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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Music news - Resurrection Blues

I understand the attraction of the reunion tour, where a classic old band gets back together again for the sake of the fans. Or for the sake of their kids' tuition or a cozier retirement. Regardless of the motivations, if a band still has die hard fans, the members can always bury their mutual hostility and make nice for another spin. If they didn't do that, I never would have seen Iron Butterfly back in the '80s. Despite that pleasure, these zombie tours are ultimately unsettling.

The cutest zombie
Photo credit: Sebastian Anthony

Most recently, I heard that the promised Buffalo Springfield reunion tour is on hiatus. Even though they played a few shows last year, Neil Young apparently lost interest when he started working with Crazy Horse again. Buffalo Springfield represents a golden era in folk rock music and had some classic songs, even if they only lasted two years. But a reunion tour like this only promises a rehash of the old classics, perhaps sprinkled with a couple of songs from the members' back catalogs.

Rolling Stone also upped the ante with their article handicapping the chances of other bands getting back together. From the Talking Heads to Oasis to Abba, they offer their odds. Best of luck to the fans (and I love several of these bands), but there's still an element of unresolved grief at the thought of these groups trying to grasp at the magic of their original energy.

By contrast, my favorite musical reunions are living examples of continued growth. The recent Béla Fleck and the Flecktones release, Rocket Science is a great example. For that matter, I'm willing to bet that's a big part of Neil Young's priorities: creating new music is richer than rehashing the old stuff.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

CD review - Ducky, The Whether EP (2012)

Unsettled and unsettling, Ducky's electronica evokes darkness and tension

Moody is not a strong enough word. Like soundtracks to David Lynchian film clips, the songs on The Whether sound like they're under glass. A thick layer separates the music from mundane reality. Nothing is quite as it's supposed to be. Unsettled and unsettling, Ducky's production digs its way under your skin. Her lazy vocals are nice, but the loops and processing are phenomenal.

The standout track is the eerie I Want to Die. Cut up vocal samples and looped background create a horrorshow tension. It's an uncomfortable thrill. Ducky's languid vocals sound detached, yet threatening.
Wake up, start the day
Anger lives inside of me
Tempt me, no I won't
Cause beauty lives inside your bones
A mild dubstep throb adds a psychotic distance...or is it a drugged disconnect? It seems like it should be emotionally charged, but the production drains that engagement leaving a sense of tension and a memory that's never quite grasped.

Ducky's electronic palette is smeared with lazy beats, club sparkles, and electro pop dreaminess, but her muse leads her into a darker headspace. Masochism, soul, and surrender all find a home here.

Drop by thewhetherep.com to see her video interpretations of the tracks or download
Overdose, whose groove is anchored by the looped sound of a retro AM radio as sampled vocalizations ping pong in the background.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 2/27

Some great shows coming up:

1 March - Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO
4 March - Boulder Theater, Boulder CO

Gomez is bringing their diverse power pop/indie rock show back to the front range. The last time I saw them, they smoothly shifted instruments and sounds from song to song while preserving a loose, casual flow. The Sunday show in Boulder is actually an appearance on public radio's E-Town.

1 March - Fox Theatre, Boulder CO
The Funky Meters

The Funky Meters are a New Orleans mainstay. Art Neville and his band bring a creole mix of funk, jazz, and blues that can serve as an improptu medical test: if you're not moving when you hear them, you must be dead.

3 March - Aggie Theatre, Ft Collins CO
Whiskey Blanket

One of my favorite front range bands, Whiskey Blanket stirs up beat boxing, classical strings, and hip hop rhymes. They have a truly original sound. This free show is a great opportunity to check them out.

3 March - Boulder Theater, Boulder CO
4 March - Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO
Ani DiFranco

Regardless of her status as a feminist and icon and political activist, Ani DiFranco has always made her strongest points with music. Her unique playing and lyrical perspective give her music a special flair that really shows best in a live setting.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

February Singles

Three very different flavors this month.

Santigold - Disparate Youth (from Master of My Make Believe, due 1 May)

Santigold has offered a couple of tastes from the eagerly awaiting Master of My Make Believe. The latest, Disparate Youth, sets its electro pop hook quickly, but has plenty of nice edges to keep it interesting. Her casual vocals give the track a reflective vibe that fits the trancy repetitive keyboards. The light dusting of chank beat keys are a nod to Jamaica, where she did some of the recording.

Zambri - ICBYS (from House of Baasa, due 10 April)

ICBYS (I Can Believe You Said) sets a frenetic pace. Zambri has crossed Missing Persons style synth pop with David Bowie's Scary Monsters and packed it with a dance friendly beat. The duo's manic vocals move beyond quirky to take on a disturbed quality that meshes well with the thick sound, full of noisy artifacts.

Download the track at Stereogum.

Spanish Prisoners - Know No Violence (from Gold Fools)

Spanish Prisoners - Know No Violence (official music video) from Spanish Prisoners on Vimeo.

Pretty dream pop guitar sets a relaxed mood for Know No Violence. Autumn Stein's dancing late in the video is the perfect expression of the subtle joy infusing this track. The sweet falsetto vocals hint at pretty secrets with a wistful tone. I'm looking forward to listening to Gold Fools to see if Spanish Prisoners can deliver on their self described genre of "tremolo-haze headphone symphonies". Gold Fools is available for "name your price" at their Bandcamp page.
Wait with me, forget your silence
You and I will know no violence...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Music news - Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

I came across this interesting article from MTVHive, 2011, The Year Dubstep Broke. That came out at the end of last year, but with Skrillex taking a couple of Grammys this year, it seems like dubstep stealthed onto the scene and everyone just noticed.

Girls that look like Skrillex
Photo credit: http://girlsthatlooklikeskrillex.tumblr.com

Vibrant music often incorporates new sounds and ideas without worrying too much about genre, so it's no surprise that electronic music is permeating pop and indie rock. At least a third of the bands I review have at least a toe in the electronic realm (it could easily be all of them if I let it).

Now, as that MTVHive article mentions, everyone from Britney Spears to Korn is jumping on the bandwagon. Some artists are just throwing in the iconic bass rumble, almost as a hipster reference. Others are outsourcing by partnering with established mixers.

But many people just confuse electronic for dubstep, especially if it's got a bass heavy wobble. The dubstep meme is a bit like glitter in the US. It can bedazzle anything to make it sound edgier. The worldwide electronic scene along with Americans in the know must be somewhat bemused by the sudden popularity. Or maybe they're horrified at their sound being coopted by newbies. Either way, dubstep gets to be the musical cilantro for a while until something else comes along.

Personally, I enjoy the intensity of dubstep and its cousins, but I tend to prefer it in its natural, live setting.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

CD review - RACES, Year of the Witch (2012)

Emotional and dreamy songs are perfectly constructed

If RACES' live set seemed like a bipolar mix of indie rock and dream pop, Year of the Witch proves that the two sides are more tightly aligned than that. In the studio, the intricately assembled parts mesh like a beautiful Chinese puzzle. On the surface, the songs are interesting and engaging, but there are layers of detail to tease out.

The opener, Year of the Child, fits a lot into a brief minute and a half. Lushly orchestrated, the core is based on counterpoint guitar parts supporting ethereal vocals. The song meditatively uses repetition to build its reflective mood. A simple melodic theme starts in the music, but then finds a home in the backing vocals. Later, the melody line is taken up by the steel guitar only to echo a moment later in one of the other guitars. The tonal match between the two instruments is so close, a casual listen might miss the switch. It's a beautiful musical moment.

Their pop sensibility is wedded to rich musical vision. The song progressions are much too involved to fall into simple pop cliches, but RACES avoids the opposite trap of challenging, "difficult listening" music. The down tempo dream pop baseline of Year of the Witch sets a mellow tone, but a repressed intensity is never far. The reverberating, retro guitar sound might punch through the reverie at any time.

On In My Name, the intro is dreamy and weighted with weariness. Ethereal harmonies and simple guitar set the mood. But then it drifts into nightmare with a crash of harsh, spiky guitar and a solid beat. This transition is the heart of the song. Wade Ryff's voice is like felt -- softly smoothed and slightly fuzzy (if not quite raspy) -- like a younger Graham Nash. But his even delivery against the cathartic music reveals his anguish.

Year of the Witch is full of tight songwriting and well crafted arrangements. I love how an album that plays so strongly on emotional levels is layered with cool intellectual detail.

Year of the Witch is due out March 27 on Frenchkiss Records. In the meantime, check out RACES' video for Big Broom, the first single.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 2/20

This is a slow music week, but there are still a couple of shows to check out:

21 February - Larimer Lounge, Denver CO

Mike Herrera seems to have a band for each of his personas. Tumbledown is his roots-rock band. They feature his MxPx-style pop punk energy, but the songs have a more country feel. I caught their last tour and really enjoyed their show.

25 February - Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO
Head for the Hills

Colorado bluegrass favorites Head for the Hills are fitting in a local show before heading down to SXSW next month. Their high energy shows feature some tight playing and fine picking.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

CD review - We Have Band, Ternion (2012)

Electro pop fits headphones as well as the dance floor

We Have Band's debut, WHB (review here), was an intriguing mix of retro synth pop and modern dance rock with an electro pop shine. Their follow up album, Ternion, still melds old school and contemporary elements, but We Have Band has honed their danceable electronic sound, expanding on earlier tracks like Divisive.

Ternion may not be as guitar focused or trippy as WHB, but it's still a richly intriguing album. The driving beats give these songs a lot of energy and the album has a very interesting flow. The opener, After All, has an insistent dance groove which collapses into the dreamy relief of Pressure On. The transition is like a high dive into a relaxed underwater world. The thoughtful electro dream pop vibe is layered with whispers and hidden secrets. We Have Band subvert the song a bit near the end by moving it into a darker space, hinting at vague dangers. But it's just part of the reverie's progression.

WHB continues to mine '80s synth pop for inspiration, hinting at New Order, Psychedelic Furs, and some of Fine Young Cannibals' soul vocals. But the retro vibe just adds flavor to the electro pop grooves that keep Ternion firmly in dance space. By mixing and matching along this continuum, the band gives each track a distinctive feel.

Take Watertight, with its springy electronic start. That intro is quickly subsumed by the edgy punch of fuzzed guitars and feedback. The dynamic shifts between noisy drive and sparser moments add depth, but the underlying beat is relentless.

That contrasts with the heavier new wave vibe of Tired of Running. The steady beat is familiar, but the flanged vocals and subtle sonic textures create a moody tension. A bit like the Who's Eminence Front meets Another Brick in the Wall at the disco, the track couples repetitive intensity with a taut restlessness. I really enjoy how We Have Band's music is just as natural for headphones as the dance floor.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Music news - Relevant rewards

Ignoring the biggest news of the week, I'm going to resist the urge to comment on Whitney Houston.

Grammy award photo
Photo credit: Ya'akov via Flickr/Wikipedia Commons

Instead, I'll focus on the Grammys, 54 years of "peer-presented" recognition of artistic and technical achievement. True confession time: I've never been that interested in the Grammys or any other awards shows. They've never struck me as particularly relevant. For that matter, the music industry itself doesn't seem all that relevant these days either. Record companies, through the RIAA, continue to wage war on their customers and the music scene keeps fragmenting, providing indie and DIY musical acts niches to achieve some commercial success.

Sure, the Recording Academy, the Grammy Foundation, and MusiCares support the arts and do more than merely provide an annual show with a few awards. These good works should be appreciated. Additionally, the Grammys' peer recognition should represent something more than pure money.

Still, because these peers are all tightly tied to the Music Industry (in caps), it still amounts to a popularity and record sales contest. That's probably not a big deal, though. The people who faithfully watch the Grammys every year are most interested in seeing their fan love be rewarded. I don't begrudge anyone their enjoyment of the Grammys.

But personally, I'm more interested in the micro level of fan validation: introducing my friends to my favorite music and seeing them fall in love, too, or sharing my joy with fellow fans at a show. I'm sure that Eric McFadden, Earl Greyhound, and Dengue Fever would love to win a Grammy, but they're all close enough to their fans to appreciate that practical connection.

Because it's all about the music.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

CD review - Royal Baths, Better Luck Next Life (2012)

Dark children of Velvet Underground offer lo-fi deathrock psychedelia

Better Luck Next Life is a soundtrack to a wicked rite, summoning spirits to stalk among us. In particular, the spirits of Lou Reed, John Cale, and the rest of Velvet Underground. Royal Baths' detuned, distorted sound is haunted by Lou Reed style vocals, a touch of Reed's droning guitar, and chaotic abandon.

This is no tribute band, though. Royal Baths may push their garage rock psychedelia into V.U. head space, but they always hold back from the Velvet Underground's total sonic surrender. This gives their songs a deeper self awareness and intent.

On Burned, they sound like throbbing, percolating darkness. The track starts with a sound somewhere between Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd and acid etched rock. During the bridge, the guitar vibrates like a fork in the fan blades, recalling European Son. At the same time, the singing balances two voices filled with detachment. As the relentless Bo Diddley beat spasms like a restless leg, the strange ecstatic rite builds. I love the intensity of the sound, as the guitars clash and flail.

Most of the tracks have a sonic immediacy, like Royal Baths is playing right in the room. This fits well with the retro feel of the album.

Better Luck Next Life
works hard to maintain its very dark vibe, occasionally even veering towards creepy. Where Velvet Underground flaunted their drug and S&M to shock listeners, Royal Baths is more direct, sometimes raising a kind of sociopathic evil in their transgressive lyrics. Even when the sound suggests a trippy ecstasy, the lyrics skew towards more sinister subjects.

Take Black Sheep: the song starts somewhere between Bauhaus and the music from Dr. Who before establishing a trippy, psychedelic verse. The vocals ping pong, splitting the lines:
I grew up rather well off -- raising hell
I gave up faking gratitude -- can't you tell?
My good friends seem to bore me -- don't ask me why
One by one, my lovers leave me --I never cry
The lyrics quickly grow more malevolent. But Royal Baths take it further. Eventually Black Sheep, along with a few other songs, push the deathrock themes too earnestly, drifting towards parody:
Bloody landscapes are my daydreams -- bodies fall
If I could touch the hem of Satan -- I would crawl
Despite loving the music, I think Royal Baths is trying too hard to shock, to the detriment of their songs.

Still, there are plenty of evocative tracks like Harder, Faster. The languid, swaying beat and the underwater Doors groove create a moody, late night feel. The repetitive bass line throbs like insomnia while the slide guitar sounds like the foggy swirl of voices in your head. The sexual focus of the lyrics matches the hypnotic haze of the music.

Royal Baths may be soaked in darkness and tension, but the jangle of guitars offer a cathartic release, as well.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Front Range - Upcoming shows

Recommended shows

14 February - Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO
15 February - Bluebird Theater, Denver CO
The Slackers

The Slackers can be relied on to have a high energy show packed with their soulful ska. They mix in a retro, early '60s vibe. It was a simpler era of music, but the tunes are anything but trivial. Their tour is sweeping through Colorado, offering a couple of opportunities to see them.

15 February - Fox Theatre, Boulder CO
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks moved closer to Pavement's relaxed focus on last year's Mirror Traffic. This should be a great show. Find out what the Senator wants when they play this week in Boulder.

17 February - Hi-Dive, Denver CO
Laura Gibson

Laura Gibson has a chameleon voice that adapts to whatever story her song is telling. She sounds warm and folky, but her music can range from sparse and simple to evocative, rhythmically insistent. I'll be catching her show at the Hi-Dive this week.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

DVD review - Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone (2010)

Eclectic democracy may not sell albums, but it makes for groundbreaking music

I remember when I first heard Fishbone. The heady mix of ska, punk, and anarchy of Party At Ground Zero blew me away. I followed them avidly up through Give a Monkey a Brain and He'll Swear He's the Center of the Universe and then watched the band seem to fall apart as original members left. All of this resonated as Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone approached Fishbone's career as a band that never achieved the commercial success they deserved.

Ultimately, Everyday Sunshine can't deliver a happy ending or even an unequivocal, uplifting sentiment because that's not how history played out. Instead, Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler offer testimonials to the band's influence and a character study of Fishbone's magic. They also outline the band's history and travails. There's plenty of nostalgia, but it's tempered with the raw emotions and tensions within the band.

Anderson and Metzler had wide open access to Fishbone's members. So, much of the early history of the band comes straight from the source. It's not surprising that desegregation busing had a huge effect on opening up their horizons, exposing them to punk music like their white classmates. On the other hand, it's hard to reconcile Angelo Moore's non-hood, Jehovah's Witness youth with the wild stage presence he developed. These interviews provide a sense of the personalities in the band.

The peak of Everyday Sunshine's positivity comes from the musings of Fishbone's peers and famous fans, like Mike Watt (Minutemen), Gwen Stefani (No Doubt), Branford Marsalis, and Ice-T. They make the case for Fishbone's impact on not just the L.A. punk scene, but the music scene in general. By bridging race lines and breaking stereotypes of black music, they breathed a wild life into the music and opened doors for bands like Living Color. As Ice=T mentions, "It might not have sounded black. It was very black, if you listen to what they're saying." The archive band footage shows off the incredible energy of their live shows.

But Everyday Sunshine also makes the point that Fishbone's strength was their biggest weakness. Their stage show was full of exuberant anarchy. They packed their albums with a melting pot of sounds. But their eclectic musical democracy and unique style made them hard for the record companies to package, which denied them access to a wider audience. This sets up the sad list of travails for the band.

From guitarist Kendall Jones' breakdown and religious rebirth (which led to kidnapping charges against Norwood Fisher) to the erosion of the original lineup, it's hard to sit through the frustration and rancor within the band. Once again, Anderson and Metzler's full access exposes pettiness and anger borne out of the band's sense of loss. Eventually, Fishbone seems to devolve into Moore and Norwood Fisher as an ersatz married couple, trying to find a balance but often slipping into bickering passive aggression.

Still, Fishbone has persevered through the stress of touring and still seem focused on working together. By the end, their characters seem familiar: Norwood Fisher's grounded sense of calm, Angelo Moore's artistic hunger, Dirty Walt Kibby II's provocative humor, and Chris Dowd's regular guy charm. Kendall Jones is more of an enigma. We see his serious side in commercial interview snippets and a lot of darkness in short archive scenes from the studio. It's hard to relate that to the shy, post-breakdown persona from more recent footage. Since Phillip "Fish" Fisher is still estranged from the band and didn't participate, we never get his perspective.

Everyday Sunshine gives a realistic view of a great band whose influence spread well beyond their own direct accomplishments. Occasionally the narrative gets confused as the editing sacrifices linear flow to make a point (when is this band member interview from?), but the film never looks away from the real humanity of the Fishbone's core.

Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone releases on DVD this month (21 February, pre-order here) and is available on iTunes now.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Music news - OK Go for the money

After treadmills, extreme timelapse, and the Muppets, it must be getting hard for OK Go to come up with entertaining video ideas. Where most bands might have a song that needs a video, OK Go has almost reached the point of being a video in search of a song. Eventually, the pressure to deliver will almost certainly drive the band crazy (which will probably be the subject of their final video).

Their latest, for Needing/Getting, is a collaboration with General Motors and director Brian L. Perkins. GM got a Superbowl Chevy ad out of the deal and the band had their next wacky video concept. It's sort of a variation on the Rube Goldberg machine idea: set up a desert course with instruments and other sound generating stuff and run a Chevy Sonic through it to "play" the song.

It's a cute idea and the band delivers total commitment to the premise -- "we're pop, but we mean it, damnit!" Getting someone else to pay the video production cost was nice, but OK Go's real win was the Superbowl exposure.

Of course, there's been some backlash against the band for selling out, although a fair number of fans are supportive. The whole debate raises the larger question about money's role in the arts. Effectively, corporate sponsorship is just taking the same place that the Medici's did in supporting Leonardo da Vinci (among many others).

That perspective has always been uneasy for rock and roll, though, where people like their rebels. The idea of Jim Morrison, John Lennon, or Jimi Hendrix shilling for the Man would have torpedoed their social cred. But modern aesthetics have come a long way. The Who Sell Out's social commentary has yielded to some artists making their first music sale to a commercial before they even cut an album. Now, when we look back at Microsoft's use of the Stones' Start Me Up for Windows 95, that's merely "ironic".

So, has OK Go sold out? Hipsters will be purist hipsters, but I'm pretty sure that working with GM didn't compromise OK Go's musical integrity.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

CD review - Jack Jeffery, The Constant That Remains (2012)

More focused than his debut, relaxed electronic fringed psychedelia

Jack Jeffery's debut, Passage to Agadir (review here) tried to cover too many genres. His follow up album, The Constant That Remains, addresses that with a more consistent sound of laid back electronic and psychedelic grooves. Primarily exercising a wide range of Pink Floyd influences, Jeffery's songs still vary but offer a musical thread to hold the album together.

There are a couple of stylistic exceptions, for better and worse. The classically centered Gavotte for African Steel Guitar develops some interesting ideas, starting from a stiffer, cultured beginning and growing into a smoother musical flow. Despite the solo acoustic guitar arrangement, the large middle section intriguingly hints at electronic progressions. On the other hand, Jeffery's John Lennon pastiche/tribute, A Plea to a Dreamer, misses the mark. It's very heartfelt, but the multitude of musical and lyrical allusions feels too heavy handed.

The Pink Floyd references are more spread out and restrained, from the taste of The Wall's Hey, You in the intro of Rearranged to the hints of Breathe meandering through Carry On. Jeffery also includes a little Mike Oldfield on Valencian Cosmos and some Jefferson Airplane psychedelia on Everything Changes. Throughout all of these, though, Jack Jeffery maintains his own voice that complements the sonic coloring. His modern take on these older sounds offers a fresher perspective.

My favorite track is The Sirius Wall. This progressive track has an introspective start that sets up a steady groove that mixes a touch of Wall era darkness with Meddle era slide guitar. But the song is framed with electro tone washes. Layered with wire sculpture jangles and retro synths, the effect is wonderfully trippy.

Jeffery continues to self release his music. Drop by CD Baby, iTunes, or Amazon to pick up The Constant That Remains.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Concert review - El Ten Eleven, with Races and Wire Faces

2 February 2012 (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)

The crowd at Hodi's can get thin on a Thursday night, especially when it's a night of heavy snow coming down. That snow would become relevant for the drive home, but all three bands enjoyed a decent turnout of people unconcerned about the weather.

Each band offered a completely different approach to music, but they all connected to a similar focus and joy. It was a great night of impressive bands.

Wire Faces
This local trio held their own with the touring acts. I'm surprised I haven't come across Wire Faces before, especially after I learned they came out of Ft. Collins' favorites, the Jimi Austin. As Wire Faces took the stage, they seemed fairly straightforward: a standard power trio lineup of guitar, bass, and drums. But they quickly turned aside my assumptions. Usually a power trio emphasizes the guitar, but this was clearly the drummer's band.

Shane Zweygardt had his drum kit stage center as lead singer for the band. It's hard for a drummer to front a band from behind the kit, but Zweygardt had no problem holding the spotlight. He played with big expressive movements with a kind of Will Ferrell vibe that fit with his slightly quirky vocals.

Zweygardt was a kick to watch, but his drum technique was impressive. His left and right sides were more independent than most drummers, which helped him set up some off beat syncopation. In particular, his right hand tom work was impressive. Most drummers would catch the speedy fills with both hands, but he covered them with his right hand while his left handled a separate part.

Bass player Menyus Borocz added backing vocals, but stayed more inwardly focused. His melodic playing largely drove the harmonic progression of the songs, which let Ian Haygood's guitar stay near the edges, adding texture and some nice repetitive riffs. Haygood adapted his guitar sound to each song. He might use a chiming keyboard-like tone on one jam and then move to wilder sound full of echo and squeal for the next. Every now and then, he and Borocz might slip into a more standard guitar and bass arrangement, but that was rarer.

Wire Faces' songs had a mix of retro new wave and experimentalism. Their sound evoked bands like Wire, XTC, and early Talking Heads. Throughout the set, they channeled punk energy into their songs, but their playing stayed tighter in the new wave groove.

I expect to see Wire Faces again. They have an EP out that I'll need to check out as well.

Races' set dropped the tempo compared with Wire Faces, but they maintained a strong stage energy. Their sound swirled indie rock and dream pop influences. A song might have a drifting, dreamy vibe, but the guitar would push against the drag beat with an insistent drive. Another might toss tribal beat intensity against sweet, floating harmonies.

The mix of elements made for a trippy vibe but, in keeping with their bipolar nature, Races was a very tight band. Having a half dozen members meant that they could forge a big, complex sound. Jangled guitar echo dashed against looping bass lines in a thick sound. The arrangements often dropped parts out to allow for some powerful dynamics. Races was never afraid to shoot for understated moments; these just emphasized their confidence in the flow of their music.

Wade Ryff and Devon Lee provided the fronting personality of the band. Ryff sang most of the lead vocals. His stage persona was a bit shoegazy, but he could still sell some intensity. He left plenty of room for Lee's more exuberant presence. Whether she was pounding a floor tom or adding her ethereal harmonies with keyboardist Breanna Wood, Lee stayed deeply engaged. She danced with abandon and visually channeled Races' musical intensity.

Maybe it's better to describe Races as balanced than bipolar. Their music comes from an inner voice that seems dreamily optimistic. Waves of catharsis might sweep through, but the band rides it all out.

Over the last week or so, I've been listening to their new EP, Big Broom. It's great, but I'm looking forward to their full album release next month of Year of the Witch. Drop by Races' Bandcamp page to hear a couple of cuts from the album.

El Ten Eleven

Who are your bucket list bands? The must-see bands? Bands worth taking a road trip to see? Flaming Lips? Muse? Maybe Wilco or My Morning Jacket? If El Ten Eleven isn't on your list, write them down now in permanent marker.

Their set at Hodi's was transcendent. Guitar and bassist Kristian Dunn was perhaps the most amazing looper I've ever seen. He had a full arsenal of techniques and toys: playing bass and guitar at the same time on his Carvin double neck, extreme frequency shifting, loop mixing, E-Bowed tonal washes. Someone like Charlie Hunter, whose 7 string playing incorporates bass and guitar line, might compare. But rather than Hunter's jazz focus, Dunn played a mix of post rock and synth poppy experimentalism.

Dunn left me slack jawed as he built up complex, sectional progressive grooves. As he tweaked his loops or layered in yet another complicated puzzle piece of melody, the songs developed organically. It would have been impressive enough if he had merely juggled his musical parts and the myriad of ways he radically processed his sound. But he capped this off by having an incredibly dynamic stage presence. Whirling and lunging, he used big theatrical movements to express all of what he was playing. Where most loopers turn inwards as they fiddle with their tech toys, Dunn made it all part of his dance.

If looping let Dunn fill in most of the roles for the rest of a full band sound, drummer Tim Fogarty added a vital component. Like any good drummer, he had a tight sense of rhythm and handled odd time signatures with grace. But he also had to lock in with the loop timings and imperceptibly signaled section changes. At one point, it wasn't clear whether Dunn's loop accidentally had an extra half beat or if it was planned. Either way, Fogarty smoothly followed odd beat rhythm, throwing in a brief little fill every time the half beat came by.

Despite all the pre-show planning that goes into a performance like this, as well as the complexity of the parts, El Ten Eleven's instrumental set was hardly intellectually dry. Their songs were moving as they developed from thoughtful ambiance to soaring power. While the prog flavor occasionally reminded me of Porcupine Tree, they were just as likely to evoke U2, Big Country, or Supertramp.

All the movement and great music would have been enough of a show. But El Ten Eleven took it all to another level. Whether it was Dunn cross cutting his loops like a DJ or simultaneously layering in hammered guitar harmonics at the same time as an intricate bass line, El Ten Eleven kept finding ways to astound me.

I'm already looking forward to the next time I see the band live. If you're waiting too, grab a taste from YouTube to tide you over.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Music news - Don't take this...


Image credit: Open Clip Art Library, care of Wikipedia

Actually, I did take it a little personally. Producer Richard X (M.I.A., Kelis, Sugababes) talked to BBC Newsbeat about music piracy and album leaks. He blamed the problem on rabid fans phishing for pre-release copies of music rather than a sinister pirate cabal.

He shared anecdotes about insidious fans posing as insiders and using social engineering to get early access to albums. But it's interesting to contrast this with another point in the article that mentions the long lead time the labels take to release music.

For my part, I occasionally sense some suspicion when I contact an artist to get a review copy of an upcoming album. I have the advantage of an active review blog to vouch for my identity. But the industry's piracy problem probably affects my odds of success.

The irony, though, is that for all of the music label fear-mongering about album leaks, there are plenty of artists like Jill Sobule, Jonathan Coulton, and Matt Stevens who have been building successful, sustained careers around sharing their music. They may not be operating at the crazy money level that the major labels play at, but they are proof that an artist can connect with fans, satisfy their cravings for fresh music, and still make a living.