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

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 4/29

A slow week, but there are still a couple of good options.

Wednesday, 1 May (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)
Har Mar Superstar

It's been a few years since I last saw Har Mar Superstar and I think I still carry the emotional baggage. But rather from damaging me, it's only made me stronger. His stunning deconstruction of pop R&B takes a joke too far, to the point of utter seriousness. You will be faced with a difficult dilemma: should you laugh your ass off or dance it off? Massive fun either way.

Sunday, 5 May (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Devendra Banhart

Devendra Banhart may not quite be underground anymore, so call him a grass-roots sensation. His latest album Mala offers the kind of eclectic mix he's known for: heady pop-folk grooves and mellow romanticism from a world-wide perspective.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Concert review - That 1 Guy with Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club

25 April 2013 (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)

It's a safe bet that Hodi's offered the most interesting bit of entertainment in the whole city Thursday night. Both acts offered distinctive performances far outside the normal fare, which is exactly what the crowd was looking for. The two have a history of collaboration dating back to a band, The Billy Nayer Show, led by Captain Ahab's Cory McAbee. Mike Silverman (AKA That 1 Guy) was in the band when they provided the soundtrack for McAbee's film, The American Astronaut (2001).

When Cory McAbee took the stage, it looked like Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club was just a fancy name for a solo act, but he immediately clarified that the band is a musical collective and we had all been inducted. On its surface, it was a cheesy act: a guy who looked like an insurance salesman singing karaoke with pre-recorded backing tracks. But McAbee's stage persona -- a mix of P.T. Barnum, Andy Kaufman, and Anthony Hopkins -- transformed it into performance art.

As each song kicked off from the playlist on his phone, McAbee braced himself, then invested himself into the right character with rabid intensity. Whether channeling the sad love interest "Penny Jane", the braggart "20th Century Man", or the quirky "Man Who Swore at a Rainbow", he shifted his body language with an actor's zeal and dove into melodramatic interpretation. While there were moments of true madness or at least unaffectedly strange mannerisms, the overwhelming feel was campy fun. The biggest crowd-pleaser was his cover of A Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran (So Far Away)", which he pitched as the world's oldest "space-cowboy" song.

While the musical collective idea seemed like a fine conceit, McAbee was serious. The project's website includes downloads of all of his tracks and pieces and requests remixes and other contributions. During his set, he even identified whose remixes he was using when it was relevant.

Honestly, if you don't already know who That 1 Guy is or haven't seen his custom instrument, the Magic Pipe, take a moment to research his solo work and Frankenstein Brothers, his project with guitarist Buckethead. Last night's performance demonstrated that his showmanship continues to be top notch as he transformed his strange collection of hardware and computer tech into a musical extravaganza. Sleight of hand flourishes, pantomimed sound effects, and butt shaking grooves continue to be the mainstay of his act, but he must not believe that he's blown his audience's minds enough.

For this tour, he's expanded into multimedia, adding two screens to his stage setup. In keeping with the playful nature of his music, he didn't settle for passive video accompaniment. Instead, he integrated the animations with his playing. Early in the set, the screens just presented music visualizations. Then, he upped the ante by letting the music distort a web-cam video feed of himself. Soon enough, he showed off the full interactive behavior, using trigger buttons on the Magic Pipe to control the animations. This let him play peek-a-boo with cartoon characters in one song and make his puppet image dance in another.

That 1 Guy hit many of his classic tracks, from the silly trippiness of "The Moon Is Disgusting" to the wicked, greasy funk of "Buttmachine". Throughout the set, it was a participatory rite as we all joined in to sing, dance, and echo his rising wolf howl punctuations. The flow of his setlist showed off the range of his material, where the electro-groove of "Mustaches" flowed smoothly int the acid-bluegrass sound of "Step Into Striped Light". His encores continued the mutating drift, from Tuvan throat-singing "acapella dubstep" to a stunning cover of Cameo's "Word Up".

It was also nice to see how well he connected with his audience outside the main show. At the end of the night, he warmly greeted the long line of people at his merch table, dispensing almost as many free hugs as CDs. This tour also offered another new feature, a pre-show for "Magic Mustache Club" VIPs.  The package included a private close-up magic show, a tour tee shirt, and download of his full discography as well as time to hang out with That 1 Guy. I ran into a couple of people who bought the package that really appreciated the time and effort that he took with them.

More photos on my Flickr.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Recording review: Boz Scaggs, Memphis (2013)

Beautifully engineered easy-listening music fails to excite

Even with Boz Scaggs’ distinctive voice, Memphis is of little distinction. The album is beautifully engineered, mixed to perfection, but has all the spontaneity of 1970s easy listening music. Age hasn’t hurt Scaggs’ singing – regardless of the time that’s passed, his understated soul tone unfurls like fine napped suede – but these songs rarely provokes him to engage. It’s frustrating because the musicians are all top notch, including the righteous Spooner Oldham on organ. Keb’ Mo’ even lends his haunting slide guitar to prop up “Dry Spell”. Given a freer hand, these players could infuse the tracks with personality. But Steve Jordan’s production keeps all the focus on Scaggs, who can’t be coaxed into caring enough. Maybe the problem is that the material is too comfortable for him. Most of the tunes rely on the same pop-soul feel that filled his breakthrough album, Silk Degrees (1976).

For the most part, his crew sets the hook while he breezily keeps his emotional distance. On the opening track, “Gone Baby Gone”, he sings,
Tell you where’s it’s at
Ain’t nobody cryin’ now
‘Cept for me
But it always mattered to me 
Except for a touch of falsetto to break up the flow, he could be singing a jingle for Buick or Oldsmobile rather than a breakup song. Memphis doesn’t really wake up until the lead single, a cover of Mink DeVille’s “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl”. Scaggs retains a fair amount of Willy DeVille’s original phrasing, tempered with a Van Morrison vibe, but the soul grows out of a cross-pollination of spare NOLA funk and Blind Boys of Alabama backing vocals. In this case, his distanced perspective and rueful tone fits the lyrics.

After building this slight momentum, the next two covers slow it back down with a retro trip to 1970s easy listening. “Rainy Night In Georgia” is the stronger of the two, relying on a stripped down, jazzy guitar and Scaggs’ voice to carry the tune. While the sparse instrumentation supports the moody interpretation, “Love On A Two Way Street” goes for a lounge vibe. The languid beat and lazy bass line create a phenobarbital trance. It takes another Mink DeVille cover to shake off the stupor. “Cadillac Walk” lays down a dark bayou boogie that simmers at a slow boil. It’s simpler than slide master Sonny Landreth might play, but the heat shimmer of the tremolo guitar is right up his alley. The recording is perfectly mastered with every voice easily distinguished, from the distant tinkling of the honky tonk piano to the drummer’s subtle stick work in the opening verse. The power of these two Mink DeVille songs, along with the weary sadness of “Corrina, Corrina”, suggest that bluesy songs are a better showcase for Scaggs today than the pop-soul that shot him to fame in the mid ‘70s.

It’s interesting to go back to Silk Degrees again in the light of the album and see the parallels. Slick soul arrangements with silky strings? Check. Light female backing vocals? Check. Tight grooves and relatively shallow emotion? Check. But youthful enthusiasm and exuberant energy win the day. Songs like “Georgia” and “Lido Shuffle” have the spark of a singer ready to take on the world. Memphis fans the embers and shows that Scaggs still has his voice, but has gotten complacent. The jazz standards on 2008’s Speak Low seemed to challenge him more and evoked a livelier set of performances. Five years later, despite the exquisite engineering and note-perfect playing, his latest album is more of a museum piece.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Front Range recommended shows - 4/22

Time keeps on slipping, into the future. But at least there's always music!

25 April (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)
26 April (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)
That 1 Guy
Anybody who invents their own instrument to become a one man band deserves at least a little attention, if only as a sideshow act. But forget every one man band you've ever seen. That 1 Guy is technically amazing and his funky, experimental jams will get you dancing, too. If you haven't seen him yet, I feel bad for you. Two chances to see him this pass through Colorado offer a chance of redemption. As a bonus, he promises that this tour will feature some new tricks.

26 April (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)
The Men

The Men, from Brooklyn are bringing their psychedelic garage rock to Denver. I really enjoyed last year's Open Your Heart because of its strong pacing and the band's ability to draw out long-form trippy exploration and rebound with tight, focused punk energy on the next track. Bring some hearing protection and enjoy a cathartic evening with the Men.

25 April (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
26 April (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
27 April (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Disco Biscuits
The Disco Biscuits are throwing an early-season show at Red Rocks, where they'll be joined by Spongle for the "Feed the Rocks" benefit show. The idea is to raise money for Denver Parks and Rec. They offered a 3-day package deal with tickets to pre-Rocks shows at the Boulder Theatre, but you can also just catch the big show on Saturday. The Disco Biscuits always have a stunning show and the crowd should be almost as entertaining.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Recording review - Strokes, Comedown Machine (2013)

Sloppy pastiches brings down the band

Nobody wants to be typecast. After a band has a couple of albums under their belt, it’s appropriate for them to develop and try new ideas. If the changes are too big or sudden, they may alienate some of their original fans, but an evolving artistic vision is vital for creating fresh inspiration. Dylan went electric, Wilco abandoned their Americana roots and Radiohead drifted into abstract electronic sounds. Each one challenged their audience to follow as they reframed their music. So, kudos to the Strokes for not trying to recreate Is This It (2001) all over again. But where is their creative compass pointing now? Unfortunately, it’s aimed at “sloppy pastiche”. Rather than charting a new musical direction, Comedown Machine is a mish-mash of derivative, retro references. They borrow bits of Radiohead, a-ha, Flaming Lips and others, but lack the conviction to forge the eclectic mass into a coherent statement. In the turbulent wake of their last release, Angles (2011), the Strokes decided to work together in the studio, but it still feels like they’re fighting one another.

Despite the album’s lack of a musical center, some of the songs manage to stand out a little. The two strongest are baby steps away from their home base. The solid punch of “All The Time” sets a tight beat, drawing on the band’s roots. The interplay between the two guitars pits staccato chop against arpeggiated phrases. Locking into the album’s ‘80s aesthetic, the fluid guitar solo avoids self-indulgence, leading straight back into the chorus. Lead singer Julian Casablancas also stays in his lower register, saving his newly discovered falsetto for the other tracks. The riff-driven “80s Comedown Machine” falls into the same slot and the band happily runs with the headlong pace. But the next most interesting track strays further outside the band’s comfort zone. “Welcome to Japan” channels Beck’s stylized fake-funk. The disco bass line and ska-flavored chop-beat emphasis positions the tune as a contender for the next Grand Theft Auto game or maybe an action movie soundtrack. It’s a fun song with catchy, ironic lyrics:
I didn’t want to notice
I didn’t know the gun was loaded
I didn’t really know this
What kind of asshole drives a Lotus? 
Intriguing as the track is, it’s a sonic outlier on the album, although it’s still closer to the median than the jazzy dream-pop of “Call It Fate, Call It Karma”.

If “Welcome to Japan” owes a debt to Beck, “One Way Trigger” ought to split its royalty checks. The keyboard melody – or is it just a brittle guitar emulation? – inverts the signature line from a-ha’s “Take On Me”. Worse, the first chorus blatantly appropriates Radiohead; the melodic reference to “Karma Police” is pretty obvious, despite being sped up to fit the up-tempo pop. It’s no surprise when Casablancas pulls out his best Thom Yorke falsetto on the tag line, “Settle down, out of town/ Find a dream, shut it down.” After that, every high vocal seems to evoke Yorke, even if the music strays from Radiohead territory. The worst thing about “One Way Trigger” is that it kicks off a game of I-Spy, where every tune has a set of references hidden in plain sight. “50 50” evokes a taste of Psychedelic Furs crossed with New Order. “Partners in Crime” borrows synthesizer washes and slapback vocal echo from the Flaming Lips’ more recent pop explorations, before the chorus reworks Phoenix. But in the absence of a strong personality, the game grows old quickly.

If there’s a handle here to be found, it’s a watered-down synth-pop. But the genre isn’t nearly as important as the attitude. It’s okay that the Strokes have deserted the simple rock sound of Is This It; the problem is that they’ve lost their immediacy and raw energy. They don’t seem to care much about these songs and I don’t see why we should either.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Recording review - Sirsy, Coming Into Frame (2013)

Unapologetically pop duo share their earworms

The rock/pop duo Sirsy has tried working as a larger ensemble, but guitarist Rich Libutti and drummer Mel Krahmer have found their own wavelength that's hard to explain to others. They're renowned as a touring act, but until now they've never successfully translated their stage energy to the studio. On Coming Into Frame, they decided to break the pattern of their earlier release. Instead of self-producing, they brought in the production team of Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (Hole, New Collisions, Dresden Dolls). The pair followed a "Rick Rubin" approach of understanding Sirsy and letting their sound come through. As a result, the album showcases Krahmer's strong voice and captures Libutti's subtle, retro guitar vibe. Kolderie and Slade found the right balance, where the engineering is fairly polished, but the album's not over-produced, maintaining a more organic feel.

The clean mix works well for the band.  While there are plenty of indie rock duos out there, Sirsy bucks the low-fi trend and favors a lush, textured pop sound. They embrace the pop label, but on their own terms. In an interview with RUST Magazine, Libutti is proud of making pop music but isn't comfortable being lumped in with Lady Gaga, "...our whole approach is so different, yet it's hard to differentiate ourselves." Despite hitting the pop jackpot - the songs are full of catchy hooks and earworm melodies -- Sirsy does stand out because of their depth and personality. A track like the thoughtful "Picture" starts out following an indie pop formula: a simple guitar figure repeats, building to a ringing chorus. But where their peers might favor a soft, delicate girly vocal, Krahmer's womanly voice demands respect. On "Brave and Kind", her singing pushes through with ringing power. The simple guitar riff has a touch of Radiohead's "Creep", especially on the chorus. As it grows in intensity, Libutti adds warmly distorted accents that seem to propel the vocals.

My favorite track is "Gold". It's light pop chord changes sound incredibly familiar, but the details make it more interesting. The guitar work is absolutely beautiful. The brief interlude after the first chorus is a masterpiece of elegant simplicity. Libutti's hollow, retro tone sets an introspective mood that fits the regretful feel of the song. Krahmer's lower register has a bit of Karen Carpenter in the lush verse vocals, but her voice is ballsier than Carpenter ever strove for. The lyrical flow is smooth and the phrasing ties the lines together:
And I suppose forgiving doesn't end it
Cause we're bound to screw it up again but
Just know I never meant to let you down
I guest it was so hard for me to see since
You've been the anchor, keeping hold of me then
That you would be the one of us to drown.
It's a very tasteful arrangement. Heavier handed producers would have gone über-pop and Auto-Tuned the vocal, but Slade and Kolderie recognize that the programmed rhythm loop takes the song exactly where it needs to go and no farther.

Sirsy also used their play order to good effect. "Lot of Love" and "She's Coming Apart" seem like companion pieces. The first features an old school '60s pop feel, with tremolo guitar and Nancy Sinatra-style singing. Krahmer's vocal is very expressive; she's jaded and tough, but also hopeful:
Maybe it's all a bluff
This happy ending sort of stuff
When I see you smile, it makes me want to try, oh
The chorus is positively saucy. "She's Coming Apart" initially seems to continue the same musical changes, but quickly jumps into edgier territory. This time Krahmer is the narrator, cynically finishing the tale from "Lot of Love":
Annie's on automatic
No one seems to know
She says it all went South
Since they hit Mexico
The guitar-grinding chorus reminds me of the Runaways hard-rocking pop.

This would have been a good song to end Coming Into Frame. The actual last tune, "The Cost of You" is good and belongs on the album, but its moodier feel belongs earlier in the track list. I like the mix of electro-pop keys and violin accents, but it sacrifices too much energy. Sirsy tries to overcome this by building the tempo and volume to a climax, but it's not enough. That's a small complaint, though, for an album full of perfect pop moments.

Give a listen to Sirsy's wickedly hypnotic single, "Cannonball"

Monday, April 15, 2013

Front Range recommended shows - 4/15

Here are this week's recommendations.

Thursday, 17 April
Bluebird Theater, Denver CO
Los Amigos Invisibles

Club-soaked Latin disco beats, funky jams, and easy retro pop -- Los Amigos Invisibles have a fun, dance-happy sound in the studio; their live show should be a good party scene. I've heard that they throw together some crazy mash-ups into their sets to keep the audience on their toes. They're touring behind their new album, Repeat After Me,

Friday, 18 April
Saturday, 19 April
Various locations, Ft. Collins CO

This is Fort Collins' premier local music festival. Featuring over 200 bands, they have great line ups for both Friday and Saturday nights including favorites like Liz Barnez, Johnny Hickman, and 12 Cents for Marvin. $30 gets you a wristband pass to shows all over Ft. Collins for the weekend. Regardless of your musical preferences from hip hop to country or electronica to funk, you'll find plenty of choices.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Concert review - Soilwork with Jeff Loomis, Blackguard, and Hatchet

12 April 2013 (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
It was metal night at the Gothic with a full line up of bands. There was slightly less thrash for the evening because Bonded By Blood missed the show with a broken van. They got shout outs from the stage, but the other groups shouldered the weight.

Hatchet hit the stage hard and fast with a solid thrash sound. The grinding guitars and rapid fire bass drum showed off their Brit metal/NWOBHM influences, but their foundation is based on classic thrashers like Testament and Slayer. Front man Julz Ramos' shrieking vocals added a shrill intensity.

The band controlled the stage well, very conscious of how they looked. It may have been somewhat choreographed, with coordinated head banging and a lot of back and forth motion, but they kept the small crowd enthralled. Ramos was the key focus, staying in constant motion.

As openers, their set was relatively short, but they managed to spotlight their new album, Dawn of the End. The doom-laden "Vanishing Point" and the rapid fire title cut were both stand-out songs.

Blackguard almost stole the show. Lead singer Paul Ablaze and his band took the stage to a theatrical, pre-recorded intro and could have held the burgeoning crowd for twice the time. With bass player Étienne Mailloux apparently missing, Alex Weber from Jeff Loomis' band stepped in and did a fine job rocking the bottom end.

Ablaze was a master at working the crowd. Radiating a mix of glee and confidence, he pumped them up, with restless motion and punk tension. Even though black metal is not my personal sweet spot, his vocals were awesome, rising from a guttural growl to a scream. As he abandoned himself to a psychic blast of raw vocal noise, he became a cathartic channel that focused the band's intensity.

If Ablaze was the face of the band, then drummer Justine Ethier was the heart, spine, and balls. From speedy kick drum rolls to thunderous tom fills, she pushed the band to the next level. She was hands-down the best drummer of the night and she had some fierce competition. Where the growls and grind presented their darkness, Ethier's drumwork hinted at the underlying violent intent.

Guitar player Louis Jacques, who joined the band last year, demonstrated some excellent shredding leads. The group kept a good dynamic balance between the lead and rhythm guitars. Jacques and Terry Roadcase were adept at locking in on the choppy strum, then hitting sharp breaks so a prickly accent riff could fill in the sound.

Where Hatchet's stagework showed its structure, Blackguard kept their traffic flowing more naturally even as they struck all the appropriate poses. Mounting the stage monitors, audience-baiting, and more swirling, synchronized headbanging -- the band had it all and gave us a great show.

As lead guitarist for Nevermore, columnist for Guitar World magazine, and guitar idol, Jeff Loomis has built a career on his skills as a shred-monster in the style of Yngwie Malmsteen. Like Malmsteen, his flashy speed was technically impressive but didn't offer a lot of substance.

Where the other bands filled the stage with churning movement and excitement, Loomis remained fairly static physically even as his hands danced across his guitar neck. As a live performance, it wasn't that interesting beyond the spectacle of seeing how long a flurry of notes he could sustain. Since his machine gun shred dominated the sound, the rest of the band were pushed to the background. The drumming kept up the blistering pace, but remained rhythmically simple.

Loomis made a good effort -- he was friendly and showed some boyish charm -- but he did a better job of being admired than entertaining. In the right band context, stunt guitar can be a lot of fun, but it needs a good front man to elevate the skill into a full show. Without that, the studio would be a better setting for his skills.

Soilwork's set pushed the show back into motion. Powered by Speed Strid's larger than life persona, they had great dynamics peppered with tight rhythmic breaks. Strid tightened his connection to the crowd with a host of small interactions, but there was a Jeckyl and Hyde energy. Singing and growling, he was intimidating: large, loud, aggressive, and sharp as a knife. Between songs, though, his patter was more engaging. He dropped his fierceness to thank the crowd for their support or acknowledge the members of the band. Despite this personality shift, both versions felt genuine. The house was already primed for the music, but his personality made the audience come alive.

The band skipped back and forth through their career, mixing up older tracks like "Final Fatal Force" from A Predator's Portrait (2001) with songs off their latest. The Living Infinite. Because the band has evolved across their discography,  the set varied quite a bit, tossing defiant thrash and death metal jams with their newer rock sounds. There was even a spot of rap-style metal. The stylistic variation, interesting melodic development, and keyboard textures broadened Soilwork's musical impact. We could count on the driving rhythms and hardcore drumming to prod the mosh pit back into action and get us banging along with the band. They demonstrated that a shared ritual of kick drum punch and cathartic excitement are what metal is all about.

The band's momentum easily overcame some minor technical problems with Sylvain Coudret's guitar rig. While Strid dominated, there was plenty of room for the rest of the front line to express their personalities. In particular, bass player Ola Flink proved to be a bit of a clown, although he looks a bit like Ted Kaczynski. Mugging for the audience, there were times that he stalked around with an exaggerated strut. At one point he collapsed on the stage, playing on his back as if he were having a bass seizure.

The stage setup was good, keeping the guitars, bass and vocals on the front line, with the keys and drums in the back. The guitar amps were hidden behind logo screens, but that didn't affect the volume. The one drawback, though, was the fog machine that made it hard to get clear pictures. I hate those things. Soilwork closed out the show with a two song encore, culminating in 2005's title cut "Stabbing the Drama". Strid had us singing the chorus:
I'm waiting for something to show,
I might as well...
Just drag me down so low!
But Soilwork raised us all up.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Recording review - Robyn Hitchcock, Love From London (2013)

Surrealistic pop and unforced eccentricity

Robyn Hitchcock is like a lost uncle who wanders by every now and then on a cometary path. As uncles go, he’s a little dotty, but that’s part of his charm. Even turning 60, he has a childlike wonder that resonates. Sometimes, it seems like he’s starting one of the same old stories from an earlier visit, but they always drift sideways and turn out to be more interesting than expected. After all these years, his eccentricity hasn’t worn thin. His latest release, Love From London proves both familiar and unexpected, with a heady mix of surrealistic pop and unaffected psychedelia. While any of these songs could fit on his earlier albums, his lyrical turns are still full of powerful imagery and his perspective is always fresh. On “Be Still”, he captures a static moment of observation and spins it out into full reverie: “What is swimming through her mind as she sits alone?/ As beautiful as silence and as quiet as a stone.” The pop simplicity and steady bowing on the strings frame the frozen tableau as each detail crystallizes into place. “Her eyes are a dark as berries and her skin is charcoal brown/ She gazes to the future, out to where the sun goes down.

This combination of honed lyrics and intriguing music has been Hitchcock’s stock in trade for decades since he started fronting his psychedelically-slanted punk band The Soft Boys in the mid-‘70s. After the band fell apart in 1981, he slid into a steady solo career that wafted through MTV popularity and eventually picked up occasional partnerships with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows. Like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and 13th Floor Elevators’ Roky Erickson, his natural quirkiness gave his music an off-kilter edge and an outsider appeal. But grounded in a way that Barrett and Erickson never were, his musical output has been much more consistent. Over the years, his catalog has evolved into a sweet and sour mix of tunes that meld whimsical non sequiturs, off-beat subjects and pop aesthetics. While his songs are instantly recognizable, they have an artisanal quality that renders each one distinct.

The tracks on Love From London are little musical islands, each with a self-contained eco-system of pacing and mood. Heartbeat percussion drives the pensive melancholy of “Harry’s Song”. Despair builds as the piano repetition erodes any sense of well-being. On another corner of the archipelago, “Fix You” revives Beatlesque psychedelia with shades of “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” backed with motorik Krautrock drumming. The elliptical social commentary demands to know, “Now that you’re broke/ Who’s gonna fix you?/ Fix you up?” But the most disorienting corner of his map is found in the innocently named “I Love You”. Insistently trippy, the groove circles and reverberates, creating an inescapable mental cage. If this were the indoctrination song for a radical cult, no amount of deprogramming would obliterate the trance-like echoes. The first verse warns of assimilation as he gleefully sings, “Tendrils grow between us/ Tendrils you can’t see/ I’m dissolving into you/ You’re growing into me,” which casts the droning mantra of the title in an ominous light. The robotic bass line and descending scratch of violin intensify the uneasy feeling, but he somehow makes paranoid surrender sound appealing.

As Hitchcock regales us with tales from this foreign land, it’s nice to relax into the rhythm of his songs. Quaintly quirky but unforced, Love From London flows like a dream. Like the rest of his oeuvre, it serves as another set of his “paintings you can listen to."

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Monday, April 8, 2013

Recommended shows 4/8

 Welcome back to my recommended shows post. I know you think I do this for you, but I really do it to keep myself in the loop!

11 April 2013
Larimer Lounge, Denver CO
The Lonely Forest

 Indie rock, power pop, and a few other surprises. The Lonely Forest has a broad base of genres to draw on. This should be a great show; the Larimer Lounge is the perfect intimate venue.

12 April 2013
Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO
The Greyboy Allstars

It's a simple rule. If you have the chance to see Karl Denson in one of his band incarnations, do not hesitate. The Greyboy Allstars' funk and jazz are unparalleled and with a new album due to drop within the weak, it's a good bet they'll have some hot new songs. Denson is a phenomenal player and this band measures up to his high standards.

12 April 2013
Gothic Theatre, Denver CO

Melodic Swedish death metal? Well. what I've heard so far from the new album, The Living Infinite, is more in the melodic camp as the band has grown beyond their growling roots. But driving beats and headbanging shred will be welcome. My son and I are looking forward to the show and hearing more of Soilwork's new material.

12 April 2013
13 April 2013
Ogden Theatre, Denver CO

Playful British dub step producer Rusko will be in residence at the Ogden Theatre for two nights of shows. Count on his hyper stage energy and solid grooves to kick the evenings into overdrive.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Trip report: SXSW - Overwhelming choices

South by Southwest (SXSW) started out as a local music festival in Austin and quickly became the foundation of their claim to be the live music capital of the world. Since its start in 1987, SXSW has grown to include Film and Interactive media sessions in addition to the five days of official music showcases. The festival is a bucket list event, much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Oktoberfest in Munich or New Year’s Eve in Times Square. But unlike those destination moments, people come back again and again, called by the novelty of new trends in music and fresh band faces. The core idea may remain constant but each year is a kind of sonic snapshot. Another big difference is that SXSW has an undercurrent of tension you can’t find anywhere else. It’s created by the high stakes involved for the participating performers. Groups come to Austin looking for their big break. Whether trying to build their fan base or get an elusive record deal, they have a lot riding on creating momentum by appearing at the festival. Many of them land spots in the official music showcases during the week, but they also find slots in the countless unofficial shows. Indeed, plenty of players come without anything lined up and busk on the street for attention and the gas money to get home.

Buskers at SXSW

The scene is crazy. Centered on the Sixth Street Historical District but radiating out into the neighboring blocks, the area is packed with venues. Musical styles clash and compete – hardcore hip-hop may dominate in one stop, but a few steps further and the deep throb of metal elbows it aside. The street is a sonic buffet, promising something for every taste. It can be overwhelming, creating a sense of paralysis. There’s always the niggling doubt that somewhere nearby, the perfect band is just stepping onto the stage. Committing to any of the immediately obvious choices will mean that an opportunity is lost. And it’s true; everyone here will miss much more than they’ll see. It’s a lot like the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver, which also offers too many options. GABF 2012 featured 2700 beers from almost 600 breweries. Similarly, SXSW 2013 included almost 2300 showcasing acts on 104 stages (plus untold unofficial shows).

Impromptu horn players

With statistics like that, attendees need to think strategically. It’s a balancing act – Smaller, unknown acts or big names? Old favorites or new sounds? Pick a specific style or hit a scattershot of musical moods? – each decision shapes the festival experience. I opted for a mix of plan and improvisation. I picked a set of shows and bands, but left a lot of room open to wander wherever my ear led me. There were several bands I had reviewed and I wanted to see how their live shows measured up to the studio work. I also had a small group of favorite acts I hoped to catch: the Flaming Lips, Richard Thompson and Billy Bragg in particular. The Flaming Lips were the only one that didn’t pan out.

They were scheduled to close a showcase at the Belmont on Thursday night and then play a large, free show at Auditorium Shores on Friday. I decided to avoid the cattle-call on Friday and invest my time in the Belmont show, arriving early to queue up. The lineup at the Belmont included other groups like Braids, Frightened Rabbit, and Alt-J, with the Flaming Lips slated for 12:15 am. I got in line before 5:00 pm (2+ hours before the doors opened), with about 45 people ahead of me. Then I learned the cruel hierarchy of SXSW. Official conference badges outrank wristbands and wristbands have precedence over general admission attendees. In practice, this meant the most popular shows have two or three lines, with the badgeholders getting the first chance to enter. With only a wristband, this meant that my great line position wasn’t much advantage. I watched the long line of badgeholders build and then waltz past me into the club. Eventually some of us with wristbands got to go in, but as soon as more people with badges arrived, we were blocked again. By the time the club was filled to capacity, I was sixth in the wristband line. As I watched the badge line swell to more than 50, I had to decide if it was worth waiting in the hopes that people would leave before the Flaming Lips came on and that there wouldn’t be too many people with badges waiting. After camping out for three and a half hours, I abandoned the line and went looking for an alternative. Even though my experience at the Belmont was frustrating, it didn’t ruin my night because so many other choices remained.

Yet another band, seen from the street

It’s easy to fall into the rhythm of SXSW. Before 11:00 am, the streets are wide open, with a few lines forming at the clubs with early shows. Many of these are sponsored events, with free alcohol and/or food. Tip: it helps if your booze preferences are flexible; from Irish whiskey to flavored vodka, the media or label hosts often find corporate partners who push their brand. The musicians can seem a bit bleary, but they adjust to the time and pull together good performances despite the hour. By mid-afternoon, the crowd is picking up. Between the aspiring bands and corporate shilling, visitors find themselves buried in a sea of handouts: water, food and flyers. Countless rogue bands offer CDs which will litter the streets as the night wears on. This is a good time to visit the food trailers throughout the area and get fueled for the coming evening. There are a plethora of choices from Tex-Mex tacos to Korean barbecue or Turkish/German döner kebap to vegetarian Indian treats. As the evening rolls in, the vibrantly noisy streets fill up with people looking for their first band of the night. The nomadic trek will continue into the early morning hours as the people move from oasis to oasis. Eventually, it’s time to find a way back to the hotel for a quick bit of sleep before the next day starts anew.

Chris Porter from Some Dark Holler

While I missed most of the huge names at SXSW, like Green Day, Ice Cube and Prince (damn it!), I did discover some great bands. One of my favorite finds was the rich Americana sound of Some Dark Holler from Birmingham, Alabama. Their songs featured sweet harmonies with mournful fiddle accents, blending light with the darkness. Another great band was Manic Sheep (Taipei, Taiwan). Their set at the Duma Taiwan party started out with a heavy pop vibe, but veered into dark, driving post-rock. On the electronic side, Michna (Brooklyn, NY) laid down a highly visual show backed by a mix of chill beats and heady breaks. By contrast, Austin’s Hard Proof was hot as Hell with a jumping mix of Afrobeat and dance-happy funk. Finally, there was Kao=s…but more about them below.

Each day had its own highlights:

Team Spirit

Tuesday – After getting settled into town, I sat down and interviewed Team Spirit before their set at Viceland. Ayad Al Adhamy started this group when he quit as lead keyboard player in Passion Pit to become a guitar-slinging front man. Talking to the band was a relaxed way to slide into the festival mood. Their show that night with Wavves, Japandroids and others was a rocking good time.

David Lowery and Camper Van Beethoven

Wednesday – I caught the Brooklyn Vegan hosted show at the dual venue of The Junior/The Main. The headliners were Camper Van Beethoven and Robyn Hitchcock. David Lowery’s Camper Van Beethoven played a mix of old classics like “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and their intensely psychedelic cover of “Pictures of Matchstick Men” along with tracks from their new album, La Costa Perdita. Hitchcock had a solo acoustic set peppered with surrealistic stage patter and amusing digressions.
Sam France melts down with Foxygen

Thursday – After the Belmont/Flaming Lips fiasco, I bounced from club to club. Eventually I made it to Red 7 Patio in time for head-banging punk from Bleached. The unpleasant highlight, though, was the following set with Foxygen. The band was touted to be one of the breakout acts to see this year, but managed to lose most of their credibility with an onstage meltdown. First, the crowd grew restive as sound problems dragged out the set-up. Once the group began playing, it seemed to be fine as they created a creepy camp mix of Bauhaus meets Thee Oh Sees. Then, between songs, front man Sam France went ape in response to a heckler. After he stormed off the stage, declaring the set was over, guitarist Jonathan Rado apologized, “Sorry. It’s been a long two months.” France came back out for a final song, making his own apology, but it didn’t last and he threw a final fit and left the stage for good. The band ended up canceling the rest of their SXSW appearances.

Kao=S at Japan Nite

Friday – Richard Thompson and Billy Bragg were great at the Waterloo, but the prize was seeing Kao=S at Japan Nite at Elysium. The instrumental line up hinted at their fusion approach. The banjo-like samisen and shakuhachi flute played with acoustic guitar for a folky, new-age pop with a uniquely Japanese flavor. Kaori Kawabuchi, their lead singer, combined traditional dance with her vocals to create a spellbinding performance. The band’s elegant arrangements and polished show was a refreshing contrast to the rawer rock shows I normally see. They even have their own manga; what could be cooler than that? Aside from Kao=S, Japan Nite demonstrated the wide range of Japanese bands, with Jake Stone Garage providing a high energy, punk-metal contrast to the earlier sets. Heading out, I got a final chance to catch Kao=S as they took it to the street to busk and amaze the passers-by.

Valleys, feeling the intensity

Saturday – The day started off with a thick haze of layered psychedelia from Montreal duo, Valleys. Their rich sound was languorous but intense, with a mix of electro-pop synth and ringing overtones. The swirling noise-fest was a meditative way to prepare for my last day at SXSW. There would be plenty of time later in the day to thrash to the screaming punk throb of METZ, to savor the funky soul of the Monophonics and to be amused at the punch-drunk leader of Merchandise (Tampa, FL) as he told us how tired he was of their new songs.

As I hit the road back to Colorado on Sunday, it would be reasonable to guess that my musical lust had been sated. I just punched up David Bowie’s The Next Day and headed North on I-35.

Many more SXSW photos on my Flickr.

(A version of this article first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Recording review - My Gold Mask, Leave Me Midnight (2013)

Inky dark vocals and Gothic echoes

Creepy torment, dark shadows, and Gothic echoes fill My Gold Mask's debut album. Leave Me Midnight is full of songs that bind low-fi elements carefully layered with a retro production style marked by crisp, reverbed isolation. The band develops a sound like the master recordings were left in a haunted house to soak up the ambiance until even the more pop-oriented tracks take on a pensive quality. It's fitting that the songs are rooted in synth-pop, but the beats aren’t anchored to the dance floor. Lead singer, Gretta Rochelle has a richly expressive voice that invites comparisons to Siouxsie Sioux, with some of Amanda Palmer's modern theatricality. The counter-rhythms and jigsaw tight arrangements push well past any genre limitations, occasionally reveling in complexity without sabotaging intensity.

Unquestionably, though, the best song on the album is the simplest. “Without” opens with a staccato guitar that tips a hat to the Cure, while Rochelle's voice hovers between seductive and petulant.
Love, oh it’s taken me so long...
Love, oh it’s tearing me apart...
Love, I don’t even know what for...
I’m without you 
Her hopelessness is raw and honest; the spare musical accompaniment lets the words sit and ripple outwards. That first verse sets the hook, but the second verse reveals that this is a duet, with Jack Armondo repeating the lyrics. Unlike the unadorned female vocal, his lines eventually pick up a harmony part. The mantra-like repetition of the last line drives home the forced separation between the two sides; each of us is alone, wanting the same connection. Armondo's calm delivery is a nice contrast to Rochelle’s flash on the rest of the album. Somewhere between Dave Gahan (Depeche Mode) and Peter Murphy (Bauhaus), he grounds the song, supporting its powerful fatalism.

The rest of Leave Me Midnight measures up as the band tempers their retro synth-pop with an even older sound, rooted in the '60s. Songs like “Some Secrets” draw upon that era's experimental aesthetic, drenching low-fi precision in a thick coat of reverb. When the rhythm kicks in to transform the song, Rochelle's voice is inky pop perfection. As the intensity grows, it sounds more like My Gold Mask managed to record the reflected echoes of an idealized live version. Similarly old-school, “Burn Like The Sun” uses garage psych to set the scene for some kind of pagan rite. Rochelle's tone is a bit brighter than Siouxsie Sioux’s, but in moments like “Nightfalls” or the verses of “Lost In My Head”, her voice is resurrected. But it’s not a slavish imitation; it’s just a shared expressiveness. As “Song of Wound” offers its arty, Bauhaus vibe, her drawn out phrases and wordless singing raise that familiar vocal spectre to caper with the tribal drums. Leave Me Midnight is cloudy like absinthe and just as bittersweet.