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

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Recording review - Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre Is Evil (2012)

A beguiling mix of artifice and art

If I was in the New Criticism camp (a la John Crowe Ransom), I'd listen closely to Theatre Is Evil but ignore any real life distraction about Amanda Palmer and her Grand Theft Orchestra. There would be plenty to ignore: her history with the punk-cabaret Dresden Dolls, her almost compulsive interaction with her fans, her groundbreaking success on Kickstarter, and her penchant for controversy, including the recent fight over paying volunteer musicians. Ransom would say none of that is relevant; the songs are independent of Palmer's intent or personality.

That kind of review would completely miss the point of an album like Theatre Is Evil. More than a singer, Palmer presents herself as an artist, specifically a performance artist. And in that mode, her new album is beguiling mix of artifice and art. Much like her public persona, the songs are often over-the-top. The bipolar energy sweeps from manic highs to devastating lows. But despite the occasional sense of caricature, Palmer invests each song with absolute raw commitment. Whether open, bleeding, and vulnerable or brash, knowing, and lusty, each song is presented as a piece of truth. The album is rich and theatrical, her public life is full of theatre, and her ironic message is "theatre is evil". But that subversive move doesn't rob Theatre Is Evil of its emotional impact or exuberance.

The album's showy trappings begin with a cabaret introduction of the band auf Deutsch. The Grand Theft Orchestra fills out Palmer's sound significantly, yet still retains some of the dark groove of her work in the Dresden Dolls. Want It Back offers a typical sample of the mix of synth pop and new wave that Theatre Is Evil favors. Keyboard washes kick it off, but the staccato pop bounce of piano and bass drive the song forward. The arrangement is rich as it supports Palmer's chanting lyrical flow. Bottomfeeder hits a moodier synth pop groove. But even at this slower pace, the band makes it feel lush.

Palmer also shows off her rock side. On Do It With a Rockstar, Her intro fades in then collapses into a solid Pat Benatar punch:
Do you wanna dance?
Do you wanna fight? 
Do you wanna get drunk and stay the night?
Once the song is underway, it turns into an indie rock reworking of David Bowie's classic sound. Like Bowie's self-referencing lyrics, Palmer presents a stylized view of herself as a partying rock star, albeit with a touch of desperation. The larger band provides a strong guitar and heavy drumming, which sells the song's rock credibility. But the cock-rock bluster crosses with Palmer's lonely edge: "Are you really sure you want to go?"

Palmer's songwriting is as strong as ever. She finds subjects and perspectives that stray beyond the typical. On The Killing Type, the music feels a bit like XTC's post punk pop as she presents her pacifist ethical position. After drawing her clear boundaries, the song shifts from the philosophical to a sharper response, rooted in relationship issues:
I'm not the killing type...
But I would kill to make you feel
I don't mean kill someone for real
I couldn't do that, it is wrong 
But I can say it in a song (a song, a song)
And I'm saying it now
I'm saying it so
Even if you never hear this song
Somebody else will know
The contrast between her calm, reasonable pacifism and bubbling anger is a powerful example of repression.

Then on the moody Grown Man Cry, she's worn down by the emotional blackmail of a crying lover. She's frustrated, cynically seeing his tears as passive aggression:
For a while it was touching
For a while it was challenging
Before it became typical
Now it really isn't interesting
To see a grown man cry
It's an ironic followup to the sentiment on The Killing Type. The gender role reversal is also interesting, largely because Palmer doesn't let her perspective to slip into a stereotypical chauvinist response.

It's also nice to hear Palmer strip down to piano and voice, like on the pensive, haunted Tori Amos style of Trout Head Replica or the tragically beautiful The Bed Song. Sounding like Regina Spector covering Simon and Garfunkel's America, this latter tune starts out sweet and wistful as a couple begin as friends sharing a sleeping bag. The couple moves closer together then drift quietly apart without ever splitting. Eventually the gulf is too wide and it's heartbreaking:
And I still don't ask you, "What is the matter?"
Is it a matter of worse or better?
You take the heart failure, I'll take the cancer
I've long stopped wondering why you don't answer
The waltz rhythm and expressive piano melody keep the song from becoming too maudlin.

Without considering Palmer's background, Theatre Is Evil might seem scattershot: flashes of wit clash with emotion, sparse arrangements next to thick walls of sound, shallow pop and depths of feeling. But taken in context, Palmer's art is all about messy complexity. At its heart, her work is a celebration like Walt Whitman's Song of Myself:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

History Lesson - Pixies, Doolittle (1989)

The unbearable blightness of dreaming: rage, noise, and surrealism

The Pixies sucked in the sounds of punk and post punk and transformed them into a new language of visceral frustration informed by the curse of self-awareness. Thus the distorted thrash of Hüsker Dü, the angular tonality of Television, and the demented experimentalism of Pere Ube coalesced into a  noisy melange that would later influence bands from Nirvana to the White Stripes.

Surfer Rosa was a strong offering as the band's first full length album, with a brutally primitive clarity, but Doolittle showcases a more fully developed sound. Punk energy and a willful embrace of surrealism made Doolittle a more ambitious project. A lot of bands aim to be shocking and only manage an affected strangeness. But I remember hearing Debaser for the first time and concluding that Black Francis was truly messed up.

Like Johnny Rotton on Anarchy in the U.K., Francis' voice on Debaser is gleeful as he riffs on the imagery from Luis Buñuel's surrealistic film Une Chien Andalou: "Slicin' up eyeballs, I want you to know." The music starts out with Kim Deal's note perfect bassline and a clean post punk feel that quickly picks up a thick layers of guitar. The raw drive of the song supports the increasingly manic vocals. Francis has talked about surrealism as an artificial, escapist form, but Debaser and other parts of Doolittle test that boundary. Like a self-cutter trying to feel via pain, Francis seems to be trying find morality and truth through transgression.

If Debaser makes me think Francis was out there, his howl on Tame seals the deal. The track's dynamic contrast is powerful. His intermittent explosions of rage are a kick to the teeth, but the softer syncopation between Francis' and Deal's vocalized breathing near the end of the track is more torturous as it builds a nervous anticipation. It's clear that they're catching their breath before the final confrontation.

If Doolittle only offered aggression, it would wear thin quickly. Instead, the album branches out with a dreamy version of surrealism (Wave of Mutilation), a sweet yin-yang mix of Deal and Francis vocals (I Bleed), and a surprisingly bouncy pop (Here Comes Your Man). This last track sounds like a rougher version of the Pretenders' earlier work, trading Chrissie Hind's brash tone for Francis' cryptic openness.

The magic, though, comes with Monkey Gone to Heaven. The social commentary and environmental message are only slightly oblique and there are a couple of lyrical gems there. But the arrangement is what makes it so special. The Pixies sacrifice none of their edge, but the soft-loud shifts are more controlled and the subtle strings add a rich depth. The staccato bassline holds the pace in check, imbuing Francis' raw build to "Then God is Seven!" with greater weight.

The second half of Doolittle is a bit of a roller coaster ride -- the campy fun of Mr. Grieve, the hyper thrash of Crackity Jones, La La Love You's upbeat Cure feel, and the funky groove of Hey -- the mix of sounds and styles throw some curves, but the Pixies' je ne sais quoi remains clear. Even if most of the second half doesn't quite deliver the power of Debaser or Monkey Gone to Heaven, it's easy to imagine Jack White wearing out his copy of the album, soaking it in.

Doolittle closes with another strong track, Gouge Away. The steady bass and calm vocal detachment of:
Gouge away
You can gouge away
Stay all day
If you want to
sets up the loud response, whose rhythm guitar part sounds like it's been passed hand to hand from sometime far back in Keith Richard's history. The surf tone guitar lead adds a psychedelic touch. The pauses and variable strings of notes are like cigarette smoke drifting across the room. Gouge Away serves as a fitting complement to the album's start. Worn down, Francis now sounds like the old hand who could probably offer some advice to the brash young man on Debaser.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Recording review - Beats Antique, Contraption Vol. 2 (2012)

Wide-spectrum world-tronica jams

Head, heart, or gut?

What I love about Beats Antique is that they rarely force me to trade off between the three. Their music often finds a sweet balance between the ideas, the feel, and the groove. With all three aspects present, it's easy to surf from one mode to another in the course of a single song. Similarly, it means that their songs can satisfy different moods.

The mix of cross cultural elements is intellectually engaging, especially in recognizing how producers David Santori and Sidecar Tommy Cappel assemble the parts into a cohesive whole. On Contraption Vol. 2, they kick off with The Allure. The track rolls from ambient openness to a glitched out heavier sound, and then moves into dub step electronica. They create a smooth flow so each section naturally falls into place. The overall mix of analog and digital parts is typical for Beats Antique, but it's a unique musical context compared to their electronic peers.

The band's evocative approach goes beyond the intellectual. Like programme music, their songs can create a narrative or support a particular mood. Like the best psychedelic jams, Beats Antique create rich, trippy soundscapes worthy of exploration. On The Allure, the opening provides a soft dip into exoticism. The sound is gentle and watery. Suddenly, the calm is shattered as an earth rattling bass thunders. Despite the tension, the violin is beguiling: there's a threat, but fascination may win out. I can visualize the sinuous choreography Zoe Jakes would add. The dub step interlude suggests the repercussions of surrender. The violin turns jittery as escape seems hopeless. Then the song circles back to the Siren's theme.

Of course, Zoe Jakes' dances are a key part of Beats Antique concerts, but the recordings trigger the same kind of response in the listener. It's hard to hear them without feeling the compulsion to move. The band's electronic grooves are grounded in dance club friendly rhythms. The simple beat at the start of The Allure sets up a swaying vibe. The syncopation and dubstep breaks raise a more visceral response. From finger taps and head nods to ecstatic abandon, this is music that has a physical impact.

I used The Allure as my example, but I could have just as easily examined the first single, Skeleton Key. The contemplative electronic intro sets the scene. This time they start off with banjo, saving the violin for later in the song. The tranced out grooves, unconventional instrumentation, and stumble step rhythms construct an exotic sound. Skeleton Key plays a lot more with glitching, giving the track a remix vibe.

Much like its earlier namesake, Contraption Vol. 1 (2009), this is a shorter offering, clocking in at 40 minutes. But the eight songs spread out all over the sonic map, with pins in Eastern Europe (Bus to Balkans), Arabia (Crush), Southeast Asia (Colony Collapse - Filastine), and stranger dream worlds (Bloody Bones). With such a lean running time, none of these tracks are expendable. The weakest song is the nightmare carnival ride, Bloody Bones, but it's still a slice of the the band's history that harks back to Collide's Roustabout.

My favorite cuts add vocals to the instrumentation. Long time collaborator LYNX sings on Crooked Muse, bringing a languid, bluesy feel to this folky electronic tune. It starts with a lazy detachment that gets some depth from the faint, threatening buzz of strings. A rhythmic confrontation signals a symbolic showdown and LYNX fights dragging weight of her muse. Unfortunately for her, she's bound too tightly and it sounds as though she will drown.

Colony Collapse - Filastine is my other favorite track. I'm not usually that fond of remixes, but this  glitch laden reinvention of Filastine's Colony Collapse is a cool jam. They keep Filastine's gamalan-like intro and add in their own melodic lines with gypsy strings and banjo. Chopping up Nova's sweet, haunting vocal lines into percussive accents, they take the song into a playful space without losing the original's own mix of worldbeat and electronica. This continues the band's interest in glitch manipulation that they started exploring on last year's Elektrafone.

Contraption Vol. 2 just came out last week and the band is touring North America right now in support.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 9/24

This week's shows feature bombast, alien shredding, and historical flashbacks.

28 September (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)

I'm really excited about this show. Nightwish served as my introduction to symphonic power metal (Wishmaster review). Their musical complexity, expressive vocals, and technical flash have impressed me and opened my ears to this sub-genre. My son and I will be catching this show together because they've become one of his favorite bands.

28 September (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
29 September (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

Buckethead is coming back through town again. He was last here in April with That 1 Guy (review), but I believe that this is a solo tour. Musical mayhem, jaw-dropping technique, and serious strangitude will certainly be on the schedule. If you've never seen Buckethead's theatrical presentation, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

30 September (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Peter Gabriel

Back in 1986, I saw Peter Gabriel on the Amnesty International "Conspiracy of Hope" mini-tour. The lineup was impressive: the Neville Brothers, Joan Baez, Gabriel, Sting, and U2. Gabriel featured several songs from So, which is a perfect segue to the present. There's a new 25th Anniversary box set out for the album and this tour (the "Back to Front" tour) will feature full performances of the album with members of the original touring band.

Enjoy the show, Lenny!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Recording review - Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray, We're From Here (2012)

Warm heart and fuzzed out soul come together

Duos are often more revealing than a full band. In a larger group, one member's vision can dominate. Or, by contrast, the personalities can smear together into an amalgamation without the rough edges. But a duo often presents a yin yang balance between two equals. If the match is close, it may emphasize the common ground, but magic can happen when two stronger visions come together. If the clash is not destructive, two perspectives can yield a rich sense of depth.

Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray don't always succeed in smoothly merging her folky singer/songwriter sensibility with his harder edged garage guitar, but they do click often enough to create several special moments on We're From Here. The two clearly come from different worlds, but the long time they've spent on the road together has granted them a strong mutual respect and border crossing spirit. Neither musician's contribution can be summed up simply, but their strengths bolster one another.

Erin Frisby (Miss Shevaughn) has a fine voice that evokes the classic folk sounds of Linda Ronstadt or Emmy Lou Harris. When the tunes are more country, a touch of Patsy Cline comes out in her expressive phrasing. Confident yet vulnerable, she gives the material an emotional core. The opening track shows this off. From the simple folk start of Go Hang, her sweet but weary tone slides into your heart. Frisby carries her weight as a player, too. While her strength seems to be acoustic rhythm work, she has a nice touch at steel guitar and electric fills.

Chris Stelloh (Yuma Wray) balances Frisby's sentimentality with his electric guitar work. He seems happiest turning up the distortion and reverb to create a rich retro tone. On the subtle end, he can support a lonely melancholia with a Sleep Walk slide fill, like his backing on Go Hang. At the other extreme, he can build that into a richer garage rock, like he eventually does on Mi Burro Está En Fuego.That instrumental evolves a moody acoustic line into a Spanish flavored rock jam. The progression stays interesting, with tight breaks and fuzzy, single-coil accents. Throughout We're From Here, Stelloh's electric sound proves to be a strong companion to Frisby's rich vocals.

The centerpiece of the album shows off both players' strengths. The River Made Me Do It begins with a heat shimmer of sun-baked harmonica, creating a plaintive, lonely feel. The banjo and fingerstyle guitar lay down a dark, folk blues sound. The threatening undertone of droning bass creates a shadow of the deep woods that can hide a world of secrets. Frisby's voice is seductive, but a sense of doom clings to her words:
Well, the river made me do it
Waltzed right in
And made himself at home
And when I looked into his eyes
I fell right in
And I'm a thousand miles gone
With the sonic memories of House of the Rising Sun and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime driving the groove, the tune offers up its moral lesson like an old style murder ballad. About halfway through, the band borrows a page from the Doobie Brothers' Black Water to lay down an interlocking a capella line ("Floatin' on by a dry county"). This sets up the electric guitar to drive the song forward like Jack White on a tear. Then Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray drop back to the folk blues simplicity and take us around again for the second half. Frisby's voice moans as the heavy guitar leads her to her fate to close the song.

We're From Here's failures aren't fatal, but those strong tracks make songs like Make It Out Alive or Martha Ann sound weak and flawed. On the straight rocker, Make It Out Alive, Stelloh takes the lead vocal. Like The Replacements trying to write a Springsteen anthem, it feels derivative. Even though Stelloh gives his best, it lacks the chemistry of the duo. Similarly, Martha Ann's folky epitaph is pretty and Frisby's in her element, but it's missing the moody edge that Stelloh's guitar buzz adds elsewhere.

The closing track, Anniversary Song uses a different technique to show the duo's complementary nature. The main push of the song stays in the acoustic realm. Frisby's voice is full of longing and Stelloh's acoustic fills are tastefully restrained, maintaining the essential Linda Ronstadt vibe. When the song seems to end, there's a pause. Then we hear a brief sample of the band's alternate take as a reprise. Stelloh wrenches a low-fi haze from his distorted guitar, which contrasts with the clean single notes of acoustic. This hint at what might have been is just another way for Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray to show off their dualistic nature.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Commentary: Look for the union label

Amanda Palmer embraces controversy. Whether it's rooted in an attitude of "no press is bad press" or  righteous indignation, Palmer is always willing to stir the pot and see what rises. In 2008, she incited her fans against Roadrunner Records, claiming the label tried to censor images of her stomach in a video ("The Rebellyon"). Most recently, Palmer has squared off against musicians' unions over her invitation to amateur players to sit in with her band during her tour.

Amanda Palmer horn support
Photo by Lucid Revolution

There's no irony lost, with Palmer's band even called the Grand Theft Orchestra. Raymond M. Hair Jr., president of the American Federation of Musicians, sees her invitation as a case of larceny, saying, "There ought to be compensation for it [playing]." Her success crowd funding her latest album, Theatre Is Evil, has stoked the criticism against her. After raising so much money, people wonder why she's not paying these musicians if she thinks she needs them.

Without diving into a deep discussion of labor law, a big part of the conflict comes from the difference between unionized professional musicians and rock band culture. The unions are defending their profession, seeing Palmer's invitation as a way to avoid paying "real" musicians, except with beer, high-fives, and hugs. In their view, amateur musicians willing to work for free are a threat to professional musicians making their livelihood. This contrasts with how things work on the rock side. In clubs all around America, there are plenty of rock bands playing for free, not even getting the hugs. In some cases, the bands are even paying to play.

Here in Ft. Collins and along the Front Range, there are plenty of talented amateurs happy to play for free. Sometimes, they're doing it for the exposure and a chance to build a fan base. Other times, they're just happy for the opportunity to reach an audience and get experience. I've played gigs for fun, for bar credit, or even just the chance to collect tips. I agree with the unions that musical performance has value and should be compensated, but I also understand the market economics in play.

Ultimately, though, this controversy is a bit contrived. Reading over Palmer's blog post, she makes it clear that these guest musicians are only sitting in for a couple of songs or so (although the string quartets may be playing a little more). Rather than taking advantage of these people, I think she's trying to create excitement among her fans and make each show a special event. This fits with her Kickstarter success: Palmer has formed a strong bond with her fans, providing many chances for collaboration online and in real life.

Still, whether she intended it or not, Palmer clearly pissed off a lot of people. Amidst the firestorm, she's followed up to state that in some cities, like New York, she will be paying these musicians. Whether she's placating her critics or acknowledging union power in those places is almost irrelevant. The net result seems to be that the union folks and their supporters were all trolled or stoked the issue themselves. Despite the rancor, I think Palmer is the clear winner on this one. Her tour has gotten a lot of free publicity and there seem to be plenty of musicians happy to join her.

 Amanda  Palmer has announced that she'll start paying the musicians who sit in with the band, including those from earlier in the tour. Now, we can all kiss and make up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Recording review - Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light (2012)

Confused ambivalence, but Spiritualized still brings the noise

Spiritualized took their time getting Sweet Heart Sweet Light out the door. Of course, two years of recording and almost a year of chemotherapy hazed mixing could slow down anyone's momentum. Jason Pierce (AKA J. Spaceman) is now in better health, but the illness and his treatment had an impact on the new album.

Sweet Heart Sweet Light is a bit confused, unsure of whether it wants to be ironic or sincere, harsh or treacly. It hasn't decided whether their musical touchstones should be esteemed or dismissed. This ambivalence is not new for Spiritualized, but this album brings it front and center. Despite this, there are still some constants: a low-fi, compressed production that recalls the late night FM radio of my youth, Pierce's eager embrace of glorious noise, and the belief that regular repetition can drive a message home.

Skipping the pastoral welcome of Intro and it's promise of comfort, the album gets underway with Hey Jane (graphic official video here). The bouncy beat and Pierce's naive vocals capture a young David Bowie, reworking Jean Genie. Halfway through the track, the song hits a meltdown ending. The chaos fades but the song resurrects into a sunshine psychedelia, packed with hypnotic repetition and a relentless bass beat. The tempo creeps higher and Pierce's vocals come in, alluding to the earlier lyrics. But now there's a threat, "Hey Jane, when you gonna die?" This heavy bait and switch makes it harder to trust a surface read on the other tracks.

So, later, when Freedom's sweet harmonies and country folk arrangement offers a respite from the thick, heavy sound of Headin' For the Top, there's a sense that the Neil Young mask could slip at any time.

By the same token, when Spiritualized gets saccharine sweet on Too Late or mines a gospel vein on Life is a Problem, it feels like another chance to dash everyone's expectations and undercut the band's reputation for noise.

Sweet Heart Sweet Light does deliver plenty of the discordance that Spiritualized is known for. I Am What I Am is a perfect example. The warning feedback whine heralds chunky strum and a dark, heavy bassline. The song's bluster has a threatening tone, like Bad to the Bone for the experimental set, but the lyrics are cloaked in metaphor
I am the heart that calls you home
I'm the grave that marks your stone
Misunderstood, d'ya understand?
I'm the sea holds back the land
I'm the mishap and coincidence that came out as you planned
I am what I am
The sassy backup vocals on the chorus set up a call and response. But the noise rises against Pierce's calm delivery. Piano stabs, steel wool scour, and a distorted buzz like a rattlesnake -- these sounds fall into place like a gathering horde behind their leader. A saxophone channels Ornette Coleman short circuit squeals. It's a delicious tension as Pierce remains unfazed, untouched by the chaos.

This contrast is what I love most about Spiritualized. For a moment, it banishes the schmaltzy strings and other retro pop trappings to capture the essence of the band's roots.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 9/17

A good mix this week. Multiple genres and several flavors of fun.

20 September (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
Local H

Local H is back, touring with a new album out this week: Hallelujah! I'm A Bum. Scott Lucas already released one new album this year with his side project, Scott Lucas and the Married Men. But it's nice to see him continuing to play with Brian St. Clair, making the uncompromising, punchy alt rock that Local H was known for.

21 September (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer has come a long way since her start with the Dresden Dolls. She's quite a character who's unafraid of controversy. But she's formed a strong connection with her fans and she's been an outspoken artist with interesting ideas and strong performance. Her latest album, Theatre Is Evil, was crowd funded. Come out to see her with the Grand Theft Orchestra.

23 September (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Whiskey Blanket

I've covered Whiskey Blanket numerous times. They remain one of the most original hip hop groups in the region and they deserve an even bigger following than they have. This show at the Aggie Theatre is free, so you have no excuse to miss the best melding of hip hop, strings, and beat boxing you'll ever find. Jazzy violin, smart ass rap flow, and some great DJ work make every performance something special.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Concert review - Easy Star All-Stars with Passafire

13 September 2012 (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)

The Fox Theatre built up a good crowd. The all-ages show had a strong youth contingent that seemed to know both bands very well. There were a lot of the same people I see when the Flobots play.

I wasn't familiar with Passafire before this show. Based on the band name, I expected a solid reggae groove. That would have been welcome, but Passafire's sound turned out to be much richer than that.

Their music followed the jam band path of Phish, Widespread Panic and others. Songs skipped across genres, melding a hard rock solo into a ska groove or merging a Zappa-esque experimental sound into a reggae rock groove. Sharp rhythm and tempo changes signaled the song section boundaries, as well. Unlike those other bands, though, the songs didn't melt into a long running mass. That kept their set tighter with a stronger punch, even when they drifted into a spacier zone. The other difference is that Passafire seemed to center on reggae and ska beats as their natural foundation. At the time, I thought they might have been tailoring their set to fit better with Easy Star All-Stars. But after tracking down more of their music today, I can hear how central those rhythms are to their sound.

All four players were adept at changing up their approach to fit the sound in the moment. The band tours constantly and that showed in their performance. Bass player Will Kubley was particularly impressive. His playing on the reggae sections provided the solid anchor the style calls for, but he could also bounce it into a bubbly groove. His extended intro solo on Kilo had a laid back virtuosity.

Guitarist Ted Browne dominated the stage, driving most of the lead vocals. He favored a heavy echo on his voice that fit well with Kubley's close harmonies. His guitar was tasteful. He had plenty of chances to show off some flash technique, but he generally reined that in to support the song. His soft-spoken laid back persona was forward enough that he wasn't shy.

Mike DeGuzman keyboard accents were fine, but he really stood out for the stunt touches: strapping on a guitar to contribute 30 seconds of glory or whipping out a Roland keytar (it looked like a Lucina) to step to the stage front. The theatrical moves worked; the whole band had a good stage energy.

There were a lot of great songs and I'll have to track down more of Passafire's music. Along with the rest of the crowds, one of my favorite songs was Dimming Sky. The old school R&B start shifts into an uptempo ska beat backing a lazy vocal. "Other fish go swimming by, they say good night / And I wish the dimming sky would stay so bright".

It's been three and a half years since I last saw Easy Star All-Stars, but it still stands out as an amazing show that made my top five of 2009. After reviewing Thrilla, their new tribute to Michael Jackson's Thriller, I had unreasonably high hopes for this tour because Jackson's music would kick up the pop energy for the show. Even so, Easy Star All-Stars exceeded my expectations, delivering a well rounded show: high energy jams, sweet reggae grooves, spacy dub excursions, and sentimental moments.

The band started the show with a vamp build into their lazily drifting version Radiohead's Airbag. That got the audience moving but they really woke up when the band followed up with Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'.

The setlist was nicely constructed to take the crowd through the history of the band's work. They hit the high points and kept the flow moving. The new album, Thrillah, was well represented, while there were only a couple of tunes from Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band. The Pink Floyd section, with Breathe and Time was a treat. The dynamic shift from a trippy, reflective mood to heavy rhythm focus and then Ruff Scott's exciting rap delivery made it a long adventure ride. This segment rolled perfectly into the dark and moody sound of Radiohead's Lucky. With perfect timing, the All-Stars lightened the vibe with an a capella singalong start to With A Little Help From My Friends.

Like the setlist, the band's roles were also well balanced. Kirsty Rock and Ruff Scott were like sweet and spicy. Rock's sassy attitude and strong pop voice were perfect for tunes like P.Y.T. and Thriller. Scott's raspy growl and toasting style was a strong, earthy counterpoint. He was a charismatic performer, too, owning the front edge of the stage as he challenged people to sing along or exhorted them with his rap. His riff on Money was strong and he also covered DJ Spragga Benz's spoken word part from Thriller.

Guitarist Shelton Garner Jr was a solid player, able to shift from chank to serious rock solo work with ease. But his singing was a real treat. On The Girl is Mine, he had a strong R&B sound that gave a hint of Michael Jackson, but with a deeper tone. His real moment to shine, though, was the encore. He came out alone and performed a solo arrangement of Bob Marley's Redemption Song. The guitar arrangement had a light Hendrix chord melody touch, but his voice was strong and soulful. It was a truly moving moment. The last notes hung in the air before the rest of the band stepped up to continue the encore.

Bass player Ras I Ray, though, was the true heart and soul of the band. Like a ringmaster, he was at the center of it all. His playing was phenomenal: fluid and melodic, then throbbing and deep, whatever the moment called for. Through it all, he kept in constant motion. One moment, he'd march in place, crouched down in a power stance. Soon after, he'd grin infectiously and dance with joyous energy. His presence and charisma anchored the band. Even his stage patter had a confident humility that showed off the band's open spirit.

Easy Star All-Stars throw an amazing concert. Without an ounce of drag or waste, they still create a loose party atmosphere. They take these incredibly well-known songs and rebuild them to create a truly original sound. They show off their phenomenal musical talent and still seem more interested in making a connection with the people at their shows. I only regret that I couldn't see their other two shows in the area this tour.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Musings - Communication: verbal and non-verbal

I went back to Florida this summer and had the chance to sit in with my brother's band. I was mostly adding guitar, but Mike did ask me if I could play bass on one song, The Boys Are Back in Town. While my bands tend to focus on originals, my brother reminded me that their cover was pretty close to the original version. So, I listened to Thin Lizzy a lot, looked up the tab, and practiced until I could reproduce Phil Lynott's bass line.

I mentioned to my brother that I assumed they were playing the song in the original key of G#. "No, I think it's G," said Mike. Uh-oh, time to reevaluate. Transposing wasn't too bad, I just had one spot where I'd be playing an open string instead a fretted note.

A day or so before I headed to Florida, my brother sent me the setlist along with key signature notes. The Boys Are Back in Town was there but he had it listed in C! Time for a crisis email: Ahh, Boys in C? Are you playing G - Am - C on the chorus? Nope, those weren't the chords. He sent the charts and a YouTube link and all was clear.

It turns out they weren't doing the Thin Lizzy song. The Busboys also had a fairly popular song with that title. It could have been really strange if we hadn't cleared this up before the set!

On the surface, this points out the importance of communication in music. We could have avoided a lot of stress and work if Mike had simply sent me the recording or a YouTube link. At a more general level, I've been in plenty of bands that would have benefited from simple clarity about goals, expectations, and creative direction.

But there's a deeper lesson here about managing expectations and creative chaos. We caught our misunderstanding before the gig, but what if we hadn't? The two songs are radically different, so I would have known from the very beginning that I was in the weeds. The Busboy's track is a simple blues jam, so I would have been able to adapt easily, just watching the drummer to cue the punches. After a brief panic, I would have been completely in the moment, picking up on the changes and surrendering to the song.

So, communication is key, but over the years, I've found myself in musical situations that defied my expectations. It's why I prefer to play with people who can listen, adjust, and save the song. Sometimes, this chaos can push a song into a radical new space that opens up a rich set of creative expression.

Lately, I've had some informal sessions with a friend who plays violin. I've been swapping between bass and guitar. My drummer just joined us this week. We share similar goals (a mix of improv and arranged material, some plan to play publicly sometime). But when we're playing my songs, I try not to direct her violin playing. In this case, I want the music to communicate to me and tell me where we should go.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Recording review - Zulu Pearls, No Heroes No Honeymoons (2012)

Stripped down sound distills songs to their essence

Following the popular trend, Zach Van Hoozer records under his band monicker, Zulu Pearls. Beyond that, though, Van Hoozer distances himself from the usual crowd. He's ditched Washington D.C. to settle in Berlin. Rather than tapping into the electronic music scene there, he focuses on his own rock vision, playing with a pan-European set of musicians.

Van Hoozer came back to D.C. to record No Heroes No Honeymoons with producer Nick Anderson. The two created a stripped down sound where guitars generally provide light accents rather than steal the show. The stark production and the slapback echo on the vocals give the songs a retro feel with a taste of late night ruminations. Most of the songs are bass driven with solid drumwork. The echoed vocals and bass playing are a bit like the Arctic Monkeys sound on Whatever People Say I Am That's What I'm Not, but more laid back. Van Hoozer's voice is expressive and occasionally weary.

Simple strums of reverbed guitar add highlights to the down tempo bassline and steady drumbeat on the opening track, Keep It Cool. The music is distilled down to it's purest essence. Van Hoozer's voice comes in like he's whispering secrets. He picks up some urgency and stronger expression on the chorus, matching the increased rock intensity. This track sets the tone for the whole album. Regardless of the tempo, the arrangements feature the same clarity where a gesture is preferred over bombast.

That's not to say that No Heroes No Honeymoons is an understated album; the sonic focus can create a powerful tension. On Two Thousand Whatever, the verse's hypnotic beat supports a seductive vocal. The stalking bassline adds a hint of threat or maybe temptation. But the chorus breaks the spell with a languid and expressive release:
Some want love, some want submission
You can keep your diamond ring
I'm on top, you're on a mission
And you want to take everything
But you say I waste my breath on rock and roll
Ain't nobody gonna save my soul
Those last two lines open the music to channel My Morning Jacket, with Van Hoozer reaching for Jim James' style of vocal self-flagellation. The chorus resolves and smoothly slips back into the verse groove with a renewed sense of anticipation.

One track ignores Zulu Pearls' sonic blueprint. The first single, Magic Tricks opts for a more standard pop/indie rock approach. This time the drums and bass step back in the mix and let the guitar drive the song. There's even a guitar solo after the second chorus and some keys slip in on the third verse. It's a catchy song and I like it, but compared to the rest of No Heroes No Honeymoon, it feels like a compromise.

Despite this, the rest of the album's aesthetic offers a unique response to the usual indie rock sound. Zulu Pearls create a kind of power vacuum when they sideline the guitar without an obvious replacement. Letting the rhythm section take center stage gives the songs a different perspective.

Check out the drag beat title cut, No Heroes No Honeymoons. The album releases in the U.S. on September 18.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 9/10

A couple of all star bands and some other changes of pace. This is a great week of music - choose wisely.

12 September (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
13 September (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
14 September (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)
Easy Star All-Stars

The Easy Star All-Stars are touring behind their Michael Jackson cover album, Easy Star's Thrillah (review), which is their latest reggae reinvention. This is a great band to catch live and we're lucky to get so many stops along the Front Range. The All-Stars will have a stage packed with talent, with several charismatic players taking front duties in rotation. Aside from the Michael Jackson songs, expect a sampling from their other albums with songs by Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and the Beatles. As strange a combination as it sounds, the reggae/dub backbone creates a consistency that creates a perfect flow.

Even if your interest in reggae is limited to that one time you heard your college roommate's copy of Bob Marley's Legend, you will definitely enjoy this show.

12 September (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
13 September (Pikes Peak Center, Colorado Springs CO)
The B-52s

I haven't seen the B-52s since they opened for the Who in 1982 (along with Joan Jett). Despite the hostile crowd, the band's confidence never faltered and they played a great, if short, set. Their surf-tone new wave sound, outré lyrical themes, and party attitude made the B-52s one of my favorite bands of the early '80s. Decades later, the band is still going strong, with more focus on touring than the studio. Come out ready for classics like Rock Lobster and Love Shack as well as more recent tracks like Funplex.

14 September (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
15 September (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
North Mississippi Allstars

Get down deep, dirty and funky. North Mississippi Allstars have their fingers on the rootsy pulse of southern rock and blues, which grounds them even as they spin out into psychedelic funk jams or barrel house boogies. They may be treading paths laid by the Allman Brothers and others, but they have an earthier feel. The band is adept at moving from rollicking rockers to deeply heartfelt, traditional tunes. They come through the Front Range fairly often, but it's always worth catching their show.

14 September (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
15 September (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Umphrey's McGee

Like most progressive jammers, Umphrey's McGee's studio work barely scratches the surface of the band's talent. Their concerts showcase the band's range and give a better sense of how they meld technical proficiency with a gifted sense of coordination and timing. Umphrey's McGee has a unique tone among the other big name jam bands because they incorporate some wider ranging influences from prog and metal. The Boulder Theatre show is already sold out, but Red Rocks is the perfect venue to experience their show.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Recording review - Tom Tom Club, Downtown Rockers (2012)

After more than a decade, Tom Tom Club picks up where they left off

Tom Tom Club is inextricably tied to the Talking Heads. Where the Talking Heads had a skewed, outsider perspective on rock and roll, Tom Tom Club was deep inside, looking for the perfect pop groove. It's easy to imbue David Byrne with all of the oddball quirk and see the Talking Heads as largely his creative endeavor. But Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison were equally steeped in the proto new wave artistic scene going on.

In large part, Tom Tom Club got its direction by avoiding the Talking Heads style. As a side project, it gave Weymouth and Frantz an outlet that didn't conflict with the core band. Tom Tom club's eclectic mix of hip hop, disco, and funk were a completely different direction. Blondie's occasional work in this sandbox may have been an inspiration, but Weymouth and Frantz embraced the sound earnestly. With songs like Genius of Love, Wordy Rappinghood, and The Man With The Four Way Hips, Tom Tom Club was innovative and still a little bit odd.

Now, after more than a decade, Tom Tom Club is back with a new EP, Downtown Rockers. Still mining the same dance beat/electro funk space, it's like a case of "let's get the band back together one last time." Except the energy makes it clear that they're really having fun building up the intricate, interlocking rhythms. It's like the band was vacuum packed for the last 15 or 20 years and just came out to play.

Downtown Rockers features six new songs along with instrumental versions and a special remix of the title track. Of all the tracks, Downtown Rockers is the only one overtly looking back. Name dropping a host of new wave icons (including the Talking Heads), the dirty, low-fi mix recalls the Clash, but the track bridges the bands new wave roots and dance beat sound. The stuttering organ line and vocal interjections offer a taste of the B-52s, but the song is anchored by a disco foundation.

Won't Give You Up works the electro funk angle and features Weymouth's diffident vocal style along with a solid funk bassline. You Make Me Rock and Roll has a dark, Talking Heads sound contrasted against a Stevie Wonder keyboard riff.

Kissin' Antonio is one of the stand out tracks. The Latin rhythm sets up a languid groove. Lyrically, there's nothing there. But the track creates a perfect late night feel of a smoke hazed club, an insistent beat, and the lazy, head-nodding sway.

The band come closest to the modern dance aesthetic on their cover of Love Tape by The Pinker Tones from Spain. Where the original has a kind of mod, retro charm, Tom Tom Club goes for the full electro pop treatment. The steady beat and decorative electronic fills place it firmly on the dance floor. I could envision a dub step remix to really modernize the sound.

Downtown Rockers' strength is that it avoids the common pitfalls of a old band finally releasing a new album: it's not a ridiculous reinvention, a tired rehash, or a crass money grab. Instead, it sounds like Frantz and Weymouth still have some viable musical ideas to share.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

September Singles

From dark to light, September offers several cool tracks.

JIP - Shudder (from Sparks, Flames, and Names)

Jim Gwynne and his band JIP just released their latest EP, Sparks, Flame, and Names. The running theme is about breaking up, but the band took an interesting approach and made each song a collaboration with a different featured artist. This gives the EP an eclectic feel.

My favorite track, Shudder has a delicious dark tension. Joanna Stanielun (Half Moon Mad) has a languid tone that promises trouble and excitement in equal measure. She sounds like a cross between Alannah Myles (Black Velvet) and Exene Cervenka. The interplay between Gwynne and Stanielun is powerful. "Every time I relapse / You leave me to shudder."

Drop by JIB's audio page to hear more.

Pony Boy - Not In This Town

With her smoky alt-Western sound, Pony Boy (Marchelle Bradanini) saunters through the darkness. Twangy, jarring, and low-fi, the music for Not In This Town is compelling. The metallic taste of Tom Waits' skewed musical aesthetic and the discordant guitar solo are warning signs, but Pony Boy's breathy whisper in my ear is confident that she'll pull us all in.

The Luyas
- Fifty Fifty (from Animator, due October 16)

The Luyas
Photo credit: Richard Lam

Moving away from this month's dark side, The Luyas have a new single, Fifty Fifty. It's too uptempo to qualify as dreamy, but Jessie Stein's vocals have an ethereal tone. The song begins as a solid danceable pop. The guitars and keys are thickly varnished with reverb, taking away some of the edge. Near the end, the drums drop out and then the song drifts into an ambient haze, reaching towards the atmospheric sound the band loves.

The Luyas new album, Animator is due out next month on Dead Oceans.

The Orb (ft. Lee Scratch Perry) - Golden Clouds (from The Orbserver in the Star House)

The Orb's Little Fluffy Clouds was a beautiful, trippy groove. Designed for the dance floor with a solid groove, it channeled the directed spaciness of Krautrock. Golden Clouds is not so much a remix, but a reinvention. The Orb's Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann connected with reggae statesman Lee Scratch Perry. Perry's vocals, rhythms, and sense of dub served as an inspiration for a whole album of material, The Orbserver in the Star House.

Golden Clouds is more focused than its parent, but no less hypnotic. Where Ricki Lee Jones' vocal sample in the original was spacy, Perry's voice is like a trip sitter, guiding the flow of the song.

After you enjoy this, you should check out Golden Clouds 81 Neutronz Mix on PopMatters. With heavier electronic processing to take the track into dubstep territory, it's yet another ripple from the Orb.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Recording review - Reel Big Fish, Candy Coated Fury (2012)

A return to classic ska rock form

Reel Big Fish caught my ear in 1996 with Turn the Radio Off. I wasn't alone: Sell Out was all over MTV and the third wave of ska (ska punk) was building in popularity. Compared to peers like Sublime, No Doubt, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish always brought a sardonic sense of humor to their songs. Whether clever or sophomoric, their smart ass attitude paired perfectly with their catchy tunes. Loosely categorized as ska punk, the band leaned towards a hard rocking power pop sound filtered through the uptempo ska beat. I've mentioned my love of "snotty boys with guitars"; Reel Big Fish were snotty boys with guitars and a smoking ska horn section.

After a five year dry spell, Candy Coated Fury offers some new original material. As a bonus, the band has reached back to the earlier sound of Turn the Radio Off and How Do They Rock So Hard?. They've succeeded, riffing off familiar themes of snarky misanthropy, screwed up relationships, and frustration with an unfair world. The titles alone set the mood: Everyone Else is an Asshole, I Know You Too Well to Like You Anymore, P.S. I Hate You. Frontman Aaron Barrett still delivers his sarcastic lines like a self-absorbed kid. It's cathartic to hear him launch an attack like:
Dear wicked witch I wasted my time with (P.S. I Hate You)
I'm finally leaving you today (P.S. I Hate You)
It works because the anger is tempered by the hyperbole, the über-cheery horns, and Barrett's juvenile, joyous singing.

The first single out is I Know You Too Well to Like You Anymore, which sets up a duet between Barrett and Julie Stoyer as a couple well past the point of You Don't Bring Me Flowers. Reel Big Fish has brought in a female guest singer before (Monique Powell on She Has a Girlfriend Now). Once again, the (flawed) chemistry with Barrett's character is part of the song's setup. As the song runs through the couple's disfunction, the shared memories are amusing:
JS: When we first started, even if you farted
I'd laugh and ask for more
AB: And in the beginning, we always were grinning
We didn't even know what we were smiling for
JS: We'd hold hands and then break-dance
Or rap like Dr. Dre
AB: And side by side, we'd drink all night
Disgusting all our friends with our PDA
JS: You felt so good deep in my heart and that's for sure
AB: But now I feel sick when I'm around you
It hurts me head to think of how
I know you too well to like you anymore
That sets up the real sniping. Meanwhile, the frantic pace allows for a speedy double chank ska guitar and tight horn fills. The chorus switches over into a hard rocking power pop drive.

The most grown up tune on Candy Coated Fury is the sarcastically titled Famous Last Words. It's a defeatist tune about giving up on music: "I'm gonna quit while I'm ahead". The punchline is that he missed his chance to go out on top: "It's too late, I'm a home body now." But Barrett could be singing about slitting his wrists and the ska beat would rob it of any pathos. It's clear that Reel Big Fish is happy to tackle any doubt that the band has something left to say.

One of my favorite tracks from the album does drop the juvenile humor to raise the ska flag. Don't Stop Skankin' sets up a Madness-tribute jam that riffs off One Step Beyond. Mostly instrumental, Reel Big Fish uses Madness' trademark of a repeated heavily echoed tagline. The sassy horn solo in the middle is moody and expressive. When the song ends, though, the track runs on to toss out another tribute, this time to A Message to You Rudy (Dandy Livingstone, remade by the Specials). Produced like an old record playback, the Julie Stoyers' vocals on the new lyrics are sweet and the horns hit the classic tune's call and response.

Reel Big Fish may not be breaking new ground on Candy Coated Fury, but I don't really want them to. They've done a great job of resurrecting their classic sound and delivering the party-happy, high energy attitude that their fans always loved. Raise a black and tan (it's two-tone after all) and enjoy the skank.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 9/3

This week we have a few smaller name groups coming to the Front Range, but it should still be a week of fairly interesting shows.

5 September (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)

WHY? finds an intriguing path. If They Might Be Giants were just getting their start, they might find a similar blend. WHY? has a similar quirky streak driven by their earnest, simple vocals and abstract lyrics. But their musical inspiration is more contemporary, with influences of dream pop, electronic washes, and indie rock. Their new album, Mumps, Etc. is due out next month.

6 September (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)

Oakhurst fuses unbridled bluegrass with country rock elements. The bluegrass generally dominates, but the band still has a good sense of boogie. In any given the song, the flurries of mandolin notes may give way to the sweet pedal tones of the electric guitar. Rootsy rock bliss.

8 September (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
The Knux

Krispy and Joey Lindsey are loosely aligned with alternative hip hop, with solid rap skills. But their backing music is rock and pop focused, revealing a balanced collection of influences. Even on a rap heavy track like Bang! Bang!, the music makes a strong contribution, with jagged guitar riffs and an uptempo Cure style groove.