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

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Commentary - Respect and blessings

A couple of Bob Marley news items popped up recently.

The first is that Aston "Family Man" Barrett received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Bass Player magazine. This recognition acknowledges the great contributions that Family Man made to reggae music as a member of the Wailers. Six years ago, he lost his third court case over royalties owed by the Marley estate. Barrett made his claim based on a verbal contract with Marley and the role that he and his brother, Carleton Barrett, played in developing the unique sound that would define reggae music. Family Man's bass lines and Carleton Barrett's one drop beat are now instantly recognizable. Regardless of the lawsuit about the royalties, the Bass Player award draws attention to the role that Family Man has played in creating and promoting the sound of Jamaica, with the Wailers and as a producer. Respect.

The other interesting nugget is that Bob Marley beat out Michael Jackson and Madonna. Not in record sales or celebrity, but as the best artist to learn English from. A poll by Kaplan International Colleges showed that people identified Marley's music and lyrics as most helpful for picking up English. This certainly speaks to the universal nature of reggae music and Marley's economical writing style. His classic songs told stories and offered up positive messages that connect well with a global audience. It doesn't really matter how scientific this poll was, it's a wonderful gesture to a great man's legacy. I can attest, though, that music is a great way to augment learning a language. I owe a chunk of my German skills to bands like Die Ärzte, but don't tell my German tutor.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Recording review - 45 Grave, Pick Your Poison (2012)

Resurrected death rockers get an eclectic reincarnation

Classic deathrockers 45 Grave are back, disinterred by original member Dinah Cancer. Actually, she reformed the band in 2004, after a long hiatus. Cancer resurrected 45 Grave to "keep the spirit of 45 Grave alive, introduce its magic to new fans." The current lineup, including the legendary Frank Agnew (The Adolescents), has finally recorded the band's first new album in decades. While Pick Your Poison features some of the Gothic flavor of their original work, the songs are an eclectic mix of styles. It's a fun album, with some interesting twists and turns, but it's hard to recognize this project as a logical progression from their earlier sound.

Pick Your Poison has chameleon vibe, bouncing from classic hard rock to funk metal, with a side trip to retro psychedelia. 45 Grave surfs through these changes with strong musical chops and solid production. The one constant from the band's roots, Cancer brings plenty of personality and attitude to the songs. The band makes their evolution clear from the beginning on the title track. Pick Your Poison starts with a steady high hat and bass intro that sets up a post punk groove. There's a taste of funk on the bass line, but Cancer's vocal injects some attitude into the backbone. Her voice is a little rough with a wicked sneer creeping in.
You are like a toxin in me
Pick your poison today
You are like a venom in me
Name your poison
The dark themed lyrics feel familiar, but the polished arrangement and subtle turnaround bridge are new masks for 45 Grave.

The next song is back in the band's classic sound. The original Night of the Demons was the title track for a 2009 horror movie remake. This rerecording is slightly slower, but the sinuous bass and guitar riffs are wicked as ever. The doom-filled verses crunch like classic AC-DC. Cancer rasps and screams her way through the tune, emulating John Lydon's swooping vocal delivery.

The high energy peak is Akira. This reworking of Akira Raideen (Only The Good Die Young) distills the song down to tightly focused funk. Skipping the slow intro, Brandden Blackwell's bass sets a heavy groove and Agnew's guitar jams off the signature riff. Cancer adjusts her vocal to match the new feel. Her voice is still expressive, but it's less over the top. Where the original deconstructed into a wild experimental flail, the new version kicks into short breakdown before a metallic solo jam. Blackwell shifts into a looser melodic style while Agnew shreds. This kind of focus and attention to detail is indicative of 45 Grave's new sound.

Even in the grab bag of musical genres represented on Pick Your Poison, a couple of tracks stand out as complete outliers. Desert Dream is a moody, piano-driven psychedelic instrumental. The slide guitar and pensive moments suggest a lot of time unwinding to Pink Floyd in the headphones. It's a solid piece of music, with a carefully developed beauty, but is it 45 Grave? In stark contrast, Johnny offers another extreme. It's a cowpunk foot stomper. It's a little easier to see the through line from the band's normal haunts, but it will still leave listeners scratching their heads.

This lineup of 45 Grave has good chemistry. It's certainly worthy of Cancer's efforts. Toss out the farthest outlying extremes and Pick Your Poison holds together fairly well. All the same, if they want to continue this eclectic direction, it might be time for a name change...even if the band continues to perform the old back catalog.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows 10/29

More great music, including a hot Halloween show with sax and flute master, Karl Denson.

30 October (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Ramona Falls

Brent Knopf and Ramona Falls were just here in June (review). They did a fine job of maintaining the subtleties of their studio work while infusing the songs with more energy and a harder edge. Even if  you caught them on their last visit, the Aggie Theatre features a better house sound than the Hi-Dive, so the music will be that much better.

31 October (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Karl Denson's Tiny Universe

Karl Denson is a phenomenal player, regardless of whether he's with his trio, the Greyboy Allstars or Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. Fluidly zipping between jazz and funk, he leads his band into transcendent moments that are anchored in the now. This should be a Halloween to remember!

2 November (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
3 November (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
Aaron Freeman

Gene Ween no longer, Aaron Freeman has moved away from Ween's bizarre theatrics and challenging musical aesthetic. In recent interviews, he's offered some thoughtful comments about his old band and the new directions he's exploring. His latest album covers a host of Rod McKuen songs. Old Ween fans might wonder if there's an implicit irony in that, but Freeman seems just as sincere about this as he was with his previous band.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Recording review - Mumford & Sons, Babel (2012)

Heavy handed dynamics crush the subtlety

Mumford & Sons follow in the strong tradition of Great Britain’s folk rock movement, offering a refreshing perspective that contrasts with today’s shallow pop and corporate rock. Like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Waterboys before them, they harness traditional rhythms and instrumentation but still reflect their own modern influences.

Babel is a clear outgrowth of the sound from their first album, Sigh No More. The musical arrangements retain the fresh mix of folky banjo and driving pace of earlier tunes like Little Lion Man, but now the band is more polished. The band has honed their sound in the last couple of years of practice and performance. In particular, they’ve amped up the dynamic shifts in their music. Up until now, this has been one of the band’s strengths. The contrast between a soft cry and a strong response can be powerful. Unfortunately, Babel takes this too far and becomes heavy handed.

Marcus Mumford‘s raw, husky voice drops down as he brings a quiet intensity to the calmer moments, but he’s too quick to rise into full oratorio and the music drives this even harder. With the highs so much stronger than the lows, almost every track becomes an anthem and Mumford begins to seem a bit strident. As the band constantly escalates the emotional stakes, it devalues the power of their dynamics.

This can sabotage the impact of a more subtle song like Holland Road. The track sets up a reflective, open tone supporting lyrics that speak of failure:
With your heart like a stone 
You spared no time in lashing out  
And I knew your pain  
And the effect of my shame 
You cut me down
Just as Mumford’s vulnerable tone sinks in, the song is buried under a fierce rhythmic assault. Mumford’s voice and the music both turn defiant. The words still center on the pain, but the rest of the song undermines any sense of loss. The intent may be a message of overcoming adversity, as the song finally asserts, “If you’ll believe in me, I’ll still believe” with a soaring horn accompaniment, but the narrative doesn’t hold together.

Despite lack of subtlety, Babel shows good lyrical depth, often couched in religious imagery. Biblical allusion is more pervasive than just the title song. The words may touch on love or life’s experience, but a spiritual metaphor is always close at hand. So, the failed relationship in Lover’s Eyes fixates on the singer’s sinful failings:
Should you shake my ash to the wind 
Lord, forget all of my sins 
Or let me die where I lie 
Neath the curse of my lover’s eyes
Similarly, the depression and pain on Ghosts That We Knew leads to a plea for redemption: “Give me hope in the darkness/ That I will see the light.” This religious context seems to reflect today’s evangelical times even if the band isn’t directly pushing that message.

Fortunately, not every song turns so histrionic. The first single, I Will Wait offers a more effective example of Mumford & Son’s dynamic work. It’s stronger in part because it reverses the band’s usual pattern and leads with the uptempo galloping rhythm, relying on the softer moments to add depth. The thick vocal harmonies provide the backbone without over-emoting, adding light touches in the quietest moments: 
Now I’ll be bold as well as strong 
And use my head alongside my heart 
So tame my flesh and fix my eyes 
A tethered mind, freed from the lies

By emphasizing just a couple of those words (“head”, “mind”), they give greater strength to the phrases that follow.

 After all the dynamic swings on Babel, my favorite moment was the relative calm of the bonus track, For Those Below. The beautiful descending guitar intro hints at Dear Prudence by the Beatles while the balanced, close vocal harmonies anchor the song in a folk context. The song still builds, but the scope is more manageable. Where the other songs rely on defiance and will to overcome adversity, For Those Below is more open, suggesting that personal growth can triumph through acceptance. The folky feel recalls Gordon Lightfoot and it’s reassuring to hear that the band can still trust in a simpler sound once in a while.

Speaking of folk idols, it’s telling that Mumford & Sons chose to cover The Boxer, which is perhaps Simon and Garfunkel’s most bombastic song, as another bonus track. Surprisingly, the band toned that down a notch from the original. Adding a banjo line and slide fills, they craft a perfect ornamentation to this classic tune. It’s a nice selection because their version emphasizes the band’s place in the shared folk tradition.

Mumford’s experience drumming for Laura Marling rewarded him for his willingness to step into the light and it could be that theatrical sense which has pushed the band to the relentless extremes they offer on Babel. It’s been a very busy couple of years for Mumford & Sons with the bounty of attention for Sigh No More, working with Ray Davies (Kinks), and playing the Grammys. With luck, the band will have the chance to continue growing and follow Babel with a stronger, more nuanced album.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Random notes

Mostly older tracks came up in the mix this time. Still, it's an interesting selection.

Thunk - Jefferson Airplane (Bark)

Bark was not one of Jefferson Airplane's  most respected albums. Marty Balin left the band and they were at loose ends. One more album would follow this incarnation of the band before they transformed into Jefferson Starship. That said, Bark has plenty of fine songs on it, like Pretty As You Feel and When the Earth Moves Again, but there were some weaker moments like Thunk. It's an interesting sketch of a song with some nice harmonies. But it took itself much too seriously. Even so, I remember being amused when I was younger.

For Your Attention - Boxing Ghandis (Boxing Gandhis)

Another blast from the past, this one from 1994. For Your Attention kicks  off with a low key funk groove. David Darling does his best to channel Sly Stone as he lists all the feats he's performed just to get the girl. The production is crispy clean, with all the perfect touches: sweet horn punches, envelope-follower bass line, tight guitar fills, and soulful backing vocals. If anything, it's too polished, but it's still a solid funk jam.

Tonight's the Night - Neil Young (Tonight's the Night)

This song was Neil Young's eulogy to his friend Bruce Berry. The song begins with a few directionless notes before Young starts chanting the single line chorus. The stripped down accompaniment adds the right solemn feel. Young explains it all in the verses, sharing who Berry was and and how he overdosed. The piano solo starts to inject a bit more energy into the tune. The repetition of the lyrics is a grieving meditation. It's a moving song, as Young proves yet again the power of simplicity.

The Holdup - David Bromberg (Wanted Dead or Alive)

Frequent session player David Bromberg wrote The Holdup with George Harrison. The rollicking adventure kicks off with a badly tuned piano riff, quickly overtaken by paired guitars. Bromberg whips through the vocals with nasal goofiness, which works with the arch lyrics:
When we get your money, we'll ride towards the sunset
At Rosa's Cantina, we'll stop at the door
We'll spend all your money, just getting the nose wet
Tomorrow evening we'll be back for more
Bromberg's eponymous first album had his first take of the song, featuring Harrison and some sweet slide guitar. This version has the looser feel of a party in the studio. The track is full of great instrumental contributions from members of the Dead, including Jerry Garcia.

Would Be Killer - Gnarls Barkley (The Odd Couple)

"I've got a secret/ Something I thought maybe I could do." This creepy track is off the duo's second album. The sociopathic lyrics on Would Be Killer mesh perfectly with the spooky loop backing track. It's hard to believe that that's the same Cee Lo Green that would later dress up and sing with the Muppets, but it's a strange world, isn't it? The production is full of sweet details, like the way the drum sample is spliced to add a wicked little stutter beat just often enough to catch the ear.

Green and Danger Mouse never quite reproduced the chart success of Crazy (St. Elsewhere), but The Odd Couple has a number of good moments, including this track and Who's Gonna Save My Soul.

Punk Rock Heaven - Mary Prankster (Mata Hari EP)

You'll have to settle for the Roulette Girl version

I don't even remember how I got turned on to Mary Prankster, but her smart ass attitude and biting sense of humor made me fall in love. She often used profanity for the cheap shock on songs like Tits and Whiskey or Mercyfuck, but the tunes were tight and you could harvest enough sarcasm to fuel a couple of teenage lives from every song. Punk Rock Heaven is a wonderful bit of retro railing against punk posers ("Hippie Hell awaits you, Jack/ Unless you take that tye-dye off your back"). She name checks punk greats like the Sex Pistols and G.G. Allin and waxes ecstatic over the "authentic" scene to come. Of course, like most of her music, it's fairly tongue in cheek.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Recording review - Passenger Peru, Passender Peru (2012)

Gentle indie psychedelia goes experimental

Justin Stivers and Justin Gonzales of Passenger Peru create a dense sound packed with rhythmic complexity and experimental decorations. The production on their self-titled debut emphasizes the percussive nature of all of the instruments. Stivers, who played bass on the Antlers' Hospice, seems to drive this half of the band's sound. His bass lines tend to drive the songs even as they integrate into the tight syncopation. Gonzales layers in interesting ambient samples into the mix. Several songs feature his sonic collage intros to set the mood. The vocals are often processed with a distancing echo so they're almost trapped in amber. When the song slides into Beach Boys style harmonies, this takes on a dreamier feel.

Passenger Peru leads off with Your Hunger. It opens with a nostalgic arrangement of samples before the bass kicks in with a snaky riff. Initially, the bass and tight rhythm sound like retro new wave, but the noise flavored fills shift that into more of an indie psych space. The low-fi, thick vocals and distorted drum sounds contrast with the clear stereo production. The steady beat glides through the whole song, but the breaks have an off-balanced feel due to the spooky bass line and detuned bits of sound packed into the track. The song takes an interesting twist as it slips into a hard rock/light metal grind.

This edgy ending pumps up the trippy happiness of In the Absence of Snow, which recalls Animal Collective's psychedelic obsessiveness and Freelance Whales' hippie earnestness. Like most of the songs, the lyrics are more sketches than carefully constructed messages:
Your naked memory sits on the floor
I just don't bother clothing you no more.
My favorite track was Weak Numbers. The sweetly retro guitar sound meshes perfectly with the indie pop shimmer. The lazy beat and high pitched vocals suggest Marc Bolan and T. Rex on downers. Over the course of the tune, the backing stays calm and constant, but that intro guitar gets more mutated and chaotic. It's a delicate balance between the gentle procession of the chords and the more expressive bad-trip guitar, but the net effect is somehow calming and accepting.

I don't always understand Passenger Peru's point. Occasionally, there's a cognitive dissonance that keeps the songs from full connecting. The upbeat, cheery sound of Health System doesn't really work with the pseudo political statement of the lyrics. I enjoy the music well enough, though. Similarly, the closing track, Life and Death of a Band creates a dark tension that doesn't match the kind of progression suggested by the title. Once again, the punchy drive and solid drumming sounds great, it just needed a better concept at its foundation.

Passenger Peru's overall sound suggests a pair that are still working out how to blend their visions together. Both men bring some interesting ideas to the table. The experimental elements add depth, while the rhythmic focus grounds the songs. As they develop their balance, I hope for more tracks like Weak Numbers.

Check out the uptempo experimental sound of Tiger Lilly on YouTube. Also, drop by Passenger Peru's Bandcamp page to sample and buy the album.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows 10/22

Soft, hard, and all over the map: music this week on the Front Range.

24 October (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
Freelance Whales

It's been a couple of years since I last saw Freelance Whales. They were touring behind the indie folk grooves of Weathervanes. While the album had a gentle sound, blending acoustic and electronic elements, their live show was looser and more dynamic. Their new album, Diluvia, is out and appears to extend their sweet, earnest sounds.

24 October (Casselman's, Denver CO)
12 Stones

There are many paths to spiritual enlightenment and I'd be the last person to strongly advocate for or against any particular one. That said, I'll admit to a bit of a prejudice against Christian rock. I don't have a high tolerance for preachiness and the genre is generally short on subtlety. But 12 Stones haven't raised my hackles. They offer up a driving alternative hard-rock that gets your feet tapping and your fist pumping. Their latest single, Psycho, has great energy without any kind of judgmental message.

27 October (Fillmore Auditorium, Denver CO)
Beats Antique

With Contraption Vol. 2 (review) out, Beats Antique continue delivering a great mix of electronic and analog sounds that explore a world of rhythms and scales. Their live show adds depth to that music with a full stage production including phenomenal choreography. The Fillmore will become an exotic oasis for a heady night of musical abandon.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Recording review - Helvetia, Nothing In Rambling (2012)

Outsider simplicity finds its own path

Helvetia's music comes from a nexus point of Syd Barrett, Robyn Hitchcock, and Stephen Malkmus. Like those artists, Helvetia delivers their songs with a matter-of-fact simplicity coupled with an outsider musical aesthetic. In a kind of savant approach, they know where they want the songs to go, but they don't always take a familiar path to get there. That odd perspective is a large part of Nothing In Rambling's charm.

Bandleader Jason Albertini used to play with the spaced out jam band Duster. As Helvetia, he and fellow ex-Duster Canaan Dove Amber have collaborated with outside musicians, including members of Built To Spill and Dinosaur Jr.

Compared to Duster's defocused space, Nothing in Rambling is more directed, but the music is still dreamy and suffused with a drifting languor. The pop length tunes are soft-focused snapshots of a strange, psychedelic prog world that Helvetia knows well. The band is adept at creating rich, surrealistic collages. Where other bands can be self-indulgent or theatrical, Helvetia remains understated and natural.

On RyBro, the vocal has a touch of Stephen Malkmus' detachment, which works well with the Pavement style guitar grind scattered throughout the tune. The pop psychedelic sound edges more towards Guided By Voices. The lyrics are directed, yet skewed. They could have sprung from Robert Pollard's feverish mind:

Most erratic traps
Now you're talkin'
I bet you drove all night (oh yeah)
Just to show that you don't really care
What you really could be.
The offbeat groove limps forward with a practiced ease and a steady acoustic strum. Nicely paired electric guitars provide some sweet, meandering fills. The bridge, with its underwater organ caresses, is just a brief pause before the closing solo. The tune sounds like Albertini is a little smug at figuring out a difficult equation, so now he can understand someone's motivation. The lyrics reveal enough of his underlying logic to hint at a kind of Asperger's, but that perspective makes the song work.

Don't mistake detached and dreamy for cheery, though. The album captures a range of moods. A Mirror, for example begins with an anxious, staccato beat accompanied by sharp fills from a single coil guitar cloaked in an ominous, thick reverb. Moody and insistent, the sound is detuned and blurry, like old, over-saturated Polaroids. The tension reminds me of the lack of control during an episode of sleep paralysis. It's the space between dreaming and waking, where the rational world is drifting away. Conscious enough to recognize this, the listener is powerless to affect it. The musical sections of the song flip past in a progressive rock flow.

The lazy vibe seems to break with Nettles, where a spiky, speed-picked guitar and rolling snare offer an appropriately prickly intro. But this quickly collapses into a wide open sound, like one of Robyn Hitchcock's musing compositions. The song lingers in this spacy reverie long enough to set the psychedelic hook. Then, like a skittish school of fish, it veers off in new directions. One moment it's Beatlesque, then it twists to provide a moment of Syd Barrett naïveté. The blend of songlets shuffles through mood and tempo shifts before eventually winding back to the track's frenetic beginning.

Like the obsessive geek kids I grew up around, Helvetia aren't socialized to worry about their facade; they're just making music the only way that makes sense to them. Despite the mood shifts and experimental approach, that approach drives an artistic consistency on Nothing in Rambling.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

October singles

 From Denver all the way to Brooklyn and beyond, there's a world of music to find. Here's a small taste.

Air Dubai - All Day (from Be Calm, due November 13)

It's been almost two years since I caught Denver band Air Dubai opening for the Flobots. At the time, I was impressed with their solid hip hop grooves backed by a full band with solid chops. All Day kicks off with shimmery electro pop and a simple beat behind the smooth vocal flow. A touch of guitar fill sneaks in at the edge. The chorus slides into a lightly auto-tuned R&B refrain: "I don't care what they say/ We could do this all day."

All Day doesn't rock it out like their 2010 hit, Lasers. But the R&B hop groove is true to their earlier live sound, too. I'll be checking out Be Calm when it drops next month. Then we'll see what other flavors they offer.

John The Conqueror – Time To Go (from John the Conqueror)

Like a grainy, saturated film image of Otis Redding, John The Conqueror ooze a classic soul vibe. The retro blues beginning on Time To Go is stripped down to the essentials of voice, guitar and light harmonies. Half way through, the rest of the band jumps in. The track opens up and kicks ass. There’s not quite enough Mick Jagger strut to pass it off as a Rolling Stones rocker, but you can hear the band’s aspirations. John The Conqueror may not be quite as polished as the Alabama Shakes, but their raw energy is promising.

Their self-titled album dropped yesterday.

Childhood - Blue Velvet (single releases November 17)

British band Childhood offers their own grainy, saturated film image of the past. Blue Velvet conjures up a the distant memory of a warm summer afternoon winding down into twilight, cocktails on the patio as the stars start to poke out. The flashback production throws a thick layer of echo and lo-fi haze, like a vaselined camera lens. The underlying pop groove sounds like XTC, but the frantic energy has been defused and crossed with a more recent shoe-gazer vibe.The harmonies are sweet and nostalgic.

Childhood is releasing Blue Velvet next month as a 7" single on House Anxiety, backed with Bond Girls.

Bad Powers - Electricity Should Be Free (from Bad Powers)

What's in a name? Noisy aggro punkers Made Out of Babies called it quits earlier this year. Now, they've been reborn as Bad Powers, swapping out singer Julie Christmas for Megan Tweed. Judging from Electricity Should Be Free and New Bruises, the band has shifted their approach to find a more accessible sound. Rather than a sell out, the new tracks seethe with a dark energy that melds post punk and grunge.

Where Made Out of Babies offered cathartic release with inarticulate noise, Bad Powers satisfies like poking a bad tooth to make sure it's still there. Electricity Should Be Free has the tribal drive and vocals of Siouxsie and the Banshees, but the bridge has a dirty guitar grind and twinned bass line like Soundgarden on a down day.

You can hear Electricity Should Be Free along with New Bruises on Brooklyn Vegan.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Recording review - Govinda, Resonance (2012)

Fluid violin against vibro-tronic bass grind builds a mysterious tension

Last year, Govinda (Shane O Madden) made my best of 2011 list with his impressive album, Universal On Switch. On his latest offering, Resonance, Madden continues to develop his sound, taking his gypsy violin and electronic grooves into a darker, bass heavy direction. Like Beats Antique, Govinda is rooted in an exotic world-tronica mix of produced sound, layered acoustic instruments, and foreign beats. But Govinda emphasizes the electronic production more than Beats Antique, giving his tracks a more experimental edge.

Govinda's production is stellar on Resonance. He builds a great 3-d sonic footprint in his tracks, where individual layers stand out from one another and slight EQ differences suggest distance and depth. On Sonic Muse, the individual parts -- the intro voice sample ("Follow me [giggle]"), the twinkling music box notes, the pizzicato notes of main groove -- remain distinct and suggest a wide auditory vista. The basic groove features a deep bubbling bass and sharp accents against a solid trance beat. Indian strings and drums, gypsy violin, and processed fragments of chanted voice all add to the foreign vibe of the piece, but the electronic sound dominates. Madden's violin weaves in and out of the mix with a fluid grace, but the track's structure remains geometrically centered.

The rich vocals on Plant the Seed or Clan of Love are a logical outgrowth from Universal On Switch's Myself. The jam on Plant the Seed gets a lot darker and glitch-driven, but Rosey's sultry voice is the common link:
Put the seed under your tongue
In the Springtime, I will come
Do you feel me grow inside of you?
Let love blossom, let love come through
Rosey is languid and seductive, giving the song a warm, jazzy flavor along with the sentimental strains of violin, but the glitchy music underneath seethes, unsettled. All too soon, the heady syncopation lurking within the electronic foundation grows restless and spawns a grinding bass line. The hint of dub step shifts into a smoother trance vibe that chills out the song into a trippy wind-down.

Resonance is best appreciated with closed eyes, so the listener can be immersed and surrender to the drifting electronic elements. On Candle Fire, Govinda sets a house groove where Indian instruments mesh with the electronic parts to build an exotic, abstract feel. The song develops into the album's iconic bass grind sound. Shimmering chimes, bowed strings, and whistling synth accents all slip in and out of the rasping, vibro-tronic current. Irina Mikhailova's chanting vocals offer a softer contrast to the saw-wave bass. Even with the rhythm hanging back, the track's intensity feeds a climbing tension.

Rounding out the female vocal contributions on the album, Krystyn Pixton offers a cool fem-pop sound on Clan of Love. Pixton's voice is dreamy, but Govinda processes her singing to fit the rolling sound of the tune. The spare, spacious intro yields to an electronic groove with a reggae beat. "I want your crazy/ Want your chaos wind on me." The assortment of parts fit together into a smooth whole, but there's an elemental randomness at work: touches of reggae bubble next to a fiddle melody with a Highlands vibe, and glitch cuts chop the song into Cubist slices. The resulting house of cards seems expertly balanced.

Govinda retains his trance grooves on Resonance, but this is an edgier offering than Universal On Switch. The rattling bass is a strong contributor, but the mix of soft and hard gives the new album a different, mysterious feel. There's greater complexity that pulls this music into the foreground.

Resonance is available on Govinda's Bandcamp page.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 10/15

These three acts couldn't be more different. Get rattled at Dinosaur Jr., enjoy the quirky string sounds of Rasputina, or trip out to Flying Lotus - any of these shows beat sitting around the house!

15 October (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
Dinosaur Jr.

Dinosaur Jr.'s new album, I Bet On Sky (review) has all the cleansing noise the band is known for. So, the new songs will mesh well with the older material they're sure to bring out. For all of the egos and attitude, they remain one of the great alt rock bands.

17 October (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)

I haven't seen this band yet, but I'm enthralled by their mix of cello centered arrangements, rock/pop sensibility, Gothic stage look, and dark lyrical themes. With songs like Transylvania Concubine and Holocaust of Giants, they promise an interesting set of music.

18 October (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Flying Lotus

FlyLo has just released his latest album, Until The Quiet Comes, which shifts his poly-rhythmic experimentation away the frantic pace of his last album. Jazz music, R&B, electronica, and psychedelia all fall under the sway of his mad beats. Come out and catch the electronic grooves.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Recording review - Dragonette, Bodyparts (2012)

Imperfect pop but some cool stuff on the edges

Perfect pop is all about plasticity. That's why so many pop acts are almost interchangeable. Every now and then a fresh flavor catches the market and creates a new star, but other acts soon coopt the pattern and restore balance to the pop arms race. Many bands last for a while and then either fade into obscurity or transform themselves into a unique voice.

Dragonette are not the perfect pop band, though they seem to aim for that. The electro pop grooves on Bodyparts hit a good balance of dance-oriented beats and cool electronica, while singer Martina Sorbara's vocals are sweetened to teen idol smoothness on many of the tracks. But they miss the pop ideal because they never quite manage to mold themselves into a pure image. They toy with expressive synth pop, sassy rock, and emotional pop along with their dancier pop moments. This makes it hard to know how to take them

This weakness is a sign that Dragonette may achieve greater artistic impact with a longer career. But it makes Bodyparts a mixed bag. They undercut the overall super pop vibe with too many edges. At the same time, the polished smoothness makes it harder to trust their credibility. It's never quite clear whether they even take themselves seriously.

Bodyparts opens with a bubbly synth pop sound on Run Run Run. Sorbara's vocal is scrubbed clean except for a touch of echo and chorus. She sounds like a mix of retro acts like Teri Nunn crossed with a more modern Gwen Stefani. The arrangement fits the style, with shimmery keyboards, the obligatory arpeggiated synth, and a solid kick-heavy beat. It's catchy, setting a good pop mood.

Unfortunately, the next track, Live In This City, shatters that vibe. It's still poppy, but reaches for old school rock 'n' roll, with a swirl of Pat Benetar or the Runaways channeled into bubble gum pop. The lyrics are full of braggadocio:
Me and my gang and some blind bandit
We wind up around the summer, roll it over to Can'da
Just so you know, that queen with the face that you call My Little Pony
We basically invented this place, that's why it's standing room only
Standing room only!
I love the spunky attitude and the wacky video. But these first two songs together make it hard to figure out what Dragonette is trying to do.

My other favorite track also stands out from the mix. My Legs sets up a moody electro pop groove. The song picks a cool progressive house feel as it builds into the chorus. The lyrical concept is clever, with Sorbara blaming her body for leading her astray:
Awake, I don't know how I got there
A number written on my arm in marker
Ten bucks spent, I'm feelin' better
Five phone calls for me to fill in the picture
I can't stop my legs
My legs go out late dancing
I try to wash my face
My lips say "Put on makeup"
Can't stay home cause my body's 
Got itself all dressed up
And I'm the one who pays for it 
Tomorrow when I wake up.
The tension builds with the saw chord synth gouging chunks out of the groove. Dragonette channels a bit of Deadmau5 here to good effect.

Don't get me wrong, the pure pop side of the band on songs like Lay Low, Rocket Ship, or Riot is decent, too. They offer great dance beats, slick production, and catchy hooks. If Bodyparts had stayed in this mode, it would have been satisfying session of sweet distraction. On the other hand, the energy and attitude of Live In This City and My Legs are blunted by the simpler dance grooves on the rest of the album. Those two songs have a strong pop vibe, but they have more spice than the other tracks. It sounds like the band can't quite settle on a sound or they're just trying to capitalize on their success with Martin Solveig on his song Hello.

 With a little effort and some playlist editing, this is a solvable problem. In the meantime, I'll be interested to see which direction Dragonette chooses.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Interview - Michael Goldwasser (Easy Star Records)

Easy Star Records has a stable of fine modern reggae bands, like John Brown’s Body, The Black Seeds, and Ticklah, but they’re most well known for their reggae filtered cover albums. The label’s house band, the Easy Star All-Stars, made a huge popular impact with 2003’s Dub Side of the Moon, their tribute to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Their fourth tribute album, Thrillah (review) tackles Michael Jackson’s classic Thriller.

I had the chance to talk to Michael Goldwasser, one of the founders of Easy Star Records. As the musical director for the label, he’s been a strong creative force, working up song arrangements and driving the label’s tribute albums.

JJM - First I want to say that I’ve really enjoyed Easy Star All-Stars’ music for quite some time now. It’s really cool to talk with you.
MG - Great, man. It means a lot to me when I hear from someone who’s been following us for a while. I’ve been putting my whole life into this project for the last sixteen years. So it’s good to know someone’s listening.

I think it’s great, too, that the label releases some really great reggae, which is near and dear to my heart.

Thank you

One of the first things I wanted to ask you was about living in Israel. I caught this in one of your recent interviews and I was surprised.

I’ve kind of been back and forth over the last few years. I haven’t permanently moved, but I’m kind of there half the time. You know, I just feel like it’s a better place to raise my kids. It’s nice. Do you happen to be Jewish?

I am, actually.

Ok. So, for me, it’s still pretty cool to be somewhere where everyone can pronounce my last name [laughs] and the calendar isn’t about Christian holidays and stuff like that. It’s pretty cool to not be the other for the first time in my life. I really enjoy my time there. They like reggae music there and I’ve recorded stuff for Easy Star there. So, there’s really good vibes.

How has that affected your music? Have you been exposed to things you wouldn’t have heard otherwise?

Specific musicians and groups, definitely. In general, the music coming out of Israel, I’ve been following a real long time. But what it’s brought to me is the inspiration of working with some good musicians, getting new ideas and being somewhere where reggae is… In Israel, because people really don’t expect to make any money at it, they’re just doing it for the love. Whereas here, when you’re a musician, you are kind of hoping to make some money. Even in reggae. In Israel, people are really more like, “let’s just make some great music. Let’s just do and not be just thinking about getting paid.” I think that was really a nice breath of fresh air for me to work with people like that.

I think here, in the US, it’s not just the “eyes on the prize” that you’re talking about. There are plenty of dedicated amateurs, I’m one myself, but there’s something about being around enough people who can create an active music scene, then you can do some really cool things.

Yeah. And there is really a great reggae scene in Israel. All different styles of reggae are represented. You’ve got ska, groups who specialize in early ‘60s ska, all the way up through dancehall artists who want to sound like whoever’s popular now. And the same thing with sound systems – you have sound systems that go all the way back, so they can play mento (Jamaican folk music), and then you have sound systems that can play whatever record was released in Jamaica yesterday. So, there’s a wide range of reggae there and a lot of enthusiasm for different types of reggae.

That sounds really exciting.

Yeah, man. If you ever go, I will hook you up with people in the scene.

I appreciate that. I’ve traveled a bit, but I have not been to Israel yet.

Well, you gotta do it, man.

Let’s get into some questions about the band. I’ve read that the original idea for Dub Side of the Moon was Lem Oppenheimer’s.

Yeah, it was Lem’s idea. Lem’s not a member of the band, but he was one of the founders of Easy Star Records.

I’m curious about your perspective. What did you think when he first suggested it? Did you have any sense it would get as big as it did?

Definitely not! [laughs] I was skeptical. I got into reggae to make original reggae or to work with Jamaican artists and try to forward what I considered to be an authentic kind of reggae. So the idea of covering entire rock album had never crossed my mind before. It wasn’t what I set out to do. But Lem’s idea obviously turned out to be brilliant. I wrote basic arrangements for a few of the songs, just in my home studio, after we had batted around the idea of the project for a while. Then I realized that it really could work. It was a logical continuation of what I was doing. I just had to realize that.

And I think that working out the timing to match the original track lengths, to allow for the “Dub side of the Rainbow” experience [synching the album with The Wizard of Oz] was another cool aspect of it.

Yeah, we wanted to make it fun in lots of different ways. We were pretty ambitious. Because there was no standard that we had to meet, in terms of full album covers in reggae, we tried to do what we felt was right.

I’ve heard in other interviews that you chose to follow with a cover of Radiohead’s Ok Computer because they were a modern Pink Floyd and then the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper to challenge yourself with major keys. Now, you’ve covered Michael Jackson’s Thriller. We’ll talk about the album in a moment, but how do you pick your targets? Do you take requests from people?
We get lots of suggestions, but we’re not actively looking for requests. Basically, there’s a pool of great albums out there that everyone is pretty much aware of. It’s not hard to find a good list of things to consider. The hard part is finding albums that we feel will work on every song and that will also yield interesting results. We don’t want to do the same album over and over again in terms of what it will sound like on our end. I don’t think we’re ever going to pick a completely obscure album just because we think it could sound really cool. The reality is that a lot of people would not care. The music is a big part of it, but it also has to be something that people would be interested in.

Right. You need to pick something with enough commercial appeal to attract the audience but also has the artistic appeal to make it worth bothering with.

Yes, exactly.

My dream target would be Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. That would make an awesome album.

I’m actually a big jazz fan. I would love, one day, to attempt something like that.

Getting back to Thrillah… Like the other cover albums, you catch the original feel and you still found something interesting to add, they weren’t slavish copies. In particular, I wanted to ask you about Beat It. That was probably one of my favorite tracks on the new album. Michael Jackson’s original has a dichotomy between the cheery, flippant pop attitude of the music and the seriousness of the lyrics. Your arrangement brought the music more in line with the message.

I’m glad you caught that. That was a big part of the intent. To me that song makes sense as kind of a lament about the gun violence that’s plagued Jamaica since the ‘70s. To me, it made sense in that regard. It made sense to slow it down and get this very dread, reggae feel instead of trying to match the uptempo feel of the original. That’s totally what we were going for.

People who aren’t familiar with reggae assume it’s just a simple chank. Your artistic decisions, like mixing in a fair amount of dub, can really open up people’s minds about what reggae can do. I think the expressiveness you get on Beat It is a cool thing.
Thank you. One of our goals is not just to reach reggae fans, we want to reach fans from outside the reggae world and introduce them to reggae and show them that there’s some variety of different styles within reggae.

On this album, I actually made it a point not to have any one drop rhythms at all. To some people, all reggae is, is the one drop beat. So I thought, “let’s mix it up and use lots of different drum patterns.” But not a one drop. We tried to get away from standard reggae.

Michael Jackson was such an iconic performer, much like the Beatles, Radiohead and Pink Floyd. When you started attacking this, what qualities were you hoping to pull out the most in this project?

I thought it would be futile to try to match Michael Jackson’s vocal prowess. We have some great guest vocalists, but Michael Jackson was an incredible singer with a five octave range. He had all these different ways of using his voice and he really came into his own with the album, Thriller. To try to reach those highs would be impossible. So, instead, I wanted to get the overall vibes of Michael. The album Thriller is comprised of nine songs that are all very different from each other, in very interesting different ways. There were several song writers involved, it wasn’t just Michael Jackson. Rod Temperton wrote three of the songs; he’s a highly acclaimed songwriter. Quincy Jones co-wrote one of the songs with James Ingram. Steve Porcaro and John Bettis wrote a song. So, there’s a lot of different vibes in there. I tried to bring out the different songwriting styles as well.

I know you had a lot of great guest contributors involved with the record. Are any of them touring with the band?
Several of the members of the touring band appeared on the record. Kirsty Rock, who has sung on all four of our tribute albums, is our lead female singer with the touring band. Ruff Scott, who appears on Want to be Startin’ Somethin’ is touring with the band right now. On a few shows, Cas Haley, who sings Human Nature and is a member of the greater Easy Star family will be performing Human Nature with us. If there are opportunities to have any of the other guest stars appear on stage with us, we’re going to try to make it happen. It’s always such a great thrill for the fans.

There are some great guests. I was familiar with Michael Rose, of course, and some of the other guests. But this album introduced me to some artists I didn’t know, like The Green.

Great! They’re a group of relatively young guys from Hawaii. We put out their last album last year, it’s called Ways & Means. They’re multi-talented, but one of the great things is that they’re four lead singers – four singers who harmonize well with each other and trade off leads. Unfortunately, it’s rare in reggae these days to have a group with so many powerful singers, so we’re really happy to work with them.

I’ve also reviewed your album of original music, First Light. Do you have any more original music in the pipeline?
Definitely everyone in the band writes and there’s always original music that could be recorded. It’s really more of a matter of finding the right time to work on it and put it out. Unfortunately, the music business is tougher and tougher. It’s harder to actually sell music, with this culture of people feeling like music shouldn’t be paid for anymore. So, every album we put out is a big, financial risk for us. So if we put out an album of originals, which would probably not sell as well as our tribute albums, it’s a bigger risk. So we have to look at it carefully, but I certainly hope that we have another one sometime in the near future.

I hope so. When I first heard about First Light I thought the band might be trying to prove their reggae cred. But listening to the album, there were some great moments.

Thank you. It was great fun to work on. It was great to put on a different producer’s hat than usual, in terms of approaching the original material. I wrote some of the songs, too, so it was great to put on my songwriter’s hat. I think it’s a great album, I’m really happy with it. To me, Thrillah is a logical extension of First Light, in that on First Light, we explored a lot of the R&B roots that many of us in the band have already, which weren’t apparent on our efforts where we were paying tribute to classic rock albums. So, there’s definitely an R&B influence on First Light and then, of course, with Thriller being an R&B or R&B/pop album – to me, it’s a very logical extension.

I didn’t think of that until you mentioned it, but you’re right. I know one of the coolest things on First Light was the decision to do the same song twice, in two different genres with Break of Dawn and In the Light.
Yeah, originally, I was thinking to do a straight up R&B remix of Break of Dawn but then when we were messing around in the studio, we realized it would be much cooler to totally change the tempo and vibe entirely and even redo the vocals – have Joanne, the lead singer and composer of the lyrics, take a different approach. That was great fun for us when we did In the Light. It’s just a straight up R&B song, no real reggae influence at all. For us in the band, it made a lot of sense, because that’s what we listen to, too.

And hearing her voice do both songs shifts your thinking about the range of her singing style.


Thank very for your time and thank you for making some great music

Wow, you’re welcome.

(This interview first appeared on SpectrumCulture)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Recording review - Callers, Reviver (2012)

Extends Callers' dreaminess into lush, progressive spaces

It's great to hear a strong band build on their strengths and reach into new spaces. Reviver is a phenomenal follow up to Callers' last album, Love of Life (review). That album seemed to use Sara Lucas' rich voice as an inspiration for each track. Lucas' sound still suggests strong singers like Phoebe Snow and Joan Armatrading, but the music is more forward and exploratory. It's a joy to hear the band develop their sound into progressive and art rock directions. Ryan Seaton's guitar/bass work were already impressive, but now he's developing more complex, interlocking parts.

Lucas and Seaton remain the core members of Callers. Drummer Don Godwin helped finish the album, but has since left the band. Meanwhile, Keith Souza and Seth Manchester of the recording studio Machines With Magnets collaborated on the album and eventually joined the band. Despite those changes, Reviver is a very focused album.

Like their earlier work, the new album is anchored in an emotional vibe. The sound is evocative and richly expressive, creating a range of moods beyond the core dreaminess of Life of Love. That expansion allows for poppier moments like Heroes (via Black Book Magazine), off-kilter dance rock like Howard 2 Hands, and jazzy progressive jams like It's a Ringer. Seaton denies that Callers are a jazz band saying they don't really improvise, but Reviver emphasizes a jazz feel based on an openness that allows for contrasting parts and interesting rhythms.

Crush Times opens by repeating a pretty ascending bit of guitar jangle. This peels back to a sparser instrumentation when Lucas comes in. The bass line simplifies and the guitar drops the occasion chord splash, accenting the vocal line. Lucas effortlessly floats on the breeze of the tune, smoothly wafting up or catching a brief, swift current. On the chorus, the guitar and bass mesh together on the melodic climb from the intro. The bridge challenges as it drifts away from the tonal center with a staccato counterpoint. It builds like a circle of fifths progression until it collapses back into the chorus changes.

The title track, Reviver, is a complete change of pace. The speedy guitar tosses out sharp edged chord fragments with frantic energy. Reminiscent of Robert Fripp's playing, it's a departure from Callers' dreamy side. When the vocals come in, the groove shifts into a bass driven space with open sounding guitar riffs like the Police's earlier work. The song evolves into a heavier progressive rock feel. Lucas' voice is as lush as ever, but shows a touch of steel:
You are closer to the sun
But I have got a window
We are older than ourselves
And I am your reviver
I'm your reviver
I lost myself, I lost myself
I'm guessing that Godwin is drumming on this; the way the drums leave some holes to accent the guitar while maintaining the tight beat sounds like his style. Seaton's guitar work shows off a palette of sonic textures, moving from burnished copper smoothness to warped and rippled sheet metal sounds.

Another change up is Long Control. It starts out in familiar space for Callers: down tempo and introspective. The light swells of keys add a nice touch. The first departure from the standard script hits when vocals come in, laying down a spacy, close harmony line. This is just a brief interlude. The phrase winds down and the song transforms into a poppy psychedelic soul groove that could be a deeper album cut from the 5th Dimension. The whole piece is so short that it feels more like a sketch than a worked out song, but it's really intriguing.

While Callers music is anything but derivative, these two songs alone suggest the band's growth, offering comparisons to Robert Fripp, the Police, and the 5th Dimension.  Meanwhile Lucas and the band have found a different balance that still relies on her range while giving the music more room to surprise and impress. If Reviver is indicative of what Manchester and Souza have brought to the band, they will likely continue to challenge the band to evolve their music.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 10/8

Rock, progressive jams, or electronica - whatever your choice, it's a good week for music on the Front Range

9 October (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
10 October (Lincoln Center, Ft. Collins CO)
Aimee Mann

From new wave girl to sharp witted singer/songwriter, Aimee Mann became a hipster favorite. While that crowd may have locked on to her DIY attitude, the bottom line is that she's a great writer who can get deep and personal, find the perfect turn of phrase, and back it with a good indie rock sound.

12 October (Hi-Dive)
El Ten Eleven

I caught El Ten Eleven this past February (review) and was blown away. This duo packs a full band sound. Kristian Dunn uses his double neck guitar/bass and a collection of looping gear to build insistent grooves and prog-flavored jams. Where other loop centered bands seem to slip into their own heads trying to keep everything rolling, Dunn turns it all into a kind of stage dance. Even the most jaded music fan will be amazed.

13 October (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
14 October (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

Electronic musician and producer Govinda made my top albums list last year because of his heady mix of world beat and electronica. It turns out that gypsy scale violins and synth bass grind fit together nicely.  On this tour, Govinda will be opening for Ott. and the All Seeing I, who meld electronic and analog instruments into trippy grooves.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Recording review - Dinosaur Jr., I Bet on Sky (2012)

Philosophical  slacker ambivalence and cleansing noise

Dinosaur Jr.’s sometime rocky history has had its share of ego and anger. The original lineup split over control issues. Eventually, J. Mascis recorded a couple of effectively solo albums as Dinosaur Jr. After he retired the name, Dinosaur Jr. was just another old band that informed the grunge and alt rock scenes of the ‘90s.

When the band reformed with the original lineup in 2005 (and recorded in 2007), it was a major surprise, not only because the band seemed to have worked through their issues but more because their sound was closer to the later era Dinosaur Jr. work that Mascis developed without Lou Barlow and Murph. This second round has proven to be a stronger artistic partnership with two albums, Beyond (2007) and Farm (2009), that stand up well to the band’s earlier work.

On I Bet on Sky, Dinosaur Jr. continues this trend, offering up an album of grungy fun that still delivers the cathartic, cleansing noise that defines their sound. They hit hard right from the start. Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know shows off the chemistry between Barlow’s bass and Mascis’ guitar. It’s distorted, but enough edges are worn away to leave a touch of Blue Öyster Cult’s smooth gloom. It’s a rich, full sound. The bridge kicks up the energy to hail back to the hard rocking ‘90s. The only real surprise is the light touch of piano comping that lurks around the changes. Mascis follows his usual melodic style on the solo, streaming the notes in a smooth, meandering flow.

If Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know is a strong opener, Watch the Corners is a powerful followup. The dark, chunka-chunk intro sets a metal tone. The grinding distortion is sweet and cathartic. Mascis’ vocals, which often drone, sound weary, almost fatalistic:

I want you to be with us
And in time there’s no forgiveness
And the plan was set in stone long ago
There’s never not a time not to know
Can I run? But she’ll be there
Disappear, it’s never fair
The full sound during the singing drops back to repeat the intro crunch. In the past, J Mascis was compared to Neil Young, largely based on his vocal delivery, but the ballsy solo captures Young’s hard rocking guitar style. It shamelessly salutes the classic ‘70s guitar lead. Reaching for “epic”, this is an ideal sample of what makes Dinosaur Jr, so right. Murph nails the beat, but his fills stumble forward in a headlong rush. Barlow’s bass grounds the repetition and Mascis’ guitar channels a head full of frustration that his vocals never seem to deliver.

Despite the likely influence Dinosaur Jr. had on Nirvana, J Mascis is really the antithesis of Kurt Cobain. They share a certain slacker ambivalence, but where Cobain was tormented and bleeding, Mascis remains philosophical and detached. That comes through on Almost Fare. The backing music’s descending line has a touch of Flaming Lips, but the vocals immediately summon Nirvana’s Come As You Are. The dynamic shifts from soft to loud match either band’s style, but Mascis voice lack’s Cobain’s intensity. He may sing, “Come with me, come with me”, but he’s okay if you don’t.

These first three songs set the tone for all of I Bet on Sky. Despite some weaker songs, like the low-fi, simple romp of Rude or See It On Your Side, which relies too much Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer, I Bet on Sky is a strong offering for a band that rose from the dead with a renewed intensity.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Commentary: The show must go on, right?

My recent Nightwish concert review mentioned the drama centered around last week's Denver show.
Heres the recap: Lead singer Anette Olzon fell ill and spent her evening at the emergency. Tuomas Holopainen polled the audience on whether they should cancel the concert. The end result is that the two female singers from Kamelot sat in and Nightwish adapted their set the best they could. Apparently after this, Olzon was upset and believed they should have cancelled the show, because it's not Nightwish without her. Now, Olzon has left the band.

I'm not interested in picking sides or trying to sort out Nightwish's band dynamics in the wake of the split. The more interesting thought is whether Olzon was right about cancelling the show. On the surface, it's a bad idea because it would cost the band a lot of money and good will, both with the audience and the venue. But Olzon has a point that losing a vital player could kill the show.

In the Nightwish case, I voted along with the rest of the audience to let the show go on, even though I was disappointed about missing Olzon's great voice. But how would this play out with other bands, if a key member couldn't make the show that night?

Let's skip the easy ones, like a White Stripes show without Jack White or a single name artist (it's hard to see Peter Gabriel without Peter Gabriel). The band should have a chance of satisfying their fans despite the handicap. But the math gets interesting.

What about Tenacious D without Kyle Gass? Jack Black dominates the duo with an outrageous personality. But Kage brings an understated balance to the show that grounds Black's exuberance. While I'd love to see JB do a solo show, it wouldn't be Tenacious D without Gass. Similarly, it would be hard to stick it out with OK Go if Damian Kulash or Tim Nordwind had to cancel.

A mathematical approach would suggest that each member could be assigned a score and if they were subtracted from the band's total, the show should be cancelled if the remainder would be too small. But the Tenacious D and OK Go examples bring up a kind of synergy, created by the interaction within the band.

In those examples, losing the front person/lead singer would certainly kill the show, but losing another strong personality in the band can still make the handicap too big. On the other hand, if there's enough charisma or magic still there, it could tip the balance the other way. Seeing King Crimson without Adrian Belew would be a disappointment, but I'd stay for that show. ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead would still be worthwhile if Conrad Keely couldn't make it.
As I sit here thinking about different examples, the one that surprised me the most was the Rolling Stones. If I were at at Stones concert and they announced that either Mick Jagger or Keith Richards wouldn't be there, would I stay for the show instead of getting a refund? For most, the answer seems clear: if Mick's gone, it's not the Rolling Stones at all. Many if not most would feel the same about Keith. But the more I wrestled with this one for myself, I settled on the non-intuitive result: I'd stay if either were missing, in part to see how much of the magic remained.

Which bands come to your mind and where would you draw the line?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Concert review - Nightwish with Kamelot

28 September 2012 (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)

It proved to be a fairly challenging evening for Nightwish. After Kamelot's set, Tuomas Holopainen from Nightwish came out with Troy Donockley and told us that lead singer Anette Olzon was ill and in the emergency room. They asked the crowd if they should try to do the show or cancel it. With the audience's support, Nightwish played a full set with Elize Ryd and Alissa White-Gluz from Kamelot sitting in on several songs. It wasn't the show that anyone wanted to have, but Nightwish, Ryd, White-Gluz, and the audience all worked together to make the best of the situation.

It was quite a surprise to find out on Monday that Nightwish and Olzon were parting ways in the wake of the Denver show. On her blog, Olzon appears to be upset that the band didn't cancel the Denver show. Nightwish is continuing the tour with Floor Jansen sitting in on lead vocals.

Kamelot kicked off their set with a theatrical start and plenty of guitar grind. Their new singer, Tommy Karevik, powered the songs with his Gothic style vocals. He and bass player Sean Tibbetts stalked the stage, creating a constant dynamic tension.

Karevik worked the crowd, inciting them with a raised fist to chant to the driving beat of the song. This proved to be the band's signature move. Whenever energy flagged or needed to reach the next level, Karevik or one of the other bandmates would lead the chant, punching into the air. It may have been a practiced gesture, but the band was so engaged that we all accepted it at face value and joined in.

Kamelot was fairly tight. Casey Grillo's double kick drum propelled the songs forward with a solid gut-punch intensity. Thomas Youngblood's guitar led most of the songs. His rhythm guitar riff on The Human Stain was particularly tight. Youngblood had decent chops and stage presence, but Karevik was a stronger face for the band. This indicates that the band made a good decision for their new lead singer.

The backing vocalists Elize Ryd and Alissa White-Gluz added a huge presence when they joined in. White-Gluz brought a wicked metal queen vibe, full of snarl and sex appeal. Ryd was more sultry and had the richer voice. Kamelot was smart to have them on the tour and even smarter to give the women significant roles in the songs. On Sacrimony, the two women reprised their guest vocal roles from the recorded version. Ryd's soaring voice summoned a sweet desperation and White-Gluze's growl was dark and threatening. When the two added their harmonies to Karevik's voice, it took the song over the top.

Kamelot delivered a solid metal show performance, with enough attitude and presence to satisfy. Their set was well paced.

The show started with an orchestral swell. The prerecorded music's slow build created a sense of anticipation that carried into Storytime. As mentioned above, Nightwish performed without Anette Olzon's rich vocal range and expressiveness. Ryd and White-Gluz joined forces to cover Olzon's part. They did their best, but it was hard for them to sell the songs while referring to the lyrics.

The next song nearly derailed the whole set. When the band started playing Wish I Had an Angel, Ryd began singing Amaranth. The music ground to a halt and bass player Marco Hietala straightened her out. Without his humor and avuncular manner, the crowd might have turned against the band. A couple of songs later on Scaretale, Hietala even joked about doing both his and Olzon's part, saying he was happy to get to the section of the song he knew.

It still seemed a little shaky when Nightwish launched into a mostly instrumental version of I Want My Tears Back, one of the high points of the new album, Imaginaerum. They asked the audience to sing the verses and the band settled for singing on just the chorus. By the second chorus or so, the crowd was engaged. Troy Donockley sat in with his uilleann pipes, laying down a sweet solo, then setting up a call-and-response with guitarist Emppu Vuorinen.

By the time they moved into the rich Celtic strains of The Islander, the crowd was fully behind the band. The rest of the show went smoothly as the band balanced their songs between dark mystery, cathartic shred, and emotional expression. Ryd's return later in the set was welcome as she brought back a taste of the vocal sound we were all missing. Singing on Nemo, she did an excellent job covering Tarja Turunen's airier sound.

It may not have been the full Nightwish experience we all wanted, but it was a great show. The biggest regret was that the setlist seemed a bit short.

More photos on my Flickr.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows 10/1

1 October (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Steve Vai

Shredmaster stunt guitarist Steve Vai is touring with a new album, The Story of Light. Aside from his technical chops, Vai brings a rich sense of expression to his playing that bridges a lot of musical styles.

4 October (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)

Metric achieves a beautiful sonic balance in their songs, where the elements come together with a sense of inevitability. Their music can run the full dynamic sweep, producing some powerful songs. Compared to some venues on their tour, the Ogden should provide an intimate setting for the spectacle.

4 October (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)

Electronic music is a weird genre for live shows. Most of the interesting creative work is done behind the scenes in the studio and the live experience can be mechanical. At the same time, it's an artform that's centered around the club and crowd scene and albums never seem to capture the same energy. Kraddy challenges both those perspectives, with an interesting discography in his solo shows and with the Glitch Mob, as well as his great physical presence whipping an audience into excitement (review).