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

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 9/30

Only one show stood out to me this week. I'm sure there's other great music, but sometimes, it's harder to find.

Wednesday, 2 October (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Thursday, 3 October (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)

Govinda first caught my ear with his release, Universal On Switch (review). The insternational, world-tronica grooves were rich and exotic. I knew that Texas bills itself as a whole other country, but this Austin performer blew me away. His more recent release, 2012's Resonance (review),  continues his growth as both a producer and artist. It's not dub-step, but the bass-grind accents will please and hypnotic violin melodies will lead you to trance-ville.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Recording review - Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks (2013)

Resurrected from the same old ground

No matter where you go, there you are. Temporary distractions and denial eventually bow to the truth and the truth is not pretty. Over the last two and a half decades, Trent Reznor used Nine Inch Nails to circle back repeatedly to these themes, that we are stuck within ourselves with all of our base drives and messy thinking. Much like probing a nasty toothache, his music satisfied a natural fascination with pain, darkness, and nihilism. Embracing this bleak perspective for a while offers catharsis. Reznor worked and reworked this ground, challenging his audience to follow him deeper into the blackness, but by 2009, he flagged. He decided to put the band on hiatus and focus his energies on other projects. His film scores garnered praise, including an Oscar for his score on The Social Network (2010), and he lined up a new group called How to Destroy Angels with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross. Something must have been missing, though, because, four years later, Hesitation Marks resurrects Nine Inch Nails and it’s like nothing has changed. The album stands up well to Reznor’s back catalog, but also offers little in the way of new extremes or untried directions for the band except for a stronger reliance on electronic influences.

After “The Eater of Dreams” creates a brief soundscape with the requisite undercurrent of strain and isolation, the album truly gets underway with “Copy of A”. This tune pairs nervous 8-bit electronica with a tight, motorik drum machine. Reznor’s vocal detachment serves the theme of nihilistic self-abnegation: “I am just a copy of a copy of a copy/ Everything I say has come before.” The chorus channels a more amorphous frustration, but, although the piece follows a classic NIN structure of deadly calm transforming into anger, it promises more of an explosion that it delivers. Despite this lack of resolution which permeates the whole album, the track creates a satisfying tension. The syncopation and interlocking textures build a compelling electro-prog headspace that celebrates both Krautrock and dance club roots.

Throughout Hesitation Marks, Reznor plays with rhythm and pressure, pacing his dynamic shifts to maintain a calculated level of friction and uneasiness. This makes the low-key, hypnotic dreaminess of “Find My Way” particularly powerful. The sparse, pensive arrangement is centered on an electronic beat constructed of random bits of percussive sound. The chanted verses are simple, but the chorus gives the song its depth: a scattering of reverbed piano notes and a moaning vocal riff create a sense of longing and the promise of transcendence. It’s well developed as a standalone piece, but it also serves the role of softening the listener for the cold-splash, cynical spacy funk of “All Time Low”.

Even if Hesitation Marks largely sticks close to Reznor’s home ground, it still reflects his long-term passion for rhythm, especially intricately interlocked parts and interesting time signatures. That continues here, from the jittery start and hard-edged funk on “In Two” to the bass-heavy grind and percolating beat on “Disappointed”. These songs use the beat to create unique contexts and moods. Aside from the references to Krautrock and bits of trance and synth-rock, he finds some more accessible influences, as well. On “Various Methods of Escape”, he summons a repressed mechanical energy that comes to resemble Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time”, albeit in a more pessimistic light.

With all these familiar elements, Reznor’s only misstep is the high energy pop of “Everything”. On the surface, its contrasting sections fit the NIN formula, but the uplifting pop drive dominates the loud, noisy angst, casting it more as a whiny complaint. The poor placement in the playlist doesn't help either. It would have been better to set up a deeper immediate low to follow. Instead, it leads into the Prince-style funk of “Satellite”. It could be dismissed as a weak track, but I think he intended this to be the more mature heart of Hesitation Marks, the experienced hindsight borne of surviving the suicidal drives suggested by the album’s title. Unfortunately, it’s an unconvincing answer in the face of such a big question.

So, here we are. The truth is still not so pretty and catharsis is probably the best we can hope for. It’s not so scary gazing into Nine Inch Nails’ latest abyss, but the soundtrack certainly has its moments of grandeur.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Recording review - Black Joe Lewis, Electric Slave (2013)

Sonic change-ups muddle the band's direction

Some things never change. Oh, the record label can change. They can have the band streamline and change their name. They can even bring in a new producer to change the sound. With the opening grunge grind of “Skulldiggin”, Black Joe Lewis makes it clear that Electric Slave is not covering the same old ground of Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! and Scandalous. The thick acid rock tones still have a taste of blues, but the raw, primal sound of titanic guitars is far from the funk-soul tribute vibe that they cultivated on their earlier albums. Evoking bands like Nirvana, Black Sabbath, and the White Stripes, it makes sense that they’d drop “and the Honeybears” from the band name.

In fact, it’s not until the third track, “Dar es Salaam”, that Joe Lewis remembers to pull out his James Brown impression. The short, declarative verse lines and the song’s soul roots thread back to the band’s older material, but the heavy beat is driven with a newfound psychedelic bass. The horn arrangement adds a touch of Afro-beat, but the guitar riff and Lewis’ singing are the main focus. The tension between the horns and the hard rock guitars makes this my favorite example of the band’s new direction; the coordinated brass accents defy the essentially loose feel of the rhythm section, but the combined jam feels locked into the moment. The only thing that hasn't really changed is Lewis’ slurring vocal style. It’s almost impossible to pick up on all the lyrics.

While there’s plenty of soulful blues and psychedelia, Electric Slave often draws on a thrashy punk attitude to make its musical point. The punches aren't always in synch, but the group doesn't seem too concerned with sonic consistency as long as they find the right level of nervous energy. I appreciate the pacing and it’s good to hear Black Joe Lewis broaden their sonic footprint, but the collection doesn't have a coherent flow to maximize the impact. It just doesn't make any sense to follow the trippy madness of “Skulldiggin” with the hyped up punk-a-billy of “Young Girls.” The low-fi garage production fits, but nothing else meshes. A few songs later, the group blends garage rock and greasy new wave for “Guilty”, which pairs the guitar with a baritone sax in a buzz-saw grind. A tenor coarsely wails over the top for the first solo, borrowing a trick from Romeo Void’s “Never Say Never”. It’s a great song but has little in common with soul funk of the next track, “Come To My Party”, which gets closest to the band’s earlier tunes.

The remaining constant across the band’s catalog is that the studio only captures a shadow of their stage performance. If Jim Eno's production on the first two albums suggested a sweaty soul band fresh in from the Chitlin' Circuit, then producers Stuart Sikes (White Stripes, Cat Power) and John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky, St. Vincent) evoke their own versions of brick echo, heat and jam-packed dives on this project. As Lewis hollers his way through each tune and the band pushes forward with abandon, it’s a cinch to imagine how much wilder it would be in real life. That’s a fitting reaction, given that Lewis intends Electric Slave as a commentary on society’s obsession with technology. Here’s to hoping that they order their set lists better than the track listing here.

{This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture}

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 9/23

Real life intrudes. So, my recommendations will be very brief this week.

Thursday, 26 September (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)
Friday, 27 September (Bluebird Theater, Denver C)
El Ten Eleven

This duo is phenomenal. How do two performers sound like four or five? They multitask! They juggle live looping, dual neck instruments, and a mix of acoustic and electronic rhythms. All the while, they make it look easy. For more detail, here's a show review that will give you the scoop.

Saturday, 28 September (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Peter Hook

Bass player Peter Hook was a founding member of Joy Division and New Order, but hasn't been on good terms with his surviving bandmates for quite a while. His newest band, Peter Hook and The Light, has been performing whole New Order albums in concert as well as selections from Joy Division's back catalog. Despite some ugly comments in the press, He and The Light have been playing some great shows, by all reports.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Immortal Technique & Brother Ali, with Poison Pen, I Self Devine, Hasan Salaam, and J Arch

18 September 2013 (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)

001 War and Peace The great thing about a classic hip hop show is that it's non-stop. There are no breaks where the audience has to talk among themselves waiting for the next act. This keeps the energy constant, but it requires a pretty large crew of entertainers and pacing is important. The War & Peace Tour, featuring Immortal Technique and Brother Ali was a nicely executed example. Not only did the headliners have different styles, but the lineup was split between their hometowns. Brother Ali had a fellow Minneapolis act, I Self Devine, on the bill, while the rest of the performers represented New York. This personality split helped keep the evening interesting.

Opening acts

004 J Arch Brooklyn rapper, Poison Pen, played the host for the evening. After a brief bit of interaction, he brought the first act, J. Arch, to the stage. His set was fairly short, but he made a good impression. His preferred delivery was to let the syllables roll in waves. He was a big man, but he had a good sense of humor. After joking that he could pass for security, his punchline was to reveal his marijuana print t-shirt. Of course, that means a lot less now in Colorado than it used to.

010 Hasan Salaam Following J. Arch, Hasan Salaam took the stage. I hadn't heard him before, but he impressed with some wicked, rapid-fire spitting. No one-trick pony, he did a good job of breaking up the pace by occasionally dropping back and preaching in a Michael Franti style slowdown. He laid down a steady stream of conscious lyrics. One of the stand outs, ".1911" was from his 2011 album, Music Is My Weapon. It featured old school references, name checking Malcolm X and Bobby Seale. But more impressively, Salaam dug deeper, comparing the message of his song to the anti-slavery incitement of David Walker's An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.

015 I Self Devine The balance shifted from the East Coast to the Midwest when I Self Devine (Chaka Mkali) stepped up. He had a partner with him whose name I never caught, which is a shame because his emphasis gave I Self Devine's lines an extra zing. The lead off song was an acapella rap that laid out his personal story. The two performers created a strong presence as they often turning face-to-face and locked into a long series of twinned lyrics. I Self Devine also set up a good contrast between his hard-edged delivery and the sweet R&B backing grooves. It was a long set, which gave us plenty of time to appreciate I Self Devine's smooth personal patter as he shared a lot of his personality.

024 Poison Pen Finally, our host, Poison Pen came out and showed off his own solid style. His flow had a strong change-up rhythm that broke up the lines. After inviting local rapper Black Pegasus to take the stage for an acapella, he brought out Hasan Salaam and J. Arch to back him. The stage dynamic and shifting support  gave his set an old-school feel.

It's worth mentioning the DJs at this point. Two different guys provided the beats for the full show, DJ G.I. Joe and DJ Todda. Each did a good job of adapting to the feel of the individual rappers and hyping the crowd.

034 Brother Ali
The energy amped up when Brother Ali came out. He was incredibly charismatic, effortlessly working the crowd and creating a low-key physical demeanor offset by a seriously intense presence. His set bridged from his personal character and history to the over-arching messages that he built up. This was called the War & Peace Tour and Brother Ali started out working the war angle. Songs like "Truth Is" brought the theme of control and resistance, but he could still touch on personal moments within that context. So, a story about how he and Immortal Technique first toured together at the start of Brother Ali's career developed into first a riff on the music industry and then a full on diatribe.

028 Brother Ali "Mourning In America" from last year's release proved to be a powerful set-piece for Ali's skills. Earnest and serious, his flow was relentless, the progression of lines rolling out like an inevitable tide. He also performed his controversial "Uncle Sam Goddamn" and tossed off some timely improvised lines about Syria into the anti-Government screed. This socio-political theme became a callback for much of the set. A little later, he asserted, "You cannot love hip hop if you do not love the people who created it." This spawned a lecture on white privilege and race issues, but Ali was preaching to the choir. Still, it led smoothly into the next song.

046 Brother Ali This easy progression in the setlist was a constant indication of how well-planned Brother Ali's show was. He maintained a deliberate pace and hit all his marks, but it never felt lifeless or rote. Disruptions happened, but didn't derail the set. During an acapella of "Stop the Press",  Ali took a more conversational tone than the album version, which turned it into an confessional sharing about the challenges in his life, including his father's suicide. A guy up front was breaking the mood, but Ali deftly handled him. It wasn't a heckle, but it required some crowd work and Brother Ali kept the emphasis positive as he took back his moment.

038 Brother Ali After hitting on a couple of relationship raps and mentioning his crazy ex-wife, he shouted out to the ReMINDers, a Denver rap act, before laying down a soulful version of "You Say (Puppy Love)". Then, he made a sharp, overt shift to take the show into a party mood. This was an effective transition, moving from war to cover the peace side. The positive tip wrapped up on his song, "Forrest Whitaker". While he sang the chorus: "I'ma be all right/ You ain't gotta be my friend tonight," the crowd tagged it on command. "You ain't gotta love me!" But, of course we did.

049 Immortal Technique If Brother Ali made even the political seem personal, Immortal Technique was a demagogue, alternately preaching, ranting, and inciting. His New York crew, Poison Pen, Hasan Salaam, and J. Arch, came out to support him, filling the stage. This created a busier, livelier set that emphasized the differences between the two artists. Each man had a focused aura of intensity, strong vocal skills, and sharp lyrics that covered the same messages of an unrepresentative government, historical injustice, corporate greed, and a vampiric music industry. But Brother Ali's grounded confidence contrasted sharply with Immortal Technique's fiery righteousness.

051 Immortal Technique The constant motion onstage and Immortal Technique's confrontational style pushed the energy in the hall to new heights. Where Brother Ali, held the audience rapt, Immortal Technique goaded the crowd to form a mosh pit and fed off their zeal. His flow complemented this; he tended to alternate slower lines and faster riffs, letting him build up his raps into a powerful drive. At times, his delivery was belligerent, packed with attitude and personality, but it fit his sharply turned words.

059 Immortal Technique His patter had a loose feel, even if he was leading to a particular point. A great example started as a comparison between rap and culture. "Hat, cat, rat, fat... that's rap" Rather than mere rhyming, he asserted that culture is about who you are. He worked this theme, rising in intensity before declaring, "Hip hop started with a motherfucking DJ," cuing DJ G.I. Joe to kick loose with a phenomenal demonstration of turntable skills. He started simple, just working up a scratched beat with flare and transform accents. Then he graduated into some impressive beat juggling before upping the ante with a crazy set of stage moves. 360 degree spins, over the shoulder scratches, and cross handed manipulation -- DJ G.I. Joe made it look easy and never skipped a beat.
068 DJ GI Joe
This break served as a palate cleanser, readying the audience for more of Immortal Technique's raps. Once again, his setups were strong. His introduction for "Freedom of Speech" started out with him taking credit for breaking the NSA invasion of privacy scandal years ago. He built this into a rhetorical question about how could he still be alive if he's such a threat to the government? The sample of Pinocchio singing "I've Got No Strings" served as his answer as he rolled into the song, which excoriates the music biz and challenges the powers that be.

062 Immortal TechniqueThe strongest song in his show was "Dance with the Devil", which drops into a dark well of rape, murder, and suicide. It was a hard, ugly moment, but he used it like a boot camp for the crowd. He tore us open and drained us in order to rebuild us and sell the positive aspect of his message. Throughout the night, his raps fell somewhere between a sermon and rage against an unjust society, but he kept redirecting that into admonitions to act morally, to step up and protect the weak, and to stand for right.

More photos on my Flickr

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Recording review - The Moondoggies, Adiós, I’m a Ghost (2013)

Formless album doesn't fly

It’s a flippant title but Adiós, I’m a Ghost sets the mood for this collection of disparate songs. But rather than cheekiness, abandonment is the unifying thread as the Moondoggies drift from proclamatory indie rock to ruminative folk sounds and beyond. On the surface, the songs work the idea of loss, from the girlfriend leaving in “Red Eye” to the singer who “can’t take it anymore,” on “Back to the Beginning”. But the theme runs even deeper within band’s psyche. Guitarist Kevin Murphy summed up the group’s intention behind the project, “I hope this album relays our want to have no form.” Turning away from their Americana roots, the Moondoggies accomplished their goal, but the net result is disappointingly uneven.

The songs themselves aren't bad, taken in isolation, but the group maintains their distance and rarely commits to the tunes. The lack of flow makes it harder to take any particular turn very seriously. “Pride” is a great example; it’s a melancholy folk tune that tells a dark story of isolation, suicide and self-recrimination. It’s a powerful piece that could anchor the project. Perhaps thinking along those lines, the Moondoggies bookend the album with samples from “Pride”: “I’m a Ghost” and “Adiós, I’m a Ghost” each use a piece of the ethereal choral moan from the track. It’s a bit clever, but that cuteness undercuts the poignant depth of the tune. They also shortchange the song’s punch by sticking it between the breezy oldies sound of “Midnight Owl” and the trippy rock of “A Lot to Give”.

As a result, the more self-contained rockers like “A Lot to Give” are the songs that fare best. That particular track is my favorite because it stands strong even in the emotional wake of “Pride”. The opening moments immediately clear the slate with a quick drum fill and an intriguing instrumental intro. The bass lays down a pensive, trudging line while the guitar accents the off-beat and a retro organ chord mortars the gaps. The psychedelic feel builds when the vocals come in. The first line is sung together, “I forgive and I forget the ones that I love most,” but then individual parts fall like dominos: “Even though,” “do you suppose?” “I don’t know.” It’s a cool technique that reminds me of Jefferson Airplane’s old arrangements. It doesn't hurt that one of the boys could easily pass for Marty Balin, which evokes the Airplane and mid-‘70s Starship on several of these songs. “A Lot to Give” overcomes the directionless feel of the playlist by creating its own space over the course of six minutes. In fact, the bombastic chorus is theatrical enough that I've forgotten “Pride” within the first two minutes. The bridge intensifies the Jefferson Airplane effect: the instrumental lead resurrects a touch of “White Rabbit”, while the vocal melody borrows from “Come Up the Years”. The lengthy outro sets a more modern tone that pushes the song beyond its influences. I can appreciate that the Moondoggies want to reject form and predictability, but an album of material like this would have made my top of the year list.

The more I listen to Adiós, I’m a Ghost, the more I want to dissect its tracks into a set of playlists. Then “Red Eye”, “Start Me Over”, “One More Chance”, and “Back to the Beginning” could coalesce their indie jangle and “Midnight Owl” could better complement “Stop Signs” in retro goodness. If the band refuses to give me context, I’ll create my own.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 9/16

I hope everybody is staying as dry as possible. Warm thoughts go out to friends in Jamestown and Lyons that were hit hard by flooding in the last week.

Tuesday, 17 September (Pepsi Center, Denver CO)

I caught Muse three years ago at the Pepsi Center (review) and it was a spectacular show. The venue
accommodated their impressive multi-level, moving stage setup, but the music alone would have blown me away. Pacing, staggering dynamics, and emotional intensity make Muse a tremendous live act. Expect the same from this show.

Tuesday, 17 September (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
The Slackers

It's been a couple of years since I last saw The Slackers (review), but their patented R&B flavored ska perfectly captures the early days of the genre. They've got the beat, the energy, and the horns, but their key weapon is the one-two punch of two strong frontmen. Trombonist Glen Pine has a huge stage presence and soulful delivery while Vic Rugiero tears it up on organ and serves up a great mix of irony and attitude.

Tuesday, 17 September (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Jimmy Cliff

Of course, you could follow the ska path a little further down the time line and catch reggae great Jimmy Cliff on his Many Rivers tour. Cliff hasn't been resting on his laurels and rehashing history; he's got newer material from last year's Rebirth and he's still finding relevant connections with today's crowds. His iconic voice is still strong and he remains an articulate activist and performer.

Wednesday, 18 September (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Brother Ali

Rap artist Brother Ali is hard to separate from all of the stereotypes he shatters, but his strong voice and political perspective makes it clear that his message is more important to him than any of that other stuff. His most recent album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color (2012), doesn't pull any punches while questioning the status quo and the powers that support it.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Recording review - Vieux Farka Touré, Mon Pays (2013)

Following in his father's footsteps, reminding Malian's to remember their forefathers

At some point, every kid wants to grow up to be just like his dad someday. When your dad is Ali Farka Touré, known as Africa’s John Lee Hooker, then those are some bigger shoes to fill. The challenge was even harder after Ry Cooder introduced him to a wider American audience with their 1994 collaboration, Talking Timbuktu. Vieux Farka Touré spent a childhood steeped in his father’s music, which found a soulful, spiritual middle ground between Hooker’s ruminative blues and the bright tones and layered polyrhythms found throughout African music. By turns exotic, joyful and haunting, Ali Touré created beautiful music up until his untimely death in 2006.

Perhaps because his own recognition came late in life—he was nearly 50 when he achieved international acclaim — Ali Touré tried to discourage his son from becoming a musician. But Vieux Touré persevered at learning guitar and he eventually recorded his own music. By his third studio album, The Secret (2011), he was already making his own crossover move, playing with Derek Trucks, Dave Matthews and jazz great John Scofield. By contrast, Mon Pays marks a return to his father’s earlier acoustic sound. This time, instead of popular Western collaborators, he’s largely working with other African musicians, most notably kora player Sidiki Diabaté, son of the renowned Toumani Diabaté.

The new album is a response to the current strife in Mali. What began as a multi-faceted insurrection in 2012 has now splintered into chaos. In the regions they control, Islamic rebels in the North of the country have imposed strict laws that include bans on music. A Muslim himself, Touré has spoken out against this kind of cultural genocide, “Music for us is life…Without music, we are robbed of our identity.” So Mon Pays (“My Country”) is an assertion of that identity and a reminder to his fellow Malians about their rich heritage. Despite this somber inspiration, Touré’s songs are uplifting, with a sense of optimism.

Touré evokes his father’s spirit on songs like the meditative “Yer Gando” and the moody “Safare”. This latter track has a more direct connection as a cover of one of his father’s songs, but Touré’s guitar work is spot on. The tune opens with a fluid melodic line that blends DNA from Delta blues guitar with a keening West African kora. The group drops back to a droning blues sound to support the chanted chorus. Touré’s voice is a little rougher than his father’s, but the song serves as a loving tribute.

More than just Touré’s guitar, the songs on Mon Pays showcase the versatility of the kora. The upper register of this harp-like instrument offers delicate chiming tones that have a distinctly Asian character. On the jazzy “Doni Doni”, the timbre is like a harpsichord, but the riffs are more reminiscent of a shamisen. “Future”, on the other hand, begins with a tentative koto sound then balances the kora and guitar into an amalgam of folk traditions: Malian, Japanese and American blues. As a response to the troubles in Mali, this sweetly simple instrumental offers a hopeful vision of peaceful cooperation.

The album closes on a soulful note with “Ay Bakoy”. The song is built on a piano melody by Israeli keyboardist Idan Raichel. The two men met several years ago, but just released an album together last year, The Tel Aviv Session. Despite the differences in their backgrounds, they each bring an open-minded musical approach that thrives on collaboration. “Ay Bakoy” is a fine example of how well they mesh. Raichel’s main theme sounds like a melancholic reworking of “House of the Rising Sun” and Touré’s vocals are appropriately doleful. But the song finds a core of strength and rises from its mournful base to bring a message of encouragement.

Touré speaks more to his own people through these songs than he does to the rest of the world, but his pain, hope and unbowed spirit shine through. Even without the language skills to understand his lyrics, listeners will appreciate the music and vocal expressiveness on Mon Pays and they’ll recognize his earnest vision of a reunited Mali.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Recording review - Gogol Bordello, Pura Vida Conspiracy (2013)

Expanding on their gypsy-punk traditions, keeping their eyes on the present

Gogol Bordello doesn't so much march to the beat of a different drummer as dance to the rhythm of a crazy-quilt amalgam of percussion traditions. Starting from founder Eugene Hütz's Gypsy-Ukrainian roots, they've incorporated the ska-tinted punk of The Clash along with elements of jazz and rock and roll. Over time, the band has defied assimilation by absorbing every shiny musical tradition that catches their ear. So far, the Gypsy character still dominates by virtue of Hütz's thick accent and the exotic siren sound of minor key melodies. Moving beyond their loud, thrashy beginnings, their more recent albums, like 2010’s Trans-Continental Hustle, feature more studio polish as they evolve their sound. Pura Vida Conspiracy continues that direction, incorporating influences ranging from Latin rhythms to classic American country. Just as the Clash built on their punk foundation as they matured, Gogol Bordello holds on to their principles while following their muse.

Even as they reinvent their sound by adding new flavors, Gogol Bordello maintains the folk foundation of their music. But their take on folk music seems so much richer than the watered-down, museum quality of most American and British folk. In many ways, they’re quite reminiscent of the Pogues, although they have a stronger philosophical bent. Both bands have filled their albums with chaotic musical celebrations and each is centered on a charismatic front man, but the two leaders are very different. They share a poetic streak, but where Shane McGowan is often incoherent, Hütz is rough but articulate. Both men can be defiant and proud, but McGowan often taps into his anger where Hütz tends toward indignation at injustice.

As he plays the chameleon, taking turns as a firebrand, a lover and a rogue, Hütz’s personality dominates Gogol Bordello. Far from mellifluous, somehow his quavery voice, heavy accent and slurring pronunciation emphasize the earnestness of his lyrics. All the while, he and the band fit together like an old couple, intimately familiar with each others tendencies. As his singing pairs with a violin line, it’s impossible to tell which is leading.

Gogol Bordello has cited Parliament/Funkadelic as a key influence and their performances reflect that. In concert, they create a party on the stage, packed full of spectacle. Their albums move forward with a similar hyperactive energy. But more than mindless fun, these recordings give the band a soapbox. In the case of Pura Vida Conspiracy, Hütz articulated the idea behind the album during a recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything): “Everybody is obsessed with living in a future, living in the past, and consequently the very life itself which is now is abandoned. Our music with its every note demands the attention to the present moment.” The band’s power lies in that engagement with the present. Against a sea of diffident, ironic hipster bands, their music simultaneously pulsates with life and makes them seem larger than life.

The band kicks off Pura Vida Conspiracy with a stirring anthem, “We Rise Again”, In what’s become a standard approach for the band, a chanted beginning sets up a strong minor key rocker. The verses are very idiosyncratic, avoiding structural repetition, so the two part chorus frames the tune with a handful of slogans. The first part couches its message of anarchy with slightly obscure metaphors, “Borders are scars on face of the planet/ So heal away, my alchemy man/ When even atheist holds up a candle/ We gotta rise again/ We rise again.” But the second half, “With a fistful of heart/ And a radical future/ Opa! We rise again,” delivers a crowd-friendly refrain. The frantic pace imbues the piece with a sense of urgency that persists into the solo where violin entwines with guitar in a moody folk melody.

Just as every Gogol Bordello album has its rambunctious moments, they like to balance it out with at least one jazzy interlude. Trans-Continental Hustle offered “Sun On My Side” and their latest has “I Just Realized”. The interlocking guitars at the beginning slip into a Latin rhythm and Hütz's voice is soft and husky, “Is it because I am Russian?/ Is it because you are not?” The beat sashays with Brazilian flair, but the accordion pulls the song into a smoky French cabaret. Following their usual playlist preference, it’s a nice palate cleanser before a heavier up-tempo track. In this case, the Romany party song, “Gypsy Auto Pilot”, serves that role. Looking back with no regrets, Hütz celebrates his life on the fringes, “To discover rules of life/ And how to break them well/ And a key to my Gypsy auto pilot/ And my story to tell.

Although much of Pura Vida Conspiracy does follow the pattern of their earlier albums, one surprising element is a new-found appreciation of country music. “Malandrino” blends country folk with a touch of conjunto and the country cut-time beat on “Lost Innocent World” finds common ground with Eastern European folk rhythms. The most direct example is the cowboy country of the final track, “We Shall Sail”. Accompanied by a single acoustic guitar, Hütz affects a western drawl that occasionally slips askew to reveal his normal accent. Except for a strange, chromatic turnaround, the arrangement respects the genre, injecting little Gypsy character. Instead the lyrics themselves form the bridge between lonesome cowboy philosophy and socially conscious rebels, “Nothing in this life is good or bad/ It’s we who dress it up as happy or sad.” As the last note fades into silence, it’s a good closer for the album. Of course, if you let the silence run out, eventually you get to the surprising hidden track, where the band proves they have not forgotten their punk roots.

Longtime fans may still miss the raw purity of Gogol Bordello’s breakout release, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike (2005), but Pura Vida Conspiracy is a vibrant addition to their catalog.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Front Range recommendations, 9/9

Monday, 9 September (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Animal Collective

Trippy excess and full on sonic intensity are business as usual for Animal Collective. Last year's Centipede Hz hit densely packed with thick textures and mutated sounds. My recommendation is probably pointless; either you already know the band and you're up for their frenetic, acid Kool-Aid jams or you need to dip a big toe into You Tube first. Take the challenge!

Wednesday, 11 September (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Thursday, 12 September (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)
Rebirth Brass Band

The New Orleans ambassadors of brass jazz are swinging through Colorado, offering a couple of shows. The show at the Aggie is free, so that's almost a no-brainer. Over the years, this group has maintained the highest standards of musicianship and entertainment. 2011's Rebirth of New Orleans (review) served up a bodacious mix of Dixieland, funk, and bluesy jazz. Count on their show to explore all this and more.

Friday, 13 September (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
The Octopus Project

The Octopus Project's eclectic mix of electronica and indie rock made a strong impression on me with their recent release, Fever Forms (review). Like Animal Collective, they have a pretty wide range of sounds they can pull out, but their blend of experimental side-trips warrant a visit back to art-school at a nice, intimate venue.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Recording review - Soft Metals, Lenses (2013)

Emotionless electro-pop goes retro

I remember Terri Nunn’s breathy voice. Full of seduction, she made Berlin one of my favorite bands for a while. Later, Julee Cruise’s ethereal vocals on “Falling”, from David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” would help create the mood of dreamy paralysis that permeated that show. Electro-pop has come to rely on the trope of the fragile nightingale, burying her under lacquered coats of reverb as she adds analog soul to the mix. These women usually have fine voices, but all too often, the music lacks the depth to carry them. Sure, there are still standouts like Niki Randa on Flying Lotus’ “Hunger” or Sarah Kinlaw of Softspot, but too many other projects just go through the motions.

Soft Metals creates the same pairing of synthesizers and songbirds on Lenses, but misses the mark on both sides. Even though their moody, minimalist electro-pop favors dance-friendly disco beats, it feels lackluster. Rather than provide a contrast, Patricia Hall’s delivery is often lethargic and wooden. It’s a shame, because she has great vocal tone, but it rarely finds direction. Hall and her partner, Ian Hicks, strive for a purist electronic sound, stripped down to 1980s tech. This aesthetic has potential, but the band can’t build up much enthusiasm. As a result, the album sounds like it’s angling for a new Blade Runner soundtrack, but it’s better suited for the background of a softcore Cinemax movie from their target decade.

“When I Look Into Your Eyes” offers a promising synth-pop start. Hall’s voice has a hint of dread, but is largely emotionless. Wisps of Fairlight-style synth sparkle are the only color against the repetition of the backing loop. I can almost envision the matching movie scene of a voyeur watching a woman through her blinds. Hall’s flat effect vocals play to his obsession, but even her sighs sound perfunctory.

It’s not until the second half of Lenses that the band summons any energy. The instrumental “Hourglass” builds a heady trance groove and sets it against a relentless disco beat. The pure circle of notes from the start of the song remain at the center, but the accompaniment varies from synth-pop to shimmery electro-pop, piquing more interest than the first four songs together. A couple of songs later, “In The Air” launches with nervous percolation. Hall’s dreamy vocals finally find a reasonable counter-balance in clockwork pace of the music. The rhythm is mechanical, but there’s a welcome spark of engagement.

Soft Metals saves their best for last. The album closes with an extended instrumental that finally opens a new front on the band’s sound. “Interobserver” begins with a low-fi synth loop, full of intrigue and narrative tension. The buzzing echoes that wash through the loop evoke unsettling imagery. I imagine a snow-filled, silent video of alien beings bent on some unknown task. The music captures a sense of distance, but the wandering phase shift holds us rapt. The song barely attempts resolution, condescending to close with a quickening swirl of sound and even quicker fade. Unfortunately, “Interobserver” is an outlier compared to the rest of Lenses. While it proves to be a wonderful diversion, it begs the question of what might have been. If the band could pair this kind of evocative sound with Hall’s singing, they’d have something unique and powerful. Instead, they seem satisfied to settle for electronic ennui.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Monday, September 2, 2013

Concert review - The Pimps of Joytime, with Mlima and Funkma$ter

31 August 2013 (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)

Always pay attention to the details... I was excited when I heard that the Pimps of Joytime were hitting Colorado again. I carefully noted the time and place and made arrangements to come down to Denver for the show. At the last minute, I found out that I could  have saved a drive: they played at the New Belgium Brewing's Tour de Fat party earlier the same day in my town of Ft. Collins. I'm not sure how their set went in FC, but they took their time and banged out a long set at Cervantes. So, I'm not feeling too bad about my choices.

This was the first of two nights for the band, acting as the after-party for the Phish show at Dick's Sporting Goods Park at Commerce City.

Funkma$ter and friends
016 Funkmaster
I seem to catch one-man band Funkma$ter (Matt Grundstad) about once every couple of years and each time I'm more impressed. His 2009 show with That 1 Guy (review) demonstrated his technical competence with his instruments and looping, but lacked a strong stage presence. By 2011, opening for John Popper (review), his technique was stronger and he did a better job of engaging the audience, but he still had trouble managing the flow of building layers and entertaining at the same time. This weekend, he proved that he's overcome these limitations.

009 Funkmaster
In part, he owes some credit to the vocalists that joined him on stage. Three rappers, EZ, Spellbinder, and MCbig House, brought hype and harmony to the show. Their contrasting styles alone added a lot to the mix. EZ had a classic hip hop style, with a smooth cadence and good versatility that allowed for some soul. Standing center stage, he was laid back and balanced the bouncier energy that Spellbinder exuded. Spellbinder favored more of a world riddem style, toasting over reggae grooves and spitting out some speedy lines. MCbig House, by contrast, was a more solid presence. His lower timbre and more serious look added gravitas to the line up. Other contributors stepped in briefly to add their own voices, adding to the show's fluid energy.

027 Funkmaster
But even with surprise guests and loose patter on stage, this wasn't a casual throwdown. The group had clearly developed material that traded on the members'strengths and gave each one some showcase moments. Funkma$ter himself has developed as a performer, too. Even though his posse helped cover during the layering process, he has become adept enough to split his attention between his playing and the crowd. So, a lot more of his personality came through and connected.

014 Funkmaster
As the group ran through a fun mix of hip hop, reggae, and funk pieces, the crowd ate it up. Dr. Dre's "Let Me Ride" had the audience singing along while Funkma$ter mixed his loop like a DJ, picking which elements to emphasize. Another great song was a cover of Don Carlos' "Young Girl".

004 Funkmaster
Funkma$ter and Friends had a solid set, from the sparsely crowded opening to the mass dancing party at the end. They proved to be a stronger match for the headliner than the band that followed them.

032 Mlima
Haters deride jam bands for empty noodling and self-indulgent songs that drag on forever. I've defended bands like Phish and Umphrey's McGee as a modern day take on jazz traditions, pointing out their technical prowess at creating intricate arrangements and deftly controlling song dynamics.

043 Mlima
Given the Phish connection for this show, it probably made sense to bring in a jam band. I don't think that it was a great fit for the Pimps of Joytime, either musically or personality-wise, but the crowd seemed to enjoy the set well enough. To their credit, Denver's Mlima had fine technical chops and managed some tight dynamic shifts. They were well practiced and, unfortunately, they were boring.

040 Mlima
The music itself wasn't lacking; their guitarist, Doug Litvak, is phenomenally talented and his virtuoso playing carried many of the songs. The problem is that the band was too inwardly focused, making it hard to relate to them. Each player was in his own world, locked into his own part. Aside from occasional glances and nods, there was little acknowledgment between the players and almost no interaction with the audience.

050 Mlima
Since the music was all instrumental, the only verbal communication came during pianist Matt Telsey's terse moments of stage patter between songs. After reassuring himself that we were still excited to see the Pimps of Joytime soon, he'd briefly mention the next song's title. Sure, there are plenty of examples of strong entertainers performing solely instrumental music. But in the cases where they aren't big conversationalists -- Miles Davis comes to mind -- they can still radiate an intensity during their playing. For the most part, Mlima only mustered a sense of preoccupation.

038 Mlima
Nick Miller's percussion work was the one standout exception, because he exuberantly attacked each song. He was still primarily locked in his own headspace, but it looked like a fairly interesting place. In comparison, Litvak consistently laid down some jaw dropping riffs, but rarely expressed more than a vague distraction.

053 Mlima
Mlima should take a lesson from Phish. If they set up the songs with stories or, at the least, moved with the music and expressed some passion and personality, then they'd have a much stronger act. They have the talent to milk some acid funk intensity out of a simple four measure looped progression; they should be able to make it more of a show.

110 Pimps of Joytime
If there's one thing that the Pimps of Joytime have going for them, it's personality and passion. Those two things alone would be enough to power a great performance, but they throw in tight arrangements, smoking chops, booty shaking beats, and catchy songs that stick in your brain.

099 Pimps of Joytime
The band came out kicking ass, immediately diving into a solid funk jam with cool Latin percussion. After getting everybody moving, they dropped back into a Sly Stone groove for "My Gold". Frontman Brian J squinched in tight and laid down a sweet falsetto vocal for what turned into a soul funk dance party. When the time came to solo, he launched into a spaced-out psychedelic lead that sparked the crowd. He was an expressive player, posing to match either the sound he's wrenching from his guitar or the mood of the song. Even when he dropped back to let someone else drive, he danced along to stay fully connected.

086 Pimps of Joytime
While the Pimps of Joytime make funky soul their home base, they didn't handcuff themselves to it. Instead, they branched out into other realms, like blues, pyschedelia, and synth-pop. Their aim was to keep the audience moving and engaged with the music. Little tricks, such as sampled vocal snippets and electronic beats, were used to offer up surprises and liven up the songs. So, a track like "Keep That Music Playin'" at first suggested a P-Funk jam, but then keyboard washes and percussive samples took it somewhere new.

079 Pimps of Joytime
It was a show full of great songs, but I think my favorite piece was "San Francisco Bound". It started out mellow, with trippy keyboard riffs and heavily reverbed guitar, sort of like the Doors jamming with soul legend Shuggie Otis. Once the band set their hypnotic groove, Brian J let his guitar go exploring the space they created. Eventually the song evolved into a Zappa-esque jam reminiscent of "Dirty Love" (Overnite Sensation - 1973).

080 Pimps of Joytime
After "San Francisco Bound", most of the band took a break, leaving the bass player to cut loose on his synthesizer set up. After an extended electronic jam, the drummer came back out and joined in. This led to the best visual moment of the show. During the drum solo, the lights shifted color and strobed to match. The tight coordination as every syncopated beat was reflected in the light show was amazing.

067 Pimps of Joytime
As the rest of the band came back out, it was hard to imagine that there was still about another hour left in their set. These guys rocked it non-stop, demonstrating why they are one of the world's best touring bands. After a certain point, there was less motivation to track the individual songs. Instead, it was best to live in the moment, appreciating each punchy bassline, each sinuous percussion syncopation, and each speedy drum fill. Throughout it all, Brian J played ringmaster, raising his hands exultantly or seeing how nasty he could treat his guitar.

104 Pimps of Joytime
It was a long drive back home to Ft. Collins, but I was happy to have found my own joytime that night.

More photos on my Flickr

Front Range recommendations, 9/2

Wednesday, 4 September (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
Jason Isbell

Raucous and out of control in his Drive By Trucker days, Jason Isbell has cleaned up his act. On his latest release, Southeastern, his new-found sobriety is an unseen contributor to the music. Oftentimes, that can create a tension that drains the energy and life out of a project -- indeed, Isbell was frightened that would be the case -- but he has harnessed the process and the state to sharpen his writing and tap into emotional clarity.

Friday, 6 September (Gothic Theatre, Denver C)
The English Beat

The 2Tone ska revival is a distant memory, even though it provided the attitude for third wave ska punk in late '80s into the '90s. The English Beat wereone of the great 2Tone-era ska bands, Their songs were incredibly catchy and their quick tempos and choppy guitars brought in a new-wave influence that gave their music some staying power. Their arrangement of Smoky Robinson's "Tears of a Clown" is probably their most well-known cut, but their originals, like "Mirror in the Bathroom" and "Save It For Later" were just as good. Even though it's been a long time since their heyday, the band still brings a hyper energy to the shows.

Whether you make the show or not, you might want to check out a new charity album centered on The English Beat, Specialized II -- Beat Teenage Cancer. Both Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger from the Beat participated, along with a host of other classic ska players.