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

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Recording review - Wire Faces, King Cataract (2013)

Richly textured, drum-driven post-punk

It's been a year since I reviewed Wire Faces' live show. Their new album, King Cataract largely lives up to the high bar they set opening for El Ten Eleven last February. The release is overshadowed a bit by material loss: their equipment was stolen over the holidays from their rehearsal room. The band had just launched a Kickstarter campaign to pay for mixing and duplication of the new CD, but this left them looking for even more help from their fans. The original goal was $5000 which they overshot by almost $2K. That can buy some new gear but still leaves them hurting.

Listening to King Cataract is like slipping back in time and across a dimension or two. Their universe is anchored in the '80s. But unlike our world, post-punk dominated and evolved into a wild, technically proficient musical force. On the surface, Wire Faces' riff-driven songs evoke bands like The Fixx, Wire, and early Police, but the trio's music is more restless and complex.

Savant drummer Shane Zweygardt pushes the band, integrating a constantly shifting set of fills and rarely settling for a simple beat. The rest of the band integrates with his rhythms, creating a tight, textured whole. "Your Blue Lips" leads off with a a frosty, open-phrased guitar riff countered by the bass' steady throb. The drums bridge the two, aligning splashes of cymbals to fit the guitar and back beats to mesh with the bass line. When the verses opens up, the bass and guitar shift into balance while the drum syncopation add an energy to contrast the singing. The vocals are coated in reverb and detachment, adding to the new wave vibe.

Zweygardt pulls double duty in the band, somehow covering lead vocals while he tosses off his impressive drum parts. Unfortunately, his voice isn't as strong as his playing. His unpolished singing favors simple phrasing and small melodic hops, but is serviceable for the style. Between the production and his tone, it can be hard to pick his words out of the mix. "Endless Gala" captures his best vocal performance. The staccato beat and driving bass at the start of the track suggest Doug Feiger and the Knack, but the song quickly moves beyond power pop with Ian Haygood's guitar adding nuance and flavor to the arrangement. Choppy riffs alternate with splashes of chords, but the simple repeated phrases of the short lead resonate and ring.

I like how the band can shift from the high-pressure tension of"Happiest Man" to the odd beat pensiveness on "Temptress" or the deliberate chill of "Vultures". I also like the full sound that they build throughout these songs. While there are clearly some guitar overdubs and occasional studio treatments, the album is not so far from what the band delivers on stage.

Give Wire Faces a listen and, if you want to help support them, drop by iTunes and pick up King Cataract or one of their other albums.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Recording review - Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2 (2013)

The Lost Quintet follows their instincts, creating magic

Miles Davis fans hardly need a recommendation to check out this exceptional set of performances from his classic period featuring the “lost quintet” with Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea and Dave Holland. While those diehards will know that the lost quintet was never showcased in a studio setting, they may already have an earlier release from Columbia Legacy, Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It’s About Time (2001), which includes the same lineup plus Airto Moriera on percussion. While that reissue presented two different live sets, this new collection, Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2, goes further to include four performances across three CDs and one DVD. The set lists between ’69 and ’70 are strikingly similar, often starting the show with “Directions” and wrapping up with “Sanctuary” and the brief tag of “The Theme”. But the development over the seven-and-a-half month spread between the first show in 1969 and the 1970 recordings is a joy to follow.

Many of the pieces, like “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Sanctuary”, would later turn up on Davis’ Bitches Brew, but it’s important to know that the first two CDs in this collection predate the August ‘69 sessions for that album, covering consecutive shows at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France on July 25-26. While anything but tentative, it’s still clear that Davis and his band are working out the tunes. Additionally, Bitches Brew would take advantage of a larger group of musicians and numerous recording tricks to expand the sound. These live versions offer a distilled counterpart.

“Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is a perfect example. The album version takes full advantage of John McLaughlin’s guitar to help set the lazy groove. During the sprawling 14-minute runtime, Davis stretches his phrases out, then rushes to catch back up, all the while setting a call and response with the rhythm section. Later live versions are similarly long, but the ’69 sessions are easily five minutes shorter. The July 25 set places the song right after “Directions” and Corea and Holland establish a quick tempo, backed by some elaborate syncopation from DeJohnette. The keys have an instinctive sense of where Davis is leading with his trumpet. The hand off to Shorter’s sax is smooth and he coasts for a moment before zipping into punchy riffs and sharp squonks, breaking Davis’ more even pace.

The take from July 27 is a stark contrast to any of the other versions I’ve heard. This time, they don’t play “Voodoo” until after “Masquelero”. Holland’s bass swings, setting up a different beat for Davis to exploit. Here, the trumpet stays expressive as it floats over the other players. This gives the band room to evolve the rhythm over the course of the tune. Shorter keys off the changes to give his sax free rein during his frantic solo and the drums follow along. Another big difference comes during the closing section, which is often an interlude featuring the bass and keyboards. This time, Holland and Corea collapse into a free jazz experiment, deconstructing the song into almost cubist elements before eventually picking up the straight rhythm to close out the tune.

Listeners should let the CDs flow naturally on their first couple of visits, just as the quintet drifts from tune to tune. There will be plenty of time later to pick and choose or compare the different takes of a song to get a sense for Davis’ mood and how the pieces are constructed. It doesn’t take a jazz nerd to wonder if his raw energy on the July 27 version of “Directions” is because he was annoyed or whether he was just more awake. It’s curious, too, to contrast the set lists themselves. Why did the July 26 show sample a wider range of his repertoire, while the November 5 Stockholm set focused primarily on Shorter’s compositions? That Stockholm CD also offers a bonus song that never appeared on any of Davis’ album: one of Corea’s tunes, “This”, from his 1969 album, Is.

There are all kinds of treats to be mined from the shows captured on the three CDs, but the DVD of the quintet performing in Berlin on November 7 is amazing. Recorded for German TV by Sender Freies Berlin, the picture and sound quality is clean although the bass is too low in the mix. The camera shots break between wide angle views of the whole band and close ups that capture the sheen of sweat on Davis’ face under the lights or Holland’s nimble fingers. “Bitches Brew” shows off the band at its finest. Corea has a clear focus, holding down the tune while the soloists venture further afield. Davis’ concentration on stage is legendary and, with eyes squeezed shut, he softens his tone and lets subtlety make his point. After he drops out and walks away, Shorter brashly steps forward in his solo.

The band has an instinctive sense of how to develop the set. They communicate almost completely through the music, relying on their phrasing to indicate a plan rather than visual cues. On “It’s About That Time”, DeJohnette’s fills smoothly match the trumpet as it veers in new direction. When Shorter takes over on soprano sax, the drums effortlessly track his fluid runs in turn. The audience clearly recognizes the magic on stage, remaining breathlessly silent until the very end. All too soon, Davis closes out the set with “The Theme”, breaking the spell to reap the crowd’s cheers as he walks off the stage. But of course he remains aloof; he’s Miles Davis.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Commentary: Die Ärzte, an appreciation

My favorite German teachers

In 1996, I took a temporary job in Germany. Total immersion built up my language skills, but my secret weapon was listening to German bands. Die Toten Hosen's "Zehn kleine Jägermeister" was in heavy rotation on the radio, along with Die Ärzte's "3 Tage Bart" and Tic Tac Toe's "Verpiss Dich". Dropping into my local CD shop, I found a copy of their 1993 album, Die Bestie in Menschengestalt (the beast in human form). Listening that afternoon, I was transfixed. Die Ärzte had the visceral punch of the Ramones, but their songs were funnier, more political, and much more clever than I expected. Later, I'd pick up albums by Die Toten Hosen, Pur, and Die Fantastichen Vier, but Die Ärzte became my favorite band. Even 17 years later, I keep up with each new release because the band continues to consistently deliver exactly what I love.

Since I started my blog, I've wanted to share Die Ärzte with an English speaking audience, but I've always held back. I'm not sure I can make their case to people who don't speak German. Their lyrical dexterity is a huge part of their appeal, but translating the words is like explaining a joke; in the distance between the songs and my writing, the delicate sparks flicker out and grow cold. Even so, I've decided it's finally time. Listening to Auch (2012), which I bought on my recent visit, reminded me all over again about that first introduction. The sarcasm, punk scene allusions, and joyous music on the opening track, "Ist das noch Punkrock?" (is it still punk rock?), find a perfect balance. The song chastises a fellow punk who's turning soft:
"Fick dich und deine Schwester" hast du dir tätowiert
No future, das war gestern, seitdem ist viel passiert
Sie heißt Andrea, ihre Haare sind blau
Ihr habt Verkehr und du gibst es zwar nicht zu, aber sie ist deine Traumfrau
which loosely translates to:
"Fuck you and your sister" is what your tattoo said
"No future", that was yesterday, since then a lot has happened
Her name is Andrea, her hair is blue
You slept together and you won't admit it, but she is your dream girl
I love the flow of the phrases; rhymes like "Schwester/gestern" and "gefährlich/ganz ehrlich" mesh smoothly while offering surprising twists. And the music rolls out in an unstoppable wave, but still builds in some solid dynamics. Is it still punk rock when your heart pounds from kissing her? "Ich glaube nicht" (I don't think so).

I probably wouldn't be such an effusive fan if there was a similar group performing in English. If I could get my fix from a single band in the US, I'd probably be following their tour from town to town. But it's impossible to find a comparable mix of pop punk and headbanging rock that delivers a balance of humor and attitude with a smart lyrical sense. Most American punk pop bands seem so much flatter. On the surface, Die Ärzte are just another group of "snotty boys with guitars" (my favorite guilty pleasure), with straghtforward songs and simple instrumentation. But even as they joke about their own shallowness, they reveal a greater depth. They can mock themselves on "Schopenhauer" (from Die Bestie in Menschengestalt), but then name check a host of philosophers. Their songs cover a wide range of topics that are unexpected from any similar band, like radical progressive politics, overturned conventions, and a nuanced understanding of relationships. Similarly, they regularly show off technical skills beyond their punk roots as they casually shift between musical styles. Imagine if Green Day could also jump genres, credibly pulling off metal riffage and ska chanks. And even if they had the chops, they lack the any skill at self-deprecation.

Die Ärzte are complex of three distinct personalities. Each band member brings their own songs, offering unique perspectives, Guitarist Farin Urlaub (his stage name is a pun on "take a vacation") is the punk pop voice in the band. Sometimes a little goofy, he's best at slipping a smart-ass attitude into tight, catchy songs. "Ist das noch Punkrock" and "Ein Lied für dich" (a song for you) (from 13 [1998]) give a good sense of his style. The latter song responds at one point to their critics (loosely translated again):
This is also a song for those who think we're shitty
A song for you, because you can't make us suffer
Are we too childish? So what? Lowbrow? Whatever.
That only means we can improve ourselves
And our lyrics aren't due to having bad parents
Our fans can happily argue with you
Drummer Bela B also has a good sense of humor, which comes through on songs like "Tu das nicht" (don't do it) (from Jazz ist Anders [2007]), a tongue-in-cheek song about music piracy. More often, though, he favors moodier, Gothic themes, like "Der Graf" (the Count) (from 13) or "Dein Vampyr" (your vampire) (from Im Schatten den Ärzte [1985]). Bela also seems to be the most political of the three, writing about anti-Fascism and social responsibility. His delivery can vary between sarcastic and serious, with "Die klügsten Männer der Welt" (the smartest men in the world) and "Nichtwissen" (ignorance) being two good examples from Geräusch (2003).

Bass player Rod (Rodrigo González) serves as the hard-rock foundation of the band. More direct than the other two, he grounds the band with a more practical perspective. His contributions, like "Sohn der Leere" (son of the void)  or "Die Hard" from Auch or "Anti-Zombie" from Geräusch tend to have a harder drive, leaning towards metal. Although he doesn't write as many songs as Urlaub or Bela, he has a strong impact on the sound of the band.

These three voices could pull the band apart, but each clearly respects what the others bring to the music. Step through the list of videos below to get a taste of the band's range:

"Schrei nach Liebe" - from Die Bestie in Menschengestalt

"Langweillig" - from Planet Punk (1995)

"Mein Baby war beim Frisör" - from La Frisur (1996)

"Ein Lied für dich" - from 13

"Rock Rendezvous" from Runter mit den Spendierhosen, Unsichtbarer! (2000)

"Unrockbar" from Geräusch

"Living Hell" from Jazz ist Anders

"TCR" from Auch

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

February singles

It's time again to sample the new music drifting around the scene. Enjoy!

Keep Shelly in Athens - "Madmen Love" (from their upcoming album on Cascine, due fall 2013)

An ominous throb eases in, raising some hackles with each pulsation. Even on your guard, the reluctant drag beat catches you by surprise. Sarah P's lazy singing taunts you from the shadows. The lazy sway of the song is accented with shiny flecks and hazy shadows. The bridge breakdown flickers as it spirals down into a more insistent beat. The vocals echo like rueful memories and the chillwave jam falls back into its beginnings.

Keep Shelly in Athens have created a moody masterpiece. RΠЯ's production is richly evocative of depressants laced with Adderall: he creates an extremely focused trance like state. After a busy day of distractions, "Madmen Love" just took the edge off for me.

If you can't wait for this fall, you can buy "Madmen Love" here.

Warm Soda - "Waiting For Your Call" (from Someone For You, due March 26)

"Waiting For Your Call" jumps forward like a teenage driver in their first race, dragging us in their wake. Once the verse kicks in, they sound more like a cheery pop band playing a manic cover of "Creep" by Radiohead. Okay, maybe it's only the shared run of chords that evoke that song, because Warm Soda don't have time to mope. Instead, they lay down an infectious retro pop groove that has just the right amount of choppy post punk to give it some edge.

Honestly, it's fluff, but it's prime quality fluff. And I can't get it out of my head. They'll be making the rounds at SXSW this year, so I'll have to key an eye out for them.

Friend Slash Lover – “As Seen On TV” (from The Grey Area)

There’s a wispy wash of backmasked notes and then “As Seen On TV” elbows it aside. The driving guitars blend with a retro synth-pop vibe and Friend Slash Lover packs the song with all the overwrought tension they can fit. Josh Mintz’s vocals are full of emo angst, but the dynamic range lets him shift between strangled repression and theatrical suffering. Last year’s The Grey Area was shrouded in darkness and the impotent frustration and “As Seen On TV” fit well as the opening track.

Mintz’s iPhone music video has a DIY appeal, although the cartoon violence is overdone. But the track would be more at home behind a scene of betrayal, ideally ending when the bitter truth becomes clear.

Jim James - "A New Life" (from Regions of Light and Sound of God)

Nostalgia is in the air. Just as My Morning Jacket seemed to reach back to their roots on their last album, Circuital (2011), front man Jim James takes that even further on "A New Life". Circuital's "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)" turns out to be a harbinger of the simplicity that James embraces on his new single. Like that MMJ track, "A New Life" relies on simple, folky chords and James' rich tenor. The track doesn't just channel the sound of retro rock, every reverbed note turns the clock back.

When the song picks up its pace, it evokes a brief second of Johnny Cash, but Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison are the true inspiration. James strips himself of irony and just sings. It's rare to find purity in a showy vibrato, but it shines.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Recording review - Camper Van Beethoven, La Costa Perdida (2013)

Weathered band paints an eclectic vision of California

Camper Van Beethoven has always been a meeting point of diverse musical visions finding common cause. Their punk directness was ornamented with surrealistic exploration and they tempered their distorted guitars with folk instrumentation. The band established a unique sonic blend that was as recognizable as David Lowery’s nasal vocals. More recent reorganizations would result in Lowery focusing on pop-infused alt-rock with a thick streak of sarcasm in Cracker, but Camper Van Beethoven’s songs were always more complex, whether conveying subtle moods or creating complicated narratives.

An older, more weathered version of the band is back for La Costa Perdida, but they resurrect their hallmark sound with a jumble of musical influences and sense of surprise. The wistful folk of “Come Down the Coast” coexists with the rocking blues of “You Got to Roll” and the trippy pastiche of “Too High for the Love-In”. In lesser hands, the contrasting tensions would reduce the album to a muddle of unrelated ideas, but the band uses these perspectives to build a nuanced sense of California, both past and present. This picture is too vaguely structured to be a concept album, but the thematic thread allows the ripples from one tune to rock another.

La Costa Perdida’s California is a place where love’s promise is still possible, though not fully realized. It’s where self-obsessed paranoia can be overwhelming and where the frantic meet the fatalistic to try to find their places. In addition to their normal elements, the band uses the mod, easy-listening sound of the 1960s and early ‘70s as a touchstone to evoke California’s past. Strings and sweet backing vocals drive the lazy sway of “A Love for All Time”, evoking the Carpenters preserved in amber. The opiated languor on “Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out” defangs the lyrical pessimism, leaving an almost cheery acceptance.

Lowery’s voice still holds traces of his trademark sneer, but he sounds wearier than he did on his recent solo outing, The Palace Guards (2011). On tracks like the title song and “Northern California Girls”, that raw tone fits the laid-back, restrained delivery. Despite its AM-radio-pop fade-in, this latter cut drifts into Jimmy Buffett territory. While Parrotheads would feel at home, Jonathan Segel’s violin anchors the song in the classic Camper van Beethoven sound of “Sad Lovers Waltz” (II & III, 1986) or “Good Guys and Bad Guys” (Camper Van Beethoven, 1986). As Lowery relays the siren call of the girls luring him back to the coast, he’s clearly resisting their entreaties. It sounds like he’s running from his past, but maybe he’s just trying to escape from the allure of surrendering to the flow. Either way, his resolve is weakening.

Eastern European tension underlies “Summer Days”. The instrumental first quarter suggests that Lowery lost his fight and has returned to his lost coast. When the lyrics come, they’re full of nostalgic regret. The song circles and builds into a series of peaks separated by brief moments of relief, and a sense of doom pervades the song, suggesting that we’ll all one day have to face our past.

Along with psychedelic guitar jams and Gypsy violins, Camper Van Beethoven has always included a dose of country-folk grooves to round out their sound. They continue that tradition here. “Peaches in the Summertime” serves up a hyper “Cotton-Eyed Joe” styled romp and “La Costa Perdida” harnesses conjunto for its loose narrative. It’s here that Lowery sums up the character he’s voiced for the whole album: “I’m a half-aware-o caballero Yanqui/ From a town just south of Brawley.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Recording review - Young Fathers, Tape One (2011/2013)

Phenomenal music lacks lyrical strength

"I want you
I need you
But there ain't no way I'm ever gonna love you."

What does Meatloaf have to do with Young Fathers' Tape One? Two out of three ain't bad. Truly great hip hop satisfies three criteria related to the context for the rap, the lyrical flow, and the strength of the words. The context --  the backing beats, the samples and music -- are what make you want to listen to the track. A well chosen sample or infectious rhythm grabs your ear and creates the mood for the cut. The rapper's flow expresses his personality, whether it's fast and tight or uses offbeat phrasing and internal rhymes. That persona sells the song. Ultimately, though, the most important thing is the words themselves. They can be funny or serious, sensitive insight or braggadocio, but the artist has to say something and make sense, at least internally.

Young Fathers do a phenomenal job creating context on Tape One. The killer low-fi sound, the mix of African rhythms and chants, and subtle electronic treatment built an exotic musical world. The three members form a melting pot, drawing on a rich background of influences. Alloysious Massaquoi is from Liberia, Kayus Bankole is of Nigerian descent, and Graham "G" Hastings is native to Edinburgh, where the band came together. Listen to the soulful reggae sound on "Romance" or the synth-driven Afro-beat groove that kicks off "Remains"; each song has a unique character. The band originally released the album privately as a mixtape and that cassette tape production quality is lovingly preserved in this label reissue. The hiss and soft distortion give the songs warmth, suggesting a history of passing hands and multi-generation dubs.

While the backing tracks are strong, the trio does a good job with their delivery, too. It's easy to tell the three apart both by sound and character. Massaquoi's accent is English with a hint of Scottish and he projects a rougher image that almost punk. Bankole sounds the most overtly African, with an accent and a sing-song style. Hastings reaches for a stronger American rapper voice. The arrangements take advantage of the differences, featuring some good hand-offs. The guys can sing too, so a song may split into separate raps, and then come together in a shared harmonic moment. "Sister" shows this off, along with a sweet musical context. The track starts with African women chanting over a simple synth line. Massaquoi raps first, his flow even, albeit a bit stiff. Bankole takes over with a call and response delivery and his voice is more playful. The three come together to sing the Afro-soul chorus, "Only your sister knows." Hastings kicks off the next verse with a balanced recitation that recalls De La Soul. A few songs later, they play a steady rap over a sparse beat on "Remains" to add a layer of tension to the moody music in the breaks.

That brings us to the most important quality, the lyrical content. Young Fathers go for an oblique, poetic style. They do find promising phrases that stick, but a few cool fragments aren't enough. Without enough of a conceptual skeleton, the parts never quite connect. "Deadline" tosses out a killer line, "We are pretenders, making the headlines," but can't pull together a real narrative. The song ends with, "Don't you turn my home against me/ Even if my house is empty," which is another great line, but it doesn't anchor anything. This is frustrating because the tune has a compelling sound, from the distorted beat start to the bass tone grind ending.

The music can be evocative, but a rap cut is crippled if the words are less coherent than Michael Stipe. "Sister" loses it's spark with lines like Bankole's:
Waterfalls appear in the centerfold
Bite your lady with your teeth like an animal
Like the desert in the night, it gets cold
To get the credit, scan your barcode
Later, "Rumbling" wanders even further into the weeds, taking a drunkard's walk past placebos, miscegenation and addiction. With the proper care this approach could be surrealistic, but it seems merely underdeveloped.

Maybe this is a harsh assessment of Tape One. To a casual ear, the music stands out as exceptional and that should carry some weight. But hip hop is all about the spoken word and the word deserves a higher standard than pop or other genres. As a full package, it's a decent album, but Young Fathers need to find their message before they'd be great. With a better sense of narrative, the band could deliver ideas that deserve the backing tracks. That might also help them extend their songs. With eight songs in 20 minutes, the album settles for interludes that are over before they reach fruition.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

World music - on location

I recently got the chance to travel for my day job. My flight to India routed through Germany, giving me a chance to take some vacation time to visit old friends and favorite cities. One of my important stops was Bamberg, a beautiful city with a rich heritage. Aside from the fine rauchbier and comfortable atmosphere, I looked forward to visiting my favorite music shop on the Grüner Markt. My mission was to buy Die Ärzte's latest album, Auch (2012). I've been a fan for a long time, appreciating their humor and catchy songs. I could just buy their albums online, but the packaging is often a special treat. For example, Auch comes in a small box and the liner notes unfold into a board game where the CD is the spinner.

While I was there, I decided to discover some new bands. Otto, the shopkeeper, served as my guide. Given that I liked the pop-punk flair of  Die Ärzte, he suggested Wizo and Troopers. Wizo had a good punk sound and flashes of humor while Troopers had more of a metallic punch. Even though they lacked the polish of Die Ärzte, I enjoyed them enough to bring home. The only downside is that these were older albums from the '90s. Still, they'll serve me well for my German practice.

Continuing on to India, I spent the bulk of my time in Mumbai. While I know a fair amount about German music, my knowledge of Indian artists is limited to Ravi Shankar, although I am familiar with the instrumentation. Rather than trying to immerse myself in the roots of Indian classical music, though, I looked for cultural bridges. I found Get Recharged!!! by Anuradha Pal. Pal is a renowned tabla player and her band on this project merges Western elements of jazz and classical into her traditional sounds. "Energy" (a live version is linked below) begins with a lush keyboard and piano intro before bringing in a rhythmic chant of bol or solkattu syllables. The hybrid sound juxtaposes the familiar and the exotic, creating a heady groove.

Pianist Rohhan Patel comes from the other direction. His album, Aseem (Boundless), seems more rooted in a rock foundation, using sitar and tabla to broaden the sound. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any samples to reference below. Finally, I picked up Naviin Gandharv's album, Silver Lining. This album features a unique instrument, the belabaharr, which is something like a violin with droning sympathetic strings. Gandharv's music is distinctly Indian, but offers a hint of new age exploration.

All of these albums reflect the shrinking size of our world. Influences ignore borders and extend local expression. They bridge cultures and, regardless of whether we speak the same language, give both sides a path to appreciation.

Die Ärzte - "Ist das noch Punkrock"

Wizo - "Geisterfahrer"

Troopers - "Kopf hoch"

Anuradha Pal - "Energy"

Naviin Gandharv - "The Royal Touch"

Naviin Gandharv - "Raag Megh" (not from the album, but it shows the belabaharr in a traditional setting)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Recording review - Erin McKeown, Manifestra (2013)

Political themes get the pop treatment

Erin McKeown's last full length release, Hundreds of Lions (2009) (review), jumped around genres and rejected pigeonholing. Her songwriting showcased strong band arrangements that scaled down well to her solo shows. In either context, her voice remained constant: assertive yet vulnerable, never quite surrendering to the song. McKeown's latest offering, Manifestra, continues Lions' move away from her singer/songwriter roots, taking advantage of the studio and a full backing band. While she still grazes across a wide range of styles, the new album embraces the trappings of pop more than she's done before.

"The Politician" starts the album with a slick, super-pop sheen. The vocal production emphasizes an Annie Lennox-style detachment that fits well with the deeply cynical lyrics, "If nobody knows, tell me what's the crime?" This song sets the mood for the whole project. But, despite the political themes running through Manifestra, McKeown largely overcomes the inherent problems that usually arise. She avoids condescension and stridency, relying on distance and metaphor to soften the edges. She keeps a strong focus on the music, but this is compromised by some poor production decisions: her message gets lacquered over, leaving a plastic perfection. She and her band are quite talented, but the heavy handed engineering blunts the impact, especially on the first couple of songs.

The album finally finds a better balance on "In God We Trust". The intro's skittering syncopation and low, simple keyboard line create a darker, conspiratorial mood. McKeown's knowing tone on the verses challenges, daring us to deny that the game is rigged. The music's polished tension, driven by a staccato guitar complements her tight vocal delivery. The chorus provides some crunchy guitar catharsis to break up the tune.

After the album passes through dreamy pop and updated shout blues, the moody title track stands out as the strongest ear worm in the lineup. "Manifestra" is rooted in a trivially simple guitar riff that shares loose family ties with Booker T. and the M.G.'s "Green Onions" and Tori Amos' "Cornflake Girl". But the bare-bones progression, polished guitar grind, and layered arrangement make a powerful combination. McKeown's spoken blues delivery sounds like a cross between Suzanne Vega and Native American rocker John Trudell. Wisely, she doesn't handcuff herself to speak-singing the whole song; instead. she mixes it up, drifting in and out of melody or slipping in some rap-style flow. Testifying without getting too preachy, her lyrics are an oblique ode to perseverance and a centered sense of morality. The lazy funk groove is infectious, begging for repeat plays.

Some of the later tracks hark back to the sound of Hundreds of Lions, including "Instant Classic", which is a duet with singer/songwriter Ryan Montbleau. This offers a taste of Ani DiFranco filtered through a pop aesthetic. Montbleau's more casual singing style makes for a nice contrast to McKeown's precision. "Baghdad to the Bayou", co-written with liberal icon Rachel Maddow also brings in additional singers. Tackling homeland security, foreign policy, and the oil industry, the funky Louisiana groove can't support the scope of the lyrics. It's interesting to compare it to "Diggin' in the Deep Blue Sea", recorded by David Bromberg and Keb' Mo'. The connections that McKeown and Maddow make are valid, but are hard to coalesce into three and a half minutes.

One last point to bring up is that physical copies of the CD are bundled with a second album, Civics, which features McKeown's solo acoustic performance of Manifestra's songs. Tracks like "The Politician" and "Proof" might turn out a little stronger in this context.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Recording review - Mystical Weapons, Mystical Weapons (2013)

Tiny dim sum tastes of improvisation

The spirit of improvisation allows that anything is possible, but in practice, players often play it too safe, meandering within the comfortable confines of blues and rock progressions or stultified jazz standards. Sure, there are experimental islands where the wild things are, but they’re often inhabited by self-absorbed madmen who flout convention like rebels without a cause. Mystical Weapons make a valiant effort and lay claim to a new utopian vision of instant composition. Even if they don’t fully distance themselves from self-indulgence, their new album features satisfying musical twists and fine playing.

The duo got their start in 2010 when Deerhoof opened for the Plastic Ono Band in Oakland. Sean Lennon had a show the next night in San Francisco and asked Deerhoof’s drummer, Greg Saunier, if he’d be interested in improvising a set. It went so well, they ended up in the studio trying to recapture the magic they found onstage. Mystical Weapons successfully conveys a sense of loose exploration and responsive playing as the pair riff from avant garde jazz to intense post-rock spectacle. Breaking the default jam band pattern, most of the tracks stick to pop song length or shorter, which either shows good judgment about audience patience or reflects a selective ear for editing. If anything, the shortest of these morsels seem too abbreviated, with promising ideas that don’t reach their potential. The two longer tracks maintain an interesting sense of direction, but they still keep it to the six minute range.

In a couple of brief interludes, the opening tracks ”Impossible Shapes” and “Mechanical Mammoth” provide a quick tour of the band’s wide ranging sonic map. Four simple measures of classic jazz piano on the first song offer no warning for progressive punch that follows; the soothing chords are buried under a quick roll and a snaking bass line takes over. Mystical Weapons channel an early period King Crimson intensity with bombastic drums and art rock chord changes. The spacy edges push the tune into a restrained psychedelic jam before the song beaches itself on a whining feedback tone crowned with shattered echo remnants. Those reverberations mutate and flow into the playful percussion of the second tune. Squeaks and tones punctuate a jazzy drumbeat like some of Frank Zappa’s experiments on Lumpy Gravy. The orchestration and odd rhythmic stutter conjure up a lumbering image of the title creature.

These initial gambits are like dim sum, sharing intriguing little tastes of improvised music. Mystical Weapons finally serves up a larger portion on “Whisper the Blue Tongue”. The trippy start balances Pink Floyd style psychedelia with a strong current of Miles Davis’ electric period jazz. The bass and drum backing evoke the groove behind Davis’ “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”. Guitar and keys stand in for the horns, but the jam feels lively and open as Lennon and Saunier build on each others parts. An avant garde edge is there, but the flickers of sound are accents rather than a dominating presence. Like the best improv, the song evolves and adapts to its environment. It’s so satisfying to drift along with the piece, surrendering to its organic order and development. While I would have easily savored another 10 minutes of exploration, the band lets the song find closure far earlier.

That discipline gets heavy handed though. On “Goddess Curlers”, the band revisits the prog rock sound of King Crimson. The music swirls dark and heavy over the expressive drums. Then the roiling tension breaks, allowing a new melodic sense of purpose to seize control. Rather than follow this promising shift, they quickly abandon it and the song grinds to a halt. It’s an invigorating minute and a half, but the moment proves too ephemeral. The following snippets are similarly frustrating. What earlier seemed like judicious editing decisions begin to feel capricious. It’s one thing to avoid self-indulgence, but they could stand to indulge the audience more.

Still, a free form approach to music entails risk; paths can lead into circles or peter out. It requires a Zen mindset where the journey is the reward rather than perfection. The scattering of short tracks may be the band’s way of documenting their travels. On the other hand, they may just reflect a compromise, padding out the more developed pieces to reach a reasonable running time for the album. Either way, the richer worlds that are discovered make Mystical Weapons a treat even if it doesn’t satiate the audience’s full hunger. There’s magic in Saunier and Lennon’s mashup mix of jazz, quirky percussion jams and heady art rock.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Recording review - Pere Ubu, Lady From Shanghai (2013)

Edgy intensity intrigues, but sometimes cloys

In my mind, the Talking Heads and Pere Ubu are inextricably linked by an edgy intensity, but that shallow connection is unfair to both bands. Arriving at around the same time, both acts centered on nervous, unlikely leaders and each helped establish the new wave iconoclast ideal, confidently creating strange music that ignored conventional formulas. But where David Byrne was socially awkward and soft-spoken, David Thomas was effusively manic and unapologetically odd. While the Talking Heads reached a larger audience with their art-school sensibility, Pere Ubu was unquestioningly more experimental and challenging. That was always part of the appeal, though. Appreciating the spasmodic rhythms and Thomas’ expressive yowls satisfied a hipster need for esoteric flavors. Like Captain Beefheart a decade earlier, Pere Ubu’s music made more sense after repeated sessions, even if it remained hard to explain.

 In sharp contrast with the mainstream, Thomas was more interested in exploring musical ideas than commercial success and he seemed ambivalent about keeping the band going. A brief flirtation with MTV popularity in 1989 with “Waiting For Mary” was their peak, rising above an underground cult cachet, and they’ve drifted in and out of hiatus since then.

With their more recent albums, Thomas has been more forthcoming about his artistic intent. Seemingly in response to their first album, The Modern Dance (1978), the press release for Pere Ubu’s latest asserts an anti-dance message, “Smash the hegemony of dance…Lady From Shanghai is an album of dance music fixed.” The opening tune, “Thanks”, tackles that mission head on. It’s vaguely structured like an electronic track with a solid beat and a simple repeated line, “You can go to Hell,” that satirizes Anita Ward’s disco hit “Ring my bell”, but the assembled layers sound more like organic tape overdubs than stiff digital loops. This send up proves to be one of the few concessions that the band makes to modern musical trends. Otherwise, the album largely relies on Pere Ubu’s classic new wave foundation.

Beyond the down-with-dance theme, the band offers up a companion book of “liner notes” called Chinese Whispers. Thomas explains the title as an alternate name for the game of “Telephone” and outlines how he’s used that metaphor as a strategy to develop Lady From Shanghai. The album is an outcome of this production technique rather than a compositional approach. Separating his role as producer from performance, he minimizes context for band members, sequestering them to develop and record their parts so the collected elements lead to an unpredictable result. This is similar to some of Frank Zappa’s techniques of conducting a band sans score. Tracks like the plaintive jazz deconstruction on “The Road Trip of Bipasha Ahmed” or the eerie beauty of “Mandy” derive their underlying tension from Thomas’ rootless process and unplanned juxtapositions.

At its best, Lady From Shanghai delivers the off-kilter sound that made Pere Ubu so attractive back in the new wave dawn. “Free White”, “And Then Nothing Happened”, and “Lampshade Man” all have the same fingerprint whorl of discordant post-punk guitars, sharp beats, and quirky, meandering vocals. Some of the stranger digressions present their own charming character. “Feuksley Ma’am, The Hearing” shows Thomas’ heavier production hand, packed with cut and pasted samples of Thomas Edison’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. Infused with static like a mutilated message from the past, it’s trippy and delightfully bizarre.

The project’s big weakness is that several songs are self-conscious in their oddity. “Feuksley Ma’am” distracts like a shiny bauble but doesn’t leave a deep impression. The experimental minimalism of “The Carpenter Sun” embraces an abstract collage of sound that revels in harsh tones and loose rhythms, but lacks focus. “414 Seconds” features Thomas slamming a poetic spoken word riff over clashing melodic lines. In a moment of confession, he asks, “Did I do that terrible thing only in my dream? Or is the dream simply a tawdry bid for self-deception?” The question’s relevance becomes a bit too meta for the piece.

It’s fitting that Thomas recommends in Chinese Whispers, “Reach a separate peace with Failure.” Things won’t be perfect because failure is inevitable; missing the mark slightly is a sign that Pere Ubu is still reaching for an admirable goal.

(This review originally appeared in Spectrum Culture)