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

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

CD review - Ritmo Machine, Welcome to the Ritmo Machine (2011)

Hip hop/electronica fusion with a Latin flair

Ritmo Machine is a victory for globalization and we're all winners. Latin Bitman and Eric Bobo each bring a fairly different perspective to the group, which offers a richer sound than either have on their own. Chilean DJ Latin Bitmap ponies up his great ear for mixing backing tracks that are steeped in both electronic and Latin influences. Bobo has a classic hip hop sensibility rooted in his work with Cyprus Hill and the Beastie Boys. Some of their common ground may well come from the influence of Bobo's father, afro-Cuban percussionist Willie Bobo. But it's clear that each one hears a space for their own voice in the collaboration.

Welcome to the Ritmo Machine offers a cool mix of old school Latin funk, heavy beats, modern electronica, and tasteful sample layering. Most of the tracks sound like they start with Latin Bitman's groove inspiration. Then, the two musicians start adding color - an electronic scratch rhythm here, a cuica beat there. With this well constructed foundation, the tracks are complete enough to stand on their own. But they spice things up on some of the songs by featuring guest rappers adding their own flavor.

Maestro shows how well Ritmo Machine assembles their songs. It's a densely layered instrumental. It's got a modern, glitchy vibe, but at its heart it's a mix of Latin jazz and soul. The Latin beat sets up an uptempo drive that contrasts with a moody, soulful bassline. A host of details round it out, from electronic scratches to a chopped up afro-beat vocal sample. Early in the song, a funky guitar partners with the bass, but later, the track slides fully into jazz territory with a meandering vibes solo. While there are some vocal parts, the song works as a pure instrumental jam.

When the guest rappers sit in, they each add their own character, from Chali 2na on Witness This Heat to Sen-Dog (Cyprus Hill) on Senny Sosa. This latter track fades in with a loop that builds up tension to kick start a strong old school rap. The heavy throbbing beat with Latin percussion accents creates a deep pocket for Sen-Dog's strong Spanish delivery. The flow is tight with group punches on the closing words of the lines.

Latino hip hop is easy to find, but Ritmo Machine's stronger emphasis on the music creates a unique balance. Similarly, there's plenty of Latin influenced dance and electronica, but Ritmo Machine's street edge is more grounded.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Concert review - Infected Mushroom, with Randy Seidman and Seth Abrumz

28 January 2012 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

A couple of DJ sets featuring a pair of go go dancers were the prelude for Infected Mushroom's rocking show. This was my first time seeing the band and I was blown away.

But first, let's run through the opening acts.

Seth Abrumz
Seth Abrumz seems to be the go-to local guy for all of the electronic-style touring artists passing through Ft. Collins. He's normally a solid DJ, with a nice ear for mixing techno, trance, and dance beats. His biggest weakness is that he doesn't work the audience more directly.

For this show, he introduced the set saying "I'm going to whip it up in a different style than I normally do." With that, he set up a moody, jungle beat groove. It wasn't bad, especially when he layered another beat into the mix. The problem was that he didn't really do much else exciting during his long set. Throughout his tracks, he'd periodically tweak the mix a little, but almost all the creative work was done when track was originally laid down.

Did I mention how long his set was? It dragged out over 100 (!) minutes. I was starting to wonder if the touring acts had gone missing and he was covering for them. With such a long set anchored in the same tempo zone, the only distraction were the two dancers grinding to the beat. That added a little bit of show, but a screen with mutating visuals would have helped pass the time.

Randy Seidman
With minimal fanfare, Abrumz ceded the state to Randy Seidman. The start of Seidman's DJ set was promising. He started off with a strong, progressive house groove. He had some interesting transitions. Early on, he tweaked a looped beat so it was offset to give a slight reggae vibe and then layered in a straight beat. Those kind of interesting mix ideas were cool.

Unlike Abrumz, Seidman danced around a lot and engaged with the crowd a bit. But a successful DJ set depends on the communication going both ways. The DJ needs to read the crowd and adjust his set to create the mood and get people dancing. Seidman tried, but never quite connected. He'd set up a break beat and then drop in the heavy bass to get everybody dancing. The audience seemed game, but each time, they settled back down within two or three measures.

In a dance club or rave, he probably would have done fine. But between Abrumz' long, steady set and the anticipation for Infected Mushroom, he faced a tough challenge. Not even the hot dancers could tip the balance.

Infected Mushroom
It was close to midnight, but the relatively weaker opening acts were quickly forgotten once Infected Mushroom started their set. Listening to them online, I expected that they'd be tightly locked into the electronic trance groove. They delivered that feel, but that was only a taste of their range. They had a full band line up with keys, a guitar, and drums. The arrangements took full advantage of this to create rocking electronic grooves that sounded like a hard rock takeover of the club scene.

The guitar was a huge element. Tom Cunningham, the guitarist, favored metal style riffs, crunching rhythms, and soaring harmonics. Despite his hyper playing, his stage presence came across like a laid back Slash. Erez Eisen's keyboards covered the bass lines, but also kept the hybrid sound anchored with electronic jams. Along with drummer Rogério Jardim, the band assembled and rocked the groove. Even so, it was singer Amit Duvdevani that sold it. He was incredibly charismatic.

With a rapper MC flair, Duvdevani worked the crowd, getting everyone dancing and moving whichever way he wanted. Along the way, his singing bridged the two background worlds at the heart of Infected Mushroom, shifting between a hard edged growl and a more theatrical style. A couple of high points included their cover of the Foo Fighters' The Pretender and a balls out version of Pink Nightmares, their recent single.

Aside from the driving music and Duvdevani's stage presence, Infected Mushroom threw in plenty of spectacle, from the giant inflatable mushroom to the dancing Wonderland girls to a bizarre Mirror Man. But that was just window dressing. The audience let the band transport them to a wild alternative space. It took a while to get there, but Infected Mushroom was worth the wait.

One interesting observation was that Infected Mushroom was only selling shirts, not music. While it's true that the albums almost pale in comparison to their live show, it was still a surprising decision. If you get the chance to see them live, don't hesitate.

More photos on my Flickr.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Concert review, Dengue Fever with Secret Chiefs 3 and Action Friend

24 January 2012 (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)

Dengue Fever and Secret Chiefs 3 kicked off their national tour in Denver. As a tour of equals, the two bands plan to switch their play order from night to night. For this show, Dengue Fever took headliner duty and closed the show. Local band Action Friend started the show.

Action Friend
It's been a couple of years since I last saw Action Friend. Musically, they seemed to be on the same path as before, anchoring their songs in thick walls of metal thrash. That chaos created a miasma of sound to offset the more thoughtful islands of clarity. Those moments were sometimes jazzy or reflective indie rock, but they never lasted long before being subsumed in another change in sonic direction.

So, Action Friend's focus was still on experimentally grafting song snippets together into a Frankenstein whole. At the same time, the band's technical skills couldn't be denied. The sections themselves were often technically challenging and well executed.

One area where the band has really progressed is in their stage show. Their costumes fit well with the uneasy mood their music created. In particular, the lead singer's impassive Neanderthal presence during the opening instrumental was very entertaining.

I can't really talk too much about Action Friend, though, because I missed much of their set. I ducked out to interview Senon Williams and Ethan Holtzman from Dengue Fever.

Secret Chiefs 3
If Action Friend mashed up little slices of songs, Secret Chiefs 3 pureed whole genres. I had never heard of the band, but some fans in the crowd set me straight. They told me about frontman Trey Spruance who played guitar with Mr. Bungle (along with drummer Danny Heifetz). They also mentioned that Secret Chiefs 3 is actually several different bands in one. This lined up with the genre deconstruction of Mr. Bungle and proved to be the key to appreciating Secret Chiefs 3.

Once they started playing, I came to understand that. The opening song had an ambient start with a sustained chord on the keys and guitar string scratches creating a creepy mood. The bass kicked in with a solid groove, but song quickly mutated into a progressive/soundtrack kind of sound. The sound veered off into more intense grooves, emphasizing a metallic, post rock feel.

The first song seemed to set a theme for the night, but the next song tossed that out the window. A jangly Arabic groove meandered around, driven by Spruance's bizarre electric saz (a saz neck grafted onto a Danelectro Longhorn). The hypnotic groove broke down into jerky, off beat rhythmic lines. It was a trippy experience.

Without a word spoken the entire set, Secret Chiefs 3 maintained an intense stage presence. The band anonymized themselves with monk robes, except for violinist/guitarist Timb Harris who covered his face with some kind of sheer keffiyeh, which added to the mystique of the performance. Spruance often seemed to channel Rasputin as he cavorted around the stage, dancing ecstatically.

The sound made its own ecstatic dance, bouncing from Gypsy/Arabic to progressive, from dreamy to intensely angular, from soothing melody to prickly experimentation. Secret Chiefs 3 reflected some of the plasticity of Mr. Bungle, but directed into a more mystical space. Like some of Frank Zappa or Robert Fripp's compositions, the music had a very intellectual vibe. Despite being clearly directed, Secret Chiefs 3 regularly triggered a more chaotic mental response.

Dengue Fever
I was excited to finally get the chance to catch Dengue Fever's live show. I've loved their albums for years and enjoyed their performances on Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, but it's always better to be in the same room, where anything can happen. As I mentioned before, I got to sit down with bass player Senon Williams and keyboard player Ethan Holztman before the show for an interview, which just confirmed for me how open and genuine this band is.

I snapped a shot of the setlist, but that was a waste of time. Reading my mind, the band ignored the list and kicked off with an intense version of my favorite song, Seeing Hands. The moody raga groove served as a good transition from Secret Chiefs 3 to Dengue Fever's musical base.

Lead singer Chhom Nimol served as the centerpiece, showing off her flexibility as a performer. Her singing was solid, ranging from strong pop to haunting vulnerability. But the surprise was how adroitly she adapted her persona to match the piece. One song might cast her as a naive ingenue, but later she'd build intense focus with a meditative chant. Another song might show off her saucy, playful side. And yet, between songs, she'd humbly thank us for our attention, exuding the joy she takes in this music.

Gathered around Nimol, the rest of the band brought a zen focus to their playing. From the snaky, bass-heavy spy theme groove of Durian Dowry to the ultra retro-pop of Tiger Phone Card, every song had its place. Where the earlier bands offered some sharper edges, Dengue Fever set a heartbeat groove that made their set a perfect finish for the night. Their emphasis on engaging the audience was also a key element, whether it was Nimol urging us to sing along or Senon Williams sharing a comment with someone in the front row.

Speaking of Williams, during our interview, he talked about his roots as a teenaged punker and that showed in his stage presence. He stalked the stage from side to side, constantly pulling the other members together. One minute he'd high jump off the drum riser, then he'd mirror guitarist Zac Holtzman or maybe just pogo along with the beat. His manic energy made him the electron to Nimol's nucleus.

The rest of the band may not have run around as much, but they held their own on stage, sharing their enthusiasm and focus. The interplay between Zac's guitar grooves and Ethan's organ fills created a great balance. Paul Smith's drumming was tight as he pushed a few of the arrangements a little faster than the studio versions. The only missing element was David Ralicke's horn. He'll be catching up with the band later in the tour.

At the time, I wasn't quite sure about the mix of bands on this billing; they seemed fairly different in character and musical approach, but in retrospect I can see the arc. Action Friends seemed to interleave two or three songs at a time, while Secret Chiefs 3 seemed to hop stylistically from song to song, setting a different granularity. Dengue Fever shifts this idea into genre melding, swirling the musical elements together. Their blend of retro surf, psychedelia, soul, and Cambodian rock had an extra spark in live performance that reflected a band having as much fun as we were.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Interview - Senon Williams and Ethan Holtzman (Dengue Fever)

I got the chance to sit down with Senon Williams and Ethan Holtzman from Dengue Fever before their show at the Bluebird Theater on 24 January 2011. Both the guys were easy to talk to as we discussed their Cambodian experiences, their musical roots, and more.

Jester: As I understand it, both of you traveled to Cambodia before starting the band. I've heard Senon talking about discovering music in the Cambodian market and I know that Ethan’s trip inspired starting the band. Were those independent trips?

Senon Williams: Yeah

Ethan Holtzman: Completely

SW: I traveled there. I wasn’t even planning on going to Cambodia. I was in Thailand, chilling on a beach with my girlfriend and people were offering us massages and manicures and fruit. We were thinking, “We can go to Mexico for this. We didn’t travel halfway around the world to chill on the beach.” We tried changing our visas to go to Viet Nam, but, this was ’95, we couldn’t change our visas. We still had to go home in two weeks. With a little research, we found out that in Cambodia, you can get your visa when you land. So, on a whim, we went to Cambodia and had the best time of our trip.

EH: I just got a one way ticket to Bangkok, Thailand. I was traveling with my ex-girlfriend for six months in Southeast Asia. I was figuring it out as it went along. Cambodia was one of the countries where we thought we should go, but we thought we should read up beforehand, because it was kind of sketchy still. Now, it’s changed a lot. But when Senon was there and when I was there… if there was an election there, it was still very unstable. A couple of French tourists took the train and were killed.

SW: When I was there, we were under strict warnings not to take any public long distance travel.

EH: Now, we go there as a band. We’ve been there three times. The last time was a month and a half ago and we got to play in almost all the different provinces. All the major cities.

SW: But you still don’t go off the path. Not because you’re afraid of people, but because there are a lot of unmarked mine fields that they’re still clearing. There have been minefields laid in different wars and generally, they’d be documented by the army because they don’t want to go back and blow themselves up. But in Cambodia, they would just set up minefields, camp for the night and move on without keeping any records, So, there’s no idea where all the mines are.

EH: They’d lay all the mines around the camp so if anyone tried to attack at night, they’d be safe. Then, they’d leave them. It’s just random.

SW: Probably themselves, they wouldn’t go hiking back in there, the next week.

EH: But there are organizations combing acre by acre. One’s called HALO. It’s supposed to be a really good organization. They’re clearing all the landmines. It takes time. But no one’s been killed doing it and they’re all Cambodians working.

SW: They came out to one of our shows at Siem Reap and met us. We had planned to go out to one of their sites, where they’re working on. But our schedule was so rigorous that we didn’t have time to go check it out.

When you guys were just back there, how did Cambodia compare to your first visit with the band?

SW: From 2005, it’s changed just as much as it changed from 1995 to 2005. The rapid growth is pretty amazing. When me and Ethan were there in the ‘90s, there were no took-tooks (small motorized cabs) and the roads were still coated in a thick layer of dirt. We came back in 2005 and the roads were all cleaned up and it was nice. But it was still really gritty, with trash in the street. This last time going, I didn’t see trash piles everywhere. There were took-tooks, which didn’t used to be there. There was a big mall in the middle of town.

EH: There was major development. We went in 2010 and 2011. We were fortunate enough to go twice. It’s taken on a new purpose. We play music and we also raise money for good charities that we’re collaborating with. Cambodian Living Arts is the main one. They’re developing there. We played a show on Koh Pich...

SW: Koh Pich Island. There was this little, tiny patch of dirt that they called an island. They had a bridge to it. And they’ve since made it ten times as big. They’ve developed something equivalent to a convention center on it as well as a bunch of little shops. And a huge European style park, which is strange for Phnom Penh.

But I think one of the things that’s changed since 2005 is that there was no real scene mixing the Khmer with the Westerners. I really felt that the last time we went there…There’s this place called the Meta House and a bunch of different bars that were bridging these cultures. This place called the Bopanna Center which is a film and audio archive. They have Westerners and Cambodians working together. A friend of mine is over there now, Conrad Keely from ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. He’s half Thai. He fell in love with Cambodia. Talking to him, because he’s been there for months, the scene he’s found in Phnom Penh is so mixed with Cambodians and Westerners playing in bands together, mixing all different types of sounds. There’s something happening there.

That must be cool, after seeing you guys in Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, where there was so much culture shock in both directions.

SW: In this last trip, our friend organized the most amazing tour for us. We were doing really good work, we raised tons of money for a few different organizations. And we were reaching the people we wanted to reach. It was really a good feeling; it was great. We were hanging out with such good people when we were there.

As foreigners playing Cambodian influenced music, it can raise the question of cultural appropriation. But hearing you guys talk about Cambodia makes that a non-issue. You clearly have a strong connection and deep respect for the culture.

SW: I don't try to appropriate anything Cambodian in me. I just play music and we have Nimol as our singer. There's an honesty with all of us. We're just who we are. We're not trying to take on a persona.

EH: What happened is that we kind of discovered how important this music was for that country and the history. These people died because of their music. We thought, "This music is great. It's totally obscure. Let's play a show and put this band together." Then all of the sudden, it started to have real meaning for Cambodians all around. Cambodian all around the world are finding out that this is the music that came from their past.

And it's being taken seriously

EH: And it's cool because on this last trip, we were able to go to Battambang, which is a city we never toured in. This is where all the best musicians and singers were from. We did a workshop with these...they're not kids, they're probably like 18-20...they're musicians...

SW: The one guy was in his 40s...

EH: It's Phare. It's like a circus training, musician, arts kind of campus in Battembang. That's kind of where all this music started from. To go back there and play a show and jam with these kids...they're really, really good

SW: These kids are insanely good. We've collaborated with so many musicians and they're all amazing in their own right. But these kids that we met, it was like a renaissance with them. They'd be able to play along with anything that we played. And anything that they played, we'd be able to play along. We had this connection, musically. We can make do with anybody we jam with, but these guys...

EH: It was way different than playing with other Cambodians we've met. They're all great, but they're classically trained or they're in an orchestra. These were musicians that were on the same level, play by ear. That's kind of the root of what started the movement of Cambodian rock. It was really good for us to come across musicians that we could collaborate with. We got to play a huge show in the streets with them in Battembang. And they played a song with us. They played the traditional instruments, like the roneat ek, which is kind of like a xylophone.

SW: It's kind of like those kids have it. The older guy, I don't think he was the teacher, he was just in the band. It was this generation bridge. Going back to what we were talking about a minute ago, Cambodians have come up to me and said, "It's great what you're doing. I didn't listen to all of this stuff my parents listened to." Then they find on their own that they love Dengue Fever and they tell their parents about it. And their parents love Dengue Fever. None of this stuff was planned, but it's cool that we can bridge the gap between generations.

That is cool. If I can change the subject, can you each tell me what your musical roots are?

SW: When I was a teenager, I was a little punk rocker in L.A., going to the Cathay de Grande and the Anti Club and Scream downtown. I was a punk rocker, but Hendrix was one of my idols growing up. I listened to a lot of jazz. I listened to a lot of Peter Tosh and Bob Marley as well. From an early age, I was into Funkadelic, pretty heavy duty. And Sly and the Family Stone. So, I'm from punk rock and '70s rock.

EH: I didn't realize how important some of the music I listened to as a little kid was, like when I was in 6th grade. Devo's Freedom of Choice, Talking Heads '77, Blondie's Parallel Lines - my mom had that one.

SW: I had that one on a mix tape. A few Blondie songs

EH: Clash, Combat Rock

SW: Clash, of course. That was heavy duty. Floyd, of course...

You know, on Cannibal Courtship, I heard a lot of that '70s, Two Tone era ska. After that I could hear it in the older stuff, too.

SW: Wow. You might be the first, Jester. It's probably the horns

EH: Dave Ralicke, our horn player is not with us tonight. He's in L.A. He definitely has a deep reggae, ska kind of thing. He plays trombone.

SW: I ran sound for Jump With Joey, back in the day.

I hear it with moody songs that have a meandering bass line and the horn punches. It reminds me of Ghost Town by the Specials or some of those other old classics. You guys helped me discover that connection between that second wave ska sound and '60s garage or surf rock. That moody, reverby sound...

SW: I remember during my punk rock days, I was so anti reverb. Now, I embrace it. More reverb!

EH: I used to play guitar in bands and I would just crank the treble. "That's the way I like it."

How much of what you guys do is improvisational?

SW: We improv a ton when we write the songs. We all come in with ideas. Zac comes in with a lot of the main ideas and lyric ideas. But we also bring stories to Nimol. She says, "I don't know what to write about." So, we say, "This is what you write about." So, she'll take her turn. But we do a lot of improvising at rehearsals. We have a timeline of our last album on two track recordings and you can see how songs develop over time from the early stages. We do a lot of improvising in the studio, then we get the songs tight. Then, back live, we open them up again because we like to have fun. So, we keep these open sections. It may be Ethan raising his hand or Paul doing some drum fill that will cue us back into the main part of the song. Live, about half of our songs have these open sections for us to, if we're in the mood, take it someplace else.

EH: We can extend it. It's one of those things. Tonight's the first show of our tour, but by show ten, we all get more comfortable. Even though you have your part, you're embellishing.

SW: Sometimes, I stop playing to let everybody know, "I'm gonna throw a little curve here." I like to change things up, so people won't get upset when I change it up. So, people get used to the idea.

But that's also like a dub thing in reggae. People drop out, so you can appreciate all the other parts in their own space. Then, when you come back in, it opens things up.

SW: I really missed you, man. Where were you (laughs).

EH: I know what you're talking about.

My old reggae band had a motto, "dedication to the groove." It doesn't matter what your part is, your job is to make the song sound right.

SW: Yeah.

Listening to you guys, like on Durian Dowry, the way the song goes through sections and everybody's got their part that fits just so. You can tell you it comes from listening to each other. I love that song.

SW: There's so much going on. The only place that not so busy is the vocals. Nimol sings this beautiful sliding melody over the whole thing.

EH: That's something that we learned. On our first record, we were playing a bit more on top of ourselves. Then, over time, we learned to create space. When I hear that first record...

SW: I know what you mean. When we perform those songs live, it's a lot different than the album. I don't listen to the record, but when I do hear it, I say, "That's how we used to do that song?" Lost in Laos is a perfect example. On the record, I played way trickier than I play it now. It used to be a full bass solo for three and a half minutes, so I toned that song down. But I didn't realize it until I heard it again.

EH: There was a cover that we had never heard before.

SW: That's half of our covers! Which one?

EH: Lost in Laos. I finally heard a recorded version

SW: I've still never heard the original. That's not the only song. There's other ones where Nimol would start singing and we've never heard the original version. But we just followed along.

EH: Hold My Hips.

SW: Yeah, Hold My Hips!

EH: That's a song that we play every show, because it has her a capella and it's got a dance groove.

SW: But Nimol explained the song to us before we ever had a recording. Do this thing (sings).

EH: I've still never heard Hold My Hips.

SW: I've heard the original version and they do (sings) and it's just like she sang us the parts.

EH: Nimol will sing us a song and we'll figure out the head and the parts.

SW: One time, we had to rewrite the head. She kept telling us that we were wrong, but we said, no, you're wrong!

Without having heard it?

SW - Exactly (laughs)

Tell me about your tour mates, Secret Chiefs 3.

EH: Trey and Danny were in Mr. Bungle. Danny's the drummer. His grandfather was Jascha Heifetz, the violinist.


SW: And the way that guy was to violin, homey is to drums.

EH: One of the best drummers ever. He's got such a dynamic style. He can play so light

SW: Effortless. So, if you see Paul, our drummer, shaking nervously, it's because Danny's in the crowd.

I'll wrap up with a favorite question: who would your dream tour be with.

SW: The first thing that comes to mind is someone that we actually did play with, because it was so fabulous. Seun Kuti was so inspiring to me playing live.

EH: That's Fela Kuti's kid. He inherited Egypt 80 (his father's band). He got the band. Femi (another son) didn't get the band.

SW: Is there anybody you can think of?

EH: You have to know them before you can tell if they'd be good. We toured with Chicha Libre, they're nice guys, really good music...

SW: They'd have to be fun people. This is kind of a dream situation now, playing with Secret Chiefs 3. Trey, the leader of this band, he's a genius. And he put out our first album. We had a nice couple of weeks together making the record.

I really appreciate your time. Thanks

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

CD review - Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Rocket Science (2011)

Jazz reunion looks forward, not back

The opening interplay of Gravity Lane sounds like a homecoming. On Rocket Science, Béla Fleck has reassembled the original Flecktones lineup, including Howard Levy. The floating banjo pattern, the touch of piano, and the ebullient harmonica fall together to recreate the jazzy magic of the first Flecktones album.

But as Gravity Lane develops, it's clear that all of the players have matured and extended their skills since those early days. The rhythms are more interesting and the phrasing is tighter. Throughout Rocket Science, the Flecktones celebrate their history together, but they're more focused on scaling new jazzy heights.

The parts are all well balanced between the players - Fleck's banjo skittles along, mutating simple roll technique into the feel of an arpeggiated keyboard line. Victor Wooten's bass warms up with simple comping, but eventually he makes his move to fly off into a busy melodic run. Roy Futureman Wooten lays down a solid classic jazz drum beat. Improvising fills off the basic rhythm, he finds the right flow to accent the melodic phrases. But the key is having Howard Levy back. Levy is adept at using the piano to support the progression while his harmonica colors the song with fill elements or echoes the bassline.

I particularly enjoyed Storm Warning. The bass sets up a moody start. The harmonica creates a poised tension. As the song opens up, it evolves into a progressive groove that twists upon itself, offer a sense expectations. The Flecktones toss the melody around before locking together again for a while. As one of the longest tracks on Rocket Science, Storm Warning drifts through a number of sections, but the high point is Victor Wooten's unchained bass solo section around three minutes in. It has that same crazy spark that Adrian Belew summons on guitar: twisted tones that seem to physically wrench themselves from the instrument. Fleck's composition takes full advantage of his bandmates.

The Flecktones fill Rocket Science with a rich mix of sounds from the bluesy tumble of Prickly Pear to the sweet jazz meanderings of Falling Forward to the musique concrète exploration of The Secret Drawer. It's a heady, exciting album, full of head and heart.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

January Singles

This month's singles are all video friendly. Each one uses a different approach to illustrate the song: from movie style mini-story to claymation to fly-on-the-wall reporting.

Real Estate - Easy (from Days)

I didn't catch Days when it came out last October, but listening to Easy, I love the Fountains of Wayne relaxed indie pop vibe. The music is cheerfully layered, with utopian lyrics.

Tom Scharpling's video offers a taste of irony that suggests a darker underside to Easy's dreamy peace. We're introduced to Real Estate's street team. They seem nice enough at first, although their love for the band is steeped in intensity. Eventually, a hapless DJ finds himself in the team's crosshairs, setting up the heartwarming end. There's something delightfully perverse about watching a man run for his life to the lines:
Around the fields we grow
With love for everyone
Dreams we saw with eyes of hope
Until that dream was done
Fourteen Twentysix - Little Diamonds (from In Halflight Our Soul Glows, due out next month)

At the start of Little Diamonds, Fourteen Twentysix adeptly channel an understated Replacements sound. The vocals remind me of Paul Westerberg's raw need on Achin' To Be. As the song develops, the sound is more polished than the Mats. But that's okay because they maintain the swaying feel even as they adorn the simple changes and create a richer set of layering.

The animated video, by Ruth Barrett, creates a nice story to complement the song.

Sampling Fourteen Twentysix's earlier music, I can hear the same vulnerability, although some of the tracks are more minimalist than Little Diamonds. I'm looking forward to checking out In Halflight, Our Soul Glows next month.

Mavis Staples, Wilco, Nick Lowe - The Weight

What a treat! Mavis Staples rehearsing The Weight backstage at the Civic Opera House in Chicago with Wilco and Nick Lowe. Appropriately, Staples leads the group through the song (the Staple Singers performed The Weight with the Band on The Last Waltz). She may be in her 70s, but she brings a ferocious soul to the song. Even in rehearsal, her stage presence shines.

During his verse, Nick Lowe's voice is low in the mix. But he still brings a burnished rasp to the song, recalling the edge he always injected into his pop songs. Tweedy gives a solid folky performance, which also has some give and take with Staples.

This backstage moment is what you'd like to imagine happens all the time - musicians jamming with the joyous spirit of a song and creating magic for the lucky few.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Music news - Keep your hands off my banana

It's appropriate to talk about intellectual property on a day when much of the internet is protesting SOPA.

In a nutshell, the Velvet Underground is suing the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts for trademark infringement to keep the iconic banana logo from being licensed.

The Velvet Underground and Nico
The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Velvet Underground & Nico album wouldn't have existed without Andy Warhol's influence as an artistic director and patron. On the music side, his main contributions were bringing Nico into the band and staying out of the band's other musical decisions. But it was Warhol's art scene and shock aesthetic that nurtured the Velvet Underground.

Andy Warhol's cover art, featuring the banana as a sticker (with an underlying skinned banana in pink), was simultaneously minimalist and subversive. The image itself was not trademarked or copyrighted.

That leaves the Velvet Underground making the argument that the image is indelibly associated with the band, which they claim effectively makes the banana their trademark. They argue that consumers would assume that the band tacitly supported commercial products using the image.

The challenge here is that The Velvet Underground & Nico's stark design doesn't include any other details beyond Andy Warhol's signature. So, any use of the banana alone is effectively a direct reference to the album. On the other hand, the banana isn't the same as the Rolling Stones' lips and tongue (John Pasche, 1970) or the Grateful Dead's "Steal Your Face" logo (Bob Thomas & Owsley Stanley, 1969).

I have a hard time getting behind the Velvet Underground on this one. Sure, there's a lot of money involved (a licensing deal with Apple triggered the lawsuit) and the image is associated with the band, but they didn't own the banana in the first place. On top of that, the band owes a debt to Warhol for his early support. Money changes everything.
And I guess that I just don't know
Oh, and I guess that I just don't know
The image at the top of this page is by artist Karen Ramsay. I sat for the drawing and licensed its use, but she owns the art. I'll let you know if she makes a deal with Apple...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

CD review - Amoral, Beneath (2012)

Mixed bag of melodic and power metal with hard rock flourishes

Beneath opens with orchestral synths asserting a stately sensibility on the title cut. Amoral gives us a full minute to let that sink in before unleashing the guitars to bark out a classic metal riff. The band has a good sense of dynamics, alternating between an appropriate shred and moodier dropouts. While the sections themselves take enough time to make their point, the transitions between them sections come swiftly.

This pace keeps Beneath moving along quickly despite its almost nine minute run time. At the same time, it feels like a pastiche as Amoral bounces from motif to motif. They even throw in some death metal growl to allude to their past.

The patchwork feel persists to the album as a whole. While Beneath maintains continuity, the stylistic variation between the tracks sounds like a band in search of direction. Melodic and power metal blend with modern rock. Then they occasionally toss in a lightweight shadow of death metal. There are plenty of good songs or even pieces of songs, but Amoral needs more lyrical strength to hold the pieces together.

For example, Things Left Unsaid starts with a strong opening riff. A second guitar joins in loosely to lay out a counter melody. When the rhythmic crunch hits, it creates a heavy balance to the lighter melody lines. The vocals are theatrically large, but they lack lyrical depth:
Help me see all that I've got
Make me work on what I'm not
What good is a script if there's no chance of getting it shot?
Fortunately, tracks like Same Difference offer some distraction. Thrash metal riffs drive it forward and the glam metal vocals fit together well with the choppy rhythm and grinding guitars. It's very catchy. The lead section features some nice harmonized guitar lines that slide into a more modern rock feel.

Amoral started reinventing itself with Show Your Colors. Beneath continues the process. It may be a mixed bag, but the playing is solid enough across the genre shifts to give them a fair trial.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

CD review - Bushmaster, Revolution Rhapsody (2011)

Classic rock and blues with tasteful guitar work

Some bands embrace a retro sound as homage or to prove a certain kind of affiliation. Others are trying to capture a time or feeling that resonates with their psyche. Gary Brown's Bushmaster seems so steeped in 1969-1975, it's like they're time travelers. They perfectly evoke a blend of Jimi Hendrix and Paul Rodgers-era Bad Company filtered through a solid electric blues band.

Brown shows off as a dedicated student of Jimi Hendrix. His fluid lead lines, the chord melody embellishments, and tone capture Hendrix's sound, with more focus on the Jimi's blues and ballads than rocked out bombast. Take the opener, Cumberland Blues: the song uses touches of Voodoo Child (Slight Return) to liven up a straightforward blues jam. The bass and drums are tight in the pocket, but Brown's personality steps forward to drive the tune. In a nice shift, the bridge opens up the song beyond the blues with a classic rock jam interlude.

I Will Shine maintains the bluesy feel, but this is where the Bad Company influence steps forward. The tune is reminiscent of Shooting Star without being derivative. Beyond the progression, Bushmaster has sonically captured that early '70s production. Brown's vocals, which are soulful throughout Revolution Rhapsody, aren't quite as husky as Paul Rodgers, but he's in the ballpark. The arrangement's backbeat, bassline, and guitar lines all nail down the signature Bad Company sound.

Bushmaster doesn't limit themselves to those influences. They draw from the same well as Lenny Kravitz and others, melding soul and funky rock. This casserole of rock and blues is fairly tasty. The only off notes are the political tunes, Arizona Shame on You and War on the Poor, whose heavy handed lyrics are shoehorned into middling blues jams. On the other hand, We All Fall Down makes its political point within a much stronger song. This one reminded me a lot of Eric McFadden (The Rise of King George II meets Diamonds to Coal).

Despite the couple of weak tracks, Revolution Rhapsody is a strong offering. It's enough to make me wish I could join in Bushmaster's hosted open mike in Carlisle, PA.

(Check out song samples at Amazon)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Music news - Radio Moscow meltdown

Hey, hey, my, my
Rock and roll will never die
Hang your hair down in your eye
You'll make a million dollars
-- Todd Snider Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues
It's hard for small bands to get any attention. The lesson of Lady Gaga is that the internet needs spectacle. So, this blurb about Radio Moscow falling apart onstage has been making the rounds. Much like Todd Snider's "band that wasn't even together", Radio Moscow dissolved at the start of their North American tour. According the press, the drummer hurled frontman Parker Griggs' own guitar into Griggs' face.

Ouch. Poor guy! 14 stitches in the emergency room and he's left in the lurch when his drummer and bass player desert the tour. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. At least he's already found replacement players because The Show Must Go On.

Of course, the spectacle was all captured on video:

Far from bolstering sympathy for Griggs, the video shows him provoking the attack when he threw his guitar at the drummer Cory Berry and his drum kit. From the witness reports, Griggs was trash talking the band well before the ugly set closer.

In a cynical world, no press is bad press - but this kind of lame acting out isn't going to win Griggs or his new line up any fans. It's a shame, Radio Moscow has made some good music in the past.

Best of luck to Parker Griggs' new bandmates. Be ready to dodge!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

CD review - Lawrence Ball, Method Music (2012)

Experimental explorations build on Pete Townhend's Method

Pete Townshend's Lifehouse project became the Who's Smile. Like Brian Wilson's unreleased masterpiece, it never quite came together. Some songs, like Baba O'Riley, were salvaged and released as Who's Next, but the full scope of Townshend's vision was never realized. One of his key ideas was the "Method", a way of creating music based on users' personal data.

In 2007, Townshend worked with composer Lawrence Ball to explore a practical application of these ideas. Ball had already developed his own ideas around "Harmonic Maths". The two collaborated with programmer Dave Snowdon to create an experimental web site that would open this work up to the internet at large, creating personalized musical portraits that were based on user input.

Method Music captures proof of concept work that Ball did in preparation for the Method web site. The first disc, Imaginary Sitters, presents a set of the kind of portraits they hoped to produce from the Method web site. The second disc, Imaginary Galaxies, expands on the sounds to develop more depth and complexity. It's very interesting how Method Music seems to distill one of Townshend's musical obsessions, transcending his rock roots.

All of this presents Method Music in a cold, very left brain light. Like most experimental music, the story behind the approach casts a heavy shadow across the work. But the music itself is interesting beyond that. Ball's minimalist approach may start with Phillip Glass style repetition and arpeggiation, but the tunes take on a programmatic feel.

Listen to Sitter 17. It begins with a gamalon sound, percussive and insistent. The sonic layering is regular but slightly chaotic, as it offers a multitude of details to focus on. When the more fluid and delicate sounds come to dominate in the middle, it creates peaceful space. But that space mutates back into a thicker sound. Taken as a whole, Sitter 17 feels like an underwater journey, starting in the rougher shallows, but touring around observing a host of wonder.

The galaxy tracks are much longer explorations, 20+ minutes each compared to the 5 minute portraits. Having that much space work with, Ball seems more content to take a leisurely pace and let the tunes unfold more slowly. Sonic elements swell and ebb over time in ambient waves and the rhythms are less harried. The new age feel of these songs is well suited for meditation and focus.

If you enjoy modern minimalism and experimental music, Method Music has a lot to offer. The Pete Townshend connection is intriguing, too.

Method Music is out January 31 on Navona Records.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

CD review - Softspot, NOUS (2011)

Psych pop reveries hint at deeper possibilities

Brooklyn trio Softspot has its origins as a duo between childhood friends Bryan Keller and Sarah Kinlaw. Bringing drummer Andrew Spaulding into their mix adds a touch of drive and structure to their psychedelic tinted dream pop. NOUS is a mere three songs, but they're enough to demonstrate how Softspot excels at creating textures and mood with a dense sonic mix.

Each song offers its own sensibility. Holy Father uses insistent percussion to build tension while sparse instruments add accents. The vocals provide the real balance; they're strong, but the softened attack and echoes give them a detached feel. Slight Pink Floyd psychedelic vibes creep in, but the overall sound is more like Bjork. I can just make out the words, but they don't seem to matter to the psycho-sonic sense of the song.

Next up, Slack Tide's dreamy indie pop is full of muted jangle and flickering candle-light vocals. The tight drum groove anchors the dream. Once again, the track creates a strong feeling, like the sound of sitting in the dark with someone who might become your love, communicating with light touches and whispers. The sense that things are waiting in store for you. The song's climax hints at illumination, but only reveals more possibilities.

The final track Notorious Debris starts by recalling Pink Floyd's Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, but the richly reverbed guitar ignores that to explore a dreamy, late night vibe. The textures of the music create a mix of Callers and pop psychedelia. The vocals add a birdlike quality. Then the song expands into an intense noise pop swirl of sound.

Most importantly, NOUS has an innate quality of more-ness. I want more than this short EP so my dreamy reverie can continue.

Drop by Softspot's Bandcamp page to listen and buy the tracks.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

CD review - Bill Hicks, 12/16/61 (2011)

The rant artist as a young man...

Last month, Ryko released 12/16/61 as a teaser for the new box set, Bill Hicks Essential Collection, which drops on January 18. This is a long overdue recognition for Bill Hicks, who passed away in 1994, well before his time. The box set includes some of Hicks' music, which was going to be my angle to justify writing about comedian in my music blog.

Of course, 12/16/61's brief five tracks focuses on Hicks' early standup bits and doesn't cover his songs, like Chicks Dig Jerks. Despite that, I'm happy to start the year with a detour to get a reminder of Bill Hicks' wicked sense of humor and sharp mind.

The bits here are very early Bill Hicks, from 1982. He hadn't yet settled into his scathing social commentary, although the roots are there in his Reagan references. Listening to his casual delivery and soft southern drawl, it seems almost like a harbinger of Jeff Foxworthy. Except Jeff Foxworthy never started a bit with, "I figured this out on acid; I'm not making it up!"

Hicks talks about Mick Jagger ("a little effeminate billionaire elf"), Keith Richards, and his sarcastic admiration for punks:
I like punk rock. I don't like the music, but I like the people in it. I respect them. Most people are like "I don't like Reagan, but that's life". They got no spine. Punk rockers are like "Yeah, I don't like Reagan, so I think I'll stick a bone up me ass"
Still, Hicks' growth as a comedian did parallel other cultural trends. Middle class pop dreams were overrun by punk's anger and frustration. Then, new wave would polish that anti-establishment edge and trade some anger for biting cleverness. Hicks would grow beyond his observational humor and anecdotes to develop into his anti-corporate/anti-bullshit punk phase.

From Jon Stewart to Doug Stanhope, Hicks' spirit is alive and well in our culture, even though he's gone. Pick up 12/16/61 from iTunes and spring for the box set later this month.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Favorite concerts of 2011

If picking a favorite set of albums for the year is hard, picking concerts is even harder. The right subjective mood can create a perfect concert experience or keep it from clicking. So, this exercise is more a chance for me to reminisce about my personal peak experiences. Hang with me.

Beats Antique with the Tailor and Inspired Flight
8 April, Boulder Theater, Boulder

From the dancer fangirls to the intoxicating grooves, this show was phenomenal. The opening acts meshed well with Beats Antique, offering tastes of both electronica and exotica. Inspired Flight covered the electronica side with the flexibility to bounce from DJ focused tracks to full on jams. Tarran the Tailor performed a solo banjo set that pushed sonic boundaries with effects and looping.

Beats Antique's performance was incredible. The music was lush and intricate, layered with syncopation and a rich palette of sounds. Of course, the music was only part of their show. Zoe Jakes and her fellow dancers added their choreographed interpretation of the glitchy world beat jams. On top of this, it was also my son's first concert and Beats Antique is one of his favorite bands.
(full show review)

Mogwai with Errors
2 May, Bluebird Theater, Denver

Mogwai dedicated much of their set to new songs from Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. The band imbued these songs with all the noisy catharsis that they are known for. The dynamics from the album were there, but the crescendos delivered tidal waves of sound. This was the kind of show that follows you home afterwards, lulling you to sleep with its echoes.

The opening act, Errors was a reasonable pairing. They built thickly layered sounds against a strong beat. Where Mogwai was more guitar oriented, Error focused on the electronic side, with synths and heavily processed guitars.
(full show review)

Garage a Trois
15 December, Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins

The four members of Garage a Trois seemingly morphed themselves into a single musical entity. That's the only explanation for how they could be so tightly aligned while darting in so many random directions. At the same time, each player's personality shone through, from Mike Dillon's manic mayhem on the vibes to Skerik's melodramatic exaggeration.

The music they created was fun, challenging, and jaw-droppingly amazing. Bounding from bebop to rock to Zappa-esque experimentalism, it was a night of surprises.
(full show review)

Stockholm Syndrome with Sam Holt Band
5 August, Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellvue

The right venue can add its own magic to a show. Set in the Colorado mountains, the open air amphitheatre at the Mish is a great place to see any band. Stockholm Syndrome's jam band groove fit perfectly. Jerry Joseph (the Jackmormons) fronted the band with tightly wound energy that contrasted with Dave Schools' (Widespread Panic) more solid presence. The show was amazing, with Schools' ecstatic bass runs and a fiery encore of Road to Damascus.

The opening act, the Sam Holt Band, featured Sam Holt and Tori Pater. Their Grateful Dead style jams favored the bluegrass side, with a country sound fueled by Adam Stern's pedal steel.
(full show review)

They Might Be Giants
3 November, Boulder Theatre, Boulder

I missed out on Jonathan Coulton opening for They Might Be Giants because he didn't join the tour until the next show in Salt Lake City. The consolation prize was that the band performed their classic album, Flood, in reverse order. They sandwiched the Flood run through with a brief opening set and a longer encore. This gave them plenty of time to share some of the songs from their two releases this year.

The show was a lot of fun, with plenty of humor and surprises, from the send up of Don Kirschner's Rock Concert with sock puppets to a an awesome version of Istanbul (Not Constantinople). Geeky, quirky, and above all, musically interesting.
(full show review)

John Popper and the Duskray Troubadours with Lisa Bouchelle, Funkma$ter, and Judd Louis
11 March, Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins

The opening acts were okay, with femme folk rocker Lisa Bouchelle standing out based on her strong voice and full bag of vocal tricks. But their sets were just an appetizer for John Popper's phenomenal set. Popper is already recognized as a virtuoso harmonica player; his supreme technical control and ability to take the instrument out to psychedelic extremes has amazed audiences for years. His backing band, the Duskray Troubadours, has a looser sound than Blues Traveler, but they've opened up Popper's playing.

The set included a few Blues Traveler songs, but the set was more laid back and soulful. This gave Popper room to wail. On Bereft, he showed off his singing chops and his wall of harmonica sound.
(full show review)

David Bromberg with Mollie O'Brien and Rich Moore
30 December, L2 Arts and Culture Center, Denver

It's been years since I last saw David Bromberg, but his recent Denver show delivered on all my memories. He is the consummate performer, between his amusing banter, amazing playing, and the joy he exudes on stage. Backed by his quartet, he covered his wide range of styles, from bluegrass and traditional music to some wicked blues. The high point, though, was his solo version of Delia, where he talked about the real life roots of the song while he meandered through the fingerstyle blues.

The opening act, Mollie O'Brien and Rich Moore, were a good match. Moore played some tight fingerstyle guitar while O'Brien sang, showing off her rich and soulful voice.
(full show review)

Portugal. The Man with Telekinesis and Unknown Mortal Orchestra
12 May, Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins

Portugal. The Man laid out some heavy retro rock jams. The darkness of the stage (they didn't use overhead spots) matched the deep slinky bass lines. The psychedelic music swirled and twisted, anchored by John Gourley's voice.

The opening acts added their flavor to the show, with Unknown Mortal Orchestra reaching for an experimental indie rock sound and Telekinesis rooted in punk energy. The three bands each had their own styles and strengths.
(full show review)

Cymbals Eat Guitars with Hooray For Earth and A Mouthful of Thunder
15 October, Hi-Dive, Denver

Cymbals Eat Guitars created a sense of barely controlled chaos. Maybe it's how front man Joe D'Agostino twisted and lunged at the mike or it could be the waves of distorted guitar and keys. But the bedlam was under control. The band took that cathartic wall of sound and tempered it with dynamic drops to build the emotional intensity. Their live sound differed a bit from their albums, suggesting the Replacements playing head music. Their set was draining, but worth it.

Of the openers, Hooray For Earth was the better match for Cymbals Eat Guitars. They had a stronger synth focus than CEG, but their dark, bass heavy grind set the mood for CEG's set. Despite being a three piece, their sound was remarkably thick and complex.
(full show review)

Wye Oak with Callers
2 April, Larimer Lounge, Denver

I caught this show primarily to see Callers. I loved their album, Life of Love and I even interviewed the band before the show. Callers did a great job translating the dreamy, subtle sound of their album to the stage. Sara Lucas' rich voice was the centerpiece, but the backing music was nuanced and powerful.

The headliners, Wye Oak, are a duo with a fairly complex sound, augmented by the drummer playing keyboards along with his drumkit. Their affinity for dissonance was quite different than Callers' approach, but Wye Oak's appreciation for dynamics and solid song structure meshed well with the opening act.
(full show review)