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

Monday, March 31, 2014

Recording review - Matt Stevens, Lucid (2014)

Musical tiles coalesce into a more complicated mosaic

Matt Stevens’ latest solo sketchbook borrows cubist techniques to deconstruct his musical aesthetic and juxtapose all of the perspectives into a single work. Any given point has its locus of continuity and the songs flow into one another in a meaningful way, but on first impression, the project as a whole seems scattershot as it slides from driving post-rock through acoustic art rock to jazzy interludes. But it turns out that Lucid is well-titled, after all. Step back and take a look at the album in toto and you'll see that Stevens draws on the looped guitar experiments of his early work and the more intense exploration of his recent work with The Fierce and the Dead to assert himself. Like Walt Whitman, he is large, he contains multitudes. And although he lets all of these musical personas loose, he’s also invited a host of talented players to join Any given angle or track provides a different window on Stevens’ development as a player.

My first introduction to Stevens was his 2010 solo album Ghost (review), with its wonderfully evocative acoustic guitar loops and jazzy touches. Some of the new tunes call back to Ghost’s sound, like the Beatlesque jazz of “KEA” or the Latin-tinged post-rock of “The Other Side”, which is reminiscent of Ghost’s “Burnt Out Car”. At the same time, Stevens’ heavier tone with The Fierce and the Dead is also well represented, especially on standout tracks like “Unsettled”. Bandmate Stuart Marshall provides the phenomenal drum work that locks the tune down with taut rhythms and tight flourishes. Marshall’s cage barely holds the flailing tantrum of guitar in check. That discipline supports the raw chaotic expression, creating a dynamo of energy that sounds like some kind of head-banging King Crimson mutant. Speaking of Crimson, drummer Pat Mastelotto lends his solid, open-fill drumming to the angular guitar exercise of “The Ascent”. The progression is torn from the Robert Fripp handbook, but the metallic guitar borrows more from players like Steve Vai. Stevens channels a vein of pure emotion and vents out against the mathematical structure of the piece.

That passion and flair set up the sharp transition to my favorite track on Lucid, “Coulrophobia”. “The Ascent” drops away, leaving a vacuum. Tentative, moody notes drip softly into a starlit pool, like Porcupine Tree covering “Echoes” by Pink Floyd. A nervous shimmer of tension lurks at the edges, but never quite comes into focus. Like a dream, there is no control as the tune slowly unfolds at a calculated pace. The nervous energy can’t shake the calm lack of volition and it builds towards a thin trickle of terror. The piece summons more of a sense of sleep paralysis than scary clowns for me, but the savory element of fear certainly comes through. Unfortunately, the song is over all too quickly, moving on to the moody drive of the title track.

In fact, with the exception of the epic piece, “The Bridge”, which runs almost 12 minutes, most of these songs are shorter vignettes. This is what gives Lucid its sketchbook feel, but this, too, is part of Stevens' artistic sense. Where many of his post-rock peers drag out their songs into long-running feasts, he prefers to make instrumental tapas, which showcase a idea with clarity and then set up the next exciting flavor. Lucid collects all of these into strange collection of contrasts and surprises, but the net result is a great musical meal.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 3/31

Sorry for the terse list this time. Rest assured, though, that I took the time to find the best shows I could for the coming week.

Thursday, 3 April (Summit Music Hall, Denver CO)
...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead

Trail of Dead tap into a rich swirl of emotion in all of their work and their live shows are phenomenal. This tour features a full performance of their classic Source Tags And Codes album.

Friday, 4 April (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Gary Numan

As one of the pioneers of synth wave, it would be easy to assume that Gary Numan is content to go through the motions and reprise old hits. Instead, he's got new material  - Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind) (2013) - and he's making solid, modern electronic music.

Saturday, 5 April (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Del The Funky Homosapien

Del just passed through town a couple of months ago with Deltron 3030, but it's always good to catch his tight internal rhymes and idiosyncratic flow.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mixtape: A well-reasoned discussion of the issues

It's time again for another themed mixtape. Enjoy!

It seems like every time the family gets together, things come to a head and there’s a little drama. This should be a very familiar vignette. The setting: a kitchen or living room within easy reach of a well-stocked bar. The cast: a hodge-podge of values and beliefs, somehow embodied in a single related group and their assorted in-laws

(YouTube playlist)

Ten Years After – “I’d Love to Change the World” (A Space In Time)

Frankly, I’d be happy to just sit in the corner and nurse my beer, but my teabagger uncle is holding forth, sarcastically mocking concerns about economic inequality as mere socialism, “Tax the rich/ Feed the poor/ Til there are no rich no more.” Sucked into the conversation against my better sense, I’m feeling no more charitable than my uncle. But as soon as I start, it sets him off. Why couldn’t I have kept my big mouth shut?

Rush – “Anthem” (Fly By Night)

Uncle Frank immediately gets that know-it-all tone in his voice. He thinks he’s being quite equitable as he condescendingly quotes Ayn Rand. He seems ignorant that, much like mentioning Hitler, no real exchange of ideas can occur once Rand is part of the debate. His bluster winds down as he emphatically hammers his last points home.

The Beatles – “We Can Work It Out” (single)

If my first mistake was setting down my beer and raising my voice, my second error is appealing to reason and trying to make peace. I acknowledge our differences and suggest that he appreciate my perspective as well. I lean back, comfortable with the higher ground I’ve chosen for myself.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “I Won’t Back Down” (Full Moon Fever)

Facepalm! Rather than defusing the situation, I seem to have made things worse. Frank has the nerve to accuse me of talking down to him and the idiot digs in his heels.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – “If 6 Was 9” (Axis: Bold As Love)

At this point, I start looking for an exit strategy. I’d rather just be mellow and enjoy the glow from the beers and some of that Rocky Mountain air. This whole debate doesn’t seem nearly as important to me anymore. “Whatever, Uncle Frank, I’m over it.”

The Flaming Lips – “Fight Test” (Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots)

I tried to let the whole thing drop, but Frank is still looking pretty pissed off. On top of attacking my politics, he’s started rambling about my lack of values. It was pointless to have begun this argument, but now he’s painting me as some kind of wishy-washy, liberal coward. I’d like to tune him out – and I probably should – but he’s making me regret my non-confrontational stance.

Todd Snider – “Conservative, Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” (East Nashville Skyline)

Okay, I’ve had enough. I finally unload and call him out for what he is. Like a dam bursting, I can’t stop myself from letting the vitriol stream out. Am I really resorting to an ad hominem attack? Sure, but this hominem deserves every word of it. It feels good to have finally gotten this off my chest.

Reel Big Fish – “You Don’t Know” (Why Do They Rock So Hard?)

Frank’s initial response is every bit as erudite as I might have expected. “Fuck off? Is that all you’ve got?” But he steamrolls forward. He is seriously mad, but I’m starting to realize two things. The first is that I think my remarks really hurt his feelings. The second is that some of my other relatives around the table are nodding their heads like I’m the bad guy. Could they be right?

Green Day – “Know Your Enemy” (21st Century Breakdown)

No way! I’ve had to listen to this blowhard every year when the family gets together and I’ve had enough. I know exactly what he is and I’m not wrong to confront him. I don’t care whether he likes it or not, but now it’s my turn to not back down.

Die Ärzte – “Die Hard” (auch)

Now it’s on. I can’t remember who threw the first punch, but I know we each landed a couple before we were pulled apart. Who’s a liberal coward now?

Barenaked Ladies – “Angry People” (Barenaked Ladies Are Men)

Well, this reunion has certainly gone well. Uncle Frank has got an ice pack for his nose and my knuckles hurt more than the throbbing in my cheek. The worst part is listening to Aunt June and my mother cluck their snide remarks about male posturing.

Nick Lowe – “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?” (The New Favourites of...Brinsley Schwarz)

I step out onto the back porch just to get away from the noise and disapproval. After a few minutes, the door opens behind me and Frank comes out with a couple of fresh brews. He may be a political moron, but he’s family…

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Recording review - That 1 Guy, Poseidon's Deep Water Adventure Friends (2014)

A nautical concept album, orchestrated with absurdist flair

That 1 Guy's latest album is all wet. The first release in a projected four-part "Magicland" series, Poseidon's Deep Water Adventure Friends is a concept album anchored down in the ocean depths. The individual songs are all connected through that nautical theme, although the continuity ebbs and flows. But even if the narrative is a bit disjointed, That 1 Guy (Mike Silverman) keeps listeners engaged with his usual mix of Frank Zappa-style absurdism and storytelling flair.

Silverman's fans are already familiar with his showmanship and technical chops on his self-designed instrument, the Magic Pipe. Something like a high tech diddley bow, the pipe combines two bass-string shafts and a collection of synthesizer triggers. Silverman performs as a one man band, bowing, plucking, and tapping his way to a wide range of sounds. Although his act is best appreciated live, his recorded work is plenty entertaining, even without the visual impact. Poseidon's Deep Water Adventure Friends continues that with catchy songs and full arrangements.

041 That1Guy
The album sets sail with "The Great Navigator", with the Magic Pipe providing the creaking sway of ropes, wood, and canvas. Ambient sounds back the cello-like tones, contributing to the mood. Silverman gives this instrumental prelude a rich, cinematic sound, full of grandeur. With this send off, the adventure really begins with "Infinite Depths at the Bottom of the Sea". Here, Silverman summons the post-rock excitement and optimism of early Styx and Rush, with staccato arpeggios and windmill chords and an undercurrent of electronica. His voice is deep and resonant like the mature Iggy Pop as he begins, "It used to be the greatest tale that's ever been told/ And it can't compare to what we're gonna see and where we're gonna go." He continues to set up a mythology of mystery under the ocean. The music feels adventurous as it melds Indian/East Asian electro beats with a progressive rock aesthetic. His wordplay here is really fun, "And we'll never get away to infinity/ Because the infinite's only in its infancy/ And when the infants all swim away to infamy/ At the bottom of the sea..." He relates the tale of a crew lost in lateral motion on the sea's surface, but it becomes clear that they were destined to head in a different direction

This leads to the arpeggiated excitement of "Poseidon", where Silverman portrays the underwater god with a fathoms deep pitch-shifted voice. The verses create a sense of expectation, but they're punctuated by a crunchy rock vamp. That heavy sound is revisited in the driving grind of "Electramafied", which also recalls Geddy Lee's work with Rush.

Silverman closes out the album by returning his adventurers to the land in "The Breakers and the Brine". All in all, the story itself is relatively shallow; his characters had some interesting encounters and they take stock during this tune, but it's not particularly linear. That 1 Guy makes it explicit that this is only "the first of four seasons," so more clarity may be forthcoming. Rather than get hung up on the narrative, though, it's probably best to just enjoy the songs and their shared context. The music hangs together well, with a stronger sense of Indian rhythms and electronic grooves than his earlier releases. He's always incorporated synth beats in his work, but they're more pervasive here, perhaps because he's moved away from the butt-shaking funk feel he's often favored in the past. I miss some of that visceral thump, but Silverman is pushing himself artistically. The pieces on Poseidon's Deep Water Adventure Friends feel more orchestrated but still retain his unique musical voice and vision. I'm glad to have joined him on this outing and I'm looking forward to the next installment from Magicland.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Front Range recommended shows 3/24

Taking March out like a lion...

Tuesday, 25 March (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
Team Spirit

033 Team Spirit I saw Team Spirit and Skaters together at Viceland during SXSW last year. Two completely different bands, but they shared a hard driving edge and a similar sense of abandon. It's nice to have Team Spirit coming through again -- Ayad Al Adhamy and his confederates always put on a hell of a show (review) and the synergy between them and Skaters will be strong. You'll need plenty of energy (and hearing protection) to keep up, but Larimer Lounge will definitely rock out.

Thursday, 27 March (The Roxy Theatre, Denver CO)
Smile Empty Soul

Continuing in the hard rock vein, Smile Empty Soul will be headlining at the Roxy. They have a good grind and some solid shred, along with tight harmonies. I can hear a bit of Soundgarden in there, but they're anything but retro and they have a better sense of dynamics.

Saturday, 29 March (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
St. Vincent

Fresh on the heels of her new eponymous album, St. Vincent is making the rounds and the word is that her show is just as powerful as her new release. St. Vincent embraces a personal darkness with a beautiful economy; if she can tap that on stage, it will be stunning.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Recording review - The Glitch Mob, Love Death Immoratlity (2014)

Insistent rhythm, flow, and physicality

It all begins with an organic splash of guitar, wrapped in a light haze of feedback. Anticipation continues to build as the Glitch Mob launches into “Mind of a Beast”. A busy keyboard figure restlessly loops within cage bars made of simple, solid chords. The percussion comes in, tapping into a well of nervous energy. A dark grind of bass and start-stop beats propel the song forward, but it flags all too soon. Barely started, the track fades down and dissipates. Of course, this is merely setting the stage for a stunning resurrection. After a second of silence, the tune returns in full force. Wheeling electronic acid trails weave through a marching Goliath beat that splinters into glitchy reflections before falling back into sync. The motif is not particularly intricate, but the band imbues it with a monomaniacal focus and then puts it to the test. Ratcheting electronics shatter against the implacable wall of its confident intent. This is the Glitch Mob at their best: like a cinematic score or videogame theme, the music tells a story filled with action.

Their debut release, 2010’s Drink the Sea, excelled at combining this kind of narrative sense with phenomenal electronic chaos. “Mind of the Beast” provides an auspicious start for the band’s second full-length album and shows that they are still capable of grand gestures. It turns out, though, that Love Death Immortality is not trying to cover the same ground as Drink the Sea. Instead of exotic sonic locales and rich tidal arrangements, the Glitch Mob seems more interested in exploring the rhythmic drive of EDM. The net result is a very listenable album, but it’s not as groundbreaking as their earlier work.

Songs like “Skullclub” and “Fly By Night Only” set the standard. They settle into a tight danceable beat and then toss out a ton of hooks. Fortunately, though, the band still plays with the form enough to keep things interesting. “Skullclub” starts mellow with a short piano riff and ramps up the energy while layering in keyboards. A heavily processed vocal kicks in, “We are the wild ones,” and then the race is on. The zipper bass, sharp drum machine punches and stutter-cut vocal samples come together like a club-friendly remix. Catchy as hell, these tunes are geared for getting the crowd dancing when the Glitch Mob goes on tour.

Even if insistent rhythm is at the heart of the album, Love Death Immortality recognizes the need for dynamic shifts and delivers some very nice change ups. “Becoming Harmonious” luxuriously slides into a dreamy, hypnotic zone. Guest singer Metal Mother (Taara Tati) wordlessly vamps for a bit and then drops the lyrics with stark simplicity, “Becoming harmonious/ Sensory confluence/ See through me/ My only wish/ To animate experience.” The slow-burn sizzle is deeply pop, but the languorous tempo is a wonderful contrast to the surrounding tracks. The closing song, “Beauty of the Unhidden Heart”, has a similar pop character. This time the femme vocals are provided by the Oakland duo, Sister Crayon. The soothing electro-pop flow favors soft washes of strings and water drop ripples of harp, but it also accommodates an edgier synth solo and tight break beats.

Some fans may be disappointed that the Glitch Mob isn’t pushing Drink the Sea’s creative vision or scaling similar artistic peaks and it’s a fair criticism. But if their debut was intended to impress with flashy extremes, Love Death Immortality is more about flow and physicality. It may not make as many waves, but it delivers plenty of satisfying moments.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Recording review - Uncle Tupelo, No Depression (Legacy Edition, 2014)

Spawning a genre and mining musical truth

It’s a bittersweet pleasure to listen to Uncle Tupelo’s debut album No Depression with 24 years of hindsight. You can hear the band discovering themselves and developing their sound. It’s a snapshot from before the rancor set in. Their label, Rockville Records, hadn’t screwed them yet and the power struggle between Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy still lay ahead. Even though the acrimony and split would lead to Farrar’s Son Volt and Tweedy’s Wilco, each of which have made some great music, it’s painful to listen to the band bare themselves in these raw songs and think of what would follow. Their simple sincerity and naïveté made this big impact that the band itself could not outlast and their debut remains fresh and relevant. No Depression captures the beginning of a groundswell that had its roots in the cow punk sounds of X, the Blasters and the Beat Farmers. Tempered by firmer leanings toward folk rock and country, this album has been largely credited with spawning a new genre that never came up with a good enough name; alt-country, Americana or the eponymous “No Depression” have all sat in as labels, but none quite satisfy. Less than a name, it all comes down to the music and attitude.

This is not the first time the album has been reissued. In 2003, after the band had recovered their rights to their albums from Rockville, Uncle Tupelo re-released them with Columbia/Sony Legacy. The 2003 version tacked on some covers and alternate recordings along with liner notes from drummer Mike Heidorn. This Legacy Edition is geared for the completest fan. It includes two CDs loaded with 35 tracks. In addition to all of the songs on the last reissue, it includes the full set of songs from their 1989 demo, Not Forever, Just for Now, along with several songs from their 1987 cassette demo, Colorblind and Rhymeless. Although that seems like a lot, most of the demo material consists of earlier versions of the same set of songs. Although No Depression benefited from production work by Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, there wasn’t a lot of record label interference to reshape the tunes from the band’s demo. Not Forever, But for Now made such a strong impression, that most of the changes were in the mixing and engineering, with a few instrumentation tweaks. The downside is that these demos don’t generally shed a lot of light on the group’s development. Still, Slade and Kolderie did tone down some of the rootsy elements and give many of the songs a heavier drive.

In particular, they did a fine job of capturing Farrar’s weathered voice and fattening the songs with a stronger bass response. Comparing the opening track, “Graveyard Shift”, with its 1989 demo version, the two follow the same arrangement, but Farrar’s performance has more emotional depth on the album recording and Tweedy’s bass line jumps out. The title cut shows a bigger difference. The album take is a simple folk rendition, with Farrar slurring his way through the words like Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. By contrast, their demo digs down into a front-parlor bluegrass feel, with banjo and crowd harmonies.

But it’s “Whiskey Bottle” that shows the producers’ heaviest influence. The song opens with the sweet lowing of pedal steel guitar following the acoustic progression. It’s the strongest track on the album, belying the title completely. No depression? Hardly. This is a song about hitting bottom and dealing with the damage. Farrar wearily lays out his situation, “Persuaded, paraded, inebriated, in doubt.” But the chorus is defiant with cathartic distortion as he growls, “A long way from happiness/ In a three-hour-away town/ Whiskey bottle over Jesus/ Not forever, just for now.” The dynamic drop from overdriven chorus to singing steel guitar verses is perfect. The 1989 demo is also powerful, but doesn’t hit as hard. On the album, Slade and Kolderie chose to swap out Farrar’s harmonica for pedal steel, which was an interesting choice. The silky smoothness adds a patina of distance where the harp is more wistful and overtly maudlin. The tempo on the demo is also a bit more hesitant. On their own, Uncle Tupelo evokes some of Bruce Springsteen’s respect for a lowly, everyman character. The album take sharpens the emotional load by tightening the arrangement and coaxing a stronger performance. The live acoustic version, which was included on the 2003 release, leans towards the demo, so this isn’t a completely new revelation. But hearing the difference between the demo and album shows how, even though both are playing the hard chorus against the vulnerable verses, the album production nails that dynamic punch.

Aside from all the alternate versions filling out the second disc, there are a pair of tracks that haven’t been associated with No Depression before. The first is the raucous “I Got Drunk”, presented here in three flavors: the 1990 single, the 1989 demo take and the 1987 cassette version. The bigger surprise is the psychedelic instrumental, “Pickle River”, from Colorblind and Rhymeless. It’s an odd outlier from Uncle Tupelo’s canon. As a part of that earliest demo, it was probably intended to indicate a greater range of what the band could do.

Listen to the two CDs in order or playlist them together to hear the songs evolve over the three years of recording. Either way, No Depression still stands as an iconic album. But it’s not so important what came out of it – the alt-country genre, inspiration for other acts or spin-off bands – instead, it’s all about what Uncle Tupelo sought out and accomplished. They blended the grounded sound of country and folk with restless rock energy to find a musical truth. Not forever, just for now.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 3/17

A couple of great shows this week:

Friday, 21 March (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)
Saturday, 22 March (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)
That 1 Guy

041 That1GuyEvery time I catch one man band Mike Silverman, I walk away amazed. His playful stage presence, wacky presentation, and silly song topics may set him up as a novelty, but his incredible musicality, showmanship, and ass-shaking grooves make him impossible to dismiss. Whether performing alone or pairing up with Buckethead as the Frankenstein Brothers, That 1 Guy is guaranteed to entertain.

Keep an ear out for his new album, Poseidon's Deep Water Adventure Friends, which was just released (review coming soon)

Friday, 21 March (Herman's Hideaway,  Denver CO)
Saturday, 22 March (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)

After a 17 year break in regular touring and four years of putting the group to bed, the subdudes are back and making the rounds with the original lineup. So far, it's a fairly short tour: these two Colorado shows and another in New Orleans this May. If anything, that makes this even more of a special event.

The subdudes' rootsy Americana rock was a party mainstay for me back in the '90s, providing a soundtrack of good times and great friends. Their music works because it doesn't matter if you're just dancing away to the solid syncopation or settling into some deep listening; the songs work in either context.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Concert review - Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks with Tyvek

Wednesday 12 February 2014 (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)

This was a mid-week show, which limited the attendance a bit. The openers played to a thin crowd, but the venue filled up by the time the Jicks came out.

006 Tyvek Step one for rock show domination: soften up the crowd a little. Detroit punk trio Tyvek took on the task with ferocity. Despite the sparse crowd, they thrashed their hardcore hearts out. While the rhythm section held down the throbbing darkness and frantic beat, frontman Kevin Boyer flailed away at an old Silvertone guitar that had been to Hell and back.

020 Tyvek Boyer provided most of the dynamic for the band, nervously pacing and making sure that every screaming note was physically wrenched from his guitar. Although the bass and drums were more introverted, drummer Beren Elkine brought a tight focus to her playing, making every heavy strike count.

009 Tyvek The audience swelled over the course of their set, but seemed patient enough to appreciate the fresh young blood and their noisy assault.

059 Stephen Malkmus-Jicks The obvious second step for control of the show would be for Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks to come out and ride Tyvek's energy, maybe digging deep in their back catalog for something suitably punchy, like “Dark Wave” from 2003’s Pig Lib. Instead, the band followed a Jujitsu strategy and led off with “Tigers”, a quirky pop gem from their last album, Mirror Traffic (2011). From there, they quickly moved into material from their newest release that came out in January, Wig Out at Jagbags. Over the course of the show, they’d eventually play most of that album, only skipping a couple of tunes (“Chartjunk” and “Surreal Teenagers”). The new material continues tempering the wilder experimentation of the band’s earlier work, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for formulaic dullness. While the studio versions are polished, their live arrangements took plenty of liberties with the songs to transform them, whether by slipping into jam band digressions or letting the solos drift off the reservation into off-kilter dimensions. That was most evident on their performance of “J Smoov”; it captured the recording’s restrained ballad feel, beginning with a similar jazzy guitar intro, but the second solo mutated the piece with a trippy post-rock jam of heavily echoed guitar and dreamy keyboards.

081 Stephen Malkmus-Jicks It’s become a common refrain to note that Malkmus has been playing with the Jicks for longer than he was with Pavement. All of that time could explain why he seemed so much more relaxed and content on stage in Denver, but the more likely reason was that he has created a perfect home for himself with the Jicks. Rather than a posturing as a rock god, he was content to shrug into the role of ironic slacker.

105 Stephen Malkmus-JicksHis stage patter was improvised and occasionally awkward, but delivered with equal amounts of sincerity and nervous diffidence. He had clearly picked up on some local character, so he could strain for connection with the crowd, “Cherry Creek is cool. Do you all skateboard there?” Of course, it was arch enough to showcase the irony. Still, Malkmus was most comfortable in the middle of a song, whether bouncing on his toes to the beat or slinging his guitar behind his head for a flashy solo. As the controlling pivot point in the band, he could abandon himself in spinning angular riffs or spiral in on an echoing melody, confident that the other players would provide the structure and the balance.

093 Stephen Malkmus-JicksThis doesn’t mean that they were delegated to mere supporting roles, though; the other three musicians each made strong contributions to the show. Aside from Joanna Bolme’s solid bass work – she anchored the dangerous shadows of “Shibboleth” and drove the time signature changes on “Spazz” – she had a strongly grounded presence, offering the occasional sarcastic remark or well-timed flash of amusement as commentary.

076 Stephen Malkmus-JicksOpposite Malkmus on the stage, the versatile Mike Clark effortlessly shifted from guitar to keys, often during the same song. He maintained a casual aplomb whether locking in with Malkmus on intricately aligned twin guitar leads or contributing a fluid synth run. He also added his own humorous touches. At the end of the closing song, “Forever 28”, the band was winding down and Clark shifted his keyboard part into the familiar changes for Styx’s “Come Sail Away”. Drummer Jake Morris immediately picked up on this and started to sing the refrain, inspiring the crowd to join in. Morris had already provided most of the backing vocals during the set.

048 Stephen Malkmus-Jicks The encore featured “Asking Price” and “Stick Figures In Love”. which Malkmus described as their own two-song equivalent to “Come Sail Away”. Then they covered Steve Miller’s “Swingtown”, building it into a Southern-fried jamfest. The last entry on the set list just said “Pavement”, which was another sign that Malkmus has come to terms with his old band. For this night, they rocked their way through “Box Elder”. With the crowd clamoring for more, the band had a quick meeting to pick one last song to close out this first show of the tour. They took their positions and counted it out. The whole hall recognized “Baby C’mon” from the opening riff and swayed along. It was a perfect “Happy Ending” from the Jicks.

114 Stephen Malkmus-Jicks

More photos on my Flickr.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Recording review - Be Forest, Earthbeat (2014)

Dynamic tension between beat and breath

Be Forest pulls against themselves, fighting their own nature. The vocals float above everything, wrapped in gauzy wisps of flickering reverb, but the dreamy atmospherics are anchored by insistent, earthly rhythms. Like an ethereal saint tempted by pleasures of the flesh, the beat challenges all attempts to disengage. The band’s aspirations of reaching a higher plane are dashed time and again, whether it’s the dance-friendly beat of “Colours” or the tribal drumming behind “Airwaves”, but that conflict is what makes Earthbeat worth seeking out. Moody dithering alone can be mildly interesting, but adding tension and resistance lays down the bones of a story. And story is particularly important here because the lyrics offer little connection, even on the non-instrumental tracks where the vocals are hard to distinguish.

The conflict at the core of Earthbeat becomes immediately apparent on the opening track, “Totem”, whose heartbeat beginning asserts the physicality of the project. The guitar comes in, so swaddled in echo and soft-focused flange that the texture resembles a keyboard wash. Multiple layers weave together over a blur of bass, building in tempo and energy. The melody is thoughtful but the simple tom and stick-work are implacable, asserting that some things are unchangeable.

Aside from the dynamic tension between beat and breath, Be Forest is adept at painting different sonic landscapes. Where “Totem” is reflective, “Ghost Dance” harnesses a more nervous energy. The stark rhythm and reverb-soaked guitar riff evoke the wide open Western skies. A Native American flute echoes the earnest line of the guitar and sets up Costanza Delle Rose’s dreamy voice. The piece could work like a soundtrack item from “Twin Peaks”. The echo-laden melody sounds like something Angelo Badalamenti would write and Della Rose neatly fills in the Julee Cruise vocal part. As a guitar spins in place around itself like a dancer, it becomes a focal point, absorbing all of the wishes and regret that a life could contain.

That interpretation is fully based on feel, rather than lyrical details. For the most part, it’s hard to tease out specific phrases. “Captured Heart” offers an exception, with a great opening line, “I would like to fall in love/ And then have a broken heart.” Delle Rose sings her lines like a thoughtful goddess daydreaming of the allure of surrendering to mortality. Her tone is soft and cottony, but it’s undercut by tight drum loop syncopation that indicates the trap of that thinking. After some ambiguity and hints of darkness, the chorus concludes, “We saw far and now we’re dust.” The overall feel of the song is danceable post-punk, but I really liked the opening riff that fittingly recalls the Smithereens’ “Behind the Wall of Sleep.”

The best track on Earthbeat, “Airwaves”, also makes a vintage reference, this time to Joy Division’s “Transmission”. Be Forest borrows their inspiration’s melodic bass, tribal drums, light keys and guitar accents to drive the upbeat post-punk dreaminess. Shards of guitar create a mirror maze that draws the listener into a hypnotic groove. But it’s a Sufi-style head trip; the drums propel the piece and encourage a dervish dance of capitulation. This Italian band may long for an escape to otherworldly, utopian planes, but the visceral attraction of rhythm will always have some hold over them.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 3/10

Wednesday, 12 March (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
Saturday, 15 March (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
The Travelin' McCourys

Bluegrass legend Del McCoury assembled a fine group of musicians for his band, including his two sons, Ronnie and Rob. Del instilled such a love of music in his boys that they take the rest of the band out under the name of the Travelin' McCourys. This also allows them to branch out a little and reach new audiences. This show also features Billy Nershi from String Cheese Incident.

Saturday, 15 March (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)
De La Soul

De La Soul recently made their back catalog available to fans as free downloads. I myself took advantage to pick up AOI:Bionix, which I had somehow missed. Some cynics have pointed out that this was just bait to generate interest in an upcoming tour and a new album planned for release later on this year. Sure, trying to get sample clearance on all those old releases would be fairly challenging, but I say it doesn't matter what their motives are. De La Soul has been one of the more interesting hip hop acts over the years, with a keen creativity in their rhymes and mixes. The downloads are a sweet gift and everyone should catch their live show regardless of whether they've bribed us or not! This tour also includes Latyrx, who are always a joy to catch.

Sunday, 16 March (Soiled Dove, Denver CO)
W Kamau Bell

Whether you're a fan of his tour The Bell Curve or his late show Totally Biased, this is a great chance to catch one of America's more thoughtful standup comedians. It's true that his road show never quite did end racism in about an hour, but his humor does open up some lines of communication. So, will it be an evening of raising racial consciousness and poking fun of white people? Well, yes, but it will also be funny as hell and I'm pretty sure he'll get everyone in his sights at one time or another. His show on FX didn't last, so help a man support his family.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Recording review - Sleepy Sun, Maui Tears (2014)

Concept album? Only beguiling distortion and balanced jams

Too many neo-psychedelic bands mistake freeform anarchy for true psychedelia, thinking that a confused and disoriented listener is functionally equivalent to one who’s been transported. Others assume that they can alchemically transform formulaic progressions into gold if they wrap them in enough distortion and echo. On Maui Tears, Sleepy Sun rises above their lesser peers, delivering a phenomenal album that invites hours of quality replay time. Pick your favorite headphones or, better yet, let it shine out through a good set of mains and share it with your neighbors. The songs are built upon interesting structures, offering plenty of depth to support open-ended jams that never become untethered or trapped in their own bubble. The band has also honed their dynamic sense over the last couple of years to accommodate cathartic growls and ringing highs, but also open spaces with nuanced details. The individual songs offer plenty of opportunities for sonic indulgence, but the pacing and variety across the tracks make this a wonderful collection. The musical feel is consistent even if the tunes vary quite a bit, which uncovers another wise decision—Sleepy Sun also avoids a third trap common to the genre: relying on a simple unifying theme. Concept albums are cool, but the risk of cliché or pomposity is daunting.

The album opens with “The Lane”, a tune that the band has had in their live set for a while now. Jangling guitars channel exultant sunshine and show off the core of Sleepy Sun’s sound. Matt Holliman and Evan Reiss harmonize their two guitars, blending melodic lines into a shifting current of warm fuzz and overdriven tubes. The two parts lock into formation and then split apart before finding common ground again. Underneath, the bass takes on a skeletal hint of rhythm guitar to round out the aural spectrum. The Velvet Underground influence is there in the droning undertones, but Sleepy Sun favors a sweeter balance. The echoing juxtaposition of competing parts is filtered through a distorted shimmer and then stuffed into a thoroughly saturated mix. Frontman Bret Constantino’s vocals contribute to the VU comparison, sunk deep within the mix and draped with slapback echo like Nico’s parts. Distant and buried, it can be hard to wrench the lyrics free, but when they come through, the imagery is heady. On the thoughtful bridge, Constantino sings, “In a pool of roses, we could swim/ It’s only a grand illusion of our earthly whim, a glimpse.” Glimpses are enough to beguile.

The second track demonstrates the power of contrasts. After “The Lane” crashes down, “Words” rises immediately. This time, the twin guitars are clean and acoustic, each one fingerpicking its own chord voicings to build the gentle interlocked structure. The stereo separation splits the two, making it easy to distinguish them. A slab of electric guitar surfs in with the vocal, crackling with buzzing overtones, but, despite the crunch, the acoustics are still clear and strong. The combination leaves the song open for interpretations: a delicate surface can’t quite hide the grind of doubt and conflict. Or maybe the structure is what keeps the negativity in check. Either way, the complexity offers enough distortion to connect to the earlier track but this song finds its own direction.

Part of the album’s appeal also lies in the band’s development. This slacker psychedelia phase has bloomed since singer Rachel Fannan left the band in 2010. Fannan contributed a folk-rock flavor and her voice could be haunted or playfully innocent. Losing her forced Constantino’s personality to the surface: a raw need for a grand gesture, swaddled in oblivion-seeking waves of sound. Where 2012’s Spine Hits (review) set the foundation for the band’s evolution, Maui Tears solidifies the aesthetic while expanding their palette and control. Songs like “11:32” may start with a chaotic snarl of feedback, full of thunder and whine, but they harness that energy with a solid, mid-tempo drumbeat that powers a guitar riff that’s as unswerving as a fixated three-year-old. The verses punch like Jack White sitting in with a no-name garage-psych outfit. The music swirls before dipping into the mellow bridge, redolent with melting whammy bar detune. The spacy interlude celebrates a moment of hang time before falling back into the drive. It’s a tribute to the band’s collective vision that they can pull off these shifts without losing coherence or momentum.

The album closes with a climactic opus. The title track runs well over 10 minutes and channels Pink Floyd’s “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” along with fragments of early King Crimson, Led Zeppelin and Porcupine Tree. From the simple bass line at the start, accompanied by light stickwork rhythm, to the acid-burned guitar jam in the middle, it’s a long, meandering trek along the fringes of a questionable head-trip that culminates in a tribal rite finish, mediated by hallucinogens. Complete with flute solo. It’s the perfect bit of excess to wrap up the album and inspire yet another round with the demons.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Recording review - Eleni Mandell, Let's Fly a Kite (2014)

Retro stylings and nurturing serenity

Mothers can be nurturing and loving, but they can also be fierce. Eleni Mandell’s last album, I Can See the Future (2012), caught her at the cusp of motherhood—she made that album in the wake of a breakup while pregnant with twins. Unsurprisingly, that project marked a new chapter in her music, and she abandoned the richly shadowed edges she showed on 2009's Artificial Fire (review) in favor of a stripped down simplicity. Let’s Fly A Kite carries that sound further, digging in and grounding some of the ethereal moments. While there is a clear thread running through these releases—Artificial Fire’s “Right Side” presages “Magic Summertime” from I Can See the Future and either song could be arranged for this album—it seems like softer serenity is Mandell’s new normal. At this point, it’s hard to recognize the young woman who avidly followed X and the rest of the L.A. punk scene.

Instead, this latest batch of tunes slips back to the long-ago sounds of Patsy Cline, Dinah Shore, and Patti Page. Like Page, Mandell’s voice is cultured, warm, and clear, and it matches the musical aesthetic of that earlier era. The arrangements are lightly orchestrated with the same kind of studio precision found in popular gems from the 1950s and early ‘60s. Producer Neil Brockbank and Nick Lowe’s backing band deserve high marks for their stellar efforts in that regard. The beautiful interplay of organ and clarinet in the accompaniment for a tune like “Wedding Ring” subtly supports the vocal in a way that modern pop recording has lost. The song features a hint of lyrical disillusion that Mandell’s inspirations might have avoided, but otherwise it’s a perfect period piece.

With the retro feel of her singing and instrumental backing, Mandell treads close to more recent performers like Diana Krall or Linda Ronstadt, although she relies less on interpreting the classics. Her own songs stand up fairly well; she has a good lyrical sense and she knows just how to push her voice melodically. Although her maternal instincts are obvious on “Put My Baby to Bed” and “Little Joy”, Let’s Fly a Kite isn’t aiming for that demographic sweet spot.

So, with a wonderful voice and masterful arrangements, what’s holding the album back? The biggest problem is that it lacks any sense of urgency. With a couple of exceptions, the tunes unroll at a deliberately sedate pace that doesn’t offer much in the way of bumps or excitement. Where Krall and Ronstadt are adept at mixing up tempos and using their phrasing to punch up a song, Mandell settles comfortably into the orchestral pocket. It doesn’t take too long for that to slide into background music. As the details blur and focus slips, some of the tracks begin to sound familiar. Is “Something to Think About” a reworking of Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea”? Not really, but that first line is a near cousin. Similarly, one of the slightly more insistent pieces, “Cool Water”, has a strong Buddy Holly vibe.

In an interesting twist, the most outstanding track on Let’s Fly a Kite, “Maybe Yes”, has the most modern feel. The band still brings their delicate touch, but the song seems more than a decade younger than the rest of the album. Mandell’s lyrics are at their most confrontational (“Maybe doesn’t make me hot/ Maybe doesn’t burn me up”) and that attitude helps. The jazzy backing is upbeat and her sultry energy invigorates the piece. The rest of the time, she seems content to settle into a gentler rhythm of parenthood. She’s undergone changes before, so this, too, will probably pass. Maybe her next release will channel her protective Tiger Mama.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 3/3

Wednesday, 6 March (Soiled Dove, Denver CO)
Adrian Legg

Adrian Legg is brilliantly idiosyncratic guitarist. Listening to him, you can hear bits of Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, John Fahey, and Richard Thompson, but Legg doesn't really emulate any of those greats. Aside from his fluid fingerstyle playing, he also has some technical tricks for altering his tuning on the fly. Where that would be enough to make him a must-see performer for other guitarists, it's his dry stage patter and sense of humor that let him connect with a much wider audience.

Friday, 8 March (Fillmore Auditorium, Denver CO)

In case you didn't get enough Louisiana funk from last week's Dirty Dozen Brass Band show, here's your chance to get a more modern spin. Galactic also hails from New Orleans and plays a kind of jazzy funk, but they integrate a host of other influences like hip hop, jam bands, and electronica. They're all great players, but drummer Stanton Moore is one of my favorite performers. Lately, Living Color's Corey Glover has been laying down vocals for the band. This will be a late-night, hard-dancing orgy of genre-streatching music.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Concert review - Dirty Dozen Brass Band with the Pimps of Joytime

Thursday, 27 February 2014 (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)

Young and old, from the hopping scene in Brooklyn to way down deep in the Big Easy: this was a great pairing to show off the range of music that can lay a claim to the funk. The Pimps of Joytime and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band are touring together, taking turns in the headliner slot. This was the first of a two night residency at the Bluebird and the Pimps of Joytime were the openers. AXS TV were on hand to film the Dirty Dozen Brass Band - I don't know if they came back on Friday to catch PoJT's headliner or if this was part of their coverage of this year's Jazz Fest. In any case, the cameras were no impediment to a wild night of dancing and celebrating the insistent beat.

075 Pimps of Joytime The Pimps of Joytime were just here this past August (review), but it was great to have them back in town again, this time at a larger, nicer venue. Bandleader Brian J kicked things off by wrenching a funk-blues jam from his guitar. After he anointed the venue with the emotional echoes of this solo excursion, the band fell into place and transformed the tune into a soul review. They followed up with another bluesy interlude before turning up the heat with "Dank Janky". The band really hit their stride with the low-down, dirty jam of "Janxta Funk". David Bailis laid down a wicked P-Funk bass line while the percussion tossed in some light syncopation.

047 Pimps of Joytime
Bailis has a pivotal role in the band, switching between bass, keyboards, and controlling the samples and some pre-recorded backing music. After he set up the bass groove, he layered in a set of keyboard loops that filled out the sound, making a much bigger sonic impression than a five piece can normally summon. Drummer John Staten, though, stole the song with his amazing drum work.

065 Pimps of Joytime
The set shifted mood when the band launched into their new single, "Booty Text". The vocals were soulful, but the heart of the song is anchored to the club dance floor. The chill synth loops channeled classic disco with an aura of electronica over a mechanical beat. Cole Williams and Mayteana Morales provided the sweet femme backing and Brian J put down his guitar to focus on crooning the lyrics. The crowd was game to surrender to the rhythm and boogie down. It was a fun interlude, but Brian J, who is normally a very charismatic frontman, seemed lost at times without his guitar. "Booty Text" transformed the set into more of a dance party than a funk-stravaganza. This meant that Bailis spent more time on the keys than on his bass guitar.

066 Pimps of Joytime
It all came back around, though. The reggae groove of "Stop Wastin' Mine" brought the bass to the forefront. It didn't slow down the crowd from dancing and it hit that sweet spot I have for the band. The groove ebbed and flowed and eventually led to "Hey Mister J", which featured a cool hippy guitar groove and Brian J's best facial expressions of the night. Closing on "Body Party", the Pimps of Joytime didn't have enough time left to perform the ritual of leaving the stage and returning for an encore, but it was a solid set and showed off the band's diversity.

091 Dirty Dozen Brass Band
It took a while to clear the stage and place all the necessary mics for the band, but the wait was worth it. Band members wandered in and out amidst the flurry of setup: Kirk Joseph organized the array of effects pedals for his sousaphone while Kevin Harris scoped out the crowd and connected with a few select people. Eventually, everyone came out and warmed up their instruments. The set opened with a free jazz exploration. Like a bubbling stewpot, the surface was in constant motion: a splash of trumpet rising for a moment before falling beneath the squonk of a baritone sax. After a few minutes of this ritual, the loose flow coalesced into a solid, syncopated groove and the show was underway.

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This provided a chance to meet each of the players as they rotated their solos. Trumpeter Gregory Davis balanced his intensely focused playing with a mellow, genial stage presence. Efrem Towns (trumpet and flugelhorn) was more of ham, mugging for the audience and playing his solos with a visible flourish. Kevin Harris alternated a serious demeanor with a touch of clowning as he tore it up on the tenor sax. Completing the front line, Roger Lewis peppered his baritone sax riffs with sly knowing glances, building up for his finale.

123 Dirty Dozen Brass Band
On the back line.Kirk Joseph provided the bass support on his sousaphone, mutating the sound to pop like a funk bass with the wah-wah or warping it with flange into a didgeridoo drone. Drummer Terrence Higgins stayed locked into his drums, but his playing was transcendent. Where a traditional drum solo can often stretch the rhythm so far that the audience is lost and the interlude drifts into the weeds, Higgins could counterbalance the rhythmic exploration with a steady pulse, interjecting any number of flashy paradiddles or stutter beat riffs. Finally, the youngest member of the band, Kyle Roussel laid the rest of the musical foundation with his keys. Alternating between a standard Nord keyboard and a wonderfully retro key-tar, Roussel was shy and unassuming, but his playing was loose and natural and his solos demonstrated a core sense of jazz harmonic theory.

194 Dirty Dozen Brass Band
As you'd expect, the band has its roots in New Orleans jazz and their songs featured plenty of traditional jazz moments. But just as the New Orleans scene they come from has evolved and grown, their set branched out into a rich gumbo of genres, from nasty jazz funk slink to spicy Latin fireworks. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band's goal was to create the right party atmosphere, stylistic niches or generational stereotypes aside. Whether it was Davis leading the crowd in a call and response for "Me Like It Like That" or the blistering layered funk of the Neville Brothers' "Fiyo On The Bayou", the band worked the audience into a dancing frenzy.

220 Dirty Dozen Brass Band
By the same token, though, they had a good sense of flow, letting the dynamic drop into dreamy, meandering solos in order to make the next peak that much higher. They closed out the night with a perfect soul gem, "Dirty Old Man". Roger Lewis summoned the spirit of James Brown and flat out testified. "I'm a dirty old man and I feel like spankin' somebody." Despite his claim, Lewis showed that he had plenty of spunk to keep up with the younger crowd. By the time it was over, they had created a literal party on stage, with girls invited up to join the band and dance til the end of the night.

233 Dirty Dozen Brass Band

More photos on my Flickr.