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

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Recording review - Mike Gordon, Overstep (2014)

Polished performances resurrect jam band magic

It’s funny how you can totally misread a band’s internal chemistry. Like many people, I had always placed Trey Anastasio as the creative heart of Phish. It’s a natural mistake; he’s acted as the front man, wrote most of the songs (along with lyricist Tom Marshall) and covered the bulk of the singing. This is not to dismiss the rest of the band; Mike Gordon, Page McConnell, and Jon Fishman were all vital to Phish’s live sound and contributed their own material, too, but Anastasio seemed to be the center. In the years since Phish went on hiatus in 2004 and then returned in 2009, this seemed especially true. The band’s last album, Joy, reflected more of Anastasio’s tumultuous history rather than the band’s classic strengths.

But listening to Mike Gordon’s latest solo project, it’s strikingly clear just how wrong that analysis is. Sure, Anastasio may have dragged Phish down a bit on their last release, but Gordon’s songs on Overstep find the band’s old magic and it’s easy to imagine these tunes drifting into expansive live jams. In fact, “Yarmouth Road” and “Say Something” both turned up in Phish setlists last year. Maybe it’s a case of osmosis, but Gordon seems to have picked up a fair amount of his bandmate’s compositional approach. Take “Ether”, for instance. Once it winds its way past the ambient intro, it has a taste of Anastaio’s “Cayman Review” before it slips into the same lazy zone of Phish classics like “If I Could” (Hoist) or “Horn” (Rift). Similarly, “Paint” would fit well into that same era as one of those bridge songs that work well in the studio, but really shine on stage. With the descending repetition of the title, it would be easy to hear them slide the tune into a cover of David Bowie’s “Fame”.

But even if Overstep’s tunes can’t shake the comparisons, it is not a Phish album in disguise. Gordon took plenty of steps to ensure that. The biggest decision was bringing in producer Paul Q. Kolderie (Morphine, Radiohead), who brought a very polished sound to the album. Each sonic element is carefully preserved, making it easy to pick and choose the focus at any time. The vocals in particular are isolated cleanly, which adds to the impact on tracks like “Face”, where the backing harmonies meld but can still be separated. This clarity, though, comes at the cost of losing casual spontaneity. Another key choice was limiting the core personnel to Gordon’s longtime collaborator Scott Murawski (guitar and vocals) and Matt Chamberlain (drums). In addition to bass and vocals, Gordon adds guitar and organ. While the arrangements are anything but stark and stripped down, having fewer creative agents involved also contributes to the carefully constructed ambiance.

Despite the stylistic cues that Gordon can’t help but bring, Murawski and Chamberlain make no particular effort to cater to those expectations. That sets up some great tunes that break the jam band pattern. “Peel” stands out the most, creating a moody tension that circles around a one-drop guitar chank, winding tighter and tighter. Gordon’s bass is simple and repetitive, offering little respite. The faint shimmers of feedback and tone at the edges add to the otherworldly feel. Even when a song does lean back to type, Murawski makes his own solo statement, without worrying about WWTD: what would Trey do? On “Long Black Line”, he sets a steady accompaniment. Then, for his two leads, he opts for very tasteful melodic lines that rely on simple modal playing. Rather than drifting far afield like Anastasio tends to do, he keeps it bounded, staying in service to the song. Gordon seems inspired by the performance, adding plenty of interesting fills, but he keeps the bass similarly constrained during the vocals, waiting until the very end to close on a sweet flurry of notes.

If there are listeners that are not convinced that Gordon deserves a lot more credit for Phish’s creative vision after listening to Overstep, then they must see him little more than impressionable clay, formed by his role in the band. But spending some time with this album and Anastasio’s last couple of releases, it’s easy to see who has the more interesting set of ideas and stronger tunes.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 4/28

This week, I've seen two of the three artists I'm featuring and each one brings something special to their performances.

Tuesday, 29 April (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Wednesday, 30 April (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Gogol Bordello

Let's have a show of hands: how many of you have already seen Gogol Bordello in concert before. If you didn't raise your hand, you're lucky enough to have a chance to correct that mistake (if you have seen them, you should already have your tickets for this tour). Gypsy road show/multi-cultural circus/cathartic thrash/kult of personality - Gogol Bordello offers all of this and more.

Wednesday, 30 April (Marquis Theatre, Denver CO)

256 Anvil
When I first saw Anvil, I was only familiar with their portrayal in the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil. Seeing them in real life (review), their humor, charm, and shredding ability drove all Spinal Tap comparisons out of my head. This was a seriously fun show. Steve "Lips" Kudlow could play the goof, but their songs were all solid headbanging perfection.

Saturday, 3 May (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Zoë Keating

Where Gogol Bordello is full of chaotic exuberance, Zoë Keating is much more focused as she loops and layers her cello. But don't expect some kind of snobby, intellectual noodling; Keating's pieces are evocative and exciting. By taking advantage of cool signal processing toys, she creates powerful worlds. As her songs vary from ballads to cinematic soundscapes to progressive flights of fancy, her work defies simple classification.  She's a musical genius that knows how to connect emotionally with audiences around the world.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Concert review - Beats Antique with Blockhead and Itchy-O Marching Band

11 April 2014 (Fillmore Auditorium, Denver CO)

A Thousand Faces and a thousand stories. Beats Antique took to Kickstarter last year to raise money, not for their planned album, A Thousand Faces, but to create a world class show to tour their new album. Showmanship has always been key for this exotic electronic group. While their music is heavily produced and full of intriguing layers of sound from around the world, their shows are rituals of tribal dance fusion driven by insistent rhythms and spectacle.

077 Beats Antique Choreographer and belly dancer Zoe Jakes deserves a lot of the credit for shaping the band’s stage presence. When I first saw the group in 2011, I was entranced by her dancing, which not only provided a context for the tunes, but also inspired the audience to abandon themselves to the physicality of the music. Jakes and her partners, David Satori and Sidecar Tommy Cappel, balanced at a nexus of rave, cultural outreach and ritual. The Fillmore was several times larger than that 2011 concert venue, and the new show took full advantage, delivering an overwhelming spectacle that rivaled any big pop band production. The Kickstarter money was well-spent on video projection technology from Obscura Digital, top-notch lighting and, of course, alluring costumes and choreography.

003 Itchy-O The opening acts each found their own contact points with the Beats Antique experience. Denver’s Itchy-O Marching Band paraded around the outside of the venue with their chaotic electro-rhythmic blare before making their entrance through the main doors. Their bright and blinking uniforms couldn’t offset the dark menace of their masked faces.

In contrast, producer/DJ Blockhead (Tony Simon) didn’t try to compete visually. Instead, he kicked off his set with a spooky riff full of intensely layered percussion. The sound of spirits in the shadows and foreign scales suited Beats Antique’s sonic palette, but he went on to evolve long-form pieces, moving through dance, sexy R&B and jazz before returning to the stranger tones he started with. His sample selections—a well-placed and mutated bit of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a jazzy take on “Sunny” against a moody soul groove—sprinkled tasty little surprises throughout his set.
014 Beats Antique Before Beats Antique began their show, their stage was filled with boxy blocks that looked like a collection of white birdhouse blanks. Along with the backing scrim, these would become screens for the video projection. Cappel’s drum kit was behind and above one line of blocks while Satori’s collection of instruments was set behind the other. As the music started, these boxes became a small village with a large gnarled tree in the town square. The effect was strong, with Cappel and Satori embedded within the scene. The music was a blend of live instrumentation and pre-recorded parts. So, in addition to his other gear, Satori played producer, mixing parts into the song. As the tune built up energy, the projection turned psychedelic, flashing swirls of high contrast op-art over the stage, but still preserving the tree as a centerpiece.

026 Beats Antique The imagery shifted for each song, becoming a Southeast Asian temple for Jakes’ first dance. Later, we’d appreciate the versatility of the set up as it transitioned through a mind-blowing collection of tableaux: retro Asian pen-and-ink animations, a game show set, a giant snake’s lair and a video game battlefield among others. The set designers did a fantastic job of delivering this variety without letting the technology become the focus. It was easy to forget the initial blocky appearance and become immersed in the show. Similarly, the set and live instrumentation distracted from the technical aspects of the backing tracks.

049 Beats Antique
Jakes’ stage craft also played a strong part. Her mesmerizing movements created a focal point and storyline for the songs to hang on. Aside from belly dancing and modern interpretive dance, she used elements of Kabuki, Balinese dance and other cultural traditions. She was stylized and theatrical, but still drew on an earthy physicality. One of the strongest moments came during “Viper’s Den.” Her costume simulated snakeskin with a slinky sheath and cobra-like headpiece. After writhing around in sinuous seduction, she melted back into the set and another dancer enveloped her from behind, hiding her from view. Suddenly, the pair unfolded and revealed Jakes’ costume change. Her dress and headpiece were gone, and the two were decked out as fan dancers. Where her earlier expression had been wicked and intense, now she played the tease with broad bawdiness.

051 Beats Antique Even the campier tunes from A Thousand Faces played well. During the game show pastiche “Doors of Destiny,” a volunteer took his chances picking one of three doors to receive either “Eternal damnation, everlasting life or unlimited bandwidth and one year’s free technical support.” Of course, that didn’t go well, and he was attacked by a giant inflatable demon during the song’s glitch-step grinding climax. Later, Beats Antique performed their song “Beelzebub” with a pre-recorded Claymation by Les Claypool.

065 Beats Antique The overwhelming spectacle, exotic music and visceral bass punch contributed to the rave atmosphere. Dozens of Zoe acolytes danced their own steps, and every third person wore some kind of crazy outfit. The audience often competes with the stage at this kind of show, but glow sticks and LED displays merely added ambiance.

048 Beats Antique More photos on my Flickr.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Recording review - Bike For Three!, So Much Forever (2014)

Can a true partnership be bigger than Kanye's ego?

Sometimes, it seems like hip hop has become a kind of musical cilantro or bacon. It’s the hipster ingredient to add to any tired or bland project to give it a spark of relevance. Mashed up the other way, pairing a rap delivery with an unexpected backing track (Classical! Country!), the juxtaposition usually serves as an ironic in-joke. It’s not really even clever anymore, and I’ve gotten tired of strained cross-breeding that tries to pass itself off as creativity. Which brings us to Bike For Three!, the unlikely partnership between rapper Buck 65 and electronic producer Greetings From Tuskan (Joëlle Lê). Their story follows a Hollywood anti-pattern; let’s call it “not-meet-cute.” The conceit is that the rapper and the Belgian producer connected on MySpace (cue the endorsement ops), but have never met in person, despite collaborating on two albums now.

Buck 65 has always favored more unusual backing tracks, so Lê’s electronic grooves fall well within his abstract M.O. The surprise is that the two have created a unique fusion that reflects a balanced dynamic between their two worlds. Their latest release, So Much Forever, is no mere gimmicked mashup; it’s outsider hip hop that pushes creative boundaries. Rather than grafting one approach onto the other, these two artists bring each of their own worlds together, and neither one truly dominates. The tracks reflect a mutual respect and openness; together they accomplish things that neither could achieve alone. An album like this stands in direct contrast to a project like Kanye West’s Yeezus. West is a self-proclaimed genius, and while he fished around for ideas to flesh out his creative vision, there was never a doubt that every provocative piece of Yeezus was part of his overarching plan. Bike For Three! is less interested in making their audience prove their love than in challenging one another. Lê’s electro-pop dreaminess makes the tunes float while Buck provides the grounding. His emotional honesty rises to the top, but then her ethereal vocals, mostly in French, can transform the songs to find a more objective perspective.

The give and take keeps either voice from drowning out the other. Buck often syncopates his flow to augment the solid beat of the backing track, but Lê in turn takes his vocals and mutates it into more fodder for the mix. Exotic and solid, organic and electro-mechanical, tight with tension and freely floating – the dynamic balance holds your attention for the whole duration.

The album eases into view with a gentle, ambient track, appropriately titled “Intro”. The calm heartbeat and soft washes provide little preparation for the slick armored sound of the first real song, “Full Moon”, which is built on a foundation of Berlin-style synth pop. The steady pulsation creates a delicious tension. The pair sets up a cool trick they’ll use throughout the whole album, alternating Lê’s softly-echoed feminine vocals with the harder edge of Buck’s tightly wound male bass. The tagline, “Who can sleep, at a time like this,“ repeats, evolving from simple observation to indignant accusation before Lê mutilates her sweetly floating vocal line and moves the song into a more modern glitch electronica.

That caught my ear, but a couple of songs later, “Heart As Hell” sealed the deal. Built on a thoughtful, electro-pop base with tentative brushes of reverberating piano, the initial singing is distant and dreamy, more of a memory than a lead line. Buck’s lyrics are somber and emotionally bare, “I have two hearts and one of them is hard as Hell.” His imagery is beautifully economic, fitting a lot into the tight rhyming runs: “It’s vertigo in reverse/ Devoted and cursed/ It hurts/ Exploded and worse.” A ratcheting drumbeat clicks like the clock ticking away his time. The second verse flowers into a longer series, maintaining flow and rhythm, relentlessly checking off an inventory of dissatisfaction. It culminates in a bitter, “Sometimes the mind is paradise/ And the heart is Hell.” At this point, the production processes Buck’s voice and blends it into the electro substrate. The constant see-saw of “heart” and “hard” creates its own ambiguity. The moodiness ripples across the remaining tracks.

Heart As Hell” proved to be my favorite track, but there are plenty of other strong contenders. The motorik drive and introspective lyrics of “Ethereal Love” make it a standout tune. “Stay Close Until We Reach The End” is also compelling as it builds on a droning start with creepy shards of disquiet as Lê’s chopped and damaged vocals page through a catalog of despair française, “Désillusion/ Fatale/ Tragédie…”. When Buck comes in with his precisely off-kilter delivery, the disturbing quality deepens.

By the time So Much Forever closes on “Outro” and its faster heartbeat, it’s impossible to say which of the two collaborators is figure or ground because the contributions are so interdependent. Bike For Three! may not be as confrontational as Kanye’s Yeezus, but it’s just as strong an artistic statement.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 4/21

Wednesday, 23 April (Pepsi Center, Denver CO)
Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire's most recent outing, Reflektor (review), saw the band pushing into danceable synth-pop territory, but still the depth that they're known for. And it turned into a great move for the band because the public is ready for an album that spans retro chill funk (title cut) and taut ska grooves ("Awful Sound (Oh, Euridice)"). The group has long been more popular than some of their base would like, but they're still delivering great music.

Saturday, 26 April (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Local Natives

Speaking of great music, one of my favorite acts from 2009, Local Natives, had a long break before last year's Hummingbird, but their richly layered sound picked up more nuance and shadow. While their studio work is exemplary, their live sound should not be missed.

Saturday, 26 April (Fillmore Auditorium, Denver CO)
The Glitch Mob

The Glitch Mob's Love Death Immortality (review) showed that the electronic band has developed a stronger rhythmic drive. Songs from the new album, like "Skullclub", are perfectly arranged to create a disco rave experience in real life, so be prepared to sink into the insistent beats.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Recording review - Sam Shalabi, Music for Arabs (2014)

Difficult, disorganized, dippy, and defiant

Can a 50-year-old man write anything relevant about Miley Cyrus’ musical and cultural significance? Well, if he has a teenage daughter, he might have enough of a clue to get his bearings. But otherwise he’s stuck with an outsider’s perspective. Sam Shalabi’s new album poses its own related challenge, throwing down a gauntlet for the uninitiated. Although the title, Music for Arabs, might appear to indicate his target audience, that’s just a feint. While Shalabi draws heavily on his Egyptian musical roots, the chaotic experimental approach is actually geared towards fans of “difficult-listening music.” The opening track, “Music for the Egyptians”, begins with a 23 second smoke screen of oddly accented rock ’n’ roll drums before slipping off the rails. The instrumentation, rhythm, and scale runs provide a whiff of Arabic aesthetic, but the breakneck tempo crushes it all together into a cacophony of percussion and frantic notes. It’s more reminiscent of poking sticks into bicycle spokes than music. To be charitable, it could be seen as a kind of commentary on the fast pace of Egyptian urban life, but that’s little comfort. The music eventually becomes a backdrop for a rambling Arabic conversation. I’m not convinced that understanding the language would have made this more interesting. About five and a half minutes in, the speaking stops and the piece turns into an Edgard Varèse style “organized sound” composition. The musical timbres and beats are irregular, but at least I have the rubric to appreciate this a bit more as Shalabi creates a suspenseful, cinematic feel. At 8:50, the piece transitions again, setting up a droning undertone of keyboard wash and wandering synthesized bagpipe melodies before dissolving away.

If “Music for the Egyptians” is quite off-putting, it still offers hints of an attractive musical realm. The second track, “Luxor Dancer”, is a deliberately obtuse artistic statement rather than a serious musical offering. Shalabi gives us 30-odd seconds of bicycle spokes again and then falls into a deconstructed disco parody. Imagine Mr. Hankey from “South Park” belting out, “I want to dance/ I’ve been to France,” in his strained falsetto and you get the idea. By the time a weird southern character drops in to drawl about dancing and his dog, Jenny, it’s impossible to take Shalabi very seriously.

Interestingly enough, though, if the listener can make it past these two formidable hurdles, Music for Arabs grudgingly delivers on the initial expectations. The music becomes less confrontational, tempering the strangeness with more traditional Arabic sounds. The fusion of influences leads to some more intriguing work. “The Wherewithal” starts with a meditative oud riff over a steady beat. Light flashes of distortion hover at the edges, but the mood remains thoughtful as the oud meanders along. As the tremolo picking builds intensity, the fuzzy ambiance comes to dominate and the song evolves into a chaotic Velvet Underground tribute, echoing some of Lou Reed’s guitar work on “European Son”. Shalabi gives himself over to the psychedelic jam approach that he’s favored in his other band, The Shalabi Effect, and it’s very engaging.

The album wraps up with “Music for the Egyptians, Pt. 2”, which counterbalances the opening track. It’s packed with restless melody, tracing a path and then reversing direction only to retrace again. If the first tune gave a sense of modern Egypt, this song makes a strong case for the power of tradition. In an interview with fellow musician Alan Bishop on Forced Exposure, Shalabi described Music for Arabs as “a very playful fuck you to that whole cultural colonialism of the serious musicologist, who sees Arabic music as this happy little palatable ‘entertainment’ for Westerners.” “Music for the Egyptians Part 2” serves as his peace offering to them and to the rest of us for persevering through the first two tracks.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

History lesson - MC Paul Barman, Paullelujah! (2002)

Quirky and clever - erudite juvenalia

Working in the cube-farms of corporate America in 2002, pleasures were hard to come by and distraction was a blessing. I don’t even know where I first came across “Cock Mobster”, but I do remember being gobsmacked. It wasn’t the crudity of the juvenile humor as MC Paul Barman checked off women from his fantasy black book ; it was the mix of cultural references and wicked sharp rhymes. Name checking The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and KRS-One’s “Rappaz R.N. Dainja” in the same verse blew my mind. The combination of audacity and rolling rhymes in lines like “My dandy voice makes the most anti-choice granny’s panties moist” was staggering.

Immediately looking for more, I bought Paullelujah! directly from his web site. Then I found out that Prince Paul (De La Soul) and MF DOOM had produced some of the tracks. It wasn’t until a year or two later that I realized that Barman had provided the brief, but inspired interlude “Meet Cleofis Randolph the Patriarch” for Deltron 3030 (2000). Paullelujah! showed that his quirky delivery and the satisfying linguistic gymnastics were no fluke; the album was packed with more of the same thing that grabbed me in the first place: scatological humor aimed at a 14-year-old audience blended with superior lyrics and a crazy quilt of cultural allusions. Without a doubt, it was a flawed, uneven collection, but I had to respect Barman’s talent as a wordsmith and unbridled creative force.

The opening seconds of Paullelujah! immediately overturn the usual rap stereotypes. Instead of swagger and a heavy beat, Barman drops any pretense of cool and gleefully proclaims, “Check it out, man. It’s the best day of my life! The MC Paul Barman full-length is finally out,” over Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”, which he shortly hijacks and repurposes to hype the album title. It’s the first of many goofy moments and it does make it harder to take him seriously as a hip hop artist. But what should we expect? A white Jewish kid who graduated from Brown University is hardly likely to pull off a gangsta pose. Instead, Barman follows the age-old advice to write what he knows and that includes everything from literature he picked up in school to the uncomfortable contradictions of self-righteously liberal middle class politics. And mostly being a smartass. So, he skewers the local anarchist bookstore scene after name-checking John Cage and Jeff Koons in “Excuse You” and it’s all of one fabric.

When confronted with the question of cultural appropriation that faces every middle class, Caucasian rapper, Barman has his own unique response. On “Old Paul,” he tackles it head on, first asking “Is it ‘cause I go for the laugh?/ Because I’m not from the Ave? Because I target the fans that you wish you didn’t have?”. It’s a cogent point, hitting at hip hop’s discomfort with white popularity. But he follows up with some soul searching: “Had I made a mockery of a culture, like the Choco Taco?/ Was I to rap as France was to Morocco?/ Was I colon rap colon colon France colon Morocco?” Those lines do it all. They capture humor, racial guilt, a desire to be sensitive and also his geeky self-expression, breaking down the analogy to the format of an SAT question.

Paullelujah! is full of Easter eggs like this. He also manages to shoehorn in palindromes and incorporate a Buckminster Fuller song into “Bleeding Brain Grow”. If anything, Barman is a bit too eager to prove how clever he can be. He is sharp, but he often sacrifices meaning to satisfy a lyrical formula or he’ll drop into lowbrow humor to get a cheap laugh. This gives the album a weird kind of dynamic balance. His twisty rhyming passages demand a lot of attention and often trigger a sense that you know there’s a joke in there somewhere if you can take the time to unfold them. Then, about the time he’s worn you down enough to surrender to his multisyllabic onslaught, he throws a change up like “Burping & Farting.” To some extent, that makes Paullelujah! a novelty album, but it’s one that still stands the test of time; a dozen years after my first listen and I just caught the math mnemonic reference in “PEM Das EFX” from “Excuse You”.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 4/14

It looks like Cervantes is the place this week, but there's still a tough decision: reggae or hip hop? Both of these are old school performers with some strong material. I'll also take a moment to pay respect to Cervantes for being such a fine venue for both reggae and rap. They regularly serve up great acts at the top of their game as well as classic voices.

Wednesday, 16 April (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)
Pato Banton

I first heard Pato Banton through my interest in the second-wave ska band, The English Beat. By the late '80s, he was showing up on my radar and he had a minor hit with "Don't Sniff Coke". I've always enjoyed his flow and laid back grooves. It's been a long time since I saw him at Reggae on the Rocks (Red Rocks), but I'm glad that he's still active.

Wednesday, 16 April (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)
Six Mix-A-Lot

Sure, "Baby Got Back" was a party time anthem back in the early '90s (although I'm partial to Jonathan Coulton's acoustic cover), but Sir Mix-A-Lot was more than just a novelty act. His stage persona always played big on style, attitude, and wit. He's also been a good ambassador for hip hop, finding interesting partnerships with other genres to break down walls.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Concert review - ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, with La Femme, Silver Snakes, and Git Some

3 April 2014 (Summit Music Hall, Denver CO)

Good intentions and all of that... I wanted to make it down to Denver in time to catch all of the acts, but I ran quite late, arriving just in time to catch La Femme's extended soundcheck. I was disappointed to miss Silver Snakes and Git Some, but I wasn't alone; most of crowd showed up sometime during La Femme's frantic set..

032 La Femme
It seemed to take a long time for La Femme to get their monitors and mics correctly set up, but that gave us plenty of time to take in the band members and appreciate each one's unique style, from pseudo-vaquero panache to metrosexual boxer chic. Think Adam Ant, but organized by an ADHD costumer. But the random mix of looks was central to band's artistic sense of theatre: it's not a show unless it's a spectacle. It didn't matter, though, whether the band's appearance aligned because they played in such close formation.

031 La Femme
Back in 2010, I reviewed La Femme's EP, Le Podium # 1, appreciating the way they grafted surf guitar tonality onto new wave. Over the last several years, they've honed that style, pulling in punk and synth pop influences. The blend of reverbed surf twang and synth textures -- call it noir wave -- occasionally recalled bands like The Cure, but generally La Femme was in a class all their own. The dark energy was great and, although almost all the lyrics were in French, everyone could appreciate the side trips into Krautrock trippiness and Velvet Underground psychedelic drone.

011 La Femme
The music worked, but the band's visuals were even better. The front edge of the stage was fenced with keyboards, with only the guitarist going without. His consolation prize accessory was a wonderfully retro theremin. They engaged the audience with stylized dance moves and ironic poses. Frontman Marlon Magnée was chaotically charismatic, whether offering a campy come-ons
to the crowd or sexually assaulting his keyboard. It was crazy fun, but also a little bewildering for some in the audience. Afterwards, I heard someone asking, "What the hell was that?"

024 La Femme
By the time their set ended in a trainwreck celebration of noise and dancing, they had played enough punk thrash to lay the groundwork for Trail of Dead’s set.

092 Trail of Dead
Contradictions are at the heart of what powers …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. They ambitiously create rich, concept-heavy post-rock albums that are executed with raw punk rock intensity. Their music spans from fragile, wispy psychedelic patterns to peaks of roaring chaos. But the biggest contrast is between the serious, focused tone they find in the studio and the unfiltered range of emotions they bring to the stage. This tour is all the more intriguing because it’s a brief pause before resuming work on a new album that’s scheduled for later this year. With their most recent release being 2012’s Lost Songs, they may have thought it would be hard to motivate a good turn out, so this tour reaches back to what is regarded as the band’s breakout album, Source Tags & Codes.

099 Trail of Dead
After La Femme's wild finale, it didn't take long for roadies to clear their equipment and power up Trail of Dead’s gear. So, after this brief break, the band came out and launched immediately into “It Was There That I Saw You”. The opening vamp passed quickly and they soared into the driving swirl of the song. The dynamics of the album version were preserved, but the band was wired and pounded through the tunes. Conrad Keely seemed to swap out guitars for almost every song and Jason Reece often traded instruments with Jamie Miller, but these transitions never slowed the flow of their performance.

078 Trail of Dead
Even stripped of their studio production nuances – like the ambient crowd sound and free jazz noodling at the end of “Baudelaire” – the tunes lost none of their power or presence. Trail of Dead nailed the punk foundations of the songs and made them as cathartic and moving as ever.

089 Trail of Dead
It was clear that the crowd was intimately familiar with Source Tags & Codes, sometimes feeling torn between singing along and surrendering to the visceral punch of the music. For all the meaning that we imbued these songs with, Keely and Reece were even more invested. They played like they were tapping into their younger selves with the hindsight of all the changes they had seen. The personnel shifts and bulkier configurations of the past seemed to melt away and this four piece group channeled the epic scope of that earlier incarnation. Like guitarist/drummer Miller, bass player Autry Fulbright II has only been with Trail of Dead for three years, but his charismatic presence was a strong part of the stage chemistry. Both men seemed just as committed to these songs as Keely and Reece.

059 Trail of Dead
All too soon, Keely marked the end of the series, noting “This is the last song,” and then he sighed, “It’s a short album.” The wistful sound of “Source Tags & Codes” was perfectly appropriate and it was even shorter without the string coda of the album version. As the final notes faded, the audience seemed drained for a moment before the band kicked into “Mistakes & Regrets” from 1999’s Madonna. It captured the retrospective mood in the wake of Source Tags & Codes and then dismissed it.

115 Trail of Dead
The crowd settled in as Trail of Dead wandered through another five songs from their back catalog, with particularly strong performances on “Catatonic” (Lost Songs) and “Would You Smile Again” (Worlds Apart, 2005). For this latter tune, Reece reached into the crowd, giving people a chance to sing along and participate in the ritual. After wrapping up the main set, they came back out for a single encore, a version of “Richter Scale Madness” from the band’s first album. The nihilistic flail of the tune energized us all for the late night ride home.

More photos on my Flickr.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Recording review - The Men, Tomorrow's Hits (2014)

The retro ooze? You're soaking in it...

Do you believe in coincidence? Most people don’t. We’re hardwired to find patterns and connections and it’s almost impossible for us to accept that those relationships might exist only in our minds. With their latest release, Tomorrow’s Hits, the Men try to overcome our natural instincts. They’d have us ignore the evidence of our ears and entertain the conjecture that, somehow, their immersion into 1970s rock is anything but a retro pose or heartfelt pastiche. They seem to suggest that they’ve never paid any attention to bands like Cheap Trick, Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty. So, any resemblance is surely just an aural trick.

The thing is that they just about pull it off. Listening to “Settle Me Down”, I can hear a blend of George Harrison and Tom Petty among others, but the longer the song plays, it stands more firmly on its own merits. There’s a lot going on from the opening notes: the bass and guitar aligned in staccato arpeggios, the choppy rhythm guitar, a shimmery touch of slide guitar and an amorphous wash of organ to cement it together. The swaying rhythm of the A section gives a lazy feel to the vocals. The B section balances a surf-guitar tinged darker edge — “But it’s all right that I didn’t see you that night” — with mellow “oohs” and brighter jangle. There’s not a lot of lyrical depth here; the band just repeats a simple set of lines. But the piece has a meditative quality that transcends its musical references. Like their earlier work on Open Your Heart (2012), the clench-release flow of the song is innately satisfying.

Given the band’s punk roots, it’s interesting that the strongest—and hardest to ignore—apparent influence is Bruce Springsteen. The opening chords of “Dark Waltz” suggest “Adam Raised a Cain” crossed with a bit of John Fogerty. “Another Night” feints towards “Because the Night” before changing directions with a Clarence Clemons-style sax riff and a Van Morrison vocal feel. The album closer, “Going Down”, comes from deep within the lo-fi reverberation of the garage, driven by an up-tempo punk energy, but it still finds kinship to Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973).

Tomorrow’s Hits, though, is at its best when the Men indulge their predilection for thrash and attitude. My favorite track, “Different Days”, launches with an adrenaline pulse bass line before dropping into a driving garage rock grind that supports the punk vocals. It reminds me of Team Spirit’s raw garage pop and, like Team Spirit, the Men can pack a lot of angst and ecstasy into the same space (“And I’m waiting for this night to fade/ And I hate being young/ Sick of all this do-or-die/ Don’t they know it’s just suicide? Uh huh”). In the album’s lead single, “Pearly Gates”, the band applies their over-the-top treatment to blues rock. The exuberant chaos and untethered slide guitar suggest Johnny Winter’s cover of “Highway 61 Revisited”.

There’s an obvious irony in calling this collection of retro-toned tunes Tomorrow’s Hits. Sure, musical fashion rolls through its cycle and everything old is new again sooner or later. But I think the point is that bands like the Men have been absorbing all of these classic sounds for so long that this mishmash of lo-fi, raw rock building blocks is their milieu. In that context, the title puts most of its emphasis on sarcastically mocking the idea of “hits”.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 4/7

This week, everything's happening on Friday. They're all good, but I've picked my show. Now it's your turn.

Friday, 11 April (Fillmore Auditorium, Denver CO)
Beats Antique

238 - Beats Antique
The electro-tone world beat grooves of Beats Antique always find the perfect balance between head-pleasing jams and gut-satisfying grooves. As if that weren't enough, their presentation is always top-notch with choreography and fine staging. The band just released A Thousand Faces, Act 2, the followup to the end of 2013's Act 1 (review).

Friday, 11 April (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
VNV Nation

But maybe you want a more standard electronic/futurepop vibe, with symphonic aspirations. If so, VNV Nation might be the better choice. As much as I've enjoyed the epic scope of their studio work, this is a band that needs concert hall volumes and atmosphere to truly appreciate.

Friday, 11 April (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Saturday, 12 April (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
G. Love and Special Sauce

On the other hand, if you like your music a little more laid back with a solid laconic lyrical flow, you should drop by G. Love's two night residency at the Boulder Theatre. These guys always deliver a solid show, finding common ground between old-school hip-hop beats and funky bits of jazzy exploration.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Recording review - Cheatahs, Cheatahs (2014)

Shallow reading of retro shoegaze - not bad, but not enough

I may be a little out of touch – does ProTools have simple push-button production filters for classic sounds of the past? Instagram has settings for 1970s snapshots (1977) and washed out Polaroids (Earlybird), so it’s not that far-fetched to imagine virtual knobs for dialing in “1983 new wave” or “metal power ballad”. If it were that simple, it would explain why Cheatahs have saturated their sound with “late ‘80s British shoegaze”, maybe tempered with a light dusting of ”early ‘90s alt rock”. Their eponymous debut leads off with a brief flirtation with feedback that serves as a prelude to the first real song on the album, “Geographic”. This muffled, low-fi wash of sound liberated from Teenage Fanclub serves as an introduction to what you’ll be listening to for the next 45 minutes. If you’ve ever stepped out for a smoke break while a thrashy wall-of-guitars band is pounding through their set, this is what you’d hear from the sidewalk. It’s thick and compressed, packed with echo and distortion. This is not a bad thing. The parts can all be distinguished and they fit together well. Nathan Hewitt’s voice has a nice mix of rawness and whispery intimacy and it’s not completely buried by the self-absorbed guitars or urgent beat. True to Cheatah’s inspirations, the guitars offer a spectrum of textures: detuned jangle, chiming tones, crunching down-strokes and light howls. I decide that I like them, but the sense of déjà vu keeps me from committing fully.

The song ends a bit suddenly, but the next track, “Northern Exposure”, attempts distraction with a jarring guitar strum that echoes from somewhere deep within a tin-walled warehouse. Soon enough, we’re underway again and this is the moment I distinctly fall out of love with Cheatahs. This piece is completely different – new riffs, a fresh set of chord progressions and a more earnest vocal tone – and yet the song remains the same. Just like everyone’s Instagram photos come to be indistinguishable, the production is so lovingly heavy handed that it pancakes the band’s character into two dimensions. The light variations in tempo and rough sonic color never quite grant the tunes enough zing to stand out. It’s interesting that one of the tracks, “The Swan”, dates back to the band’s SANS EP from late 2012. Packaged here along with the newer material, it demonstrates an aesthetic continuity in how little they’ve evolved.

The band draws particularly heavily on My Bloody Valentine, especially the album Loveless (1991), but they don’t really understand their source. Cheatahs locks onto the thick smear of sound of tracks like “When You Sleep” or “Come In Alone”, but where Loveless was full of Kevin Shields’ idiosyncratic character and perhaps flawed artistic vision, this album meanders from one hazy thicket of muddy fuzz to another. It’s frustrating, because there are plenty of moments that do click: a tsunami of resonating distortion crashes over ringing strings or a dynamic breath of tom-tom inhale and kick drum exhale is accompanied by the labored panting of guitar crunch. But those high points aren’t anchored to pieces that connect. After several times through the album, it’s clear that the songs aren’t bad, they just melt together. Maybe by their sophomore effort, Cheatahs will develop some more depth or at least learn how to throw a change-up.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)