal consisting of whoever is in the mood to play with Roy Vucino (aka Choyce). The uncommitted lineup, the experimental tangents, and rapid mood swings are all part of the plan on this EP. The core aesthetic is a garage punk sound, with psycho undertones (as opposed to psychedelic ones).

Of course, because there are no real rules, the first couple of songs cover a Pere Ubu influenced experimental rock sound in contrast to the other 5 tracks. The first song, Saturn, combines a David Thomas style vocal and music that tightropes between Pere Ubu and Roky Erickson. It's quirky and retro. The frantic energy is great. The second track adds a Radio Birdman vibe to the mix. Overdriven bass and guitar set up a cathartic level of noise.

The remaining tracks start in garage punk, but then push the boundaries. There's plenty of thrash and choppy drive, invoking the MC5, the Damned, a host of classic punk bands. At the same time, Red Mass pulls in a lot of experimental elements, such as the static and noise layering in I'm On Fire or the drum machine under Success For Crime. Another element of the anarchy is the occasional use of funny sounding, affected vocals. Success For Crime is the strongest example, where the vocals make it more of an impression of punk.

Top tracks are the aforementioned Saturn and the simple, pound it out, West Coast punk of Party Till I Die. Some good old frat house suicide punch is a good accompaniment.

Monday, October 25, 2010

CD review - Tumbledown, Empty Bottle (2010)

The sound on Empty Bottle is familiar. Tumbledown adds a country twist to that special genre in my pantheon of music: "snotty boys with guitars". I ought to judge them solely on their own merits, but it's hard to separate their sound from one of my favorite old bands, the Refreshments.

I fell in love with the Refreshments the first time I heard Banditos. They had tight harmonies, a driving beat, and a saturated guitar sound. Frontman Roger Clyne sneered out songs of sheepish losers who fell to forces they just couldn't understand. After the Refreshments broke up, Clyne moved on to a great solo career, maturing as an artist. While I love his new work, I miss the immaturity and attitude the Refreshments summoned.

With Empty Bottle, the first couple of songs set Tumbledown's credentials as a country rock band. But then, the third track, Meet the Devil, triggers the comparison to the Refreshments. It's a simple guitar rocker, choppy and full sounding with a layer of lead guitar to smooth it over. Mike Herrera has that same know-it-all tone that Roger Clyne sings, but a little lower and raspier. When he sings, "I never start from the beginning, I go straight to the end. Always looking for an angle, for a back door in", I hear the same sentiments that the Refreshments could always tap.

This continues with the story song, Arrested in El Paso, which has a nice hard rock start that settles into a rollicking western-tinged rock.
They got my worldly possessions strewn about the floor
And I don't think we're gonna make the show no more
So, don't you mess with Texas, from experience I know
And steer far clear of the US Border Patrol
A classic rock guitar solo is the icing on this cake. Songs like these satisfy my cravings for that Refreshements sound.

Tumbledown throws in enough country rock elements to step beyond the Refreshments comparisons. They have a clear love of traditional country that comes out in songs like She's in Texas (and I'm Insane) ("...I run to her like water down a drain") and Drink to Forget or in the steel tones of guest Todd Beene on Bad News. They may not be perfectly biographical, but their songs paint a picture of blue collar guys just doing their best. That's a big part of what classic country has always been and Tumbledown captures that.

At the same time, Tumbledown clearly gets their "snotty boys" sound from Mike Herrera's other band, MxPx, which is squarely in that New Found Glory brand of thrashy rock. The mix of rock and country may sometimes pull Empty Bottle more into the direction of the Beat Farmers than the Refreshments, but it's a good solid rocker. Line up a shot and a beer and give them a listen.

Friday, October 22, 2010

CD review - Parlovr, Hell / Heaven / Big / Love (2010)

Hell / Heaven / Big / Love is the new EP from Montreal alt rockers Parlovr (pronounced "parlour"). The EP is scattershot, reflecting the open ended process the band used putting this together. They started with one song, Hell, Heaven and then built the remaining tracks in the studio. Each song has its own mood or moods, creating a deliberate lack of continuity. I like the artistic statement, but it's undermined by the EP format, which tends to be weak on continuity anyway. That said, the songs are interesting and full-bodied with sound. Fragments of Modest Mouse and the Pixies crunch underfoot.

According to the band, Hell, Heaven is about growing up in the Middle East. The lyrics are fuzzed and it's hard to pull out all the words. The anthemic chorus transcends words anyway. "Hell, heaven" is enough to understand. The song starts with the patented indie rock intro of a beat, jangly guitars, and wordless backup vocals building into a crescendo. The layers of staccato guitar riffs interlocking create a path to the song proper. I really like the low foundation of bassy synth supporting a pair of contrapuntal guitar parts.

Big Love is more of a post punk/synth rock groove. Shards of Depeche Mode, New Order, and a host of other bands have been swept to the side, but not out of sight. The song is simple as it modulates between two chords. They throw in a single chord bridge to change the pace. The surprise ending during a sudden '80s rock style drum break solves the problem of "where do we go from here?"

Hell / Heaven / Big / Love veers into power pop next, with Where is the Sun. It's jaunty and fun. The bridge/ending vamps on a low vocal that's almost a guttural groan, which builds into a chaotic garage groove.

The EP wraps up with Tehching Hsieh, about the Chinese born performance artist. The music bounces in an upbeat, Adam Ant post-punk sound (a bit like Antmusic). The lyrics describe his life and art, starting with his arrival jumping ship to America. The chorus is wide open and repetitious, balancing the beat of the verses. The vocals are a bit experimental, with laughing and wordless parts.

True to their vision, Parlovr doesn't try to provide or claim a narrative or musical theme to Hell / Heaven / Big / Love. They want each song to be taken on its own merits. As such, the songs are decent, but lack impact - like a serviceable amber ale.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

CD review - Beats Antique, Blind Threshold (2010)

Is it cultural appropriation or a creative bridge of cultures? Social commentators can have that debate, but I'm happy to sit back and enjoy Beats Antique's new album, Blind Threshold. The music is a synthesis of two divergent perspectives -- electronic music combines with culturally centered musical traditions. Most of the melodies sound Arabic, but there are other African tonalities, along with Gypsy and Indian grooves. The combination of those musical roots with house, trance and glitch elements create an interesting world fusion vibe. The end result is intriguing while remaining fairly accessible. The mix shouldn't seem so strange, though, given that electronic music has been embraced throughout the world, with many cultures creating their own hybrids.

Beats Antique is centered around three producers: Zoe Jakes, David Satori, and "Sidecar" Tommy Cappel. Their beginning is rooted in Jakes' belly dancing work, which explains the prevalence of Arabic and gypsy sounds on their albums. In performance, the band presents both dance and music.

Blind Threshold grabbed me from the very beginning. Egyptic sets out a fairly traditional sounding Arabic belly dancing groove. After a couple of minutes to set that mood, it mixes in electronic sounds, starting with a deeper bassline part. From that point, the two voices - traditional and modern - race one another through the track. First one pulls ahead, then the other. The course alternates between frenetic energy and trance-like breaks. The shifts of tempo and instrumentation are pleasantly disorienting.

The next track throws in a change-up. The foundation is African, calling Malian guitarist Ali Farke Touré to mind. The jangly guitar work provides a counterpoint to the big beat groove. The heavy electronic bottom end gives this a Kashmir feel, but even with the modern electronic sound, this is closer to the source than Led Zeppelin. Spiderbite also works the African groove, but runs it through a thick, glitch-driven filter. The organic guitar sound fluidly weaves through all of the electronic throb, at times taking on a David Gilmour sound. These two songs travel from similar starting points to very different destinations, based on a different balance between the elements.

Other tracks pull in diverse sounds from Gypsy music, klezmer, and Indian music, in addition to the Arabic sounds. The electronic side is often glitchy, with elements of trance and house.

There are a couple of stranger fits. The oddest is Merry Go Round. The sparse, off-kilter arrangement sounds influenced by the old track by outsider musician, Wild Man Fischer (Merry Go Round). It mashes up that source idea with a spoken word version of Bruce Springsteen's Blinded By The Light, to mixed effect.

Beats Antique has been accused of selling out for including a track featuring John Popper of Blues Traveler. Sure, it might seem like a blatant attempt to extend their audience appeal, but the track doesn't compromise their sound. There Ya Go is not so different from Spiderbite. It starts with a jazzy vibe, but sets up a similar blues tonal space, where the harmonica takes the role of the slide guitar. It's not as ethnically exotic, but the electronic elements are just as strong and interesting. Hopper's harp fits well with the sax and other jazz sounds in this funky groove.

Blind Threshold's greatest sin might be that it is so accessible. Hipsters will certainly latch onto the Popper collaboration as proof that Beats Antique are losing their edge. But scenesters are fickle fans anyway. The bottom line is that their music continues to be interesting and fun. Think of this album as pushing boundaries, like chai mixed with a shot of Kahlua.

Monday, October 18, 2010

CD review - Chocolate Genius Inc, Swansongs (2010)

Marc Anthony Thompson is Chocolate Genius Inc. The name is whimsical, but he takes his songs seriously. Swansongs, the last in an extended trilogy of albums, is carefully constructed to let each track achieve maximum impact

The music is rooted in classic soul, but Thompson has a thoroughly modern approach that's completed unrelated to today's pop soul/R&B. These songs show the difference between his artistic engineering and the industry's seamlessly slick production. Call it indie soul, but whatever it's called, these songs have weight and meaning.

Polanski, the first single, is a tiny gem. The lyrics use Roman Polanski's exile as a touchstone in this song about leaving and loss. There's a patina of nostalgia and regret, but it also hints at a dream of freedom -- maybe just an unobtainable ideal, but an unspoken hope. I could list the whole lyrics, but I'll settle on the beginning:
I'm gettin' on that plane, I ain't comin' back
And just like Roman, said Bobby Black
And that don't matter any more...anyway

Tell my one friend to keep my one thing
And tell my wife to sell my ring
Cause we don't matter any more, anyway.
The music is simple and soulful, starting out with a piano, an acoustic guitar, and understated bass and drums. Echoed touches of organ and steel guitar add a reflective sentimentality, but Thompson avoids even a whiff of sappiness. The echo is especially subtle on the vocals. Certain words and phrases linger, but it's not uniform.

Enough For You is a bluesy soul with a Tom Waits feel. Piano accents balance a tremolo soaked guitar. It's moody, with a mix of regret and faint defiance. The low fi mix is like a sepia tone, giving a touch of distance. The guitar solo is conversational as it slips its snide comments in.
And I am half the man that you suggested
But I am twice the man that you signed on to
When all of these troubles get accepted
Baby, I hope that you'll find enough for you
Swansongs is full of perfect moments. There are sound collages, a range of emotional perspectives, and moments both clear and obscure. As the eleven songs deal with a fractured view of Thompson's father, you hear both the bad voice in the back of your brain that whispers doubt (Lump) and the casual ego of the lover you wish you had (Kiss Me).

Let a snifter of cognac warm your throat as Chocolate Genius Inc warms your soul.

Friday, October 15, 2010

CD review - Guster, Easy Wonderful (2010)

It's been a long four year wait for Guster fans. The new album, Easy Wonderful, is full of well executed, catchy tunes. On the whole, it's happier and poppier than Ganging Up On The Sun, but it's not a total disconnect. A lot of the new songs follow the model set in C'mon: optimistic and hopeful sounding music crossed with ambivalent lyrics. On Easy Wonderful this robs many of the lyrics of their sting.

For example, on This Is How It Feels To Have a Broken Heart, the lyrics talk about the "darkest day" when the singer was dumped. The music is somewhere between Abba and Stevie Wonder's My Cherie Amour. The synth washes, dance beat, and mix all evoke the disco era, but this is saved by instrumentation. Banjo, percussion, and a harmonica/melodica sound go a long way towards breaking the disco spell. Still, the upbeat sound is at odds with the self-pitying lyrics. It even misses irony.

Continuing on the cheery side, the ukulele on What You Call Love turns it into a beach sing along. The vocals are tight and the arrangement is well balanced and supports the lyrics better, in part because the song's perspective is more assertive:
What you call love, is just urgency
What you call love, a place you turn in an emergency
But you give up, when it's not what you want it to be
But that's not love, what you call love
The subtle horns hiding in the background step forward during the bridge to add their brightness.

Easy Wonderful is full of nicely crafted touches. One of the loosest moments comes in the solo for Bad Bad World. The song itself is a tight, piano driven groove and it has some really sweet David Bowie moments (Sound and Vision from Low). That solo, though, is unselfconscious and unconcerned with posturing. It sounds effortless and free. It's a nice bit of icing for this catchy ear worm.

My other favorite song is Jesus and Mary. The dark groove and lyrics cooperate well, making this track stand out as more honest somehow. The verses are vaguely ska, like old Clash or Madness. The chorus opens up into a lusher sound, which provides a balancing openness. The bass and drums drive the song and eventually build a delicious tension -- "So, maybe let's go start a war...".

It's easier to hear some of the influences on Easy Wonderful than on Guster's earlier albums: the Paul Simon feel of Hercules, the Trey Anastasio feel of Well, and channeling Badfinger for Jonah. The overall effect is vaguely retro pop music delivered with an indie rock mindset. It's easy to listen to repeatedly and the songs are all fairly good. But that uniformity makes it harder for specific songs to stand out. The shift to a darker sound is a big reason why Jesus and Mary does make a stronger impression.

I'll pair Easy Wonderful with a Becks Dark lager: it's tasty but not too challenging. Sometimes, that's exactly what you want.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

CD review - Shadow Shadow Shade, Shadow Shadow Shade (2010)

Shadow Shadow Shade's self-titled debut is short but richly faceted. Their geographical center lies somewhere in indie rock land but, like Schroedinger's Cat, you won't know exactly where they'll be until you actually observe what they're playing on any given track. The tracks wind through psychedelia, retro indie folk rock, and progressive rock. Several of the songs explore movement based structure rather than a simple verse-chorus. The constants are the richly developed drum parts and the vocal arrangements that pull a number of close harmonies together, layering male and female vocals together into a thick consonant sound.

Shadow Shadow Shade kicks off with the multi-part Is This A Tempest In the Shape of a Bell. The title section owes a debt to Wilco's I Got You (At the End of the Century) but the parts build a great edifice than their roots. The indie rock of the main section drifts back and forth through a psychedelic veil before sliding into a sparser post punk reverie which comes back to a swirl of indie rock. Finally, the end collapses into the kind of noise experiment that Wilco played with on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, albeit with more interesting vocal layering.

From here, Shadow Shadow Shade visits a mournful folk sound in Dark of Heather, an indie rock anthem on Say Yes that's reminiscent of Trip Shakespeare, and a shimmery indie pop groove for Did Not the Lights Go Out For You?. The lyrics on Did Not the Lights follow an oblique narrative style, but the song satisfies despite the open ended nature of the words. Then again, they tell us, "This doesn't mean anything, I'm just being paranoid."

My favorite song is Line 'Em Up, which flows like King Crimson's Epitaph. The processional rhythm, the spikes of guitar, the backing vocal sound all come together to take me back to the first time I heard In the Court of the Crimson King. There's a sense of inevitability as the song builds from its dreamy start to its powerful conclusion. The raw, prolonged "It's all over now" resets the mood to setup the reflective start of Amputee.

Any of the moments on Shadow Shadow Shade evoke something different and each has its own sound. Still, the album as a whole flows easily without jarring. The biggest problem is that it comes to an end all too quickly. The band is like a good quality rum, which is fine on its own, but shines differently depending on what you bring to it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

CD review - The Gay Blades, Savages (2010)

Savages has a touch of "snotty boys with guitars", especially on the first track, Rock N' Roll (Part I), but it's infused with an overwrought expressive pop. That first track, which has nothing to do the Gary Glitter song, has rich wailing guitars and a heavy grind. It's dirty rock and roll. The vocals have the perfect amount of sneering attitude: "I'm gettin' while the gettin's good."

Then the Gay Blades don't so much drop the ball as decide they want to change the game. Try To Understand is much more typical of the album. It took me a while to figure out why it sounded so familiar. They've effectively reworked Thin Lizzy's Vagabond of the Western World. The music is retro pop, with a straight rock bounce. But the vocals are affected and over the top.The effect is like a stage musical piece; there's a disconnect between the fraught vocals, the bouncy pop, and the light weight lyrics.

The songs thrown in some surprise moves, with genre jumping bridges and a few good dance beats. There is also a moment of cognitive dissonance with November Fight Song, which lays down sado-masochistic lyrics to the changes of Gentle On My Mind. Throughout Savages, the vocals are overly emotional and heavy. At their best, it's a bit like Freddie Mercury if he fronted a more straightforward rock band. Or maybe what the Violent Femmes could do if they'd had a better ear for pop.

Despite the vocal affectation, Savages is still quite listenable. The tunes are catchy and the drummer has a really nice touch for propelling the songs forward. If the singer were as subtle, the Gay Blades would be a better band. To my ear, the harder edged songs stand up the best: Rock N Roll (Part I), Why Winter in Detroit?, and Burns and Shakes. Drop by their site and give them a listen. Wine coolers all around!

Friday, October 8, 2010

CD review - Grandchildren, Everlasting (2010)

Dreamy, open musical arrangements are infected as complex polyrhythms go viral. Grandchildren build their experimental pop music upon this contrasting balance. It's harmonic, with odd breaks, off beat song structures, and a frantic edge of syncopation. The closest comparisons would be Animal Collective or Freelance Whales, but the Grandchildren seem to be listening to a hundred different drummers.

Through the course of Everlasting, Grandchildren vary the formula a little, with the second half being more accessible, but the experimental nature never fades completely. The first song making the rounds on the net, Saturn Returns, is a dreamy rush. It's richly layered, with a shifting balance between foreground and background. The foreground has the ticking rhythm and supporting music, while the background is filled with distant sounding vocals and washes of sound. It see saws between tension and an open feel. Eventually, it collapses into a spacey finish.

OK, I'm Waiting is also relatively accessible. It has a similarly rich layering, but the parts are a little sparser. The intro creates a Pink Floyd interplay between distant tones and a slide guitar in the foreground, which is overtaken by a kalimba (African thumb piano) rhythm. Then it settles into a slinky groove based on a reflective melodic line and the ever-present percussion.

Other songs like Little Big Ones and Anthill veer toward a jazzy, progressive sound. All in all, I preferred these and the other more accessible tracks to the outside sounds of songs like Cold Warrior or Heartbreaker. Despite this, the collection holds together well. Everlasting is an album well suited to act as an iPod soundtrack to normal life, where the polyrhythms will find echoes in the environment. Sip a sweet Turkish coffee as you listen.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

CD review - Apache Beat, Last Chants (2010)

Sometimes, the music biz is all about "hurry up and wait": Apache Beat had originally planned to release Last Chants earlier this year, but it wasn't officially released until October 5. Their debut album includes their first single as a band, 2007's Tropics. A couple of other songs were released in the meantime, but this is their first real large scale musical splash.

Apache Beat doesn't comfortably fit into a simple genre. You could call it indie rock or maybe rhythmic post-punk with occasional synth pop contributions. None of that hits the target, though. The band's strength comes from a combination of interesting beats, very melodic bass playing, catchy guitar textures, some retro synths, and thick, chorused vocals. It's easy to hear that the songs on Last Chants all come from the same band, but the songs move around and avoid digging into any kind of creative rut.

The shift from the rollicking groove of Knives to the shimmery guitar intro for Walking on Fire is abrupt, but in a good way. That intro serves as a transition into the darker sound of the song itself. On the surface, it's indie rock driven by guitar riffs, but there's a lot going on. The drums are syncopated, creating a choppy beat that the vocals float over and the bass line threads the song together.

There are some interesting influences scattered about, from Let It Go, which sounds like a grown up Adam Ant with secrets in his past to the Andy Partridge (XTC) meets Talking Heads of A Break in the Light.

The earlier single, Tropics, is my favorite track. Free jazz horns wail over a jungle beat and a guitar figure. Then the groove kicks in, dark, threatening, and ritualistic. The close harmonies on the vocals add to the tension. This has the intensity of a Velvet Underground jam even if the sound is different.

The new single on Last Chants is Another Day, which mixes the feel of the Clash's Ghetto Defendant with an indie pop swirl. The guitar riffs and see-saw bass line form a tight backbone, while the vocals are almost playful. It has all of the elements of what makes Last Chants a great listen: catchy beats, intriguing sonic textures, and a change from the same old chord progressions. Hmm, instead of a beer, maybe this time I'll try a sweet hard cider...

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Concert review - Muse, with Passion Pit

2 October 2010 (Pepsi Center, Denver CO)
Muse was scheduled to play in Denver on April 6, but the show was canceled when weather prevented their equipment from arriving. This was the rescheduled show. Waiting was probably best, since Matthew Bellamy pointed out last night that "...we don't play for shit acoustic." Regardless, Muse delivered the live show they always promise, creating a spectacular event.

Passion Pit
As an opening act, Passion Pit wasn't the best matchup for Muse, but the crowd seemed to enjoy them. Passion Pit played a mix of electro pop/indie pop dance music. Synthesizers were front and center: even the bass and guitar players switched over sometimes. The syncopation, driving beats, and keyboard washes came together to create a Peter Gabriel sound. The front man, Michael Angelakos, had good stage presence and the band put on a good show.

The one quirky part was Angelakos' voice: it's tenor, reaching into countertenor, often sounding almost prepubescent. In general, he had a lot of processing on his vocals and, at times, it sounded like a pitch shifter was raising it even higher. This vocal sound/affectation, combined with a fairly emotional delivery, dominated the songs.

Ayad Al Adhamy was pivotal: he had a larger collection of synths and also introduced sampling into the mix. His samples were often used to create crowd response parts, which the real audience took up. He also drove some nice techno synth grooves.

Passion Pit's set was dance heavy and strongly pop. While the synths combined well with Muse's sound, it was a completely different mood. The crowd responded, though. I think the emotional vocal delivery and dance groove caught the collective pulse and meshed with the mindset. In any case, they certainly whetted our appetite for Muse.

You know it's going to be a good show when you spot the inflatable eyes stashed at the roofline above the seating. While they wouldn't be released until the encore, just knowing they were there fed a sense of anticipation.

The music started, but Muse wasn't visible yet. The pillars standing on the stage lit up like lights coming on in a building. Finally, the fabric fell away and revealed that each pillar was split in half, with one of the band members set up on the bottom piece and the top half hovering above. Throughout the course of the show, these columns would raise and lower to the stage level and they'd provide a sort of jumbotron display.

The lights, the lasers, and the stage movement were all elaborate, but Muse played through the spectacle and transcended the technology. The focus was on the music and the experience of the show. It didn't matter how the strobes were timed to match beats of an intense drum break; it was enough to just appreciate it.

The band ran through songs from the last several albums. On the whole, they emphasized their prog rock sound, with a fair amount of harder rock touches. So, songs like Knights of Cydonia, a funky version of Supermassive Black Hole, and the trippy drive of Resistance all built up a great sonic intensity, getting the crowd moving and immersed. The setlist was dynamic, too, shifting the mood with songs like the U2 influenced Starlight (in this case, dedicated to Belle) or the cool descending piano line of Feeling Good.

Matthew Bellamy's stage presence was perfect. He'd smoothly shift from nonchalantly playing an intense guitar figure to working the crowd with an emotional scream. Using a spotlight reflected off his guitar, he'd scan the audience. His voice had some of Bono's quality as he moved from small, personal lyrics to larger philosophical themes of revolution.

Christopher Wolstenholme's bass work was great, too, going from progressive drive to a house style drum and grindy bass. Dominic Howard's drumming was tight. The progressive material gave him plenty of room to throw in fills, without compromising the heartbeat of the songs. The band also had some occasional help from Morgan Nicholls on keys.

The band tossed in a couple of Led Zeppelin teases that were all too short. Hearing them play Black Dog or Moby Dick would be awesome. They also started off Time Is Running Out with an instrumental cover of House of the Rising Sun. There was a great moment as the chords shifted from Rising Sun into the dark drive of Time Is Running Out. The crowd sang along.

The show was great. There was a brief wait before they came out for the encore. The eyeballs were released and Muse played another three songs, including a metal guitar tinged Stockholm Syndrome. It all ended too soon, but it was a show to remember.

I would have liked a suitably complex beer, like Odell's Imperial Pilsener to go with the show. Alas, that wasn't a choice at the Pepsi Center.

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, October 1, 2010

CD review - Emil & Friends, Downed Economy (2010)

Emil Yves Hewitt records under the name Emil & Friends. His friends step up to support touring. On Downed Economy, Hewitt straddles the old and new, capturing the low-fi, compressed, AM radio sound of '70 pop soul and merging it with a modern electronic sound. It's pop, soul, disco, and club all stirred together. That retro compressed audio sounds like a 1974 road trip. Hewitt also has a nice touch for bringing in string synth highlights to create his disco feel.

Josephine nails the era. It's got the production of a hundred period disco pop tunes. The groove is solid and the whole song holds together well. The only contemporary touch is that the lyrics have a more modern sensibility.

Other songs more to the retro side include Short Order Cooks and The Shrine which both have elements of what Beck was reaching for on Debra (Midnight Vultures). The falsetto vocal, old school groove, and more modern song structure come together to make an interesting mix.

On the other hand, the title track, Downed Economy stays more firmly in the present. It tosses in some older elements, like the wah-wah guitar and the disco string synths, but the focus is on an experimental electro pop sound. The snaky bass synth, drum machine groove, and layered complexity build an interesting vibe over a rythmically heavy groove.

Fans of the '70s pop sounds will find a welcoming home on Downed Economy. Disco haters and soul pop cynics shouldn't waste their time. A slightly diluted screwdriver (like the bars used to serve) will pair nicely.