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

Friday, July 30, 2010

CD review - Street Sweeper Social Club, The Ghetto Blaster EP

Tom Morello and Boots Riley built Street Sweeper Social Club out of a brief collaboration during a Billy Bragg tour. All three artists share a left wing, progressive political mindset, so there's fertile common ground for Morello and Riley to explore. Tom Morello is best known for his work with the rap/metal band, Rage Against the Machine, while Boots Riley is the lead vocalist for the rap act, The Coup.

It's not that much of a stretch for these two artists to get together, but they've created a strong follow up to their earlier self-titled debut. The Ghetto Blaster EP lays out a mere seven songs, including a couple of high profile covers: M.I.A.'s Paper Planes and LL Cool J's Mama Said Knock You Out. Seven tracks, but no fluff.

The title cut, Ghetto Blaster, hits hard with a hard rock guitar riff and rocking drums. This has a Red Hot Chili Peppers' sound of hard rock/soul/funk, like Give It Away. It's a solid start, with a fast rap vocal flow on the verses:
I'm from the land of the free labor that planted the plan of the
Black and branded to scram it over to Canada
A fan of radical bandits in bandannas
Who slam in the banana clip and rat-a-tat-tatata
The frantic drive carries the tune.

This yields to the funk rap of Everythang. Riley's group The Coup released a version of this on Party Music with more of an electronic backing groove, but Morello's guitar work is stripped down to the perfect accompaniment. The real story here, though is the incredible drum work: the driving syncopation, stretched beats, and tight breaks.

The big single from The Ghetto Blaster EP is a cover of M.I.A.'s Paper Planes. The original has a bouncy ska feel over a sample of the Clash's Straight To Hell. M.I.A. contrasts a cynical, mercenary lyric with her pretty and mild delivery. SSSC takes a simpler approach: the music is edgier with a faster tempo and Riley's voice is all gangster. They've also changed the lyrics fairly extensively to shift the message of the song. Now, it's less about being a dealer and more about surviving the system: "Everyone's a winner, now we're making that fame" becomes "Dog food for dinner, the world is in flames". Comparing it to the original is what makes this version so interesting.

The New Fuck You has high intensity intro before settling into a repetitive funk rock groove straight from Living Color. The lyrics are political social commentary:
Take care is the new healthcare
Big business get welfare
The middle east is the new gold rush
We've made a new hell there

My favorite track is Scars (Hold That Pose). It also has a driving hard rock start reminiscent of Living Color, but the verse drops is down with Riley giving us an MC 900 Jesus style flow over a cool, trickle down guitar riff. The chorus kicks in with serious crunch to balance out the mellower verses. The total effect builds a tension through the course of the song. The verse lyrics are self-deprecating about being broke and cheap:
This old ripped jacket is cause I am an artist
I'll burn rubber on you if my car gets started
3rd month avoiding landlords is the hardest
It's only funny cause you don't see where the scar is
The chorus and bridge pull the humor back into social commentary.

Mama Said Knock You Out is a modern updating of the LL Cool J classic. It stays fairly true to the original, but owes a lot to Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine. It's hard rocking, with some heavy guitar from Tom Morello and a monster bass line. Fitting a modern style, the mix is a lot punchier than the original.

Finally, Promenade (Guitar Fury Mix) revisits a song from Street Sweeper Social Club's debut. The mix might be slightly different, but this is effectively the same as the radio edit version.

Rage Against the Machine has been working this beat between rap and hard rock for a long time, but Boots Riley's vocal style adds a lot more rap veritas to the mix. This differentiates Street Sweeper Social Club from Zack de la Rocha and Rage Against the Machine, while keeping the political message. Philosophically, the right drink is grapes of wrath, but today I'd suggest a coffee flavored stout (fair trade, of course) for the right mix of energy and bitterness.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

DVD (stream) review - Mogwai, Burning (2010)

I've been excited about the upcoming release for Mogwai's concert DVD, Burning. It's not due to come out until August 24, but yesterday there was a massive virtual screening of the DVD hosted by guitarist Stuart Braithwaite and director Vincent Moon. The stream was hosted at more than 50 sites, including AOL Spinner and Second Life. I dropped by the Daily Swarm to catch the screening and follow the twitter feed at the same time. Only getting to watch this once limits my ability to pick out all of the nuance, but this was a great show.

Mogwai plays intense prog rock/post rock (mostly) instrumental jams. Their sound is centered on fuzzed out electric guitar, but there's plenty of interesting keyboard work in there as well. They're less laid back than My Morning Jacket, but certainly, they are stylistic neighbors.

Burning is a concert DVD, but directors Vincent Moon and Nathanael Le Scouarnac had a unique approach. They avoided the documentary style of simply showing the performance. Instead, there are constant jump cuts between the musicians and members of the audience. This evokes the experience of being at a concert; we vicariously feel the excitement, watching someone really enjoy the song, then looking up at the stage to see what's happening next. By the time the video hits the closing song, Batcat, the camera jerks and loses focus. Lighting flashes bright then dark. It's no longer about showing the performance; it's about recreating the mental state.

In the interview section after the screening, Vincent Moon talked about his aesthetic. It was intentional to shoot this in black and white to lose some of the information and create a distance. Perversely, this rational distance is what breaks down the emotional reserve of watching a video, making the experience more immersive. They also kept Burning short (around 45 minutes or so) to maintain the level of excitement from a live show. "A full show doesn't have the same impact on video."

The songs were intense, with sharp dynamics. During Mogwai Fear Satan, the sound evolves into a hypnotic wall of guitar sound. Trippy, building into a trancelike ecstasy, the martial drums and melodic bass provide the only anchors. Then, it fades down, becoming introspective. Swells of notes spill over the top as the song strips away to its essentials. Lulled into peace, the booming return to the full ecstatic whirl of the peak is climactic.

The last song, Batcat, starts with a voiceover translation of a Mogwai show review: "Cause this music puts a human being in a trancelike state...". Then, the music rises through. The guitar plays a repeated lick with heavy fuzzed out sound. Dark and droning, it's post-rock with a metal twist. The guitars wail through the roller coaster ride. When it's finally over and the credits start, they play comments from the crowd: "It's like acid, but there's no comedown."

After the screening, there was an interview section with Braithwaite and Moon. Braithewaite's playful personality came through as they pulled questions from the twitter feed. "How loud is too loud? 140 dB", "What's your favorite song to play live? Mogwai Fear Satan because it's really easy"...

I'm really looking forward to seeing the DVD and listening to the accompanying CD, Special Moves. This is music that deserves and requires multiple listens to soak in. The Burning setlist was:
  • The Precipice
  • I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead
  • Hunted By a Freak
  • Like Herod
  • New Paths to Helicon Part 1 (download here)
  • Mogwai Fear Satan
  • Scotland's Shame
  • Batcat
What to drink with this? It doesn't matter. I forgot to drink anything at all.

Monday, July 26, 2010

CD review - Back Ted N-Ted, The Mirror (2010)

Pop music is shallow and trivial. That's why so many people like it. There are no edges to alienate or challenge them. Back Ted N-Ted (i.e. Ryan Breen) ignores that common wisdom on their new album, The Mirror. Sure, it's mostly upbeat, danceable synth-pop/electronic-pop, but these are not forgettable songs. They have emotional depth, complexity, and great dynamics.

Nothing But Love sets up a looped guitar line over a melodic bassline and a laid back, electronic drift. It's falsetto electro-indie pop music, layering and looping parts to create a buoyed sense of self awareness. It builds into a lush art-rock feel of dreamy ecstasy, sounding like Yes interpreting Roxy Music.
I'm sorry I lost my mind
I can't seem to see behind
The falls down mystery
I've fallen through the folds of life
There was a time when all was well
A time when we fell
Blind to everything but love
There was a time when I could see
Sublime and lost at sea
Now, I'm struggling for air
I swear it's nothing but love
There's a rocking rhythm to the vocals that's almost hypnotic

Equally personal, but completely different is the story song, Forever. The story is raw and moving as it talks through a relationship and its pattern of love, eventually requited. Ryan Breen's revelations of his own thoughts and feelings make it powerful. The verses are all spoken word style over cool guitar riffs and synth parts that create a rich background complexity. The power pop chorus is sung over a driving beat: "Do you think these memories will be with us forever?"

The other songs are also strong, from the Oingo Boingo style new wave of Whatever Makes You Feel Good to the electronic shimmers and catchy pop of The Mirror to the electronica meets folk of Lose Control.

Back Ted N-Ted's music deserves a bigger audience, like many great bands out there. If Breen can reach that audience, though, he's got a good chance of connecting. Think New Belgium's Fat Tire.

The album is due out in August, but Breen has apparently dissolved the band.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Concert review - Fierce Bad Rabbits, with Kaiser Cartel, Tea Cozies

23 July 2010 (Road 34, Ft Collins, CO)

The line up for the show provided a mash up of musical styles and attitudes. Each band did a fine job, but the jumps from punky thrash to tight harmonies to straight rock were a bit challenging. There was a chunk of the crowd to catch the whole night, but each band had their core fans that turned up for their set.

Tea Cozies
This Seattle garage punk band has some roots in Ft. Collins, which accounted for the huge turnout and family style crowd they drew. The two frontwomen, Jessi Reed and Brady Harvey, have a relaxed stage manner that contrasts with their aggressive playing. Tea Cozies are really loud, which fits the surf punk edge in a lot of their songs. A better mix would have helped, though: it was often hard to hear the vocals and there was a recurring bass feedback problem.

None of that proved any hindrance to their war campaign of a set. The tempos were driving, set by Reed's crunchy, choppy rhythm guitar. Harvey's yowling leads added an insistent discordance. The songs had a punk rock home base, but the guitar riffs and vocal harmonies could shift the mood to a surf rock or B-52s' new wave.

Their original material, like the Bow Wow Wow thrash of Boys at the Metro or the X style new wave of Paper Pages, was quite good. The songs had strong musical elements and a raw energy. I could also hear a bit of Mary Prankster in their sound.

They also played up another influence when they did their cover of Elastica's Blue. They caught the harmonies and bouncy energy. This recording is not nearly as good as their version last night. They closed out their set, but their friends, family, and fans demanded more. So, they let the bass player and drummer go and played a simple two guitar rocker with an indie vibe to wrap it up.

Kaiser Cartel
After the manic energy of Tea Cozies, the duo of Kaiser Cartel was major mood change. Their songs were arranged for guitar and drums, but even when they rocked, this wasn't a White Stripes thing. The retro harmonies recalled the Mamas and the Papas, the Cowboy Junkies, and even a little bit of June Carter/Johnny Cash. These harmonies were crucial to their sound. Courtney Kaiser's voice was rich, warm, and expressive. Benjamin Cartel wasn't as strong a singer, but his tight timing and more worn voice provided the perfect setting. The pair fit together like a viola and cello.

Kaiser Cartel sounded much fuller than a mere duo. Although they did trade roles briefly, Kaiser was primarily the guitarist while Cartel played drums. Her guitar tone was exquisite: thick and resonant, a patina of warm distortion created a faintly shimmery rumble. This let the guitar fulfill a bass role as well as the tonal center for the songs. Cartel's drum work was solid, with strong dynamics, and it always balanced against the guitar. A cool touch was when he put a xylophone on top of his snare. This little trick let him maintain the beat while he seamlessly added melodic touches to the song.

Although their music must be tightly arranged to fall together so well, the sound is lush and relaxed. Many of the songs had a retro feel, like old Roy Orbison or other '60s pop. Still, they could kick it up a bit, too. The syncopated drums of Worn Out Nervous Condition (a John Mellencamp cover) gave it a more rocking groove, with a touch of early R.E.M. The compelling beat of Season Song was also fun, as they encouraged the crowd to whistle along.

Kaiser Cartel had an open, sincere stage presence that clicked well with the audience. While it was a major change from the Tea Cozies, it wasn't a jarring shift. Rather it was the next course in a great night of music.

Fierce Bad Rabbit
Ft. Collins' own Fierce Bad Rabbit headlined the show. Frontman Chris Anderson (ex of The Jimi Austin) has put together a tight, original sounding, pop oriented band. The whole group was polished, yet casual. They had a well honed sense of dynamics, as they showed with All I Have is You. The intro was stripped down and deeply emotional. Then the chorus exploded into a ringing jangle of guitar.
Oh, oh, oh, I'm drowning in the undertow.
Oh, oh, oh, hope's the only thing I can't let go.
All I have is you, all I have is you
Alana Rolfe's viola, a vital element of the sound, added a soothing caress to the rich rock groove.

Fierce Bad Rabbit balanced their set with harder rock grooves, retro piano pop (a la Supertramp or Harry Nilsson), and bluesy grooves. Honey, a dragging grind, took a blues sound off into an intense jam, where Rolfe's viola added the hypnotic buzz. Anderson's expressive singing and emotional delivery nailed this one as it built to a climactic tension.

Bass player Dayton Hicks (Arliss Nancy) had a melodic, busy style that always stays this side of tasteful. He provided the foundation to let Anderson and Rolfe jam off each other. Likewise, Adam Pitner was a solid drummer whose personality managed to project from the back line.

Fierce Bad Rabbit has it all: tight playing, interesting songs, great harmonies, and a unique sound. They seem destined for a larger audience than Ft. Collins can provide. Still, their local fans showed that they'll always have a home here.

For tonight's show, a sampler from Ft. Collins' Equinox Brewing would hit the spot: Zenith IPA for Tea Cozies, Jonas Porter for Kaiser Cartel, and the Orbit ESB for Fierce Bad Rabbit.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

CD review - Das Black Milk, Talk To Your Body (2010)

Their press sheet touts Talk to Your Body as Das Black Milk's most focused release to date. I haven't crawled through their back catalog yet, but it promises to be a roller coaster ride. Because Talk to Your Body reverberates with post punk and '60s garage rock sounds, but also reveals traces of electronica and tatters of punk. It's a fun listen that defies expectations.

At the opening beats of Tired Eyes, I was hooked. Pensive, with a tense beat and echo-y bits of sound lurking at the edges, it's like an uptempo Careful With That Axe Eugene or some of Porcupine Tree's more psychedelic stuff. It's a compelling groove. It's also atypical of the album, as the detuned, angular notes of Laissez-Fare proved in the next track.

Still, the other songs maintain a a lock on the ear, whether it was the Ramones chop of I Don't Wanna Hear It or the Roky Erickson reverbed grind of Fixated, Unmoved. The psychedelic rock of Smash My Face captured some of the head space of the first track, this time emphasizing some tweedly organ work.

One of the more interesting songs was 7 and 7 is the new 3 which takes a club beat, a Clash vocal, and a Pere Ubu mindset:
I'm a lawyer with a conscience
A single mother with no options
I'm a lawyer with a conscience
Does it make any difference?
Like Pere Ubu's lyrics, the title and lyrics may not necessarily make linear sense, but they fit together.

Das Black Milk is clearly a band that revels in dressing up in their own favorite musical styles, without any sense of irony. Their live shows must be quite interesting. If I'm ever in Scranton, I'll have to track them down. In the meantime, I'll raise a glass of Köstritzer Schwarzbier in honor of Das Black Milk. Listen to their music on their MySpace page.

Monday, July 19, 2010

CD review - Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt!, I Love You...(2010)

The full title of the new Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt! album is I Love You. I Love You. I Love You And I'm In Love With You. Have An Awesome Day! Have The Best Day Of Your Life!, which serves as fair warning: the songs all have a stream of consciousness feel with little filtering. TPDR has an earnest sense of naivete in their lyrics and vocal intonation that recalls They Might Be Giants or Freelance Whales. The effect is quirky, but pleasantly engaging.

Each track on I Love You... is centered around the vocals. The music is low fi, with most songs sounding crowded with keyboard layers over a simple beat. There are no leads or much in the way of melodic changes, so the album occasionally takes on a sort of electronic dance music feel. The vocals are often free sounding group chants with repeated phrases. The combination is somewhat experimental, but the band is so open, that you get pulled in, wanting to hear more. There's a joyous feel, even when the lyrics don't really fit that mood, giving TPDR an optimistic vibe.

The opening song, Snakebites, starts out with a They Might Be Giants approach. It's weird and a little bit dorky:
Someday we’ll explode.
We’ll be tiny particles soaring through the air
Away from the problems and it'll be fine.
It will be fine.
As the tempo picks up and the layers of music build, the lyrics become the singer's attempt to win back his lost love. The musical contrast lets the song avoid any whiny feel. This is interesting because TPDR seems so offhand about the music, but it buoys the song perfectly.

My favorite track is the affirmation, iotdwykiyhtbr ("It's okay to do what you know in your heart to be right"). The music is reflective as the group chants the title line repeatedly. The repetition builds, with cross-chanting and riffed lyrics in an improvised jam. The vocals here sound like some of Too Much Joy's work. Falling into chaos, the chant shifts to:
You're allowed to be scared, you're allowed to be frightened
But we're almost there, we're nearly enlightened.
The improvisational flow is sort of like a vocal drum circle: everybody finds their little niche to fill and use as a meditational focus.

This is followed by the unfiltered lines of My Favorite Hair. The contrast between the earlier uplifting song and this gushing plea for attention is stark. Despite the rhymes, the lyric here is delivered in a long free form stream. The music takes on a bit of a Supertramp sound, but it's so direct, personal, and soulful.

I Love You... is full of positivity and fun, which makes it a great summer time album. Pour some raspberry lemonade and feel young.

(Their MySpace page has some songs and here's their first single, Ride Friendship.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

CD review - Film School, Fission (2010)

Fission (releasing August 31) treats genres like items on a checklist. Shoegaze, progressive rock, indie pop, post punk -- it soon becomes clear that Film School doesn't care about labels. Instead, they have a well planned path to getting a certain sound and setting a mood for each song. The shoegaze droning wall of guitar is a common tool, but Film School also has a psychedelic bent. Their vocal sound is a relative constant: dreamy, cotton swaddled, and distant with reverb. Greg Bertens and bassist Lorelei Plotczyk layer their voices together to create a great vocal dynamic that's vital to their sound.

When I'm Yours drives forward with a post punk bass and guitar setup and krautrock keyboard elements during the bridge. There are flickering scratches of sound like knife blades in the background, much like the muted guitar strings under Romeo Void's Never Say Never. The beat is steady and danceable. When I'm Yours is packed with nervous energy. It only lets up at the end to slide into Time To Listen. This transition is a wonderful moment. The wind down fades and then the bass kicks in.

Time To Listen starts off like a Steve Wilson arrangement, with a steady bass and a slowly shifting guitar figure over the top. The background is full of swells of sound. The combination creates a mood of reflective tension. Plotczyk's vocal is heavily processed and ghostly. The energy kicks up on the chorus. The song walks a fine line between progressive rock and psychedelia.

For a greater contrast, Bones forgoes the dreamy vocals and heavy layering to start out with a simple beat and droning guitar change. Bertens' voice is clean and has a Jonathan Richman simplicity that matches the stripped down sound. As the song progresses, it picks up a New Order vibe, sounding something like Temptation. The interesting thing is how Film School mixes it up to drop some of the musical elements in and out.

So far, Heart Full of Pentagons is the only Fission song released. It also hits that New Order musical space. Download it from AOL Spinner here and give it a listen.

Like a good sangria, Fission has a lot going on, all in perfect balance.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

CD review - Macy Gray, The Sellout (2010)

The Sellout is Macy Gray's fifth studio album, coming out after a three year break. Gray has had a scattered career, starting with a strong debut, 1999's On How Life Is, which introduced her unique voice and quirky personality. Her followup releases have varied in their success, doing somewhat better in the UK than in the US. Her last album, Big, did all right, but lacked her earlier spark.

Gray has described The Sellout as a love letter to her fans, but it's easy to read the subtext of the album as a self analysis and response to the current state of her career. The bookend songs, The Sellout and The Comeback, make that plain, even as they reveal Gray's inconsistency. The Sellout really hits on the theme of doing what she needs to do to get back in the limelight. There's a cynicism in the chorus, even as she admits that "I'm not the same as I used to be." The production is much more modern and busy, showing how she's trying to embrace a newer sound to regain relevance. By The Comeback, she's saddened by what she's lost and she admits that she doesn't know where she's going. Plaintively, she asks, "Would you take me back if I told you that I haven't changed a bit?"

The rest of the songs bounce between her take on modern pop soul and her classic groove sound. It's clear that she really doesn't fit that newer sound, because she sounds a little awkward and drab in neo-disco grooves like Lately. She's strongest here when she plays to her strengths, like on Beauty in the World. Here, the simple acoustic guitar accompaniment and upbeat lyrics come together to make a pleasant song. The optimism matches her voice better and she knows how to deliver this kind of message.

Macy Gray's key strength is her unique voice - it's intriguing, with a childlike innocence that contrasts with the velvety Billie Holiday, world weary rawness. Her style of casually tossing off her lines gives her a conversational style that is an echo of classic soul artists like Bill Withers.

The retro tone of Help Me fits her delivery perfectly. Alternating between an R&B drive and more laid back soul grooves, Gray has room to stretch out a lyric or speed through a chain of words, fitting the mood of the line. This middle section of songs, from through Beauty in the World through Stalker are the strongest of the album. Speaking of Stalker, Prince deserves a writing credit on this one; it's effectively a reworking of his song, Kiss.

The Sellout has some nice musical touches, but Macy Gray needs to figure out who she is. Then, she might have a better idea of where she's going. In the meantime, I'll sip a simple glass of Pinot Noir.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Character study - Diego Stocco

Experimental music? The term is all too easily applied to "difficult listening" music or music that merely seems strange. Musician and sound designer Diego Stocco is literally creating experimental music, almost adhering to the scientific method. He looks at the world around himself and sees opportunities for interesting sound. He constructs instruments and experiments to see what kind of sounds he can capture. Then he takes those sounds to build musical statements that vary from delicate to thunderous.

It was chance that I came across Stocco's Bassoforte video. This was an instrument that he assembled using a castoff piano keyboard action, a bass guitar neck and miscellaneous other components.

Diego Stocco - Bassoforte from Diego Stocco on Vimeo.

Stocco plays the bassoforte with the keyboard, bowing the strings, and percussively striking the various components. He's multi-tracked these elements into a lumbering dinosaur of a tune. The polyrhythms lurch forward and the jangle and whine build a distant desert feel. Musically, there are elements of Robert Fripp, Pink Floyd, and Sonic Youth. The driving bass sounds somewhat Stick like.

This video was a gateway for me. Creating a Franken-instrument was noteworthy, but I was intrigued by a series of "Music from" videos. Music From a Bonsai? This was an experiment he came up with after making Music From a Tree. It's unsurprising that the music is percussive, but there's a richness of sonic components that come from bowing and plucking. When Stocco started playing the bonsai leaf, I had to laugh and nod in admiration. In his write up, he mentioned his technique of finding the lowest pitch note to select the key for the piece.

In addition to his curious approach to finding musical sounds and using them, Diego Stocco applies this to his work. He designs musical sounds for film, TV, and video games. It's deeply satisfying to see his "Experibass" and then find out that he used it to contribute to the score of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes.

Stocco seems to tap into the musical potentiality of the world around him. More importantly, he's able to actualize this into something useful and interesting. In that spirit, I'll think back to an earlier batch of ginger cherry beer I homebrewed years ago that was eventually brewed commercially by Pikes Peak Brewing. Salud!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Concert review - The Josh Abbott Band, with Jimbo Darville and the Truckadours

8 July 2010 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
On the surface, Jimbo Darville and the Truckadours are a good match with the Josh Abbott Band: each band features a charismatic frontman backed by a very competent country band. But there were a number of key differences beyond the musical contrast of the Truckadours' traditional country and Josh Abbott's modern rock and pop influenced country.

Despite the differences, though, the crowd enjoyed both acts. It was a high energy night of great entertainment.

Jimbo Darville and the Truckadours
The set started with the rumble of a mighty diesel starting. It was loud enough to pass for a sound system failure, but it fit perfectly with the huge Kenworth grill at center stage. It also set the mood for a set full of truckin' country songs, although other country themes got their time, too.

Band leader Jimbo Darville was the centerpiece. With his aviator shades and cowboy hat pulled down low, he had an iconic appearance. His matte black acoustic guitar and sharply creased pants added to the effect. His baritone voice wasn't quite a Johnny Cash growl, but he was in the neighborhood. Darville had a good stage presence, holding the crowd's attention. To some extent, his band accentuated this by not expressing a lot of personality to grab the limelight.

This is not to suggest they played poorly: they were very well practiced and each contributed their part with precision from the tasteful pedal steel to the tight electric guitar riffs. The touch of female backup vocals and serviceable bass and drum work rounded out the sound. But even during the short leads, players were careful not to upstage Darville and they didn't interact much with each other. The effect was like a talented pick up band assembled to support the frontman.

The Truckadours' setlist favored truck driving country themes, hitting a number of classic covers in the genre, starting with Red Simpson's Diesel Smoke and Dangerous Curves, then passing through Dudley Dave's Six Days on the Road and Del Reeves' The Girl on the Billboard. The songs all had a familiar sound but most people have forgotten the originals. To be fair, it was just a familiar sounding lyric that set me down the path of tracking some of these down.

The sound was textbook traditional country: lots of shuffle beats and cut-time. The leads were all on target. This crowd was primed for real country, so it went over well. The Truckadours have a clear niche and it's clear they have an audience for this classic sound. A looser sense of improvisation would have taken this to the next level, though.

Josh Abbott Band
From the moment the Josh Abbott Band took the stage, there was no question that the mood and the energy shifted. The opening music featured a funky jungle beat and hard rock guitar licks. Was this really a country band? The opening song, If You're Leaving (I'm Coming Too), set that to rest. It was modern country rock, with strong harmonies and some excellent fiddle work.

Throughout the set, the Josh Abbott Band pushed boundaries, ranging from Roger Clyne style Americana to a Cowboy Junkies grind or a classic rock shred. But it was always grounded in a direct, honest, country sensibility. My dad, the purist, would hate this, saying, "it's not really country", but it was sincere, interesting and fun. A big part of this is Josh Abbott's songwriting. His lyrics are genuine and his delivery builds on this.

In this way, Josh Abbott reminds me a lot of Roger Clyne. Aside from his sincerity, he has just the right amount and type of ego. He's confident, but he's also open, friendly, and approachable. While an audience can appreciate good theater and just enjoy a show, it can also tell when a performer is revealing themselves. That's why we responded so strongly to Abbott's songs.

Speaking of a good show, the band carried their weight here, as well. This band has a lot of fun on stage and they show it. Players were constantly moving and trading positions, so it was visually interesting. While all of them were expressive, the fiddle player (Preston Wait) really stood out. He was a bit of ham, playfully posing as he tore through the songs. He was like an Adam Sandler character with incredible chops, mugging for the crowd. Abbott was as amused as the rest of us at his antics.

The other musicians were strong, too. Gabe Hanson's guitar work emphasized a rock background, but his softly fuzzed guitar sound meshed with the fiddle to create a strong original tone, especially when they were twinning parts. Daniel Almodova contributed complex but balanced bass lines and good vocal harmonies. Drummer Edward Villanueva laid out a tight beat with effortless economy.

The collection of parts fell together perfectly, where each song flowed into the next without seeming staged or forced because the band maintained a loose feel. These guys have a sense for each other that lets their strengths build a unique sound. The only weakness was that Abbott's acoustic guitar was buried a bit low in the mix.

The bulk of the set was focused on the new album, She's Like Texas, with plenty of Abbott's older material as well. The crowd sang along with many of these, including the title track, She's Like Texas, and older songs like Taste. One of my favorite songs was Good Night For Dancing, from the last album. With a slower groove like the Cowboy Junkies' version of Sweet Jane, they set a mood and then built the intensity.

The band also teased us with snippets of covers, like a minute of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir on the fiddle, a short instrumental tribute to Michael Jackson, and a verse of Journey's Midnight Train. They also played a couple of full covers: John Mayer's Slow Dancing in a Burning Room and Tom Petty's Free Falling.

I'll raise a bottle of Shiner Bock (which I like a bit better than Lonestar) in praise for the John Abbott Band and a great show. I bought She's Like Texas and I may need to track down more of his back catalog as well. Whether you're a country fan or not, give Josh Abbott a listen; he's worth it.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

CD review - Unicycle Loves You, Mirror, Mirror (2010)

Mirror, Mirror bounces back and forth, from one reflection to another. On the one side, Unicycle Loves You plays pretty electro pop. Then, that rebounds into post-punk/power pop. Radio length songs are matched by odd, experimental interludes. This gives the album a fragmented feel, but many of the pieces are shiny and interesting.

Unicycle Loves You has dropped back to basics for their sophomore effort. Mirror, Mirror was self produced after shrinking the band down to a trio. Jim Carroll (guitar, keys, vocals), Nicole Vitale (bass, vocals), and J.T. Baker (drums) haven't thinned down the sound, however. The arrangements scatter plenty of sonic elements throughout the songs.

The album has a retro sound that harks back to the '80s and early '90s -- bits of Modern English and Psychedelic Furs are in there with the poppier sounds of Tom Tom Club. There's a Giant Walking in My Heart nails this pop aspect, while Justine captures that Modern English sound. Justine is guitar driven, but there are plenty of keyboard sounds lurking around the edges. The sound is fairly low fi, with a cheery beat that contrasts with the threatening feel of the vocals and lyrics.

Justine actually flows out of my favorite bit on Mirror, Mirror. The Wickedest Man in San Francisco is one of the snippet interludes. Choppy bass meets a distracted guitar riff. It flip flops between an ominous pensiveness and a brighter psychedelia. Then, it slides into a more intense psychedelic sounding bridge. But wait, it's actually an outro. This section sets the stage for a more epic song, but then the track is over. It's frustrating to hear such a promising musical idea be cut so short.

The title cut has shimmery, echoed vocals. It sounds so familiar: there's some of the sweet sound of Voice of the Beehive, but more detached... maybe there's a hint of the Bangles, too. But the music has a hazy aspect that gets more interesting as the background noise level builds. A summery lethargy permeates the track.

With that, I'll toast ULY with a mint julep, a drink that goes well with their summer soaked sound. Mirror, Mirror is due out on September 7 on Highwheel Records.

Monday, July 5, 2010

DVD review - Tori Amos, Live from the Artists Den (2010)

WNET's Live from the Artists Den is a public TV music series that focuses on unique artists, each performing in an intimate, unconventional venue. This DVD release coincides with the second season of this series, showcasing a Tori Amos concert at the landmark Veterans Room of New York's Park Avenue Armory. The new season is starting this week and will feature additional artists, like Ringo Starr, Corinne Bailey Rae, the Black Crows, and others. This Tori Amos DVD is coming out on July 13. The concert will be shown during the regular season, but the DVD package includes two extra songs, an interview with Amos, and a scrapbook of backstage pictures and history of the venue.

A select group of 100 fans were invited to the show, providing an audience to inspire Amos' performance while maintaining an intimate feel. The camera preserves this sense, remaining unobtrusive but capturing every nuance of Amos' expression. Tori performed a solo set on piano and electric keyboard. This was an introspective set, foregoing some of her more athletic performance moves. Sometimes, she flinched like a wild creature caught under our gaze. Sometimes, she took control and shared a coy grin. Above all, her voice was front and center: strong and demanding, then bruised and expressive. At times, she wrenched the music out of body, just like she forced out the lyrics. It was an enthralling show.

There were snippets of interview at the start and throughout the DVD, but the music was the key focus. One particularly interesting comment was about the piano:
I'm drawn to getting to know different ones. They bring different things out of you. The piano plays me, I do not play it.
The setlist spanned her career, from China and Girl (off 1992's Little Earthquakes) to Ophelia and Maybe California (from 2009's Abnormally Attracted to Sin). Despite the range, the songs were well chosen to create a flow.

Girl on Live from the Artists Den: Tori Amos from Artists Den on Vimeo.

The show begins with a rarity, Ruby Through the Looking Glass. It's rhythmic and soothing. Amos' voice is knowing and a little accusing:
When I said I wanted it all,
Doesn't every woman want it all?
As a man, do you find,
Doesn't every boy smoke to cry?
It's a strong start, with tension perfectly build and expressed. She throws in a whisper of tension to season the mix.

This is immediately followed by China. It's a little slower than the album version, with pauses and a tentative feel. The deep, repeating chords breathe through the verses. To bring in the strings, Amos plays her electric keyboard with her right hand as she maintains the arpeggiated piano part with her left hand. Playing two different keyboards at once is not so technically challenging, but the voicing, the arrangement, and the balancing interaction between the two parts is phenomenal. Her transitions between the piano and playing both keyboards are so smooth and effortless.

Near the end of the set, Amos plays Bells For Her. During the intro, she kicks her head back, entranced. This beautiful piece is dreamlike (...can't stop what's coming/can't stop what's on its way). Repetitive, looping parts and chanted lyrics build a sense of slow motion detachment. This is powerful and moving.

As Amos mentions in her interview, her touring and live performances are why she's still popular and relevant. This show serves as a great example. Sip a fine tawny port and watch Tori play Live from the Artists Den. The music is great; it's a fine addition to her catalog.

Friday, July 2, 2010

CD review - A.R.E. Weapons, Darker Blue (2010)

Darker Blue has a manic punk energy. The opening song is already underway when the track begins, starting in mid-beat. A.R.E. Weapons, nominally known as an art-noise band, infuse Darker Blue with a punk style simplicity and a Gothic new wave sound. Some songs sound like the Ramones or the Cramps, but just as often, they'll pull in enough bass and synthesize to raise comparisons to Bauhaus or Joy Division.

A.R.E. Weapons want you to pay attention to their lyrics. They favor narratives and character sketches. Whether it's the quirky cockroach encounter of Subway or the threatening ode of Jeffrey Lee, they try to create a compelling reason for the song. A few songs break this mold, but they're exceptions.

That opener, Jeffrey Lee, presents their driving Gothic wave sound. The music starts with a drum machine driving beat that sounds a bit like a speedy version of the Doors' L.A. Woman crossed with Bauhaus' Bela Lugosi's Dead. The slide guitar hangs in the background, trippy and ecstatic. The lyrics seem to allude to Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce, but the song transcends any real person to reach towards mythology.

Confusion is the Sign (available on their MySpace page) is my favorite track. It's a Velvet Underground tribute, with elements of Heroin, European Son, and Sister Ray. They captured Lou Reed's droning rhythm guitar with John Cale-style chaotic noise around the edges. This could almost be an outtake from The Velvet Underground and Nico, but A.R.E. Weapons add their own elements of synthesizer sounds and horn samples. The horn sounds add a rich thickening to the sound and create a cool outro for the song.

Street Justice is a modern urban fable. It feels like Combat Rock era Clash with more of an emphasis on synthesizer. It tells a story about a subway vigilante, a bit reminiscent of the Bernard Goetz shooting. The ethics are similarly ambiguous as the victims are criminals, but John was looking for his opportunity:
It turns out that this was not the first time
But see, self defense it ain't no crime
And it turned out that John just loved to defend himself.

It was a fact - he kept his body trained
It was a fact - he was a little bit insane
It was a fact - they just don't really want to go mess with him
A.R.E. Weapons have rough NYC edge that calls for a taste of something sweet to contrast -- maybe Bacardi and Coke. In the meantime, give Darker Blue a listen.