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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorite reviewed concerts of 2013

This last year, I didn't review as many shows as I have in past years. That said, I still managed to find plenty of memorable moments in 2013.

# 10 - Sleepy Sun, with Glowing House and déCollage
22 November (Moe's Original Bar B Que, Englewood CO)
078 Sleepy Sun
Glowing House played well, but their moody folk sound made them an odd choice as a supporting act for this show. Fortunately, déCollage had a surrealistic sound that meshed well with Sleepy Sun's heavy fog of distortion. Sleepy Sun had already passed through Denver as a supporting act the previous month, but Moe's proved to be the perfect intimate location to enjoy the band's cathartic chaos and poetic intensity. It was noisy ritual of feedback, but the acid-etched reflections satisfied us all. (full review)

#9 - Immortal Technique & Brother Ali with various openers
18 September 2013 (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
062 Immortal Technique
Like any hip-hop show, there was no real concept of down-time between acts. The bill was packed with performers, each of which put their own spin on things. My favorite of these was Hasan Salaam, who had a tight, rapid-fire delivery and a well-informed, socially conscious message.

028 Brother Ali
Immortal Technique and Brother Ali negotiated co-headlining responsibilities with Brother Ali going first. This worked well because his low-key delivery and intense presence had time to build up the room. He adroitly balanced personal revelation with socio-political themes, delivering everything with an effortlessly smooth flow. Immortal Technique had a similar political perspective, but he was fiery and confrontational where Brother Ali was grounded. He whipped the crowd into a frenzy and fed off their zeal. (full review)

#8 - That 1 Guy with Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club
25 April 2013 (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)
018 That_1_Guy
The evening started with performance artist Cory McAbee in his persona of Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club. It was a strange mix of madness and karaoke, undercut with a serious layer of cheese, but he proved quite entertaining while he made That 1 Guy seem much less eccentric. That said, although I've seen That 1 Guy a several times, he was still adept at creating a full blown performance as a one-man band. His music was quirky and a bit untethered as usual, but for all the odd twists and turns, the beat remained insistent and the showmanship was topnotch. If you've never seen him and his musical invention, The Magic Pipe, you need to check him out. (full review)

#7 - The Pimps of Joytime, with Mlima and Funkma$ter
31 August 2013 (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)
079 Pimps of JoytimeLocal live-looper Funkma$ter expanded his one-man band with a line up of talented rappers to kick off the evening's festivities. The second act, Mlima, was more of a distraction. Their jam band approach built on their guitarist's remarkable chops, but their set was weak on personality and performance. This brought down the energy a little bit, but fortunately The Pimps of Joytime were so over-the-top, that they had no problem resetting the mood once they took the stage. Tight funk grooves, shift on a dime dynamic changes, and wickedly catchy tunes laid the foundation, but Brian J and the rest of his band dressed it up in pure pimp finery. They played a remarkably long set that never surrendered to formula or got boring. (full review)

#6 - Whiskey Blanket CD release party
2 November 2013 (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)
053 Whiskey Blanket
Whiskey Blanket celebrated their new CD, From The Dead Of Dark with a full night of music. Their opening acts served up hip hop, funky blues, reggae beats, and an intriguing blend of DJ mixing and live music. I appreciated the wide-ranging mix of approaches because that meshed well with Whiskey Blanket's natural scattershot style. While they favored material from the new album, they still managed squeeze in plenty of older songs and concert showpieces, like Funny Biz's classic beatbox/cello duet. All the members are consummate performers, both on their instruments and as stage personas. Their three way rap arrangements recall The Beastie Boys or Run-D.M.C., but they manage to incorporate humor, heart, and braggadocio that transcends their choreography, polish, and technique. (full review)

#5 -Vieux Farka Touré with New World Citizen Band
Tuesday, 6 August 2013 (The Walnut Room, Denver CO)
062 Vieux Farka TouréLocal opener, New World Citizen Band, provided a great start to the evening. Composed of a soulful singer (Venus Cruz) and a subset of the Greg Harris Vibe Quintet, the group celebrated African musical roots, centering most of their arrangements around Harris' Ghanaian wood xylophone. It was very unique and well-executed. As much as I enjoyed their set, they didn't begin to eclipse Vieux Farka Touré, the son of famed Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré. Touré's guitar work was amazing. He could shred like a metal master, build up a hard rocking expressive riffs like Jimi Hendrix, and lose himself in the hypnotic sway of African syncopation. (full review)

#4 - Surfer Blood with Team Spirit and Andy Boay
16 October 2013 (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
048 Team Spirit
No disrespect to Surfer Blood or Andy Boay, but this slot is all about Team Spirit. In this particular show, they played in the middle before Surfer Blood's headline spot. Surfer Blood weere a solid band; their music had a pop foundation, but they brought a new wave sensibility that shadowed the tunes and gave them depth. Their tight, twin guitar attack matched Team Spirit's set in a way that I missed when Team Spirit opened for Peace earlier in the year.

I ended up seeing Team Spirit four times over the course of the year: twice at SXSW and twice at Larimer Lounge in Denver. All the shows were centered on the songs from their EP, but even though they had played these tunes repeatedly, they had lost none of their exuberance. All four performances took these thrashy gems and pumped them way past the suggested maximum pressure. Frontman Ayad Al Adhamy rode the crest of that energy and fed it back to the audience every time. What's most amazing about this show in particular is that the Al Adhamy's backing band had completely turned over since the previous tour. The new band brought the same ecstatic flail to the set but still let their personalities shine through. (full review)

#3 - Reel Big Fish with Pilfers and DanP
12 January 2013 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
097 Reel Big Fish
This was a solid show, starting with the humorous Dan P (MU330) performing an acoustic set, followed by the hip-hop flavored ska-punk of Pilfers. The openers provided a nice ramp up for Reel Big Fish. I've seen the band a few times over the years including back in their heyday. Fortunately, they can still bring it on and recreate the qualities that made them so much fun. Aaron Barrett's sarcastic persona was in full effect and the set covered a good mix of old and new material. The stage banter, tight arrangements, and great humor added to the natural fun vibe of ska party music and created a memorable show. (full review)

#2 - String Cheese Incident with Bootsy Collins and the Funk Unity Band
28 December 2013 (1st Bank Center, Broomfield CO)
064 String Cheese Incident
Ahh, this one is still fresh in my mind. String Cheese Incident lined up a phenomenal run of shows leading up to their New Year's Eve extravaganza. The big show has the Del McCoury band opening; Sunday's show featured the Flaming Lips. But Bootsy Collins was the pick for the first night. To be fair, I wasn't completely sure about the combination, but the crowd had no problem accepting Bootsy's generous gift of The Funk, embracing the full, spaced-out experience and dancing along.

String Cheese Incident took the party atmosphere and ran with it. Like any other SCI show, the band pulled selections from across their full career, but since they were celebrating their 20th anniversary this time around, it emphasized their roots and deep connections. The encore made this explicit, with a short run of songs that walked through the band's evolution. While they didn't manage to get Bootsy to sit in, they did have the legendary Karl Denson sitting in on sax and flute for several tunes. (full review)

#1 - Steven Wilson
6 May 2013 (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
002 Steven Wilson
Steven Wilson is a perfectionist control-freak and some aspects of his show reinforced that image: he insisted on a ban on cameras and cell-phones, he started precisely on-time, and even told the audience whether to stand or sit. At the same time, that focus and obsession probably had a lot to do with how he assembled his band full of virtuosi talents; Nick Beggs on bass was particularly fine. This show breathed with the musical flow as each song demanded its focus. In contrast to his tightly wound sense of control for the production, Wilson proved to be a much more relaxed and engaged performer than he used to be. (full review)

Honorable mention: 
Austin TX
482 Richard Thompson SXSW2013
I've wanted to make it to South By Southwest for quite a while and 2013 turned out to be my year. I saw so many shows from famous acts -- Camper Van Beethoven, Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg -- to undiscovered gems like Some Dark Holler and Kao=s. It was also the first time I saw Team Spirit, who ended up on my official list above. Read the full report for more details.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Concert review - String Cheese Incident with Bootsy Collins and the Funk Unity Band

28 December 2013 (1st Bank Center, Broomfield CO)

This was the first show of three, leading to their spectacular New Year's Eve blowout. With a different opening act each night, this one relied on Bootsy to jump start the party, which he handled with ease.

Bootsy Collins and the Funk Unity Band
047 Bootsy Collins With his signature space bass, star-framed shades, and P-Funk Mothership Connection, Bootsy Collins has long celebrated a spacey motif in his performances. This show followed that tradition to a T. The band filed onto the stage in astronaut costumes and headgear. They quickly ditched the helmets, kicked off the funk, and  warmed up the crowd a little bit before Bootsy made his entrance.

003 Bootsy Collins
As always, the presentation was gaudy and beautiful. He strolled out in a sparkling gold suit with glitter and tinsel in his hair. His white bass was strung with red strings that stood out at a distance. Later, he'd change outfits into a shiny red top hat and flowing robe featuring a black "Casper the Holy Ghost". His final costume change was more of a reveal to pander to the local crowd: he doffed his robe to show off the Denver Broncos jersey (Peyton Manning, #18) he wore underneath.

017 Bootsy Collins
Covering a range of P-Funk and solo tracks, the show largely followed the standard formula of setting a solid groove, dressing it up with spectacle and crowd-friendly catchphrases, then letting Bootsy pump in the charisma and work the crowd. "Mothership Connection (Star Child)" was my personal favorite, but they hit so many of the classic tracks that everyone with a passing knowledge of the mythos was satisfied. Another fine moment came while Bootsy was off-stage, when the band covered "Them Changes", from Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies. Before launching into it, they educated the crowd on drummer Buddy Miles, who wrote the tune.

028 Bootsy Collins
The stage was filled with personnel: a couple of horn players, drums, guitar, a hype man, four vocalists, a dancer, two keyboard players and a guy playing key-tar. The band also included a full-time bass player to cover the foundation funk while Bootsy used his space bass to play octave-dropped, distorted,  gut-shaking riffs that occasionally bordered on dubstep. Flashy enough under the lights, the bass later became part of the lightshow as it glowed and changed colors.

039 Bootsy Collins
Over the course of the evening, many claims were made attesting to the power of the funk, but Bootsy himself was the greatest testament. It's hard to believe the man is 62 years old. He looked and sounded completely vital onstage. While his crew was tightly choreographed and polished, he floated over the top with a relaxed vibe. Singers danced in formation, the hype man bounced from side to side, and Bootsy ruled over it all with smiles and banter. It was clear that he relished connecting with the audience and feeling our love. Late in the set, he showed how he could shrink a huge arena into an intimate personal space. He climbed over the rail and offered himself to the crowd, dispensing hugs and high-fives. The band called him back, but he still took his time to turn around and finish out the set.

067 String Cheese IncidentOf course, the crowd was really here for the headliners. It seemed like a majority of the fans made the pilgrimage from far away. This was a special show on several levels. Aside from kicking off a New Year's Eve run, the band made it a celebration of 20 years of playing together. The set began auspiciously enough with their version of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"/"With a Little Help From My Friends". Aside from the audience, they also got some help from Karl Denson and Chris Littlefield on flute and trumpet. Despite some minor problems with Michael Kang's amp rig, the band had no problem sliding into the flow of intense improvisations punctuated with dreamy interludes.

101 String Cheese Incident
The show really hit its stride when Kang switched from 5-string electric mandolin to the fiddle late in "Little Hands". The tempo picked up and he pulled the whole band behind him as he sawed at the strings and wailed. This was also a great moment to appreciate the tight integration between percussionist Jason Hann and drummer Michael Travis. While Travis generally locked into the beat and left Hann spaces to fill, the two had the beat dancing between them here.

086 String Cheese Incident
Denson and Littlefield came back out for the last two songs of the set. Their tight, high-energy chops were a perfect addition for the jazzy funk of "Black and White". The highlight here was a little bit of head-cutting between Denson on sax and Kang on mando. The pair traded lead riffs, each challenging the other to wilder flourishes. This led into a soulful cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish". Denson sang the first verse and then let Kang take over.

102 String Cheese Incident
After a short breather for the audience to regroup and rehydrate, the second set carried on the sweet flow of genre-hopping jams. The crowd particularly enjoyed "Jellyfish"; the funky beat had us dancing and singing along with Bill Nershi's droll rap delivery. The power of SCI's tidal wash of jams made the set feel timeless. Where Bootsy took us all to his church of funk, this was more of a tribal ritual, where each person found their own focal points and surrendered to shifting currents.

064 String Cheese Incident
The fugue state finally broke when the set ended, leaving only the encore before the drive home. Even this was special, providing a historical context for the band. Nershi started out alone, playing "Down A River" and talking about the group's roots. He was then joined by Kang, Travis, and Keith Mosely for "Lester Had A Coconut", showing off the band's original configuration. Then keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth came out for "Round The Wheel", soon to be joined by Hann to close out the show with the full band. It was a touching arrangement.

078 String Cheese Incident
My only regret for this show is that I would have loved to see Bootsy join in at some point during the main sets. But that's a small thing. Otherwise, the visuals and music provided a great peak experience.

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Favorite reviewed albums of 2013

Everybody loves to toss out their guide to the best albums of the year, but that's a tall order for a single blogger. Despite listening to so many albums over the course of 2013, I don't feel qualified to claim that I've even heard the best albums of the year. Instead, I can share the best albums I've reviewed over that time. Reflecting my eclectic tastes, these artists vary from rock to country and experimental to pop. Each of these albums made a big impression, even if the band was not so well-known.

This list is roughly in order of my appreciation.

#10 - Whiskey Blanket, From the Dead of Dark
Local experimental hip-hop outfit Whiskey Blanket has made a big impact by throwing down beatbox/viola duets, chamber music interludes, and a rich world of atypical samples. From The Dead Of Dark proves that gimmicks don't make the band as they present their loosely structured, spaghetti-Western rap concept album. If there were justice in the world, this would open them up well beyond their Front Range roots. (original review)

#9 - Team Spirit, Team Spirit
The most frustrating thing about Team Spirit is that they leave me wanting MORE. Their EP came out early this year and caught my ear with high-energy thrash-pop and tight twin guitar riffage. Every one of the five tracks on Team Spirit is a wonderful gem, but I'm still waiting for a full length audio meal from the band instead of this little appetizer. Ex-keyboard/ex-Muse player Ayad Al Adhamy strapped on his guitar to start this new band and he's never looked back, For a glimpse of their irreverent sense of humor, check out their official music videos for the songs, like "Jesus, He's Alright!". (original review)

#8 - Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses), The Low Highway
Steve Earle has always balanced a chameleon-like expression against his rock-solid inner truth and The Low Highway continues that trend. From modern-day Woody Guthrie (the title track) to retro jazz blues ("Love's Gonna Blow My Way") to funky rock ("Calico Country"), Earle packs the album with a wide range of well-executed styles, but, more importantly, all of his characters ring true as they fill in the details of his progressive social narrative. (original review).

#7 - Sirsy, Coming Into Frame
Unlike many of their low-fi, noise-loving peers, this indie rock duo has the chops and temperament to embrace a lush pop setting for their music. Mel Krahmer's rich and sultry vocals and Rich Libutti's nuanced guitar work each take full advantage of the production, shining in the clarity. The pair channel a perfectly evolved retro-pop sensibility that bypasses all of the triteness and excess to deliver luxurious sincerity and meaningful songs. (original review)

#6 - Sigur Rós, Kveikur
Light industrial touches make this a noisier outing for Sigur Rós, but the haunted feeling at heart of their music maintains the band's emotional connection to their audience. That bond has always transcended language for their American audience and their new found power doesn't diminish the impact. Thunder resounds but breaks for dreamy interludes. Epic builds and dissonance form a skeleton that can support delicate introspection and surround an oasis of calm or two. (original review)

#5 - Arbouretum, Coming Out Of The Fog
Following up on 2011's The Gathering, Arbouretum continues their path of channeling the raw intensity of '70s super groups, rife with warm fuzz and visceral rhythms. Acid ragas and modern-primitive, down-tempo beats roll through the album like a smoldering fire. The band taps into a secret frequency of retro perfection and molds a cathartic space in the heart of today's darkness. Find a sonically-isolated, candle lit room, pour a glass of cognac, and play the vinyl version through a high-end tube amplifier to soak up every reverberation. (original review)

#4 - Elvis Costello & The Roots, Wise Up Ghost
We should write a thank-you note to Jimmy Fallon for sparking this collaboration. When Elvis Costello was scheduled to appear on the show, he sat down with The Roots to rough out a performance for the show. Costello proved open to ?uestlove's suggestion of working out some live remixes of a couple of songs. That went so well that they decided to pursue the idea further. Much of Wise Up Ghost mixes and mashes material from Costello's back catalog while incorporating The Roots' impeccable sense of groove and rhythm. Both sides show their strengths and maintain their style while forming a strong musical alloy. (original review)

#3 - Robbie Fulks, Gone Away Backward
Like Stevc Earle, honesty and soul-searching is at the heart of Fulks' music. Gone Away Backward is anchored in the traditional Americana/country sound that Fulks loves the most, but he's incapable of dumbing himself down to find a lowest common denominator. Instead, he embraces ambiguity and complexity, weaving stories around interesting characters and bittersweet perspectives. On the surface, songs like "That's Where I'm From" may amble forward with twang and sincerity, but Fulks gives them depth with his eloquence. (original review)

#2 - Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol 3: To See More Light
This is the third in saxophonist Colin Stetson's New History Warfare series. Each step has developed and refined his musical approach, reflecting his growth as a player and his instinct for collaboration. In this latest offering, Stetson continues to amaze as he evokes the sounds of rhythmic loops, synthesizers, and heavy bass from his sax and added vocalizations. The combination of his playing technique, microphone treatment, and recording approach are astounding, but the pieces transcend the execution to be moving and hypnotic. (original review)

#1 - Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, UZU
This art and music collective brushes so close to stereotype and trope, that it would be tempting to dismiss them before giving them a solid listen. That would be a shame, because UZU presents a perfectly crafted balance of music that ranges from crisp, moody clarity to epic metallic flourishes, from tribal electro-beat rhythms to progressive body blows. Even the femme vocals resist pigeon-holing: one song's ice princess may spout demonic fire a couple of tracks later. (original review)

Honorable mention:
First off, I'll mention that I disqualified a bootleg/reissue of Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2 (original review). It's a brilliant collection, showing off the "lost quintet" at their finest, including material that would later turn up  in a different form on Bitches Brew. This set would easily be one of my top two or three, but it seems unfair to include older releases like this in my 2013 list.

Aside from that exception, the list is still too short to accommodate many other wonderful albums. Here's a small taste:
  • Smoke Fairies - Blood Speaks (review)
  • Portugal. The Man - Evil Friends (review)
  • Octopus Project - Fever Forms (review)
  • Arcade Fire - Reflektor (review)
  • The Fierce and the Dead - Spooky Action (review)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Recording review - Arcade Fire, Reflektor (2013)

New directions with chill funk desperation and synth-pop beats

There’s a moment of cognitive dissonance when the chill funk rhythm of “Reflektor“ kicks in, like seeing a longtime friend with a radical new haircut or finding the short dress that your mother wore clubbing back in 1982. Arcade Fire luxuriates in an exotic, retro lagoon of danceable synth-pop and it’s hard to recognize them at first. The song draws on David Bowie’s early ‘80s catalog, both from Scary Monster s (and Super Creeps) and Let’s Dance, as well as recruiting him to provide guest vocals. Win Butler captures a stylized undercurrent of repressed desperation while Régine Chassagne plays the ethereal ice queen. The vocal pairing against the synth-driven beat evokes the era of bands like the Human League, but the couple’s interaction restores some familiar ground. The first half this this double album repeatedly toys with our perceptions, from the “Billie Jean” bass line on “We Exist” to the Gary Glitter drums on “Joan of Arc.” Along the way, the band appropriates bits of Talking Heads, Blondie and U2. In lesser hands, this would either descend into awkward parody or earnest pastiche (or maybe the other way around). Instead, Arcade Fire creates an irony-free zone around these songs and fleshes out the borrowed fashion with their own character. The focus on disco and dance-friendly beats has a couple of likely sources. Butler has credited the Haitian rhythms that he was immersed in during his visits there with Chassagne. Additionally, James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) certainly brought both dance mix and post-punk influences with his production help.

The second half of Reflektor maintains continuity, but calls back to the thoughtful reflection the band is known for. The centerpiece for the whole album, “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)”, blends the band’s old and new approaches. While the first tune is oblique in its reference to the mythological couple, the music is exquisite. The moody Two Tone ska groove is backed with busy, syncopated percussion. Tightly reined in and wicked, the arrangement is taut with tension until it releases into an open, psychedelically charged lushness. The second track responds with nervous, bubbling energy as it follows Orpheus and Eurydice out of the underworld. A ratcheting bass and synth washes play against a Krautrock motorik beat, setting up the angelic breakdowns.

Arcade Fire foreshadowed this new direction on their last album, The Suburbs, with techno-beat sounds on "Half Life II (No Celebration)" and the sweet pop of "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)". But they hadn't fully committed yet. Now, they've shrugged off any doubts and they're taking their time to explore their new environs. At 75 minutes, 85 if you count the hidden track, Reflektor sprawls across the two CDs. There aren't any clunkers or obvious filler, but it begs for a leaner edit. On the other hand, maybe it takes that extra time for Arcade Fire to find themselves in the disco lights and driving rhythm.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 12/23

Even though it's the end of the year, there are a few good shows to recommend. Have a great holiday season and enjoy the music.

Thursday, 26 December (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Friday, 27 December (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Trombone Shorty

The renowned New Orleans horn player has a couple of shows at the Ogden that will serve as a late Christmas gift to the Front Range. It will probably be fairly cold out, but I guarantee that Trombone Shorty and his band will be cooking! Funk and jazz will kick it loose with a healthy side of deep-down, gut-moving soul.

Saturday, 28 December (1st Bank Center, Broomfield)
Sunday, 29 December (1st Bank Center, Broomfield)
Tuesday, 31 December (1st Bank Center, Broomfield)
String Cheese Incident with various openers

String Cheese Incident will be holding court at the 1st Bank Center. Just like Louis XIV, they will surround themselves in flamboyant spectacle. Past NYE shows have included aerialists, wild stage surprises, and mind-blowing visual effect. With the band celebrating their 20th anniversary, this will be the show run of the season if you like jam bands and cross-genre fusion at all. The real question which opener you'd prefer. Karl Denson and Chris Littlefield will be sitting in on Saturday and Sunday. Bootsy Collins is opening the Saturday show and The Flaming Lips will lead off on Sunday. New Year's Eve itself will feature the legendary Del McCoury Band.

Sunday, 29 December (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Monday, 30 December (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Tuesday, 31 December (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Reverend Horton Heat

Of course, if you like countrified psycho-billy blues, then you might prefer to catch one of the Reverend Horton Heat shows. He'll be gracing the stage at the Aggie on Sunday before a two day run at the Gothic. While it will be less trippy than SCI, the Reverend will certainly match the intensity as he and his band blaze through their sets. Sadly, Jello Biafra (ex-Dead Kennedys) won't be joining the tour until January.

Monday, 30 December (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
Tuesday, 31 December (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)

034 Brother Ali On the other hand, if you're more into rap and hip-hop, I highly recommend Brother Ali's installment at the Fox in Boulder. His show earlier this year at the Gothic (review) was phenomenal. He is such a charismatic, powerful presence on the stage. His material shows off his range as a performer; his words can move, motivate, and illuminate. Local band, the ReMINDers will be among the openers.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Recording review - The Green, Hawai'i '13 (2013)

Overlapping island perspectives and solid one-drop beats

Let the island rhythms relax you. Let go and surrender to physical bliss of the warm climate and gentle breezes. Dig your toes into the sand and feel for the roots of a rich cultural expression. Hawaii’s premier reggae band, The Green, has no problem drawing the parallels between their island home and Jamaica and encouraging listeners to settle in for some familiar, soothing sounds. More than just a pretty setting or relaxed lifestyle, both places share in the kind of isolation that can nurture their artistss and give them time to bloom into fullness. Various flavors of reggae music evolved from ska, which was inspired by soul and R&B music. The Green respectfully takes in the one drop beats, chanks, and swaying basslines as their starting point, then they reach deeper within to get at the soulful foundation. At the same time, they fully engage with modern R&B and Polynesian sounds. The chants that open and close Hawai'i ‘13 honor their Pacific traditions, but still find a common ground with reggae’s African origins.

While there is no single recipe for authentic Jamaican reggae music, there is a social consciousness that is never far removed. Hawai'i '13 is less concerned with this aspect, with the exception of "The Power In The Words", which preaches a message about the impact our attitude has on the world around us. Instead, the album dedicates most of its attention to love and relationships and,accordingly, invests the songs with a strong pop element. Fortunately, their sincerity imbues the material with a good emotional weight. On "Something About It", they convey the lonely tension that distance brings to a relationship, but they focus on the loving foundation: "I am the island in the middle of the sea/ You are the sunshine, come rise upon me." The verses recall Hall & Oates' charged pop sounds from the late 1970s and early '80s (think "Maneater"), but the busy bounce of the bass and the bubbly fills find the reggae pulse. It's not quite Sly and Robbie, but the foot tapping energy is a treat. The Green continue the retro vibe on the soulful "Chocolate & Roses", which borrows a touch of Lionel Ritchie to try to win over the girl. This piano driven R&B tune is one of the only non-reggae pieces, but it still slides right into the mix for Hawai'i '13.

Their hearts are in the right place, but my favorite track is still "Hold Me Tight". The solid, old-school one drop is moody and sweet, ornamented with a couple of mild dub sections. On first listen, it's another love song, typical for the album, "She holds me tight/ When my heart beats the limit/ And my head starts to swim". Closer attention to the lyrics, though, reveals the party anthem message in this ode to the joys of marijuana, "I want to fire up a fat spliff, pass it all around/ While rolling up another as we're strolling into town." It's a theme that Peter Tosh would be happy to endorse, but the key is the deep-to-the-bones reggae groove that anchors the piece. Another fine moment comes with the dark, 2 Tone ska of "Forgive Me". The pensive piece relies on keys to fill  in the horn lines, but the bass is wicked and throaty. They sing of regret and a break up, but the chorus has a defiant backbone that shows its strength.

The Green first showed up on my radar when they signed with Easy Star Records and contributed to "Baby Be Mine" on last year's Michael Jackson tribute, Easy Star's Thrillah (review). Their innate sense of soul carried that track back to its roots, making the reggae beat a natural extension. It's nice to hear those elements in a richer setting on Hawai'i '13. There are plenty of American bands tapping into the sweet roots of reggae music, but The Green is onto something special, from one island to another.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Recording review - Soundgarden: Screaming Life/Fopp (2013 Reissue)

Time capsule compilation traces the roots of grunge

What if you ran into your adolescent self? You’d like to think that you’d be as cool as you are now, or at least as cool as you remember. Most likely, though, you’d just realize that the younger you was only partly formed. This reissue of Soundgarden's first two EPs, Screaming Life and Fopp provides a pre-clarified glimpse of a band that had no idea what they were part of. When Soundgarden formed in 1984, they were just another group playing around Seattle. Grunge wasn’t a thing yet, but they were creating it along with other bands like Green River, the Melvins, Alice in Chains, and Nirvana. In 1987, they finally got into the studio and cut the Screaming Life EP with Sub Pop records. They’d go on to be the first grunge act to sign with a major label, but they wouldn't hit it big until 1994, when their fourth album, Superunknown, took off. Although their previous release, Badmotorfinger (1991) made the rotation on MTV, it was “Black Hole Sun” that introduced them to a wider audience. Their sound was thick with heavy metal grind, buzz-saw guitar riffs and darkly poetic lyrics of alienation. This compilation offers hints of what was to come and what would be abandoned.

It leads off with Screaming Life’s “Hunted Down”, the band’s first single. A strafing jet engine roar of guitars kicks off a doom-driven punk slog, like Black Sabbath meets Black Flag. Chris Cornell models his voice on Ozzy Osbourne’s, although the deeper tone is all his own. Dark metal glints through the sludge as the thrashy guitars capture the sweet dissonance of punk and the rhythm section channels classic heavy metal. It’s interesting that their first single shows the clearest link between their roots and their mature sound. Unfortunately, the song loses its poise and falls apart at the end. Just as the band reaches a climax and shifts the direction of the piece, a rough fade hurries in to close the curtain. It’s a sign that the track didn't really go where they had hoped and that they needed to salvage an otherwise decent take.

The rest of the Screaming Life tracks are more derivative, revealing a lot about Soundgarden's inspirations and a little of how they would reach their creative peak. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin are constant touchstones along with a fair amount of AC/DC, but the band also favors Bauhaus and Iggy Pop. “Entering” and “Nothing to Say” in particular dredge the depths of echo-laden post-punk, which they’d eventually refine into the shadowed psychedelia underpinning their later work. On the other hand, the Primus-like quirk of “Little Joe” and the blues-rocking audio collage of “Hand of God” are side branches that would be pruned by time.

Back in 1990, Screaming Life and Fopp were re-released as a paired package. This 2013 reissue remasters all of the songs and adds a bonus track, “Sub Pop Rock City”. Originally on the Sub Pop 200 (1998) compilation, “Sub Pop Rock City” moshes through a garage punk arrangement, showing off Soundgarden's sense of humor. The hoarsely screamed vocals drop back for a couple of cut-and-paste record label in-jokes, such as asking Sub Pop partner Jonathan Poneman, “Do you think you’d have too much trouble if we got rid of our sideburns?” The light attitude is a polar opposite of the band’s normal style.

The Fopp half of the compilation breaks character even further. The band spins into a retro funk space, covering the Ohio Players’ 1976 song, “Fopp” for the title track. The band nails the groove, even copying the vocal sound of the original. Cornell whips out his best Robert Plant impersonation to sing the original’s female lead vocal lines. While Soundgarden relies more on metal guitar fills than funk horns, it’s a surprisingly straightforward cover. They double down by seamlessly transitioning to an extended remix version. They play with their earlier tracks, shoving them through an Echoplex for a psycho-disco feel. Oddly enough, it would all work fairly well on the dance floor. The remaining tracks, “Kingdom of Come” and a cover of Green River’s “Swallow My Pride”, push fewer boundaries for the band and fail to stand out.

Listening to this time capsule compilation is an interesting experience. The Screaming Life half meets expectations while introducing Soundgarden’s foundations as a punk band. With hindsight, it’s easy to recognize the roots of grunge winding through the tunes. The other tracks are maybe more important. They remind us that there’s not a straight line from adolescence to maturity. The band wasn't designing “grunge,” they were just cutting loose and having fun. Even if their adult personas might cringe a bit, it’s good to see the full complexity that spawned this iconic group.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Recording review - Polar Bear Club, Death Chorus (2013)

Well-seasoned, but too tired for pop punk

"You can strum your hardest and get away with hoping for the best.Death Chorus leads off with “Blood Balloon” and the lyrics and tone reflect a well-seasoned perspective, with a wry and jaded pungence. Ironically, Polar Bear Club lead singer Jimmy Stadt sounds younger than ever, abandoning his usual scream-burnished voice for a fresher, cleaner sound. Despite that change, the ringing clash of guitars that kick off the tune anchors the band to their thrashy roots. The song is powered by a sharp contrast between the relentless drive of the glib verses and the frustrated howl of the chorus. The bridge floats for a brief moment of wishful optimism before Stadt gives it up for the comfort of cynicism: “Romanticize the past while the future’s in full collapse.” That line alone sums up the whole album. Although Death Chorus is full of hard rocking guitars, they’re overshadowed by hindsight and regret. “Blood Balloon” sets the recipe for most the songs that follow: equal parts pointed attitude, calloused rough edges, and bleeding emotion fill the album with a grown-up version of pop punk. Where most of their peers aspire to be little more than Green Day clones, Polar Bear Club sounds more like a raw tribute to the classic power pop of the Pursuit of Happiness. That band’s biggest hit was the sourly sarcastic “I’m an Adult Now”, which is apropos because these guys are struggling with childhood’s end and an inability to turn back the clock.

As a result, Polar Bear Club is consumed with ambivalence about the past; they hate wallowing in memories, but they still hold a reverence for golden moments that won’t come again. This is often explicit, as on “Graph Paper Glory Days” and “Chicago Spring”, but it sometimes lies in the subtext, as on “For Show”. This theme seems rooted in Stadt’s personal sense of a generation gap with the band’s younger fans, which he touched on in passing during an interview last year on Mind Equals Blown. He doesn't seem to realize that, at 28, it’s too early to be so hung up on replaying history.

To some extent, the band’s obsession with retrospection grounds the album’s more overwrought emotional spikes. In that context, the chest-beating histrionics read true as an honest reflection of the band’s head space. Unfortunately, while there are several decent songs, it weighs down the album. It’s telling that the best track is the sonic outlier, “Siouxsie Jeanne”. Dropping the pounding guitar front, the band keeps it soft and simple for a late night confession of love. The vocals are wistful and moving enough to sell weaker lines like, “I’m not you, but you’re me/ A thought, not yet a woman or a girl/ Let’s say girl, forever we’ll say girl.” The intensity climbs with the emotional soul-baring, showing off Stadt’s stronger singing chops. This song connects because the pain is rawer and less filtered by the album’s pervasive sense of fatalism.

Late twenties is hardly old, but Polar Bear Club sounds too worn down for pop punk. Rather than try to recapture the cocky pose that the style calls for, the band should consider letting their music grow up to match their more mature point of view. The good news is that, while Death Chorus isn't a gem, it is a sign of a band that’s not attempting to hold on to permanent adolescence. At some level, they’re already self-aware enough to recognize it: “I guess everyone is part perfect storm and part broken song.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Recording review - The Fierce And The Dead, Spooky Action (2013)

Post-rock vignettes offer complexity and surprises

Pretty pop songs and simple I-IV-V blues rock jams are all too predictable. Flannel and comfort food have their appeal, but sometimes something stronger is called for. Spooky Action celebrates the idea of being challenged without earning the “difficult listening” label. The Fierce And The Dead build their progressive rock instrumentals with an eye for intriguing structures that ignore cookie-cutter shortcuts. Like jazz, their tonal exploration and rhythmic complexity draw on a richer palette of angles and textures. But where jazz usually forces a choice between relaxed harmonic flows and free jazz chaos, guitarist Matt Stevens and his band embrace the whole gamut, sometimes within a single song. A raw cathartic growl might yield to introspection or a sudden sense of purpose, only to thrash again shortly.

Oftentimes, the band’s animal expression is tied to Kevin Feazey’s rough bass tone. On the album’s first single, “Ark”, he leads the charge with a raspy rallying cry. Soon, he’s flanked by a pair of jangled guitars. The bouncy groove is warm and sunny, but the foggy bass keeps a chill in the air. The tune gradually grows more refined, with interlocking arpeggios sliding into place. By this time, Feazey has been seemingly defanged. But the genteel moment is overturned with a sudden punch of distortion and sharp drum beat that releases the bass to briefly stalk between the ringing guitars. His freedom is quickly curtailed though and the melody asserts a thoughtful control. It suggests that events are falling into place, that ambitions are coming to fruition. Even the bottom end finds a supporting role. But like most plans, this one eventually confronts a harsh reality and the percussive crunch returns. After chaos spends itself in a victorious show of force, order returns, but makes a more tentative sortie. The drums and bass cautiously step forward with a triplet riff and the guitars test the waters with simple expansive notes that lightly echo in space. Growing in confidence, the tune builds in volume and complexity, finally rising to a satisfied climax that balances the beauty of singing guitars and the beastly bass. It’s particularly nice that the band avoids self-indulgence by fitting such progressive excursions into a manageable run time. “Ark” tells its story in about four minutes.

The Fierce And The Dead had its roots in Steven’s solo music, which is filled with ethereal guitar loops. When Steve Cleaton joined for the group’s last EP, On VHS (2012), his guitar and keyboard work pushed the band to develop a rougher edge. “Intermission 3” harks back to their beginnings with a loose ambient flow. Softly hazed echoes and a windswept soundscape set the mood. As sounds swell into view and then fade, there’s the disorienting sense that something is pacing at the edge of perception. The eerie tension finally bleeds off like a fading apparition, lulling the listener. But it’s a false sense of release and the dissipating fog is ripped apart with the transition to the title track. Like a cold splash of water or a jarring slap, “Spooky Action” triggers an adrenaline spike. The tight, staccato rhythm and thick wall of guitar snarl offer a distressed King Crimson vamp as the song takes its time setting the hook. In a trademark dynamic shift, the tune brings the fear to a head then drops into a sun-dappled interlude. Cheery pop guitars and percussion chimes offer a carefree rebuttal to the opening anxiety. The song is permeated with a feeling of acceptance as it picks up a stronger sense of direction. Even the sudden fearful shift back to the opening can’t sabotage the mood completely. Taken together, these two songs form a joint view of the supernatural. “Intermission 3” sets up the mystery of the unknown, the start of “Spooky Action” captures a shocking confrontation with the unexpected and underneath it all, the third panel promises more comforting possibilities. Ultimately, the fear remains with the band unwilling to cocoon themselves away from their unsettling encounter.

While Cleaton certainly drives the punch on “Spooky Action”, his influence feels strongest on “I Like It, I’m Into It”. The heavy track opens with a blend of Thrak-era King Crimson and pulsating acid rock. Stuart Marshall’s drumming is exquisite, providing the perfect framework for the 15/8 grind, then exploding into flamboyance for the turn around breaks. This time, the dynamic drop has its own flavor. The last guitar note hangs while the bass thumps its way through a post punk march. When the guitar joins in, it’s ejected the distortion for a crystalline chime. The piece builds with repetition to wind itself into a classic rock jam and psychedelic lead before closing out on a tightly synchronized finish.

The evocative songs on Spooky Action serve up a stream of surprises, but maintain a coherent sonic aesthetic that finds resonance in such diverse artists as El Ten Eleven, XTC, Robert Fripp, and Black Flag. The bite-sized pieces evolve and develop into fully formed vignettes. It’s no wonder that Stevens and the band are making such a splash on the post-rock scene, with a Limelight nomination this year at Prog Magazine. Surrounded by trivial music, the Fierce And The Dead‘s instrumentals are a bracing tonic.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 12/9

Thursday, 12 December (Surfside 7, Ft. Collins CO)

144 Convalescents
My favorite local punk band is opening for DC Fallout this week. Convalescents always put on a solid, high energy set (show review), tightly blending Green Day-style pop punk and classic punk attitude. Their original songs are strong, but it's really just a cathartic joy to surrender to their adrenaline-infused beats and precise playing.

Listening to headliners DC Fallout, you can expect a full night of thrash and rebellion.

Friday, 13 December (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Tig Notaro

Maybe you heard about Tig Notaro's amazing 2012 set at Largo's in Los Angeles, where she started out by announcing her recent cancer diagnosis, "Hello. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?" While this doesn't seem like a formula for funny, Notaro's resilience and humor in the face of her personal tragedy created one of the most powerful comedy performances I've ever heard. Her life has improved since then, but she's still finding plenty of laughs by opening up her own experiences and finding the irony, silliness, and amusing observations.

Saturday, 14 December (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
In contrast to all of the hard rockers, rappers, and techno types that usually fill up the Aggie, this week, local favorites SHEL will be in residence. If you've never heard their rich harmonies, classic/classical instrumentation, and folk-flavored intensity, you're in for a treat. As they tour around the country, I keep expecting them to hit it so big, that they forget all about us. But their Ft. Collins roots are strong enough to bring them back home to perform for old friends.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Recording review - Adrian Utley, In C (2013)

Minimally engaged, but unattached: a successful experiment

Terry Riley’s landmark 1964 composition, In C, is often credited with spawning the minimalist movement. It inspired Steven Reich and, by extension, Philip Glass, but it rippled out to affect more mainstream music as well; Pete Townshend titled his synth-driven “Baba O’Riley” as a tip of the hat to its influence. Riley’s piece broke ground by tying musical serialism to an indeterminate process. Indeterminacy dated back to experimental work by Charles Ives and later musicians like John Cage, but Riley’s approach was easier for audiences to grasp and appreciate. Rather than using a traditional score, the piece is defined by a set of 53 melodic fragments and an open-ended process for performance. It calls for an arbitrary number of musicians to play each of the phrases in order, repeating them at will and staying within two or three patterns of the group. Performers have the discretion for how they play the pieces: in unison with others, offset by some amount or dropping out altogether. It’s an interesting dynamic because the process inherently relies on chance and individual judgment, but the building blocks were carefully constructed and ordered to provide a rich set of connecting points.

In C has been performed and recorded numerous times over the years, with all sorts of ensembles. Adrian Utley’s variation is based on a 19-player guitar orchestra backed by four organs and a bass clarinet. Utley is best known for his work with the moody, electronically-inclined Portishead, but he’s had an enduring interest in experimental music featuring large groups of guitars. His arrangement of In C is somewhat slower than Riley’s first recording, but that doesn’t impact the carefully unfolding flow of moods throughout the piece. From intrigue and pensive tension to more expansive contemplation, Utley’s group breathes through the patterns with a Zen focus. Each moment is imbued with attention, but the group remains unattached, free to follow the currents shaped by the interlocking layers. The guitars provide a range of textures. Square-wave fuzz coexists with acoustic purity and angelic chime.

While the music does have fluidity, it’s also kaleidoscopic. Mirrored elements slip past one another, creating order that ever collapses into a new alignment. Individual sections have their mood and meaning, but the flow itself erodes the localized context, denying any global sense of purpose. The only constant is Riley’s eighth note pulse, the percussive heartbeat that drives the piece. This raises the fundamental question that underlies aleatoric and minimalist music: is it intentional enough to count as art? Human perception is programmed for pattern recognition. Faced with a stream of input, we inevitably find meaning or create it within ourselves. We can choose to interpret the staccato repetition around the nine-minute mark as a kind of vaguely-sensed threat or hear the rising fractal echoes over 22 minutes in as a beautiful, abstract mystery coalescing into concrete reality. It’s all a mere mirage—or is it something more? Is there a deeper significance? In C depends on the judgment of the musicians and they are just as vulnerable to the strange attractor of pattern recognition, but they don’t necessarily see the same pattern. Any individual shaping is buried within the hive mind of the larger orchestra. And yet, Riley sculpted these particular snippets of melody that set the structure. One argument for art is that different incarnations of his composition seem to find similar or at least familiar moments.

It’s hard to say how many Portishead fans will engage with Utley’s guitar orchestra; 60 odd minutes of minimalism may be too much for them to bite off. But the album is sure to appeal to aficionados of experimental and ambient musicians like Brian Eno or the Orb, as well as traditional minimalists.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Recording review - Dengue Fever, Girl From The North (2013)

Auditory tapas: rich and exotic morsels to savor

Dengue Fever keeps fairly busy with international tours and running their label, Tuk Tuk Records. Aside from reissues of their earlier albums, Dengue Fever, Escape From Dragon House, and Venus On Earth, they've recently released a special collection, In The Ley Lines, which includes new arrangements and live versions of several of their classic tracks. All that is great, but where the new work that their fans crave? Cannibal Courtship (review) came out two years ago and we need another new fix. Wait no longer, relief is on the way. The group has a new EP, Girl From The North and it serves as a rich reminder of everything to love about the band. There are only three tracks, but every one is a gem.

The album leads off with "Taxi Dancer", the most straightforward selection of the set. It rides in that Cambodian rock sweet spot as surf and ska lock together with a retro pop twist. The call and response between lead singer Chhom Nimol and the band makes the verses sway, but her voice on the chorus is haunted and lost.

"Deepest Lake On The Planet" begins with a rich, Doors-style vamp: the slinky bassline weaves around Ethan Holtzman's moody organ, evoking "Riders On The Storm". The guitar tosses out a few delay-box mirrored riffs to intensify the trance-like feel. Nimol joins in and weaves a spell of sweet paralysis. The seductive beauty of her voice is first wistful, then calculating. Like their earlier work, this song demands that the listener surrender their will, but promises a lotus-eater's peace in return.

The title track pushes deeper into mind-expanding spaces. The band layers jazzy horns over an introspective jam creating a psychedelic raga. The organ and guitar engage in a tug-of-war for our attention until Nimol's voice slides in and takes center stage. The exotic sound of Khmer syllables is intoxicating. The solos that follow offer no respite. Zac Holtzman's guitar starts with a rippling waterfall phrase that eddies and mutates as it repeats. This is followed by echo-laden sax riffs from David Ralicke that climb ever higher before Nimol comes back in. Much like their classic "Seeing Hands", this tune begs for another ten minutes of exploration.

It's reassuring to see that Dengue Fever is still adept at creating these expressive tapestries of sound. Girl From The North is a small, flavorful treat like a delicious auditory tapas plate: deeply intense, but a small enough serving to whet the appetite as you savor the moment.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 12/2

There are a few interesting choices this week, all very different: groove, skank, or slam, depending on your preference.

Friday, 6 December (Casselmans Bar and Venue, Denver CO)

062 GovindaI recently caught Govinda when he passed through Colorado (review). His laid-back, charismatic performance was a treat. I've been a fan of his world music flavored electronica for some time. Whether he's mixing beats or layering in a gypsy violin riff, his music is a rich offering: soulful, trippy, and danceable. If you missed him in October, be sure to catch him this week.

Govinda will be performing with Birds of Paradise on this bill.

Saturday, 7 December (Marquis Theatre, Denver CO)
The Dendrites

Regional ska enthusiasts, The Dendrites have a solid grasp on 2-Tone ska and the horn section to get you up and at it from start to finish. This is a special show as they celebrate their new release, Fly Casual. The band has a killer set of opening acts as well, including 12 Cents For Marvin. Come out and support some fine local musicians.

Sunday, 9 December (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
Suicidal Tendencies

It's been a long time since I first heard Suicidal Tendencies, but Mike Muir's alienation and rage fueled that early music with a powerful intensity. Equal parts serious and smart-ass, the band's thrashy blend of metal and skate punk were a cathartic, cleansing wave. I'm not sure what incarnation the band is on right now; they risen from the ashes a number of times. But this year they dropped a new album, 13, and reports indicate that they have no problem tapping back into what made them great!