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

Monday, January 31, 2011

CD review - Asobi Seksu, Fluorescence (2011)

Last month I reviewed Asobi Seksu's single, Trails. I loved Yuki Chikudate's ethereal voice and the experimental post punk groove. This got me excited to hear their upcoming album, Fluorescence, due out February 15 (Polyvinyl Records). The new album delivers on the promise. Asobi Seksu shimmery sound is rooted in a dreamy mix of indie guitars, synthesizer swirl, and post punk pop. It's a tightrope balance of retro and modern elements.

Trails was a good choice for first single, since it's the strongest track. But the other cuts pull their own weight. The lead off jungle drumbeat of Coming Up kicks off Fluorescence. The indie guitars and synth pop sounds blend well, especially in the dappled sunlight bridge interlude.

Another favorite track was In My Head. It has a subtle, busy mix of elements. The sound is retro pop dreamy, but the arrangement is fairly tight. The many textures of guitars make this track: rising swells, staccato picking, sweet little fill riffs, and alternating waves of clean strums. The mix is dense, yet sounds effortless. Chikudate's sweet voice is key to this as well.

The long Leave the Drummer Out There is one of the more interesting tracks. The lyrics are simplistic and repetitious, but the song takes simple layered parts to build a thicker sound. The achingly beautiful vocals have sparkly echoes. The surprise is when the song seems about to end, but instead transforms into a softer sounding laid back interlude. The vibe shifts again, though, as it builds into a post punk, power poppu groove that flickers with psychedelic bits of guitar.

Asobi Seksu's melange of indie rock, synth, post punk, and dreaminess is a potent cocktail. While Yuki Chikudate's singing is a defining part of their sound, the rest of the band's contribution is just as strong. Fluorescence is an absolute treat.

Polyvinyl Records is releasing Fluorescence on CD, black vinyl, and transparent pink vinyl (limited press of 1500).

Friday, January 28, 2011

CD review - Praxis, Profanation: Preparation For a Coming Darkness (2008/2011)

Bill Laswell's band Praxis has a new/old album out. Profanation: Preparation for a Coming Darkness was originally released in Japan in 2008. Bankruptcy of their old label prevented the album's timely release in the US. While die hard fans have already scored the Japanese import, Praxis is sweetening the deal on the new version by including two new live tracks, Wedge and Subgrid. Subgrid sounds like a stretched out version of the tweaky Undercurrent from Zurich.

Praxis' music is an experimental blend of genres, where heavy metal is fused with funk, turntable scratching and electronic riffs coexist with hard rocking, anarchic guitar, and dub style breaks can show up any time. This comes from a changing group of players around a solid cadre. Bill Laswell contributes the driving bass line, of course. Drummer Brain (Godflesh, Primus, recent Guns N' Roses) lays out frantic, dense drum work that plays well with Buckethead's shred heavy guitar work. Buckethead's ability to shift gears from straight ahead metal to WTF contributes strongly to the experimental nature of Praxis' sound.

Profanation also includes collaboration with artists like the late RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ, Iggy Pop, System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian, Mike Patton, Doctor Israel, Wu-Tang protégé Killah Priest, Jamaica-born toaster Hawk, and long time Praxis player Bernie Worrell.

This crazy mix leads to a wild ride of songs, including the metal/electronic/toasting groove of Worship. This track starts off with a Black Sabbath style riff and Jamaican vocal. It's a cool, headbanging groove, with a mix of Metallica and Rage Against the Machine underlying the stiff funky vocals that Hawk lays out. The political message is defiant and even more relevant today than it was three years ago.

The gem on Profanation is the single, Furies, which takes a laid back, sparse rock grind and pairs it with a glitchy, electronic treatment. Iggy Pop's beautiful, stilted crooning shifts between lazy, complacent verses and punk sneering choruses.
Jesus is a playboy and the world's on fire
Cause the Furies are loose
Buckethead reins himself in here which serves the song well.

There's plenty of funk spread out among the metal on the album, but Revelations Part 2 is my favorite bit. It's got a good P-Funk, jam vibe, but RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ's Gil Scott-Heron style prose poetry sells it: "I was reading the bible backwards and upside down as usual...". The funk is leavened with a little electronic beeps and boops, along with some Zappa-esque guitar.

The studio section of Profanation closes out with the dub exploration of Babylon Blackout and the affirming sound of Buckethead's loose jam, Endtime. Each of these helps reset the mood and prepare the listener to slide back out of the album.

Like other Praxis albums, the effect here is like trying cocktails from a slightly different dimension, "What IS that? And why haven't I had it before?". This new version of Profanation: Preparation for a Coming Darkness was released in the US and Europe on January 25.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

January singles

Here are a few recent singles that crossed my inbox and grabbed my ears.

Quiet Lights - No More Canyons (7" disc and digital download, due out Feb 15, 2011)
Hazy swells of dense sound build during the start of No More Canyons until the thundering wall of guitars avalanche onto the track. It's moody post rock, with a dreamy vibe. Echoes of Sigur Ros reverberate through this cathartic track.

Quiet Lights is releasing the track digitally and on vinyl (backed with Break Trouble Wait) on Feb 15. Download it here.

Alex Winston - Sister Wife (Sister Wife mini LP, due out 3/2011)

The pure innocence of early '60s girl groups (the Ronnettes, et al.) coupled to modern rhythm sound of today's pop. The lyrics add a touch of subversion as they tackle polygamist jealousy. The bouncy pop vibe is fresh, even as it refers back to Motown. Alex Winston is charming and her voice is beguiling.

Keep an ear out for the upcoming Sister Wife mini LP (HeavyRoc) due out in March. Download it here.

Amanda Palmer - Map of Tasmania (Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, out now)

Uke strumming, genre hopping Amanda Palmer continues her solo hiatus from the Dresden Dolls. Her new album, Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under just came out January 21 and the first official video is for Map of Tasmania. While the song is billed as a fight for pubic hair freedom (the title is a slang Australian reference), the tongue in cheek video is a playful romp. Informed by Lady Gaga and Madonna before here, Palmer takes it over the top in a sillier direction. "They don't play this song on the radio..." No, and they won't show the merkins (pubic wigs) either, but that's what YouTube is for.

The dance beat, attitude, and, yes, ukulele all make this a fun video.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Concert review - Jonathan Coulton with Paul and Storm

22 January 2011 (Soiled Dove Underground, Denver CO)

Jonathan Coulton and his perpetual openers, Paul and Storm, have stumbled onto a perfect chemistry. Paul and Storm create the wise cracking, comedy shtick that loosens the crowd. Then Coulton comes out and adds depth with his technical playing ability and thoughtful lyrics. The balance is perfect.

The Soiled Dove seems to be Coulton's favorite venue in Colorado. It's an intimate venue, with reserved seating and an old style cabaret feel. This room is another factor in what makes Jonathan Coulton's show work so well.

Paul and Storm
Paul and Storm are regular contributors to the Bob and Tom Show and a host of other internet and radio outlets. Comedy is a tough business. Once someone has heard the joke, it's harder to get a good laugh out of them again. Musical comedy seems even tougher: it's either stretching out a single joke or creating a related series of jokes. Paul and Storm have thrived in this world for a some time, as part of a capella wonders, Da Vinci's Notebook, and now as a duo.

Last time JoCo was here, Paul and Storm opened and were hysterical. Even with many of the same songs and jokes, they killed again. Part of this was that much of the crowd was already primed to participate. So, during their usual opening song, Opening Band, the crowd was prepared to throw panties (and one pack of 'tan peas') on cue (see 1:46).

They breezed through favorites, like the Gregorian chanted Nun Fight and a set of one sentence songs. They also pulled out a couple of newer pieces, including I Will Sing a Lullabye and Frogger! The Frogger Musical. Throughout their set, they kept a loose, improv feel, riffing off the audience and pushing what turned out to be their new catchphrase, "_____ is the name of my ___________cover band". So, in response to the Opening Band panties, one commented that "this is like Panty Christmas for us", prompting the response, "Panty Christmas is the name of my Spice Girls cover band."

They closed with the perennial favorite, The Captain's Wife's Lament. That it's just an extended setup for a juvenile punchline didn't matter. The crowd's pirate participation took it over the top.

Jonathan Coulton
Jonathan Coulton's first job when he came out was to battle the remaining pirates in the audience to take control of the show. Within a couple of songs, (Millionaire Girlfriend, Shop-Vac, and IKEA), he had us on board. Part of the difference from Paul and Storm is that Coulton creates a more personal connection with the audience. His humor is more sardonic, but he can also mix in deeper themes with the laughs.

His flow of songs smoothly moved the audience through a set of moods. His version of Code Monkey was more wistful, emphasizing the pathos at its heart. This led into Big Bad World, continuing the focus on socially inept characters. Just as that mood started to inch towards being too heavy, he riffed on the idea of celebrities suffering from the horrible crushing burden of fame to set up Tom Cruise Crazy.

Aside from all the favorites, JoCo pulled out some songs from was an upcoming album (produced by They Might Be Giant's John Flansburgh). Coulton was apologetic about sharing new songs instead of playing more of the older material, but the crowd was eager to hear the new tunes. They ranged from the passive aggressive Alone at Home to the poignant Now I am an Arsonist. Down Today featured Coulton playing the ukulele, but getting a blues guitar feel.

Another treat was Soft Rocked By Me, from his old Thing a Week set. The subtle humor was nice, but the treat was the medley of songs referenced by Paul and Storm, from Gordon Lightfoot to Alanis Morissette. We all learned that Bob Seger is the eye at the center of the soft rock storm: everything kept coming back to Like a Rock. The sing along ending was priceless, ending on Hey Jude: "Na-na-na na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na like a rock!"

This was my second time catching Jonathan Coulton live and this show had a different vibe from the last one. Not better or worse, just a different flavor from the range that he can offer. Sip a homebrewed beer and revel in the taste you got this time.

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, January 21, 2011

CD review - Callers, Life of Love (2010)

In the beginning, there is a voice. Sara Lucas' voice is the clear starting point for every song on Life of Love. It's rich and vibrant, with a clarity that allows her to add subtle shading. Much of the time, she sounds very close to Maria Muldaur (Midnight at the Oasis).

While the vocals define Callers' sound, their music is much more than just a nice setting. The songs vary from jazzy folk to a reverbed early '60s pop (think Sleep Walk), but there are plenty of other interesting sounds, like Jefferson Airplane's folky psychedelia or Adrian Belew style pop. Ryan Seaton and Don Godwin create wide open spaces of sound that allow for possibility. The nuanced arrangements aren't as flashy as the singing, but they're every bit as important. The accompaniment on the title track, Life of Love, is perfect -- simple bass countered by arpeggiated guitar and percussive guitar fills and a loose, jazzy drum beat

The touchstone track is a cover of Wire's Heartbeat. The original builds on a heartbeat throb, with breathy vocals dropped like stones into pond. It's an anxious mantra, grasping for calm. Callers take the tune into a bluesy Joan Armatrading space. Subtle shifts in the guitar arrangement add a lot of depth without being too overt. The overall feeling is more upbeat and slightly dreamy. They've drained the angst and transformed the song without simplifying or dumbing it down.

Dreamy sounds pervade the album, from the uptempo, jazzy vibe of Glow to the moody build and decay of Young People. My favorite track, though, is Roll, which starts with a Pavement style guitar intro, but then it shifts into a Jefferson Starship feel like Have You Seen the Stars Tonight. The lyrical imagery and supporting musical shifts are exquisite.

This transplanted New Orleans trio has a lot to offer. Life of Love is good on the first listen, but each time I find more sparks of tiny perfection. It's much like a well made Kölsch.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

CD review - Earl Greyhound, Ancient Futures (2010)

Punk came along to poke at ridiculous, self-indulgent excesses of '70s rock. After glam rock spectacle and cocaine driven ego rock, it was time for a change. And yet, something precious was lost in that simplifying fire. Today's post rock bands reach for that missing intensity, but rarely hits the joyous or exultant ambition that many early '70s bands aspired to.

Earl Greyhound is a throwback to that golden age. Though their music evokes Led Zeppelin and other great classic rock bands, they sound more like a contemporary band of that era finding their own musical path. Their power trio line up leaves plenty of room to show off monster skills while requiring tight playing. Last year, they made my top album and top concert lists. They are on my short list of must-hear bands. Ancient Futures is an EP recorded as part of their sessions for Suspicious Package.

Three songs clocking in at over 21 minutes gives a sense of the scope. Epic grandeur is the only way to describe this EP. Suspicious Package had the two part song, The Eyes of Cassandra, which was closest to this kind of reach. On Ancient Future, Earl Greyhound has taken the time to let songs grow organically, without worrying as much about structure or short attention spans.

Hellhound begins with a laid back jazzy vibe: just a loose vocal and simple keyboard chords. Then, it effortlessly unfolds into a chorus marked by richer, guitar driven groove while the vocals soar. Acoustic guitar, counterpoint backing vocals, and powerful drum work push it forward. The song structure takes on a looser organization than a simple verse-chorus. Each short section flows out of the last, but sparks a sense of unpredictability.

Lady Laser features Kamara Thomas' voice in a mix of heavy and soft. The pounding drum start and grinding guitar verses are fused to a lighter, psychedelic chorus section, which whipsaws expectation before setting up a jazzy keyboard soul bridge. The lyrics are straight out of 1970, too. Maybe a bit too theatrical for a modern band, but perfect here.

Finally, The Fall and Rise of Mu follows the pattern of bands like early King Crimson, Traffic, and Jefferson Airplane. A long introspective beginning takes its time to set the mood. The song lulls you into a receptive state as little elements filter in. When the vocals start the lyrics provide some trippy imagery. But the soft yin always flips to a hard yang as the band throw in some harder edges. Eventually, the song flows through classic progressive rock, Black Sabbath style heavy metal, wild jamming, and more modern sounding hard rock.

Ancient Futures came out in November and is available on their site. I'm already anxious to see what they'll tackle next. Garrett Oliver's fine Brooklyn Brown Ale is a fitting toast for this fine Brooklyn band.

Monday, January 17, 2011

CD review, Cake, Showroom of Compassion (2011)

At some level, we all want our idols to be Peter Pan. Never grow up. There's a magic first meeting and that's what we want from them. Every time...

Wait, I just wrote that a few days ago to talk about Gogol Bordello's newer, more mature sound on their last album. The same idea, though, is in my mind about Cake's latest release, Showroom of Compassion. It's been almost 7 years since Cake has released a new album of material (not counting 2007's B-Sides and Rarities) and expectations have been high. Most Cake fans want the elements they've come to love: heavy guitar riffs, funky bass lines, subtle horn framing, and the snarky, clever lyrics.

John McCrea talked about Showroom's sound as "very different", but the band has firmly locked in on what their fans want and delivered just that. The lead off track, Federal Funding, could have come off 2004's Pressure Chief or any of their other albums. The ironic, deadpan lyrics offer themselves as thinly veiled social commentary. The laid back beat and steady guitar riff are comfortable elements from earlier songs. One interesting twist here that comes up on a few other songs is the Robyn Hitchcock vibe.

The most interesting track is the instrumental piece, Teenage Pregnancy. The Moonlight Sonata influenced piano intro adds a poignancy before the grind of rock guitar walks through it. It's an interesting interlude that sounds like an alt rock band covering Paul Williams. Without McCrea's dominating vocals, the rest of the band gets to show off some of their tricks that often go unnoticed.

My other favorite moment is the segue from the country rock of Bound Away into the stark opening for the pop psychedelic groove of The Winter. The last word of Bound Away fades and the steel and keyboards swell a little into the silence. Then the vocal/piano start of The Winter takes over.
A winter's chill chilled me to the bone this year
And something in my mind just got away
That transition and the echo of the word "away" create a relationship between the songs in a subtle way.

Even if there's no break from the past, Showroom of Compassion provides another chance to enjoy what Cake does well. It's got the ironic distance and the great musicianship that I've always loved from Cake. Give the Rolling Stones' style single, Sick of You, a listen. If I were a hipster, I'd raise my PBR.

Friday, January 14, 2011

CD review - Delta Spirit, The Waits Room EP (2010)

The Waits Room EP is a change of pace for alt rockers Delta Spirit. For the most part, they've toned down the raucous edges (John Henry being an exception) to show off more of their country folk influences. It's a nicely balanced bit of Americana. Comparisons spring to mind -- like Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and some of Ryan Adams more country tinted work -- but The Waits Room EP feels confessional, like Delta Spirit sharing another facet of their musical personas.

The EP opens with the traditional country folk sound of The Flood, with warm vocal harmonies adding a vaguely bluegrass feel. The soft focus and simple phrasing stand in stark contrast with the trashcan lids and wild stage energy of their live performances.

A couple of the songs revise earlier versions on History From Below, their last album. Bushwick Blues here is slower and more thoughtful (here's a similar live version). While the original version is fine, the Waits Room version is more poignant and intimate. The pause before Matthew Vasquez sings the line "after all" takes on a deeper meaning. Devil Knows You're Dead is closer to the same, but it's more stripped down without the drums or electric guitar.

The gentle end of Devil Knows You're Dead and following studio chatter give way to an over the top arrangement of the traditional folk song, John Henry. The music sounds a bit like Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs' Wooly Bully. But the distorted guitar and screamed out lyrics turn this into a late 60's electric blues holler. It's a bit of an odd turn for the EP and I'm not convinced it was a good placement.

The album closes with My Dream, which has some of Jeff Buckley's wistful vocal tone. The soulful beat is a stark contrast to John Henry. The lazy flow helps The Waits Room EP softly slide down. It's a late night sound of cooling coffee after a few beers and chasers.

Fans of Delta Spirit already have The Waits Room EP . If you don't know the band, it's worth a listen and it makes a nice companion piece to History From Below.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

CD review - Gogol Bordello, Trans-Continental Hustle (2010)

At some level, we all want our idols to be Peter Pan. Never grow up. There's a magic first meeting and that's what we want from them. Every time. And some artists will give it to us, locked into the same rut...er, groove... until they're playing county fairs somewhere. And, perverse as we are, we look at them with sadness because they grew old and couldn't deliver on their promise.

Eugene Hütz and Gogol Bordello never pretended allegiance to anything other than their cultural pride and joy in playing. Trans-Continental Hustle delivers on both those points, but it's a more mature sound than the days of Gypsy Punks. Some things never change: Hütz's thick accent and the blend of folk instruments cutting loose are here like old friends. There's still plenty of Gypsy, but the sound is less bombastic and chaotic. Gogol Bordello adds depth to their wacky stage personas, giving a richer sense of who they are and what they care about, while keeping a good drive to the music.

Rick Rubin's production is strong factor in this new incarnation of Gogol Bordello's sound. Rubin has a reputation for drawing an artistic vision out of the musicians he produces. So, it comes as little surprise that Eugene Hütz and company have distilled their Gypsy wildness to get a purer sound, while also giving them the space to lay out the moody Gypsy jazz of Sun Is On My Side, with its world weary French cafe sound. It's bluesy, folky, and a touch hopeful.

Old fans will appreciate Immigraniada (We Comin' Rougher), where the chorus evokes the old Gypsy Punks sound. The verses are milder, but still show some of the old confrontational spirit. The cleaner production sands off some rough edges, but makes it easier to hear the nice collection of parts pulling the song together.

Throughout Trans-Continental Hustle, the old punk sound has drifted more towards a hard rock sound. Break The Spell pairs a ska energy to the gypsy rock sound. The song builds, throwing in a brief rock guitar lead that pairs well with the AC-DC chant of the title line. The Gypsy pride is overt:
You love our music but you hate our guts
I know that you still want me to ride in back of the bus.
I'm happy that Gogol Bordello is growing up without losing sight of what works for them. Trans-Continental Hustle is a newer sound, but it's a hopeful step forward for a band that still knows their identity:
And may the sound of our contaminated beat
Sweep all the Nazi purists off their feet
(Trans-Contintental Hustle)
Raise a vodka toast to growth and maturity...Bud'mo!

Monday, January 10, 2011

CD review - Foxes In Fiction, Alberto (2010)

Warren Hildebrand uses the Foxes In Fiction name for his solo recording work. Looking at the surface of his story -- solitary home recording studio, the loss of his brother, a breakdown -- the expectation might be for some kind of cathartic noise fest or self indulgent emo venting. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The underlying music on Alberto has a clear pop sensibility, but it's filtered through a hazy layer of echo and tint. The layers of low fi sound and ethereal vocals feed through a thick reverbing fog, creating a patina of nostalgic longing. Underneath this treatment, the music's retro simplicity glimmers like a frosty exhalation on a winter night. The pop song foundations are generally cheerful, with no sense of irony. It's a refreshing listen.

The single, School Night, sounds familiar (download it from Pitchfork). Other indie acts have played with similar elements. Foxes In Fiction's take is rich, though. The slowly unfolding rhythm and thick sound build the kind of sonic fog that each listener can fill with their own images. The layered vocals meld into the wash of sound that permeates the track. There are elements of David Gilmour hiding in here as well.

My favorite track is To Josef, In Texas, which has beautiful ripples of sound and hazy sparkles of guitar. It's hopeful and happy as it builds on a simple repetitive groove. At some level, it's like an optimistic counterpoint to the Velvet Underground's Heroin. It's too short, though, like laying in your warm bed on a cold morning. Another couple of minutes and I'll get up, I promise.

Pour yourself a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade and add a couple mint leaves to the glass. Bask in Alberto's rich haze.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Concert review - The Slackers with the Dendrites

6 January 2011 (Aggie Theatre, Ft Collins CO)

A ska dance party is a great way to start the year. The two bands had very different perspectives on ska. The Dendrites, out of Denver, aimed for a classic '70s style instrumental ska groove, while the Slackers played their wonderful retro blend of soulful ska. Both bands were tight and got the crowd dancing. The only thing that would have made it better would be if there had been a little cross pollination with members from either band sitting in with the other, because each had their own flavor.

The Dendrites
While there have been plenty of hit instrumental records over the years. it's tough for a purely instrumental pop music band to make its mark. Sure, jazz bands and others do it all the time, but they have lots of room to work with. For a pop, blues, or ska band to pull it off, they need to be phenomenal players. Even then, they must have the charisma and personality to build rapport and stage presence. It's easier with vocals -- there's a clearer way to send a message and connect. It's hard to leave all of that to the music alone.

Last night, though, the Dendrites showed no signs of handicap in their fine set. The sound of the horns playing a pre-show warmup, sparked anticipation in the crowd. The band assaulted the stage with a formidable wall of horns. Kicking off their set with Gumbo Hustle, they used the song as an extended introduction to the band. All of the musicians got the chance to show off their chops. Andy McClellan's rollicking drumwork was outstanding. Like many unsung ska drummers, his beat was somewhat buried by the horns, but there were enough drop out moments to really appreciate his detailed tom work.

The other players are just as impressive. In particular, bass player Alex Wynn was amazing; I loved how he could cover the beat and still throw in such intricate fills. The band was by no means introspective, though. In addition to their playing skills, both sax player Mont Brown and guitarist Kyle Gollob got their personalities across. One of the percussionists, Nick Dolan, also took on the role of emcee, running up to the front to goad the audience. This contributed a lot to their stage presence.

For the most part, the Dendrites played a classic 2 Tone style of ska. Songs like Flight School captured the moody sound of the Specials. They pulled in updated sounds, with songs like Armed and Opposed, which were reminiscent of Dire Straits or the Police. Later, on When Was Wednesday, they nailed a bluesy ska soul sound that had a deeper retro vibe. This kind of stylistic flexibility is a big part of what made their set so interesting.

The Slackers
The Slackers always had a distinct take on ska, rooted in the early '60s. Much like the original ska, they took early R&B and fused it to the off beat chank rhythm. They made it their own by blending in more soul and early rock sounds. They've also flirted with reggae and rock steady sounds to round things out. It's been a while since they've been in Colorado and I was excited to hear them again. While they have plenty of good albums, they've made their reputation with their high energy live shows.

Last night was no exception. The rhythm section started things off, but within seconds, the rest of the band was on stage and pounding out Keep Him Away. After the avalanche of brass from the Dendrites, the Slacker's horns sounded thinner, but their exuberance soon drove off the comparison.

The chemistry was perfect as trombonist Glen Pine and keyboard player Vic Ruggiero shared front man duties. Their voices contrasted, with Pine's soulful crooning and Ruggiero's more nasal punch. Glen Pine has clearly developed over years. During the show, he evoked a bit of Frank Sinatra and some of the other greats from that era. He looked so casual as he worked the audience, hitting each nuanced gesture. But he'd always be locked into the groove to come in and nail the horn parts with sax player Dave Hillyard. Similarly, Ruggiero's wise guy vibe was loose and easy, but his keyboard work was tight. His phrasing sounded a bit like Elvis Costello. The balance of styles was amazing.

The band hit a lot of the crowd favorites, like Crazy, Every Day is Sunday, and The Same Everyday. The transitions were smooth and flowing. My favorite song was Cheated, where Marcus Geard (bass) and Jay Nugent (guitar) coordinated a perfectly twinned line during the break. Pine's leering trombone offered a counterpoint to Ruggerio's sullen vocals. It was a great moment. Speaking of special moments, we also got to witness an on-stage proposal (she said "yes"), just adding to the spectacle.

The Slackers played a good long set and briefly stepped offstage. They didn't make us wait long at all, though, before they came back for nice long encore. Dave Hillyard even got a chance to sing one. The closer was a wonderful cover of Sam Cooke's Cupid. Despite throwing in the ska beat, the Slackers stayed close in feel to the original. Ears ringing, it was a skanking good time.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

CD review - Colin Stetson, New History Warfare, Vol 2 Judges (2011)

New History Warfare, Volume 2 Judges, due out February 22, is the follow up to Colin Stetson's first album, New History Warfare, Volume 1. Stetson continues his work in experimental art music which is heavily influenced by minimalist composers like Phillip Glass.

Staccato chops of sound, percolating and buzzing, form the basis of these pieces. The horns and vocalizations sound heavily processed, resonating with feedback or picking up odd echoes. This sets a mood across the album -- a touch of anxious tension and hidden threat. Despite this, it's a compelling listen and the song flow pulls the listener in.

Woodwind and horn player Colin Stetson has toured and recorded with diverse artists from Arcade Fire to Laurie Anderson to Tom Waits. His background is in jazz, but he's developed a unique sound based on percussive playing, circular breathing, and odd vocalizations. Like other iconoclast players (Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, Ornette Coleman), his original sound has made him a valuable addition to many other artists' music.

While most of New History Warfare, Volume 2 Judges is Stetson alone, he does bring in Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) to add their vocal talents. What's surprising, though, is that most of the album is recorded with no overdubs or looping. So, the intense bubbling electronic sounds of Judges, with its mangled and distorted bass sound, is all Stetson.

Similarly, The Stars in His Head (Dark Lights Remix) sounds like a droning electronic version of the Velvet Underground, with the sax covering the part of John Cale's viola. The feedback throb builds a disturbed feel, full of nervous energy. The balance of beat and squealing lines create a call and response. It's amazing to imagine Stetson creating all of that in a single take.

Each song that Laurie Anderson contributes to sounds like her solo work. Her voice, phrasing, and mood are so much her own and Stetson sounds like he's augmenting her work rather than vice versa. Fear of the Unknown and the Blazing Sun is the best of these:
Of all the wires, It was the wires That were the wires for empathy That we loved beyond all the others.
The odd percussion sounds looped and mixes well with the vocalized horn work.

Stetson's deconstruction of the gospel blues classic, Lord I Just Can't Keep From Cryin', Sometimes is another strong track. Shara Worden's vocals are effectively a capella, with just an occasional scratch of rhythm and an ominous didgeridoo hum lurking underneath. The creepy combination of the dirgelike singing and the threatening bass fill the track with such dread. It's a powerful track.

While a modulated arpeggio approach dominates New History Warfare, Volume 2 Judges, sounding superficially like Phillip Glass's minimalist work, I find this music much richer and more interesting. A strong aged tequila would be the right match: spicy, strong, and unmistakable.

(Sample: The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man)

Monday, January 3, 2011

CD review - Thee Oh Sees, Warm Slime (2010)

There's music that comes from the head, but Thee Oh Sees make music that comes from somewhere between the gut, the groin, and the ringing in your inner ear. Guitars flail and bass pounds as Warm Slime channels old school garage punk noise rock. It's defiantly and relentlessly low fi with sounds from the Cramps, the Velvet Underground, and the Troggs.

The epic title track is the centerpiece for the album. Sprawling for more than thirteen minutes and multiple sections, Warm Slime starts out with a head banging drive. The heavily echoed vocals are unintelligible, but message comes from the churning guitar and bass. About two minutes in, it melts down into a chanted refrain, "I need her by my side." There's a solo of thrashy random guitar that evokes the Velvet Underground's European Son. Rebuilding from the bare bones of the chant is inevitable and the song turns into a droning groove. In an interview with frontman John Dwyer, he talked about Warm Slime in the context of the stretched out songs of the past. His take would fit in well with the likes of In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida and other extended jams.

Another notable track is circling psychedelic groove of Flash Bats. This inwardly twisting jam could have easily been dragged out for another long track. The fade in beginning gives the impression that this was an excerpt from a longer session. Guitars are heinously abused against a steady, meditative bass line.

Like most guitar players of a certain background, I've played in bands that had the same thrash and trash aesthetic. It's supremely cathartic to play and to hear. It's the sound of noise ringing off the concrete walls of the storage locker or an unfinished basement. The sound of uncounted cans of cheap beer opening. The sound of life.