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

Monday, April 30, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 4/30

This is a slower music week. That's okay -- after Todd Snider and Frankenstein Brothers last week, I'm happy to catch my breath.

1 May 2012 (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
Delta Spirit

I reviewed The Waits Room EP last year. I enjoyed Delta Spirits' Americana vibe and the few raw edges that crept in. From what I've read, the band has continued to evolve, but I think they're definitely worth a listen. They have a chaotic energy that should come though nicely in a live show.

2 May 2012 (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Portugal. The Man

In the studio, Portugal. The Man balance loose trippiness with focused post-rock. Their live shows favor the psychedelic a little more. When I saw them last year, the moody lighting and egoless emphasis on the music made for an intense experience.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Concert review - Frankenstein Brothers with Wolff and Tuba

27 April 2012 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

Three completely different flavors of weird, experimental music came together in a single show. Outsider musicians firmly locked into their own beats, each act offered a glimpse of a different, alternate musical universe.

Brian Wolff opened up the night with his tuba and other toys. Next up, That 1 Guy played mad scientist with his self-designed Magic Pipe. Then shred-meister BucketHead abused a poor defenseless electric guitar during his solo set. Finally, the monster assembled: That 1 Guy and Buckethead combined forces as Frankenstein Brothers, even pulling in Wolff for a song.

Wolff and Tuba
Someone neglected to tell Brian Wolff how tuba works. In his world, tuba isn't delegated to the back line of the brass band and there's no concept of oompah. Instead, Wolff took the sounds from his tuba along with his voice and fed them into a host of effects to create a palette for his looped musical creations. Just like Adrian Belew uses his guitar synthesizer to evoke surprising mutations of sound, Wolff creatively sculpted the sounds he needed for each song

He built his rhythm tracks by tapping the body of the tuba and by beat boxing. A more normal tuba sound provided bass line material. Then, pitch shifting whammy pedals let him push his melodies into higher registers. He used echo, distortion, and other guitar oriented effects to open up a rich set of sonic possibilities from crunchy heavy metal rhythms to walls of orchestra synth.

Wolff adapted these elements to hit a number of genres, from experimental hard rock to electronic grooves. His set provided constant novelty and WTF moments. Singing into the mouthpiece of the tuba, which has its own built in mic, his distorted vocals rounded out the sound like a disturbed Tom Waits.

As much as I enjoyed his original songs, including The Triumph of Delusion, his deconstructed cover of Prince's When Doves Cry was amazing. Mechanical beats and heavy bass defined his approach, but he nailed the staccato keyboard riffs, too. His fuzzed out singing added an OCD desperation to Prince's lyrics.

Wolff was a perfect opener for Frankenstein Brothers. The music was intriguing and a little challenging. At the same time, he showed a similar theatrical flair.

Frankenstein Brothers

That 1 Guy
That 1 Guy opened his solo set with Modern Man and its Baba O'Riley style arpeggio groove. Where Wolff's tone was raucous, That 1 Guy was crisp and funky.

That 1 Guy is uniquely astounding. Starting as a bass player, he found the standard bass was too claustrophobic. He wanted to expand into rhythm and wider range of sounds. To reach this goal, he had to invent his own instrument, the Magic Pipe. Part standup bass, part drum synthesizer, the Pipe is a complex collection of strings and triggers. That was only the first step. Next, That 1 Guy became a master of the instrument.

The Magic Pipe provides percussion, bass, melody, and sound effects for That 1 Guy to bow, slap, or tap into place. Like the last time I saw him, he still used his catchphrase, "But wait, there's more" before launching off into another polyrhythmic groove. From jungle beats to the soundtrack of a deranged hoedown, That 1 Guy's had a kid's delight in zipping off in five directions at once, combined with a more mature musical ear.

More than just the music, his theatrical sense kept the crowd locked in, whether he was miming the sound effects or throwing in a magic trick or two. The audience was very familiar with his songs as they grooved to Butt Machine and sang along with The Moon is Disgusting.

After That 1 Guy's set, Buckethead sauntered out in his mask and KFC bucket. His show had a different balance of theater and music that contrasted a mechanical, emotionless affect with fluid, expressive bursts of guitar shred. He'd lock into a stiff Robot Dance while the notes escaped with dreams of freedom, like a musical embodiment of Ellison's I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream. Buckethead played his solo set against a set of prerecorded instrumental tracks that grounded his musical explorations. Even though this imposes some limits on the song forms, his lead work destroys any sense of predictability.

Buckethead's mastery of heavy metal stunt guitar exceeds Yngwie Malmsteen's, but he proved that his musical tentacles reach further afield. Atonal, experimental flurries gave way to in-the-pocket jazz chops, which fell to twangy country tones. The stylistic change-ups and dynamic shifts kept the audience's attention.

Beyond his robotic stage persona, Buckethead's show had a couple of other standard features, including a toy exchange in the middle. Like an E.T. Santa, he diffidently handed out toys to the front row. Many people brought toys to trade, which he'd examine and carefully set aside. That led into a brief nunchaku kata.

After the mid-show break, there was the ritual of the kill switch. Buckethead's guitar has a red kill switch that cuts the signal when pressed. Rhythmically tapping it during a solo creates some very strange, feedback laden sounds. As Buckethead slowly traversed the apron of the stage, he allowed the audience access to the kill switch, letting them control the glitchy fury.

Frankenstein Brothers
After a brief break, Buckethead and That 1 Guy came out for a shared set. Like Frankenstein's Monster, the assembly was distinct from its constituent parts. With That 1 Guy setting the groove, it opened up Buckethead's playing better than the prerecorded tracks of the solo section. That 1 Guy stretched out, too, manipulating the Magic Pipe to get the sounds of keyboard washes and violins.

One of the stranger songs was a mutated, detuned version of Joe Walsh's Life's Been Good. That 1 Guys deep vocals led into the only time I've ever heard bass yodeling. It was similar to Tuvan throat singing.

Wolff joined the two for a song that featured a blistering set of exchanges between the tuba and guitar. This took the classic call-and-response form into a warped carnival sideshow space.

The set wrapped up with a cover of Pure Imagination (Willy Wonka) leading into Bolt On Neck. The Led Zeppelin inspired crunch of the rhythm line worked the crowd into a final frenzy.

More photos on my Flickr.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Concert review - Todd Snider with Reed Föehl

25 April 2012 (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)

I was pleased that Todd Snider played here in Ft. Collins, especially in an intimate venue like Hodi's. It's a big difference from the Boulder Theater (his next stop on the tour). Snider and Reed Föehl pulled in a mixed age crowd that filled up the venue.

Reed Föehl
Folk singer Reed Föehl is a Boston native, transplanted here to Colorado. He played a comfortable, singer/songwriter set that didn't push boundaries but still satisfied the quiet, attentive crowd. With his simple finger-picked guitar and the wistful twang of his singing, his first song evoked John Prine at his more serious. His subtle harmonica playing added a tentative vulnerability to the tune.

Introducing the next song, he said, "I'm sure a lot of these may be new to you. But this one is new to me. It's called 'Color Me In'." It was another simple waltz beat folk song, sounding like early solo Ryan Adams. These were good tunes, but they set the flow for the whole set: serious, sincere folk music with a coffee shop vibe.

Föehl's stage presence fit well with this. He was very gentle and earnest, with a mild self-deprecating patter. Even offstage, his mellow, friendly vibe made him very approachable. Still, I found myself wanting him to be more dynamic, both physically and musically. The folk genre is a fairly big pool, with room for humor, edge, and energy but Föehl's set maintained an even, steady pace.

His next to last song finally shook things up. Once an Ocean was moodier with a darker depth. Föehl channeled Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield and built a much appreciated intensity.

Todd Snider
In person, Todd Snider always teeters on a ledge in a way that even his live recordings can't quite convey. He's joked about this unpredictability in his song, Age Like Wine:
My new stuff is nothing like my old stuff was
And neither one is much when compared to the show
Which will not be as good as some other one you saw
So help me, I know, I know
I know I am
an old timer...
Snider is touring behind his latest album, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (review), but the set list bounced through his full catalog. He opened with an older tune, Alright Guy, then jumped right into New York Banker from the new album.

Snider was something like a Zen master as he zipped through his set list but never seemed rushed. He and the band flowed from song to song, but as soon as the pace seemed noticeable, Snider broke it up with some of his seat-of-the-pants patter. While a given story may follow the same basic flow from show to show, the details shift and blur.

The best moment came near the end of Beer Run, when he interrupted the song to share his philosophy about playing goofy songs like this:
...there's something I want to get off my chest because it bothers me. My friends back home in East Nashville, they just naturally assume...without even asking me, they just naturally assume that I am sick of this song that I'm playing right now. They say, "Oh God damn, you must be sick of that fucking one." Shit, no, I'm not!! It's my favorite one...

...I can't get enough of it. And I'll tell you something else. I'll tell you that there ain't never gonna be a day in my life when I make up a song that somebody else likes or wants to sing to. I don't care who they are. If they like it and they want to sing to it, I want to sing it for them. I'm grateful for it. And I'll tell you why...

That segued directly into Age Like Wine before wrapping up with a final chorus of Beer Run.

His backing band matched Snider's style perfectly. They laid low, easy to underestimate until you realized how tight they were. The uptempo numbers gave them a little more room to work with, allowing for some fancier fills, but they were great sidemen. Their foundation gave Snider more dynamic space.

The mix of new and old tunes satisfied the crowd. Snider's consistency as a writer provided the common ground that had everyone singing along on every song. Along with his own songs, Snider threw in a run of covers: Neil Youngs Hey hey, My My, Rusty Weir's Don't it Make You Wanna Dance, Jerry Jeff Walker's Pissing in the Wind, and Jerry Lee Lewis' Great Balls of Fire. Each of these felt like the show's closer as the big endings dragged on, but every time, the band would suddenly kick into the next one. By the time Snider and the band finally left the stage, the audience was wrung out. If this was a ploy to avoid an encore, it didn't work, though. Snider came back out and took a request (Play a Train Song) and followed that up with his last song of the night, Big Finish.

This turned into a sideshow moment. While Snider encouraged a girl at the front of the stage who was soul singing along, the rest of us were distracted by a harmonica player walking through the crowd towards the stage. Acting like he was part of the act, the harp player jumped up and took over the mic. A bemused Snider handed him another harmonica in the right key. When the soul singer decided to come up, too, Snider just stepped back and gave them room. It was anarchy, but what else is going to happen when you try to make a Saturday night out of a weekend.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

April Singles

From rooted to fully unmoored, April has some great singles, all releasing this month.

Busy Signal - Reggae Music Again (from Reggae Music Again)

Dancehall master Busy Signal releases his new album, Reggae Music Again this week. The track list makes it clear that he's embracing the whole of reggae, from the moody dub of Kingston Town to the soulful pop reggae of Come Over (Missing You). Fireball plays to his strength with some dancehall delivery over some sweet reggae horns. Still, the classic rock steady feel of the title cut hits the perfect sweet spot. The first verse sets the tone, "It's been a long, long time now, since we've grooved together like this." Reggae Music Again doesn't try too hard and the effortless groove is perfect.

Claude Violante - For You (from Claude Violante EP)

Claude Violante's voice is dreamy as she breathily declares her love. The electro pop groove is a little down tempo for the dance floor, but the double time electronic drums make up for that. A healthy dose of Annie Lennox cool adds to Violante's appeal. The lyrics are simplistic, but the backing track offers enough sonic details to keep the track interesting.

Dandy Warhols - Sad Vacation (from This Machine)

I haven't had a chance to listen to all of This Machine yet, but Sad Vacation seems both familiar and new. Courtney Taylor-Taylor's casual vocals still can't decide whether they're cool or bored, but the Dandy Warhols have toned down the irony and put their energy into the music. The guitars are strong enough to expand the synth pop sound the band has played with in the past. They fill in the edges of the song with swells of string noise while the relentless beat drives forward. Trippy yet focused, Sad Vacation is driven by shroom tea and a double shot of espresso.

Ty Segall & White Fence - Time (at Room 205)

Ty Segall and White Fence (Tim Presley) have teamed up on a new album, Hair. They featured their opening track, Time, on Room 205. The opening of the song sounds like a warm up, but soon enough, the track takes off into the psychedelic realms of the garage. The loose '60s psych-pop sound gets the vocal harmonies, the room echo, and guitar jangle just right. The bridge slides into a heavier acid jam. Noisy abandon reigns supreme.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Recording review - Anathema, Weather Systems (2012)

Reinvention or reincarnation takes Anathema into passionate expressiveness

Anathema continues to move away from their Gothic metal roots. Their last album, We're Here Because We're Here (review) followed producer Steven Wilson into post rock grandeur. Weather Systems hints at a progressive aesthetic, but producer Christer-André Cederberg led Anathema into a more lush, expressive rock space.

The tracks on Weather Systems follow a couple of organizing principals. The opening and closing songs both seem to deal with death and loss. In Untouchable Part 1, the serene vocals hover above a busy, frantic mesh of music. "And my love will never die / And my feelings will always shine." But before long, the vocals are caught in the tension, defensively declaring:
I never betrayed your trust
I never betrayed your faith
I'll never forsake your heart
I'll never forget your face
There's a feeling that I can't describe
There's a reason that I cannot hide
To never see the light that's so bright
The light that shines behind your eyes.
This reflects the spoken near death experience narrative of Internal Landscapes. Where Untouchable is stressed, this track is calm:
I did not have an out of body experience. I did not see my body or anyone about. I just immediately went into this beautiful bright light. It's difficult to describe. As a matter of fact, it's impossible to describe. Verbally, it cannot be expressed. It's something this becomes you and you become it. I could say that I was peace and I was love. I was the brightness; it was part of me.
Then Lee Douglas' vocal comes in: Goodbye, my friends. The ambient backing music takes on a heavenly, peaceful tone with a simple beat and simple guitar. The soul of the song remains calm, even as it grows more anthemic.

These themes around soulful connection, love, and moving on imbues Weather System with a satisfying emotional depth.

The other organizing principle is tied to the mini-concept album embedded within Weather Systems. The Gathering of the Clouds leads into Lightning and so on. More like movements of a larger work, there are melodic touchstones that turn up repeatedly. Fans of We're Here will be most satisfied with The Storm Before the Calm, which sets up a delicious tension. The post-rock crunch still allows for some rich dynamics. The louder sections build up to an onslaught of tension and grinding electronic sound over the steady beat. After that climax, the track fades down to a calming interlude that recalls Renaissance before building into a stately procession with flecks of Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd.

While Anathema's shift in sound is tied to Cederberg's production, the passion and expressiveness on Weather Systems is the band's own.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 4/23

It's a busy week with some great music. My current plan is to catch Todd Snider and Frankenstein Brothers at the very least.

25 April (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)
26 April (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Todd Snider

Todd Snider's latest album, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (review), takes on economic inequity (New York Banker), strangely successful pairings (Brenda), and pigheaded optimism (The Very Last Time) among other themes. They're all good stories and Snider is the master narrator. His albums make for fun listening, but his live show captures the real lightning.

25 April (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
26 April (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
27 April (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Frankenstein Brothers (Buckethead & That 1 Guy)

I know that Buckethead and That 1 Guy have been collaborating for a while, but this show will be my first time to see them live. I'm excited to hear how That 1 Guy's frenetic, one-man-band style will fit with Buckethead's shred-meister guitar work. Both of these guys are talented musicians with unique perspectives.

26 April (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)
28 April (Surfside 7, Ft. Collins CO)
Alone at 3AM

I'll warn you now that Alone at 3AM's upcoming album, Midwest Mess, is already in my review queue. Their bluesy country rock sound is well grounded. A first listen gave me a taste of Replacements, X, and maybe a hint of Roger Clyne's more earnest side.

27 April (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Real Estate

I mentioned Real Estate's Easy in my January Singles post earlier this year. They have a cool, Fountains of Wayne style relaxed indie rock vibe. Assuming you're not on an irony-free diet, this show should be great.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Recording review - Mumiy Troll, Vladivostok (2012)

Foreign reflection of western rock delivers a novel sound

Mumiy Troll is Russia's premier pop rock band with a worldwide following. Three years ago, they made their first splash here in the US. Comrade Ambassador (review here) introduced America to their unique Russian rock sound. They followed that up with a tour and English language EP, Paradise Ahead. Their latest album, Vladivostok continues to use English lyrics to reach out to a wider fan-base.

The English translations of their older Russian lyrics are fairly poetic. In interviews, frontman Ilya Lagutenko has talked about the Russian perspective on writing and why it's so vital to choose the right words. Lagutenko has done his work here, because Vladivostok's English lyrics are smooth.

Lyrics are important but the sound is more important for American audiences. Fortunately, Mumiy Troll delivers here as well. The band has a timeless feel that draws on retro instrumental sounds, '70s rock, post punk, and modern dance pop. The music alludes to the stripped down reverb of early '60s pop, but throws in electronic dance beats and synths. Mumiy Troll's pop aesthetic distills each song's essence and assembles the perfect ingredients.

Most of the tracks have a reserved quality. Lagutenko's voice has a weary, detached feeling like Brian Ferry. He also brings a touch of Bowie's Thin White Duke. Listen to Not Tomorrow; the words slip out punctuated with reluctant pauses. The simple guitar strum foundation is ornamented with reverbed fills and celestial keyboard textures. Yuri Tsaler's guitar work captures Johnny Marr's jangly perfection and Sdwig Zvidionny's bass line is a sweet mix of melody and funk. The outro feels particularly Russian. Parts drop out until a clean, lone cello line plays against the beat to evoke a mournful, empty room. The moment lasts few brief measures before the band returns:
Not tonight, not tomorrow
Sun will shine for free
Could I miss you more?
The high energy point is Vladivostok Vacation, which evokes a taste of Gogol Bordello. More than the accent, it's the dynamic of tense verses and proclamatory chorus. Lagutenko's voice is more engaged and Tsaler shows off some fine arena rock guitar work. This offers more of the power that Comrade Ambassador showed in songs like Queen of Rock.

Two tracks, Sleep Rock N' Roll and Hey, Tovarish, rework Comrade Ambassador songs with English lyrics. Hey Tovarish drops the cool intro/outro from the original, but it sounds like they used the original backing track, even down to the same sax fills on the last chorus. Lagutenko's new English lyrics drift from the earlier version's translation. The new lyrics are less ambiguous, so the original idea has more depth, but I like the last lines of the English lyrics better:
Dreams don't get to desire.
No start, no finish
No yin, no yang
No loss.
No pain.
Mumiy Troll's music reflects of decades of Western rock, but all swirled together and mixed with a foreign perspective. This gives the band an intriguing outsider vibe. Combined with Lagutenko's strong personality, Vladivostok delivers a novel sound.

Watch the video for Fantastica, their first single.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Commentary - Tupac Legacy, the reboot?

It's tempting to play Mercutio on the recent spat between Democrats and Ted Nugent ("A plague o' both your houses"), but trolls don't deserve the attention.

On the other hand, I find Coachella's Tupac 2.0 performance very interesting.

It's not so important whether Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre were ripping off Tupac's memory or paying tribute. I'm willing to grant them the benefit of the doubt.

The more interesting question is how this technology will evolve. The Coachella performance was an updated version of the virtual duet. Having Snoop Dogg mix it up with the Tupac projection created an illusion of interaction. I'm sure if they follow through on their plans to tour with Tupac 2.o, we'll get to see reality get shifted more than just giving a shout out to a festival that didn't exist during Tupac's life (Coachella started in 1999, three years after Tupac's death).

The novelty may wear off quickly because Tupac's projection can never capture the charisma of the man, but it will be interesting to see how far they'll take the tech. Theoretically, we're not that far from a virtual Beatles reunion tour or even seeing a concert pairing Jimi Hendrix with Lady Gaga.

Assuming the technology matures enough to create a more off-the-cuff experience, will audiences go for that? More importantly, will concert promoters use it as an excuse to avoid risk by dealing with known quantities? Taken to the extreme, it could be like the movies all over again, where all too many films are rooted in old TV shows, comic books, and personas (The Three Stooges? Really?).

At least when I start losing it, even the music will seem familiar.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Recording review - The Gift of Gab, The Next Logical Progression (2012)

Positivity and tight flow carry forward in Gab's progression

The Gift of Gab was in the midst of serious health issues in the weeks before The Next Logical Progression dropped. Characteristically, his press release focused more on the blessings in his life and the message that people shouldn't take their health for granted. Working with Blackalicious, the Quannum Collective, Mighty Underdogs, and solo, the Gift of Gab has built a strong reputation for a level-headed attitude steeped in positivity.

Sonically, The Next Logical Progression is centered on the Gift of Gab's old school, classic hip hop style. The grooves are mostly soul and R&B oriented, although this time, Gab took more responsibility for the music. Working with producer G Koop, he brought melody ideas in for Koop to use in building the tracks. The change ups are interesting, from the scratched up doo-wop roots of Protocol to the Fishbone influenced funk of Everything is Fine. Koop's production emphasizes a scratchy, lo-fi sensibility that woks well with Gab's straightforward delivery.

Straightforward, sure, but the Gift of Gab's flow is smooth as he turns up some tasty rhymes and rhythms. Here's a brief series from Rise:
They say that substance is a thing of the past in rap
And somebody hollered out, "It's even a handicap"
I wanna open up eyes, but I find
That I talk more than I walk
So it's sorta like the blind leading the blind.
This is my favorite song on the album. Gab lays out some thoughtful, personal lyrics. Fitting in with one of the big themes of The Next Logical Progression, he's trying to figure out his place and keep it real.

Raashan Ahmad and Zumbi (Zion I) sit in on this track, too, and Ahmad's verse is particularly solid:
Said I'm a weirdo, underground, conscious and crazy
Can I scream "God" and at the same time, "Pay me"?
Would your head nod if I talk about ladies
And how I want to do 'em? Is the whole song ruined?
I'm doin' all my best, playin' on life's court
Can I study Rumi and still quote Too Short?
I'm just tryin' to find balance, do the best that I can
But I always backslide because I'm only a man
Trying to be that change, but things don't change, so
Trying to change course but I'm stuck in the same flow
The backing track hits a solid Stevie Wonder vibe. Koop layers a thin piano line and some lo-fi horns over a heavy beat to create a fairly rich sound.

The Next Logical Progression tries to find its balance between attitude and philosophy, but the Gift of Gab is much more comfortable laying out his values than posturing. That makes tracks like Dream Warrior, which advocates dreams over dollars, and Rise stand out. By comparison, tunes like Toxic don't quite connect, despite the Kinks rock foundation.

The aforementioned Everything is Fine is the one exception. The attitude and flow fit well together, making this a high point on the album. The electro-funk chorus features some help from funk-father George Clinton and Latryx (Lateef the Truthspeaker and Lyrics Born) join Gab to fill out the track with a taste of braggadocio:
You can't be serious,
I'm a top tier lyricist
Tip top of the pyramid,
Y'all down with the villages
Don't sass your superiors
Shit runs downhill
I'm highly decorated
Y'all decorate interiors
The Next Logical Progression is a little shorter than I'd like (just over 38 minutes), but the Gift of Gab succeeds in giving us a sense of where his head is: open-minded, optimistic, and looking for the next step in his artistic growth.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 4/16

This week is a very slow music week on the Front Range. I could only find a couple of shows to recommend. Next week promises to be a bit more interesting, though.

21 April (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)

MTHDS are bringing their ska infused party music to the Bluebird Theater. Skanking, rapping, and rocking will make for a fun show.

20 April (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)
21 April (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
The Motet

The Motet is a legend here on the Front Range. Dave Watts and his large ensemble of musicians mix up a healthy puree of musical styles anchored with a foundation of groove. I believe that this time, they're playing their "Funk is Dead" show, featuring unique, funkified covers of the Grateful Dead.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Recording review - The Fierce and the Dead, On VHS (2012)

Now even Fiercer, TFATD's progressive exploration gets extreme

Every musician in a good band surrenders some element of control over his musical vision. Even strong willed players like Frank Zappa and Robert Fripp found new musical avenues opened by the other players they collected. Experimental loop wizard Matt Stevens walked the same path with the Fierce and the Dead. The trio pushed his more reflective sound into post-rock/progressive spaces on their first album together. Stevens comfortably embraced the sound and the songs carried a lively spark of excitement and surprise

With On VHS, the trio has added Steve Cleaton on guitar and keys, stepping into even wilder territory. The four tracks on the EP still offer strong dynamic shifts, but the big sections venture into crunchier prog with veins of metal.

The opening cut, 666...6, fades in with an ambient loop that lulls the listener into a loose trancy feel. It doesn't last, though, as the driving guitar riff stomps in and takes control. The song has a Frankenstein's monster aspect, with mismatched parts spliced together. Unlike the Monster, 666...6 captures the sense of disparate parts melding into a cyborg whole. The hobnail boot guitars, cool crystalline pattern skin, and broad melodic bass shoulders meld with the calm mind of the opening loop to achieve a unity of purpose. The last thrash of wild guitar is exultant.

Hawaii dusts off TFATD's King Crimson roots, along with touches of reverb soaked post punk elements. The thrashing metal rhythm guitar and distorted bass line contrast with the structure formed by the intricate interlocking parts. Offering power and promise, the sound is like watching an island form from the steamy mix of seawater and hot lava.

The title track gets closest to the sound of the band's first album. Kev Feazey's bassline defines the song, stalking confidently forward through a landscape of guitar patterns. Stuart Marshall's kick heavy drum work meshes perfectly to pave the way for the bass. The balance between the order of the rhythm section and the increasingly abstract guitars shifts to embrace an invigorating chaos.

On VHS closes with Part 3. The bass sets the stage for Stevens' sparse Sleepwalk guitar lines. The regular repetition of the bassline creates a sense of security. The guitar continues even after the bass drops out, setting the stage for a transition into a more active section. Part 3 breathes, with calming inhalation and stronger exhales. Each exhalation builds in intensity. A fuzzed out guitar joins the bass line while wild psychedelic echoes of guitar lurk at the blackout edges. Sweet anarchy.

The Fierce and the Dead promise a new album this summer that should expand on their sound here. Cleaton's influence on the band is promising, so I'm looking forward to more exciting music. On VHS is available as a "name your price" download from the band's Bandcamp page. Be generous and help fund the next chapter of this great band.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Cool art - Girl Walk // All Day (2012)

This is not a review, per se. Rather than analyze or interpret, I want to recommend a cool project I came across recently. Jacob Krupnick created Girl Walk // All Day as a feature length dance video. He funded the film through Kickstarter, whose audience supported the vision.

Anchored by Girl Talk's All Day (review here) as the soundtrack, the film builds a story around three very different dancers on a collision course. Anne Marsen (The Girl), Dai Omiya (The Gentleman), and John Doyle (The Creep) each bring their own style and expressive flavor.

The magic moment that hooked me was in the first section, during the ballet class. The Girl is late and not fitting in. Then the ambient sound and piano fade down, the black and white shifts to color and Oh No kicks in with the punch of Black Sabbath's War Pigs sample. That energy shift was incredible and Marsen's physicality sold it.

Check out the trailer and drop by their site to watch all of Girl Walk // All Day and donate.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

CD review - Sleepy Sun, Spine Hits (2012)

Slacker psychedelic distraction

Sleepy Sun are back with their third offering, Spine Hits. Their last album, Fever (review here), featured a rich dynamic between Rachel Fanning's wistful playfulness and Brett Constantino's expressive weariness. Spine Hits continues the psychedelic vibe, but with Fanning out of the band, the balance has shifted away from its yin-yang of innocence and knowledge.

The new dynamic hasn't broken Sleepy Sun, but the feel is rawer and more driven. Several of the songs have a distracted undercurrent. Noisy upwellings fit the heady grooves, but also seem to seek the promise of oblivion. The folky elements from Fever are gone, but the psychedelic foundations remain.

Siouxsie Blaqq shows that Sleepy Sun can still summon the lazy rhythms of their past. With a haze of 1967 clinging to the changes, the bass line skips and the casual vocals drift by:
Ramble on, so they don't catch on
It's better to run than leave stepping stones
Tell me your secret, tell me before I ask
Where did you get yours? Where did you learn your tack?
The loose structure evolves, revealing little side rooms of tiny musical sections. The relaxed vibe leans towards Fever, but the building repetition of the bridge sprints into a Velvet Underground grind, opening the song for more modern noise to come in and dominate. It's an interesting little trip.

Sleepy Sun falls back to their Led Zeppelin influences on V.O.G. The opening guitar riff and throbbing beat are more modern, but Constantino evokes Robert Plant in his vocals and lyrics. The bridge interlude builds the energy then lets it dissipate into a Pink Floyd, open landscape jam.

Until now, Brett Constantino's comfortable flannel voice and personality have dominated Sleepy Sun's sound, but Spine Hits is just as anchored by Jack Allen and Brian Tice's playing. Allen's bass lines stand out on almost all of the tracks, not following the pulse so much as driving it. Even when he drops back to leave some space, it's like his gift to the guitars. Tice's drumming behaves much the same, throwing in tight fills and change ups to round out even the simple beats.

Sleepy Sun's recent shows have showcased these new songs in a looser form. That freer sound links back to their earlier sound. It will be interesting to see how the band moves forward from Spine Hits' slacker psychedelic distraction.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 4/9

Is it even worth recommending a sold out show? Sure, just in case some tickets turn up. Also, this next weekend, Ft. Collins will be a hotbed of live music.

10 April (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
11 April (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
12 April (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

I've been a Macklemore fan for several years, enjoying his radically honest lyrics and solid flow. All three of these shows are already sold out, but there may be some scalpers at the show. If so, go for it because it's guaranteed to be entertaining.

12 April (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
13 April (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
14 April (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
The Travelin' McCourys featuring Keller Williams

The Travelin' McCourys features two sons of the bluegrass legend, Del McCoury. On this tour, they're partnering with acoustic jam looper, Keller Williams. While they'll be playing music from both group's catalogs, I believe that Williams will be playing straight acoustic without his electronic toys. Even so, it should be a fine show as all of these musicians are top grade performers.

13-14 April (Ft. Collins CO)

FoCoMx is the the Ft. Collins Music Experiment. 300+ bands and performers will be playing over the weekend at a large collection of venues in Ft. Collins. There will be lots of local and regional acts filling the town with music. It doesn't matter what kind of music you like, you'll find them at one of the 30+ locations.

I really need to get on the ball so my band can play this next year.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

CD review - Nneka, Soul is Heavy (2012)

Global musician offers her eclectic view of R&B

On her U.S. debut, Concrete Jungle (review here), Nneka showed off a fusion musical approach that blended everything from afro pop and reggae to hip hop and electronica. Shaped by her roots in Africa and Germany, Nneka's music was global in a way that world music should be.

Two years later, Soul is Heavy sets up a home base of R&B and soul, but Nneka still offers an eclectic perspective. While there's less emphasis on afro pop, her global sound remains. And even though Concrete Jungle had good production, Soul is Heavy's bigger budget allowed for more subtle engineering. It's more polished without being over produced.

Nneka's chameleon voice handles the stylistic hops with easy: breathy with a strong center on Stay, sassy and staccato on V.I.P., and a harder rap attitude on Camouflage. Even within a single song, Nneka adapts her voice to the particular section. Take Sleep for example. The song starts out with glitchy electro pop chorus, then shifts into a down tempo dancehall section with a toasting style vocal. A soulful groove layers on top before slipping back to the chorus. It's catchy as it develops organically, crossing borders at will. "I sleep my life away, but I don't want to wake up."

To contrast with the smoother R&B songs, Nneka throws in a couple of harder tracks. The darkest one is God Knows Why, which kicks off with a sample of Lee Marvin's First Thing You Know from Paint Your Wagon (that's seriously old school!):
They civilize freedom til no one is free
No one except, by coincidence, me
Then, as a heavy, threatening groove kicks in, Nneka lays down her rap. She builds to the title tag, "God knows why", which calls back to a line from the original Paint Your Wagon song. Her flow is smooth as she gingerly glides through her lyrics:
You say you're feelin' me
Camouflage killin' me
Civilization to the extent of imprisoning me
Freedom is what you speak
Your god is whom I seek
For all you have, you have because of someone else's grief
Black Thought from the Roots throws down a verse, too ("I'm just a public enemy that don't believe the hype"). The contrast of his classic delivery splits up Nneka's sections and opens up the track.

Soul is Heavy is full of strong songs. Actually choosing a favorite reflects the listener's head space. Will it be the comfortable retro beat of Shining Star? The thick darkness and reggae rhythm of Lucifer (No Doubt)? Maybe the jazzy R&B of Restless? Take your time and let the whole album soak in.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Commentary - Like the father, like the son?

I love my son and I'm proud that he's turning out to be quite the musician, too. Supporting him on his path of musical development is one of my pleasures of fatherhood.

Paul McCartney is no different, he just has more resources than I do. So, where I set Malcolm up with my Vantage Avenger guitar and a small Vox amp, Sir Paul produced his son James' two EPs. With all of the advantages James McCartney has had, my son is luckier in one sense: the odds are that Malcolm won't have a lot of people endlessly comparing him to his dad.

On this Letterman performance, you can hear a bit of Paul's voice, but Angel has a more modern Brit-pop sound that stands on its own. James clearly has some talent, both as a writer and performer. Unfortunately, he may be risking his shot at developing his own career.

Talking to the BBC, McCartney was asked about the idea of forming The Beatles: The Next Generation. Not only was he up for it, he made it clear that this had been discussed in more detail:
I don't think it's something that Zak [Starkey] wants to do. Maybe Jason [another of Starr's sons and also drummer] would want to do it. I'd be up for it. Sean [Lennon] seemed to be into it, Dhani [Harrison] seemed to be into it. I'd be happy to do it.
This seems like a formula for failure. These days, sequels are more of a cynical business bet that reheated leftovers offer a better return than taking chances on real art. McCartney and the other Beatles Boys would be effectively saying that their band isn't about talent or chemistry, but just the gimmick of who their dads were. When they inevitably fail to deliver on the ideal of The Beatles II, they'll be remembered more for sacrificing their credibility for a quick grab at money and fame. They'll also be remembered for poisoning the Beatles memory as well.

That said, I'm sure they'd find someone to promote and create an initial whirl of interest. I just hope that Sir Paul can offer his son some good advice...whether or not James will take it.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

CD review - Jonathan Segel, All Attractions (2012)

Genre bending sounds support well written songs

Multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel was an essential member of one of my favorite bands, Camper Van Beethoven. His violin and other string instrument contributions gave the band's psychedelic folk pop an exotic flavor. From song to song, the band would surprise me by jumping from Eastern European gypsy music to goofy ska to trippy acid-soaked jams. While David Lowery was the voice of Camper Van Beethoven, Segel often seemed to provide the musical will for the band.

Because of this history (or maybe in spite of the past), I tried to set aside my expectations when I first started listening to Segel's new solo album, All Attractions. I knew this wouldn't be CVB and I didn't want to be disappointed. Within a handful of seconds, though, I fell in love with this album.

The opening song, (Ever and) Always, starts with a lazy, fiddle infused jam that builds a pregnant sense of expectancy. Each time the lightly psychedelic vamp circles back, new musical elements ripple through. It has the same nascent possibility created by a good Grateful Dead jam.

About five minutes into the song, though, the open ended wave function collapses the music into a solid, rocking song. This transformation disperses any sense of self indulgent Dead-style meandering. The changes are tight, with a Dramarama power pop feel. If the beginning seemed to ask a question, the second section asserts a clear answer:
So now I'm wandering through this world of forms
To find a blanket, keep you safe and warm
I'm asking every line, every shape, every point
Until I find the right thing for you
Because always is now and will be always to come
For every moment, under the sun
The water, the air, and the earth and the clouds
Are always telling me so
Because I'll always be there
Because I'll always be right beside you
With that reassurance, I slid into the rest of the album.

The second track, Hey You (I Know You Know Me) summons a mournful folky CVB sound that begs for David Lowery's voice. Track by track, All Attractions reveals Segel's driving influence on Camper Van Beethoven or maybe CVB's lingering effect on him.

Psychedelia, indie rock, power pop, and folky sounds pervade the whole genre bending project. Another favorite track, What Goes Around builds a cryptic narrative on top of a Tom Waits style rhythm:
You are the detective searching for clues
Trying to find out who killed you.
But you are the killer, leaving no clue
To evade the detective who is searching for you
Like a strange dream, the driving flow is inescapable. It's a twisted logic world as the song veers along some hidden track. "What goes around, comes around" is the circling mantra, as children's voices take on a disturbing flavor. The track comes to an end and the dream fades into the more resigned blues feel of The Dark Touch.

All Attractions evokes the magic of the early CVB albums with higher production values. Segel puts more of an emphasis on his guitar than his other instruments, but the album never sinks into predictability. Give a listen at Segel's Bandcamp page and also check out the companion instrumental album, Apricot Jam.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 4/2

Dreams, beats, or jams, this week offers some great concert choices.

5 April (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Explosions in the Sky

Explosions in the Sky's richly evocative music is a sonic treat. Their instrumentals follow a carefully architected flow with a strong narrative sense. Where some post rock bands take a somewhat intellectual approach, Explosions in the Sky digs deeper and creates an instinctive emotional response. Rather than just nodding with the beat, their music makes you nod with recognition. Their show at the Boulder Theater should be both moving and memorable.

Nick Zammuto of the Books has joined EITS on this tour.

6 April (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
7 April (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)
Method Man & Redman

Even though Method Man and Redman regularly make it to the Front Range, there's no excuse to wait til next time. Like any long-lived crew, they've polished their sound and their flows mesh like a fine tuned machine. Both rappers can work a crowd, so be ready for a good time.

4 April (Lincoln Center, Ft. Collins CO)
7 April (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
8 April (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones

With a new album out (review here) featuring the original Flectones lineup, Béla Fleck and his band are making the rounds. As great as their early albums together were, their live show always eclipsed the recordings as each player pulled the music in surprising directions. This tour should offer much the same experience. All of the players have impressive chops and they also know how to show off for an audience. I still remember my amazement at the sounds Victor Wooten could coerce out of a bass.