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

Friday, June 28, 2013

Recording review: Portugal. The Man, Evil Friends (2013)

Worlds of possibility grow out of a partnership with Danger Mouse

It’s all about trust. Portugal. The Man spent years developing their iconic mix of retro psychedelic rock, soul and pop. Then, when they first signed with Atlantic Records, fans had to trust that the band could maintain their outsider edge. In The Mountain, In The Cloud (2011) proved that a big label meant a better studio budget but it didn’t compromise their stylistic integrity. Their latest album takes the band a step further: could they partner with famed producer Danger Mouse (Brian Joseph Burton), taking advantage of his assertive aesthetic, and still preserve their sonic personality? Portugal. The Man have been bringing pop elements into their recent music, but Danger Mouse’s production and recording work are anchored in a pop milieu well outside the band’s home base. Bands he’s worked with — Gorillaz, the Black Keys, and Norah Jones, not to mention his own Gnarls Barkley — come from a completely different musical mindset.

Evil Friends is clearly a collaborative effort, with Danger Mouse bringing in synth treatments and pop vocal production, but the band’s gutsy move has paid off. They’ve surrendered some of their epic, open jams in exchange for a new set of textures. Under Danger Mouse’s influence, they’ve also threaded the songs together with a selection of integrated references. Sometimes those connections are overtly obvious, like the bridge from “Creep In A T-Shirt” returning as a verse in “Evil Friends”: “It’s not because the light here is brighter/ And it’s not that I’m evil/ I just don’t like to pretend/ That I could ever be your friend.” Other times, it’s just a familiar snatch of melody or repetition of phrase between tracks. This structural reinforcement is mirrored in the album’s running theme of anti-religious secularism with a cast of outsiders.

The opening track, “Plastic Soldiers”, eases into the band’s new sound. Danger Mouse works some slick transitions between song sections, like pairing an EQ shift with a building tempo to pull the song forward. John Gourley’s diffident falsetto rests on a bed of acoustic guitar and synthesizer. “Creep In A T-Shirt” follows and, while it also relies on Danger Mouse’s production and rhythm treatment, it feels more like the band’s older material. The piano and bass team up to lay down a moody funk vibe as Gourley plays a loner sociopath, “I’m just a creep in a T-shirt, jeans, I don’t fucking care.

While the first three tracks sounded great, it was “Modern Jesus” that locked me into the album and Danger Mouse’s role. If this song had been on their last album, the chorus would have grown into a heavy-handed anthem. Instead, the production wraps that chorus in synth strings, blunting the impact. But this creates a tension that gives Gourley’s lines a stronger sense of resolve. His secular message, “The only faith we have is faith in us,” is not so different from Aleister Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt,” a strong statement that doesn’t require bluster. The reflective mix of electronic and acoustic instruments also recalls older Radiohead songs; some of the phrases that recalls Thom Yorke, “You don’t need sympathy/ They’ve got a pill for everything.” Repeated listening cements “Modern Jesus” as the centerpiece for Evil Friends, suggesting that evil is the eye of the beholder.

At the other extreme, “Sea of Air” is pure Portugal. The Man. The song feels like an outtake from In The Mountain, In The Cloud as it opens with a Fleetwood Mac acoustic rock groove. One set of lines even seems to be a message to the character in that album’s closing track, “Sleep Forever”, “When you talked to God about suicide/ When you never came back, I hope you’re still alive.” A brief Beatlesque crescendo, full of horns, punctuates the song before it drops into a sing-along chorus that sets up the elegiac “Waves”. Danger Mouse’s main contribution to “Sea of Air” — a strange, run-on bass riff tacked onto the end of the tune — is fairly superfluous.

The album closes out with a matched pair of songs. Each embraces a different flavor of willful ignorance and denial. The super-poppy “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” lays down a trippy funk groove as Gourley asserts his entitlement to an easy life of leisure, “All I want to do is/ Live in ecstasy/ I know what’s best for me.” In contrast, “Smile” would prefer to pretend that the sadness in the world doesn’t exist, “I don’t need to talk about the world, all right/ I just want to sleep with a smile tonight.” The stark piano accompaniment foreshadows a rude awakening sometime in the future because reality always finds a way to intrude. The bridge slides into a retro, psychedelic soul revue, name-checking the opening track:
I’d like to try to forget the times
Have changed and we all live and die
Plastic soldiers
Slowly growing older
As the guitar thrashes its way into a “Hey Jude”-style jam ending, the lyrical callback makes one message absolutely clear: it’s time to start Evil Friends over again for yet another listen.

Portugal. The Man has faced numerous challenges recently, such as upheavals in the band personnel and swelling popularity. Partnering with Danger Mouse could be seen as a desperate move to reinvent themselves or as caving to record label pressure, but it’s neither of those things. Gourley and his group have consistently evolved their sound over their recording career and this is just the latest step. Given their open minds and open ears, expect to hear Danger Mouse’s production influence flavoring their next project, which will offer up its own surprises.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Recording review: Pacific UV, After the Dream You Are Awake (2013)

Soft-focused electro-pop

Do you have a tightly-wound, Type A personality and need to take your OCD down a notch? Or are you naturally mellow, just looking to pad out your cozy den with another bit of fuzzy warmth? Perhaps you’re chemically altered and you don’t want to harsh your buzz. Rejoice, Pacific UV’s After the Dream You Are Awake may be just the chill pill you’re looking for. Their dreamy electro-pop is devoid of hard edges or sharp corners. The songs seem to drift in from the hazy distance at a zombie pace — the old-school slow kind, not the frantic ones. There’s little sense of anxiety, only an opiated dissociation that drains away all urgency.

On “I Think It’s Coming”, vocalist Laura Solomon’s cautiously gentle singing suggests late night confidences and heavy confessions. Rather than distance, her detachment imbues the lyrics with deep intensity:
I don’t believe in what I can’t see
The way you climb right into me
Let’s not pretend this is the end
Just be still, it’s about to begin 
 Sonic details collect as the tune unfolds with languid grace. Like a slow motion explosion, each isolated part finds its position in space. The song evolves into the shadow of a powerful, painful memory, one that was packed away for later perusal. With the insulation of time, the specifics can be pulled out and examined through a coating of gauzy reverb. “I think it goes without saying/ I think it goes/ Watch it go” – tumultuous loss has been polished down to a core truth that transcends the emotional impact.

Pacific UV’s electro-pop side bubbles through more strongly on tracks like “American Lovers”. Unlike “I Think It’s Coming”, there’s no sense of trauma, just a hopeful promise. The dance-friendly arrangement features a fanning shimmer of synths, organic highlights of guitar, and Clay Jordan’s whispery voice. This love song gets its dreamy vibe from the cottony swaddle of echo as Jordan draws a preordained line of connection, “In a distant time and place, under moonlight cold and clear / With an ever-changing face, I will always meet you here.

Despite the sedated flow of After the Dream You Are Awake, two songs offer a touch of surprise. One is the band’s cover of Billy Idol’s 1983 hit “Eyes Without a Face”, which updates the original’s synth-pop with more modern electronic sounds. Maintaining Pacific UV’s penchant for soft-focus, they edit Idol’s lyrics slightly to remove the sneering tag, “Got no human grace, your eyes without a face,” from the chorus and they leave the rocking bridge out altogether. By contrast, “Russians” throbs with a nervous, hypnotic oscillation. Jordan and Solomon retain detached on the verses, but the expressive chorus breaks the monotone and opens into expansive trippiness. This gap in their façade is a pleasant change, offering a memorable landmark in the play list.

Reflective but not soporific, the prevailing mellow groove on this album succeeds because it ornaments itself with fascinating electronica, subtle lyrics, and a varying palette of songs. The title speaks of waking after the dream, but these songs suggests that dreamtime should linger a while longer. This is music best saved for the after-party or when its calming center is just what the doctor ordered.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Front Range recommended shows 6/24

Summer may be heating up, but not much is catching my eye this week.

Friday, 28 June 2013 (Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellview CO)
Darkstar Orchestra

The classic Grateful Dead tribute band is passing through again and the Mish will become tie-dye central yet again. DSO stands out from other tribute bands because the band really does evoke the slot machine luck of the Dead: it's always hard to predict what you'll hear, but you can count on a wild jam along the way.

Friday, 28 June 2013 (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
The Silent Comedy

I just listened to the Silent Comedy's "God Neon" and enjoyed to the dark, dystopian feel of their gritty blues. Their EP shows a fair amount of folk influence as well, but I'm expecting some good musical intensity for this one.

Mini-concert review: Kiss Army, with the Tramps

Thursday, 20 August 2013 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

Kiss Army is one of the most well known Kiss tribute bands out there. The crowd ranged from the Old Guard who remember the '76-'77 tour to younger fans ready to rock and roll all night (and party every day).

The Tramps

This mostly female local band (their drummer's a dude) normally plays under the name "La Cucarachas", but tonight they added a singer to open this show in the persona of a Cramps cover band.

The first half of the set showcased their original songs. They had a fun garage-punk energy, while their songs had a calculated shock value effect.

Their take on the Cramps evoked more of front-man Lux Interior than I would have expected.

There are three approaches for appreciating a tribute band:
  1. You can pretend that you're getting the original band experience.
  2. You can enjoy the band on their own merits and accept that it's not a real substitute.
  3. You can treat the experience as a campy send up of the classic band.
Kiss Army is best suited for the second response.

They did their best to create '70s era Kiss. They had the stage gestures and musical skills, but they couldn't bring the same gravitas to their performance.

"Ace" (Rob Evans) did the best job matching his real-life counterpart, with frontman Bryan Angel a close second as "The Starchild".

Both "Peter Criss" and "Gene Simmons" were talented players, but neither quite delivered the right physical presence (although "The Demon" did have some decent tongue moves).

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Recording review: Joe Satriani, Unstoppable Momentum

Raise the prog-fusion flag and respect the axe!

There was once a golden age of progressive fusion. Back in the early ‘90s, performers like Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani astounded audiences with showy fretboard work and expressive melodies. The genre took its parentage from jazz fusion guitarists like John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck, but it borrowed heavy metal techniques like extreme whammy bar abuse, two handed tapping and speedy sweep picking. Largely instrumental, these songs followed jazz’s modal structure rather than relying on metal-style riffs or old school verse-chorus-bridge arrangements. After a few short years of public acclaim, though, the imposing style fell out of favor. Johnson became hamstrung by his own perfectionism after releasing Ah Via Musicom (1990) and Steve Vai’s followup to Passion and Warfare (1990), 1993’s Sex & Religion, got mired in band politics and ego clashes. Satriani had a good run of albums from 1987’s Surfing with the Alien through The Extremist (1992), but the next year’s release, Time Machine, didn’t fare as well. Like all but his truest fans, I lost track of his solo work around that time, but Unstoppable Momentum seems to pick up where The Extremist left off.
The songs run through a variety of moods from the introspective Gaelic feel of “I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn” to the funky electric boogie of “Jumpin’ In”. But Satriani’s ability to tap into the emotional well of each tune is a constant strength across the album. His playing mindset also separates him from his metal-head shred-meister cousins. Treating his guitar like a vocal track, he doesn’t burn through all of his technical tricks in a single song and he’s rarely repetitive or constrained by a collection of riffs.

On “Can’t Go Back”, Satriani’s initial guitar melody effectively sings a chorus, “Can’t go back/ Though you try,” which forms a recurring foundation for the rest of the song. The tune has a new wave feel anchored by Chris Chaney’s bass and Mike Keneally’s keyboard shimmers. The guitar takes on a reflective tone as it argues its point. The energy builds, capturing the frustration of looking back and fighting the past. His solo opens into that emotional turmoil with cathartic abandon that culminates in a dynamic drop to reset the song for a second pass. The band restates the earlier arguments, but never falls back into the same frustration, creating a sense of acceptance.

By contrast, “Shine on American Dream” is simpler and more direct. The throaty rock vamp of staccato guitar crunch supports a bluesy Americana vibe. The uplifting sense of pride lacks subtlety, but the earnest delivery gives the tune an anthemic quality. With the right set of words to convey the song’s optimism, this could be the breakout radio single for the album. Satriani stamps the tune with his imprimatur, adding a fluid, show-off lead that adds the perfect touch of pomp. The other radio-friendly cut, “A Door Into Summer” is less effective. Like “Shine on American Dream”, it relies on a less-developed structure, but the busier vocal line of the guitar doesn’t make the same impact.

Over several times listening to Unstoppable Momentum, it was the pensive darkness of “Lies and Truths” that gradually became my favorite. Keneally’s keyboard opening creates a sense of chill. This turns to tense calculation with Vinnie Colaiuta’s tight syncopation on the drums. The production ping-pongs Satriani’s detuned guitar from side to side, suggesting an argument. The next section lurches into a malevolent counterpoint groove reminiscent of Robert Fripp’s tense angularity, which represents the lies part of the title. In the “truths” section, the band comes into harmony, flattening the rough edges into a simpler forward drive. The layered guitars sing rising tones of affirmation before dropping the song back into the difficult question: which are the lies? A ripping two-handed solo vents its anger before the song runs through the lies and truths again. The interesting back story to this song is that Satriani played an experiment on the band with this track. Although he had already decided on the final title, the band was given a working title of “Fast Robot” during the recording sessions. He liked the effect this had on the band’s decisions about what to play. Colaiuta, for instance, gradually picked up complexity in his drum part until it built into the sound of a robot gone haywire. In the context of the real title, this helped drive the anger and tension of the song’s second half.

I’m glad to check in again with Satch and find that he’s still keeping the prog-fusion flame alive. While it’s not likely to spark a popular revival of the genre, Unstoppable Momentum is solid offering sure to please fans and impress guitarists of all levels of experience.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

History lesson: Dramarama, Hi-Fi Sci-Fi (1993)

The gatekeepers of mega-fame said, "no" and the band rocked on

The music industry is ruled by accidents more than talent. Thousands of brilliant bands never make it out of their hometowns. The ones that make it into a studio often watch their creative babies languish for lack of attention. Dramarama was poised to be just another example when they were accidentally discovered by KROQ-FM’s Rodney Bingenheimer in the mid-‘80s. The Replacements-like sound of “Anything Anything (I’ll Give You)” from 1985’s Cinéma Vérité introduced them to L.A.’s radio market and then to national attention. A new record deal followed and things looked bright for the band.

They seemed ready for the leap. Lead singer/songwriter John Easdale had a way with snappy, droll lyrics and could deliver them with attitude. His personality struck a chord with the times; he was a bit of a smart ass, but clever and funny. The band’s sound was rooted in the classic rock of the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, colored by glam band flash, and decanted into an updated punk attitude. But the luck that got them their break deserted them before they really scored. The band filled several albums with strong songs like “Last Cigarette” and “Haven’t Got a Clue”, which helped build an audience but they couldn’t translate that into widespread national success. Instead, they stayed trapped in the college radio ghetto, which adored quirky, witty bands like Dramarama, Doug and the Slugs, and the Pursuit of Happiness. These groups could develop cult followings and even slip a song or two into mainstream rotation, but they didn’t have the formula to break out. And when a band like R.E.M. did make the jump to the big time, the reasons remained an inexplicable mystery. But each random success served as intermittent reinforcement to keep the others trying.

By the time they released Hi-Fi Sci-Fi, the band was getting desperate; time was running out to capitalize on their earlier successes. The album emphasizes a harder grind than their earlier work, as if to translate energy into audience enthusiasm. Many of the songs reflect Easdale’s frustration with the music industry and its obsession with getting big returns on little investment and less artistic merit. This led to morose tracks like “Senseless Fun”. The down tempo beat and defeatist lyrics express the pointless pursuit of stardom: “And every time we load the gun/ And say that this one is the one/ It’s senseless fun/ Disappointed.” On “Work for Food”, he paints a picture of himself as a damaged, homeless burnout carrying the reminders of his failed career among the cans and other detritus filling his shopping cart. Despite the pathos, though, the music rescues the mood with a hyperactive beat that gives strength to Easdale’s defiant assertion, “I deny a problem with my attitude/ ‘Cause I will work for food/ Yeah, I keep on rollin’.” That statement perfectly sums up Dramarama’s deeper truth. They may sneer and complain, but they keep on rolling, working hard to impress the gatekeepers in the music business and reach a larger audience. That resilient undercurrent keeps Hi-Fi Sci-Fi from falling into a downward spiral, driven by the band’s depression. They may plea “Where’s the Manual?” and offer weary doubts on “Late Night Phone Call”, but they also strut through “Bad Seed” with a convincing brag, “I’m a one man army, I’m the King of Hearts/ I’m like a Shaolin master of the martial arts.”

Revisiting these songs, I’m struck by how they show off Easdale’s pragmatic perspective. Even their collection of anti-drug songs on the second half avoids preaching. Instead, they deliver a straight-edge message on “Prayer” with nervous energy and a Keith Richards-inspired guitar solo. The punchy “Don’t Feel Like Doing Drugs” uses sarcasm to deflect peer pressure, “Always looking for an alibi/ A sad excuse, but what’s the use?/ Come to think of it, it never crossed my mind/ ‘Just say no.’ Duh,” The autobiographical feel is refreshingly ambivalent.

Of course, Hi-Fi Sci-Fi didn’t become a rallying cry for the band. Instead, it was their swan song. Between their label, Chameleon, going under and apathetic radio support, Dramarama read the writing on the wall and called it quits in 1994. It would take almost a decade and VH1’s “Bands Reunited” show before they officially came together again in 2003. Their one newer album, everybody dies (2005), captured their old sound fairly well. But despite the reboot and continuing to tour, the band is more or less in the same place they were at the time of their 1994 breakup; they have a small cult of rabid fans and little mainstream presence.

Twenty years after its release, the album stands as a testament to the band’s wit, energy and earnestness. The production is a bit lush by modern standards and sound effects like the street ambiance intro on “Work for Food” are fairly passé, but there’s a timeless aspect to their heads-down rock ‘n’ roll and dogged fight against the odds. Their influences, like the Rolling Stones and the New York Dolls, still hold sway in today’s indie scene, so Hi-Fi Sci-Fi doesn’t sound as outdated as it might. When I listen to recent bands like White Denim, the Henry Clay People, or Team Spirit, I can hear the echoes of Dramarama. Unfortunately, hard work, catchy lyrics, cathartic rock, and scattered pockets of fandom aren’t driving huge market success for those groups either. Instead, their best hope comes from the random luck of a viral video or hip commercial. Some things never change.
(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 6/17

This week offers a number of choices but not too many worth pointing out. Sure, the reformed Fall Out Boy (6/23 at the Ogden) was tempting, but it's sold out and I haven't heard their new stuff yet.

Wednesday, 19 June (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Barenaked Ladies
Ben Folds Five

BNL survived the 2009 departure of founding member Steven Page, but his sense of irony is still sorely missed. Fellow lead singer Ed Robertson has expanded his vocal responsibilities, though, and you can expect all of the tight phrasing and intricate harmonies the band is known for as well as new songs from their latest release, Grinning Streak. This summer's tour is billed as the "Last Summer on Earth" and BNL has lined up two perfect backing acts: Ben Folds Five and Guster. Bring hearing protection to protect yourself from the overabundance of droll lyrics and prepare for the complete hipster evening.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Recording review: Os Mutantes, Fool Metal Jack (2013)

Fragmented diversity has no center

Brazilian Tropicália was a late ‘60s movement dedicated to the principle of melding far-ranging sources into an intriguing amalgam. Culture within Brazil encompasses a wide spectrum, but the movement’s founders, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, looked further afield for foreign influences to spice the mixture. Not long after they formed, Brazilian rockers Os Mutantes connected with Gil and found their first musical home in Tropicália, which provides the best context to understand their latest recording, Fool Metal Jack. Its blending of psychedelia, Latin rhythms, and folk harkens back to the band’s roots, along with shades of the prog rock that they moved on to during the early ‘70s. The Tropicália movement also took on political overtones; indeed, many players like Gil and Veloso were harassed and exiled. The band throws in a taste of that as well, so the album reflects various moods and perspectives. Make no mistake, there is strength in diversity. But taken to an extreme, it can be rootless, where elements are too fragmented and the resulting combination has no center. Fool Metal Jack suffers from just that problem. The first several tracks alone meander through lightly psychedelic folk rock, garage rock, bombastic acid rock and pseudo-reggae. There are high moments as well as low but the project lacks a cohesive vision.

This recording comes from a resurrected version of Os Mutantes featuring original member Sérgio Dias. While Dias has surrounded himself with new players, the band’s sounds and influences remain locked on the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But like a recently thawed guest from the distant past, they occasionally get distracted by shiny bits of modern flash. The opening track, “The Dream is Gone”, could pass for Sir Douglas Quintet or Los Lobos at first, with a simple folky vibe and the light wheeze of accordion. The chorus suddenly transforms the song into a headier space with laser beam synth shots and a strong Pink Floyd influence. Those pew-pew lasers just add distraction to an otherwise decent song. The title track that follows is another poorly executed idea. Following in the unfortunate steps of Bloodrock’s “D.O.A.”, its explicitly disturbing lyrics paint a gruesome picture: “I’m gonna die, shot in the gut/ My blood is everywhere.” As an anti-war song, it fulfills some of the socially conscious aspects of Tropicália, but it’s too heavy-handed with theatrical coughing and grimaces that are strained enough to hear. At least the verses remain moody and dark to match the theme. The chorus goes for a musical revue feel before settling on the tagline, “Yes!/ No more war.”

Fortunately, Fool Metal Jack rebounds from this early low point. “Look Out” captures a modern jam-band funk groove while maintaining some righteous old-school soul moves. The percussion sets a great groove that never settles into simple repetition. Os Mutantes make a couple of idiosyncratic choices, like the goofy, pitch-shifted voices on the chorus, but these work in the context of the track’s wild party vibe. They also toss in interjections of Native American chanting that a contemporary band would replace with a sample. It’s not a deep track, but it does offer a shadow of the band’s younger enthusiasm. Another fun track is “To Make It Beautiful”, which elevates a simple pick-up line into high art. A pretty classical guitar riff introduces the theme, “To make it beautiful/ I learned a secret path/ Magically wonderful/ I need us to create love tonight.” The logic may be convoluted, but the imperative is clear. The sweet madrigal harmonies and light theatricality suggest Queen’s mellower moments. The song drifts in and out of the original sound, picking up Latin beats and psychedelic haze in turn.

With so many stylistic contradictions running through the album, it’s hard to call any song a true outlier. But the best song on Fool Metal Jack stands alone. The band’s cover of Gil’s “Eu Descobri” is the only track in their native Portuguese and features a strong Asian treatment. Where Gil’s original had a playful bossa nova rhythm and paired classical guitar with lush orchestration, Os Mutantes kick off their version with a tabla beat and touches of sitar buzz. The female vocals drift between India and China in tone, but the pacing is not so different than Gil’s. Despite the sparse feel, the band rolls in numerous exotic details – a flute trill here, minor electronic loops there – that give a sense of complexity without overwhelming the fragile beauty of the piece. The character is foreign enough that the classical guitar seems like an interloper when it adds its voice.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Recording review: Beatallica, Abbey Load (2013)

Metalloid covers rather than full-on mashups

Like Dread Zepplin, Beatallica has always been clear about their musical mission: blending the Beatles and Metallica into a powerhouse mashup. It could be argued that they're a one trick pony, but both source bands have a rich enough back catalog that Beatallica hasn't exhausted the possibilities. Their 2009 album Masterful Mystery Tour (review) was well crafted, packed with songs like "Everybody's Got a Ticket to Ride Except For Me and My Lightnin" and "The Thing That Should Not Let It Be". These songs showed real ingenuity, finding common ground between their sources and coming up with lyrics that fit thematically with both groups. I came to Abbey Load looking for the next installment, eager to hear how they'd marry late-era Beatles with Load's bluesy metal sound. I imagined a mutant "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window", supercharged with DNA from "King Nothing".

Instead, the band has settled for metalloid covers of an assortment of Beatles songs. The album is anchored by "Come Together" and the medley from Abbey Road, and filled out with a hodge-podge of miscellaneous tracks. Dropping songs like "Oh, Darling" and "Octopus's Garden" seems reasonable, but "Something" could have had potential. By substituting songs like "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Please, Please Me", the project feels more like a random collection.

Of course, Masterful Mystery Tour wasn't a slave to a tracklist either, but the crucial difference is that Beatallica has abandoned their mashup home-base to make a less interesting cross-genre cover album. Each of the songs maintains the original Beatles' melodies and lyrics. This places them more squarely into Dread Zepplin's camp. Sure, Jaymz Lennfield still dials his James Hetfield impression up to 11 and the riffs are heavy as ever, but it's a let-down from the band's earlier work. The familiar musical references, like "For Whom the Bell Tolls" embedded within "Michelle" or the "Four Horsemen" intro for "Mean Mister Mustard" don't make up for the missing spark.

In an interview with Metal Assault, Lennfield blames the creative decision on their distribution channel, Sony International. "...he basically strong-armed us into either shutting the whole thing down or doing the next record by using the Beatles lyrics and the Beatles vocal melodies. So those were our choices..." That explains why they didn't include their song "Ktulu (He's So Heavy)" (from 2007's Sgt. Hetfield's Motorbreath Pub Band), which would have fit in perfectly. Evidently, Beatallica has already come up with real mashups based on this material, but was blocked from releasing the songs. Knowing that we could have listened to "Mean Mister Mustaine" is a bitter pill.

Lennfield seems philosophical about the situation and stands by Abbey Load. He's also mentioned that the band idoes include their more interesting interpretations in their live show. Even without that incentive, I'd recommend catching them if they ever tour nearby.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 6/10

 Summer is upon us. It's perfect weather to catch some live music!

Tuesday, 11 June (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
The Dandy Warhols

Garage rock, psychedelia, power pop -- The Dandy Warhols have serially reinvented themselves since their start in the '90s.While they're sometimes too clever for anyone's good, they have an uncanny skill for catchy songs. The band is promoting their reissue of 2000's Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, so expect them to lean more towards their power pop sound.

Friday, 14 June (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
DeVotchKa with the Colorado Symphony

Special guest: Amanda Palmer

Last year, DeVotchKa and the Colorado Symphony teamed up for a couple of successful shows that spawned a live album. The Denver-based gypsy ensemble was already unclassifiable enough with their mix of cabaret, Eastern European folk, and rock elements. Augmenting the band with lush, orchestral arrangements is just a cherry on top. By the same token, adding ex-Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer seems obvious as well. Expect a host of rich arrangements and flourishes of minor-key flash.

Friday, 14 June (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
Camper Van Beethoven

When Camper Van Beethoven was on the rocks, singer David Lowery connected with Johnny Hickman to form Cracker, which found a slightly better formula for popular acclaim. These days, CvB is active again with a new album, La Costa Perdida (review), Cracker is still a going concern, and Lowery balances his commitments to both his bands. While both projects take advantage of his laid-back sarcasm, the two groups have distinct sounds and interests. I haven't caught the two acts on the same bill yet, but either band alone would be a recommended show. I've seen CvB most recently at SXSW this year and they were still going strong.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Concert review: Peace with Team Spirit and Twin Peaks

3 June 2013 (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
After meeting the guys from Team Spirit at South By Southwest (read the interview) and catching two of their sets, I was excited to see them again. I wasn't familiar with Peace before the show, but I listened to a couple of songs online and liked the polished post-punk sound.

My only regret for the show was that the crowd was awfully sparse. They made up for it with enthusiasm, especially a couple of guys that drove up from Texas.

The first thing to keep straight is that there are at least two bands out there called Twin Peaks. The heavy pop version hails from Chicago. This show featured Denver's indie-rocking four-piece. They were a good fit for this show. Their embrace of noisy, classic rock drive and close-formation guitar riffs warmed up our ears for Team Spirit's twin guitar attack, while the heady new wave jams occasionally drifted towards an art rock feel, foreshadowing Peace's set.

027 TwinPeaks While quite good, their studio work doesn't begin to represent their live sound. On stage, the cathartic clash of guitars dominates the mix, showing some fairly heavy influences. Additionally, their drummer gets a freer range to explore some inspired syncopation. I was impressed with how fluidly they surfed between hard-hitting classic rock and trippier, layered wanderings.

Front man Addison Friesen conveys intensity and focus during the songs and a looser self-deprecation between songs. Actually, the whole band came across as fairly earnest without any affected naïveté.As the final song built to a peak, the whole band radiated a simple happiness. The band's stage presence was relatively static until the big ending; then, Friesen flopped onto his back in front of the drum kit, still wringing waves of noise from his guitar.

Team Spirit's EP and associated videos offer a good sense of the band's irreverent attitude and musical mindset, but can't quite encompass the wild exuberance of their live show. In constant motion, front man Ayad Al Adhamy would fall back from the mike, then hunch forward over his guitar. All of his movements were played large, as if he was on a grander stage. Every time I've seen the band, Al Adhamy has found one big gesture to serve as a climax, like crowd-surfing as while singing. At this show, he kicked some beers out of the way and came out into the audience as one lucky fan played human mic-stand.

The other three guys may have shown a little more restraint, but they were hardly wallflowers. Bass player Toby Pettigrew held to a Zen calm when he was just playing, but he confronted the mic during his backing vocals. Tightly coiled, he pounded out a staccato punch of notes. Guitarist Cosmo DiGuilio's casual confidence reminded me of Johnny Ramone as he swapped between ringing guitar riffs and a rapid-fire downstroke rhythm.

Team Spirit's songs are best described as pop-infused garage rock, played with an emphasis on classic rock era twinned guitars. Playing live, they amped up the songs with punk bravado and barely constrained thrash. They kept the crowd on edge as they whipsawed from rhythm shred to perfectly aligned guitar passages. Mike Addesso's drumming pushed the extremes, supporting the changes with his own shifts between flashy cymbal/tom work and syncopated phrasing that echoed the guitars.

Team Spirit continues to be one of my favorite bands to see live. I'm looking forward to watching the band grow into their potential, with longer set lists and bigger crowds to inspire them. The band is already working on extending their set list. They pulled out a couple of new tunes and talked about their recent recording sessions.

Birmingham band Peace has already garnered a ridiculous level of hype from the British press, with The Guardian suggesting that they're the future of Indie and gushing write-ups from NME. Trend-spotting press here, like Filter, have also climbed on board. The band's debut release, In Love, satisfied expectation without triggering a backlash, so they're on track to tackle the rest of the world with a club-level tour of the U.S.

As I mentioned, I had listened to a couple tracks before the show. "Wraith" reminded me a bit of the Arctic Monkeys' danceable indie rock with a funkier guitar riff. "1998", their cover of Binary Finary's trance classic, reinvented the robotic beat as a Pink Floyd space jam. The divide between these two songs suggested a diverse set. Peace delivered on that promise, with bandleader Harry Koisser giving many of the songs a psychedelic edge, his stereo guitar mix mutated with heady echoes and other effects. In contrast, the band's rhythm section anchored most the songs with a steady, driving beat.

Peace had a chameleon-like sound, appropriating bits of U2, the Cure, as well as The Stone Roses and a host of other retro Britpop bands. The set list meshed well, but kept the audience engaged with a shifting palette of styles. Their live version of "1998" emphasized the Pink Floyd "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" bassline and the processed sound of Koisser's guitar took on a keyboard role. Drummer Dominic Boyce was phenomenal, taking the beat into jazz experimentation with prog-style bombast. Rattling echoes, guitar ululation, and the enveloping throb of bass made this a peak moment in the show. The rumbling bass set up the transition to the next track, "Toxic", which had an early Radiohead sound.

After the thrashing playfulness of Team Spirit, Peace's stage presence did seem a bit mild mannered, but both bands found noisy islands of catharsis that made the Larimer Lounge feel like a full concert hall.

More photos on my Flickr.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Recording review: Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light (2013)

Sonic illusions show how far the sax can go

Synthesizer washes, keyboard loops, and throbbing electronic bass – it’s all a sonic illusion. While Colin Stetson’s new album might sound like an electro-interpretation of contemporary minimalism, there are no effects added beyond equalization and saturation. Stetson sculpts his bass saxophone into avant-garde mutations using a host of free-jazz techniques, like multiphonics and vocalization, combined with circular breathing, percussive valve work, and microphone manipulation. Producer Ben Frost augments Stetson’s remarkable playing to create the sounds of strings, bass guitars, and grinding metallic tones.

New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light is the third in series of New History Warfare albums. Spaced out over several years, each volume has offered richer technical and sonic refinements since the first release in 2007. New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges (2011) was a major critical success and this release builds on its strengths, featuring features longer tracks and greater physical demands on Stetson. Tempering Phillip Glass style minimalism with raw, challenging textures may seem like a recipe for “difficult listening music,” but the music feels like a natural blend that could be compared to progressive electronica. Even as he focuses on virtuoso performance, it’s never self-indulgent. Performance artist Laurie Anderson provided “vocal presence” on Judges along with Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond). This time, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver steps in to take on the small set of vocals and his style is very different from Anderson or Worden. I appreciate how Stetson has used these more familiar artists to expand his vision. In a reversal of roles, he teases out their specific characters for this album. Normally, he’s in demand for their projects because of his unique voice. Aside from collaborating with performers like Anderson and Vernon’s Bon Iver, Stetson has been a touring and studio wildcard for other artists like Tom Waits, Arcade Fire and Feist.

Any track on the album could serve as a good example of Stetson’s chameleon-like playing. On “Hunted”, for instance, his sax is closer to a deconstructed industrial sound than what the instrument is normally known for. It’s raw and ragged, throbbing with tension. A minimalist flutter superimposes percussive bass notes over the main register, building rhythmic and tonal complexity. Richly evocative, his raspy vocalizations add the tortured yowl of a big cat on the prowl. Through the course of the song, Frost’s production dynamically adjusts the proximity between distant searching and close-in threat. The arrangement is so thickly layered that it’s almost inconceivable that this performance is free of instrumental overdubs or multiple players.

The awe-inspiring centerpiece of the album is the epic title track, “To See More Light”. The 15 minute sojourn begins with a sparse, exploratory feel. For once, Stetson tosses out simple saxophone stabs without mutating their texture. A hollow echo suggests a large space to be mapped out and understood. The song becomes more purposeful and complex as his line transforms into a thoughtful, repetitive series. Searching and building, he sets a trance groove. His sax bubbles and vibrates, then twists back on itself. The tempo pulses with speedy sprints and eddies of reflection. A moaning undertone and brittle surface create an anxious sense of dread. Gathering murky energy, it resolves into a sonic juggernaut on the move. The quivering pattern from before is completely subsumed by shifting synthesizer-like tones and a heavy percussive plodding. As if the beginning explorations inevitably led to this marching darkness, the music recalls Robert Oppenheimer’s thoughts at the Trinity nuclear test, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Stetson lets the resonant vibration build and break down the track into unformed chaos. The title may aspire to growth, but the narrative arc offers a cautionary perspective. It’s followed by a cover of Washington Phillips’ gospel hymn, “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?”, which offers a moment of repose, much like how the Beatles used their lullaby “Good Night” to soothe after “Revolution 9”. Vernon’s overdubbed vocals offer African chorale harmonies. It’s almost acapella, with the sax providing a mere flickering flame of accompaniment.

Isolation is a recurring theme throughout the New History Warfare series. Stetson’s anguished tones are tap into a well of disconnection and need. Those emotions are rawer on To See More Light, making it a compelling collection that transcends the impressive playing and recording techniques.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 6/3

This is the kind of week you wish you could split in three for a night...

Monday, 3 June (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
Team Spirit

I caught Team Spirit live twice at SXSW in Austin this year and I've been looking forward to their visit here. Playful high energy, irreverent attitude, and screaming twin guitars make for a perfect set of music. On this tour, they'll be opening for Peace, a British indie rock band I'm not as familiar with. From listening online, Peace has a slicker post-punk sound than the raw abandon that I enjoy from Team Spirit. The two bands do seem to reflect something of their native countries, but both sets should be dynamic and fun.

Friday, 7 June (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Charlie Hunter & Scott Amendola

Charlie Hunter is a phenomenal player. I've watched him several times, slack-jawed, as he casually interleaved bass lines, rhythm guitar, and lead melody simultaneously on his signature seven and eight string guitars. This tour, he's partnering with jazz drummer Scott Amendola. If you've never seen him, you really need to catch Charlie Hunter and prepare to be astounded.

Friday, 7 June (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Umphrey's McGee

Progressive jam band Umphrey's McGee chews up a feast's worth of musical styles and celebrates them all. Each show has its own flavor as they dig through a stack of their own songs as well as countless surprising covers. It's easy to find concert recordings of the band online, but Red Rocks is the quintessential venue to see them in living majesty.

Friday, 7 June (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
They Might Be Giants

In late 2011, TMBG came through town with two new albums out (Join Us and Album Raises New And Troubling Questions). They sampled both albums for the show, but the highlight was the reverse order runthrough of their classic record, Flood (review). This year, the new album is Nanobots. Reminiscent of 1992's Apollo 18, many of the songs are fairly short, which should give their show even more manic energy.