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

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Recording review - Songs:Ohia, Journey On: Collected Singles (2014)

Don't look for explanations, just feel the connection

Jason Molina was more comfortable faintly disguising his solo work with band names like Songs: Ohia and later Magnolia Electric Co. Whether that helped or hindered, he still managed to inspire a mythology as a tortured artist, an iconoclast and an idiosyncratic genius. Molina himself seemed to have little interest in that kind of analysis; he’d rather buckle down and move on to the next project. Journey On: Collected Singles gathers a number of his early 7″ singles and split sides in lovingly retrospective homage. Ben Swanson of Secretly Canadian talks about how hard it was to get Molina to agree to the idea. He jokes that Molina started to entertain the idea because he was sick of them asking, but of course it may be that he was physically just too sick to argue any more. His untimely death in March 2013 at 39 closed out a long struggle with alcoholism and left fans feeling the loss. This special box set honors the 7” release format he favored. Coming out about for 2014′s Record Store Day some 13 months after he died, it forces a kind of maudlin nostalgia that Molina probably would have resisted.

Fans will pore over these songs and others looking for clues and explanations but that path is ultimately unsatisfying. Sure, certain lyrical moments can suggest foreshadowing and there is a morose undertone to much of his work, but looking for confirmation is a sucker’s game. Magical thinking and false pattern matches won’t explain anything, much less resurrect him and it’s merely our yearning for a simple narrative that beckons us into that trap. While this collection does show off his emotional depth and beautiful economy, in the cold light of day, his moody themes are no different than a host of other ‘tortured’ artists. It would better serve his memory to just embrace the loss, savor the music and try to carry on. At least that would be in keeping with the perspective he favored in his songs, where he might be beaten, but he was rarely self-pitying.

Drawing on almost a decade’s worth of odd songs, Journey On shows a wide range of sounds from the raw alt-folk wail of “Boys” to the ponderous elegance of “Keep It Steady”. Much of the material shows Molina’s appreciation for Neil Young, both in his embrace of sonic simplicity and his sincere and unselfconscious singing, but other influences come through. The moody drive and syncopated percussion of “Freedom Pt. 2″ evoke Black Sabbath’s psychedelic tunes like “Planet Caravan”, while “Soul” draws on the reflective tone of “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones. As he sings, “What is it like?/ Is it worth this misfortune ?/ What is it like on the other side?” he sounds wearier than Mick Jagger. Listeners who insist on overanalyzing these songs for signs of Molina’s fall will appreciate the irony of lyrics that find solace in passion, mercy and patience, when mercy and patience were not enough to overcome his passions or addictions. It’s an overly facile reading, though, and it’s better to just sink into the embrace of his voice which shifts from vulnerable to raggedly insistent.

Of all the tracks on Journey On, “Lioness” is my favorite. The original version from 2000′s The Lioness is powered by the transition from drag-beat verses to the up tempo assertive chorus. But this stripped-down take hits like a sucker punch. The shadowy solitude of the simple guitar creates a small hollow of space to hold Molina’s fatalistic surrender to love, regardless of the cost. Jennie Benford’s drone backing harmony steps in behind his voice to brace his resolve. Instead of relying on the pacing to build the chorus intensity, he packs the repetition of, “If you can’t get here fast enough / You can’t get here fast enough…” with desperation, like the sound of a man at the end of his rope. His voice swings from resignation touched by beatific martyrdom to taut focus. Although this is clearly a song about self-destructive obsession, it still doesn’t play to the narrative of a doomed alcoholic. Instead, the powerful beauty of this song centers on the conscious choice to trade everything for love, “l want to feel my heart break, if it must break, in your jaws.” The tiny spike of guitar punch at the end is less a feint towards a lead than the sound of the last wall falling between him and his fate.

Journey On serves as a wonderfully cathartic wake for a strong but somehow brittle artist. It lets us mourn his loss and immerse ourselves in all of the emotions he evokes: the solemn pain of “United or Lost Alone”, the resolute strength of “Vanquisher”, the taunting exaltation of “Boys”. It’s a small shrine, but as he sings on “The Gray Tower”, “I think there’s a lot of good in this town/ I think a lot of it’s unredeemed.” This collection redeems a bit of Molina’s spirit for all of us.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Recording review - Atomga, Atomga (2014)

If you want a party, you need a crowd

These days, it's a stripped down DIY world. Electronic production and recording tools are cheap and ubiquitous, so it's easy for a person or two to create dense layers of complexity worthy of a studio full of musicians. Plenty of interesting work is produced by small groups like this, but oftentimes, the music lacks the spark and surprise that a larger band can bring to a shared moment. Music that favors larger ensembles, especially improvisational styles like Afrobeat, rely on cooperation to nurture an idea into vibrant life. The seed may be a simple melodic run or chord vamp, but the band takes the framework and negotiates how the song will develop. In Afrobeat, funk, jazz, and soul come together with African flair. Percussion and bass form the backbone, while horns, guitar, and keyboards add color and detail. In their live performances, Denver band Atomga does an excellent job of demonstrating how a larger group can coordinate on a piece and take it into surprising directions: the syncopated foundation shifts from congas to bells to snare and the horns turn the melody into a conversation. Sax player Frank Roddy has talked about simplified playing and the importance of leaving holes so the group can find their voice. Atomga uses this approach in combination with active listening to construct fairly intricate arrangements that adapt organically to the flow of the moment. While nothing can quite match the magic that happens on stage, their new, self-titled CD does capture that contradictory ideal where the band is tightly aligned but the tunes evolve loosely and naturally.

The album begins with a quick flourish before establishing a solid funk base. Vocalist Kendra Kreie launches into the conscious lyrics like a preacher rousing the congregation. The chorus warns, "Wake up!/They're building empires/ They're building on our backs." The progressive theme calls back to the socio-political criticism that has been at the core of Afrobeat since Nigerian Fela Kuti created the style, but the music animates the message. Each member of the band contributes a deceptively small piece to the overarching mix. The parts fall into repetition with minor variations, but they always leave enough space so they can interlock into a resilient chainmail of bouncing groove. The bass bubbles, the guitar ratchets a light call-and-response, and the organ just taps in the accents. The horns hang back but pull together after the chorus for a thick, droning set of punches. Even during the solos later in the tune, Atomga's horn section works as a team. After a spicy percussion interlude, Alekzandr Palesh leads off with an impressive trombone line. Leah Concialdi's baritone sax jumps in to overtake him but this becomes an exchange between the two instruments.

The following tracks show off the band's range. "Boneyard" slides into a darker, reggae influenced sound with a hot set of Latin horn solos. Then guitarist Casey Hrdlicka drifts into an expressive jazz-blues run. These stylistic shifts are based more on subtle coloring than heavily telegraphed change-ups. "Still Today" on the other hand stays in a jazzy space, with rolling triplets that propel the tune forward. The pensive rhythm is a bit like Dave Brubek's "Take Five" but Atomga uses it like a launching pad. The first solo features Tim Lee's trumpet taking a Miles Davis turn. He hands off to Hrdlicka, who starts out calmly enough, but he builds to a fiery climax of guitar shred. All the while, the rhythm section maintains their composure and the keys float dreamily. The eight and a half minute run time gives the tune plenty of room to stretch out.

"Still Today" turns up again at the end of the album in a remix by Craig Welsch. Welsch has worked with The Avett Brothers and a number of reggae bands like 10 Ft. Ganja Plant and John Brown's Body. His treatment here follows a dub style approach, giving the horns a rich echo and stripping the track down to its roots. The bass gets most of the love, along with the thoughtful Doors style keys. The percussion is still upbeat and active but Welsch locks onto the groove and emphasizes its hypnotic languor.

The only downside with Atomga is the all too brief running time. Even with the remix, the album's five pieces only fill about 33 minutes. By pop song standards, the six minute average track length is expansive, but Fela could lavish a half hour on a single track. On stage Atomga has no problem following his example, but it makes sense that they'd rein in these tunes on the CD: studio time is expensive and plenty of jam bands have proven that a long, meandering live cut can turn wooden without the crowd there to feed off of. While I'm a bit greedy and want to hear more, I'll settle for another time through the album to appreciate the hidden details I might have missed before.

Drop by their Bandcamp page to check out Atomga for yourself.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Concert review - Zoë Keating

3 May 2014 (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)

For someone like me who’s used to rock arenas and noisy bars, this show was a completely different experience. With an older, less casually dressed crowd, reserved seating and respectful audience silence during the performance, it was more of a night at a string recital than at a rock concert. But the symphonic set wasn’t quite at ease either; Zoë Keating’s music didn’t really belong to their world. While her cello would have been at home in the concert hall, the technology she harnessed for looping and layering her parts challenged their comfort zone, and her sonic palette was likewise unconventional. To the warm, organic sounds of strings, Keating added percussive slaps, harsh bow scrapes and light feedback resonance to shape her motifs. But she connected to the divers crowd because she is a phenomenal player whose music carves out its own niche. Modern, new age, minimalistic, experimental, jazzy; it’s hard to nail down exactly what she does, but her music is easily recognizable as the components offset and support one another, building into obsessively layered structures.

003 Zoë Keating
Before she even emerged, the mood was set. The stage was stark, with nothing but her cello, loop controller and seat underneath the hot red lights, softened by a light fog. Red remained the central color, and the lighting tech did a good job of connecting with the music, supporting the accents. Keating started with an older piece, “Seven League Boots”. The initial smear of layered cello gave way to pizzicato raindrop notes that coalesced into heavier flows and rapid cascades. Aside from the beautiful precision of her playing, the stereo separation added depth. Whether directly or via programming, she controlled panning so notes were spatially located, casting the performance into a cool, in-your-headphones experience. Most impressive was that, although you could hear the looped structure, that wasn’t the most salient element of her performance. Her thematic explorations were the center of attention. Her control yielded moments of delicate beauty and intervals of stormy power. In the end, it didn’t matter whether you could follow the subtle dance of her feet guiding the loops or not; the music hypnotized and distracted. Like a master magician, she led the audience’s focus where it needed to go.

011 Zoë Keating
More than just a talented player, Keating has a genuine, if self-conscious, stage presence. Whether filling us in on the challenges of looping (“If you play that first thing wrong, then you have to play everything wrong”), reminiscing over her career (“Rasputina was my rock and roll finishing school”) or talking about her creative process (“I’d rather just give my pieces numbers than titles”), she reached out and overcame the formality of the concert-hall setting. That kept a wall from forming between her and her audience. The crowd showed restraint while Keating played, but her likeable persona made it easy for them to express their enthusiasm at the end of each song. After the show, she built on this with an open-ended meet-and-greet session that gave people the chance to ask questions and make a personal connection. l could hear her answer the same questions over and over, but she was patient and happy to talk with her fans.

008 Zoë Keating
One of the more common queries was about her upcoming album, due to be released this summer. It’s been four years since she released Into the Trees, although she’s worked on soundtracks and commercials since then. During her set, she provided a wonderful taste of her new work, but she took great pains to explain that this was the original improvised idea, rather than the “cello” epic she built in the studio. Keating plans to tour widely in support of the new release, so take advantage of the opportunity if she makes it to your town. It will be mesmerizing; be prepared to sit back and enjoy.

(A version of this review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Recording review - Shonen Knife, Overdrive (2014)

A beautiful balance of thrashy naïveté

Gabba gabba, we accept you/ We accept you, one of us!” On “Pinhead”, the Ramones explicitly summed up the promise of the DIY punk ethos. Anyone could join in from whatever part of the fringe they lived on. That message found an unlikely reception in Osaka, Japan, where two sisters and their friend were inspired to start their own band in 1981. Although the lineup has changed over the years, Shonen Knife remains true to their initial love of bands like the Ramones. Part of their magic is that they embody both rock rawness and Japanese kawaii (cuteness) culture. Their thrashy guitars and simple song structures firmly embrace punk, but the trio’s joie de vivre creates a cognitive dissonance. The crunchy catharsis of distorted amps is tied to cheerfully trivial lyrics in a way that sounds quite naïve to a Western audience. Where other bands might cast this contrast as irony or a mask of innocence over a seething internal chaos, Shonen Knife uses the noise like a trebuchet to launch their innate optimism to soaring heights. They walk this tightrope between two extremes with such a natural flair that it’s impossible to dismiss them as a lightweight girl band or as mindless rockers. They’ve been around long enough that they qualify as old-school punks and they’ve developed a cult following that included Sonic Youth and the late Kurt Cobain.

Their latest offering, Overdrive, reliably delivers their standard mix of punk and pop, but expands that with a classic rock/early heavy metal palette. The opening tune, “Bad Luck Song”, crosses a garage rocking Thin Lizzy cover band with the Ramones, in the best possible sense of that combination. It’s filled with riffs and hooks that are reminiscent of “The Boys Are Back In Town”, but the chorus vocals capture Joey Ramone’s self-conscious simplicity, fitting the message of the song, “The bad luck song might be my good luck song/ This is the best way of thinking.” The twin guitar attack on the solo nails Thin Lizzy’s harmonized lines. It’s a solid start for the album. On the next tune, “Black Crow”, Shonen Knife shifts from classic rock to moody, Black Sabbath-inspired heavy metal. This is one of the two darker tunes on the album, with Naoko Yamano actually summoning a touch of resentment at the crow that has interrupted her sleep, “Don’t wake me up in the night/ I want to stay in my dreams/ Don’t wake me up in the night/ Go back to the mountain.” The lyrics have a childlike directness that is refreshing, perhaps because they seem to deny any metaphorical interpretation. The other break in the band’s relentless cheer comes with “Robots from Hell”, a grinding, drum heavy slog which also leans towards heavy metal. While most of the song just modulates between a couple of chords, they do toss in some tight chord riffs that any basement metal band would be proud to play.

The weighty hard rock on Overdrive meshes well with the band’s power chord punk and it’s fun to identify their influences, from the AC/DC grind of “Ramen Rock” to the Deep Purple sludge intro for “Green Tea”. But even as Shonen Knife expands their sound, they haven’t sacrificed a bit of their fundamental pop sensibility or their paradoxical Zen koan nature. Their kawaii persona is inherently artifice and yet the clarity of their words and grounded playing tap into a guileless sincerity. That enigmatic combination is still intriguing after all of these years. There are a handful of somewhat damaged artists like Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson and Roky Erickson, who could translate their skewed internal mindsets into great art. Shonen Knife are hardly impaired in any way and they’re not of that same stature, but their unique perspective is similarly compelling.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Friday, May 16, 2014

Recording review - John Frusciante, Enclosure (2014)

Arbitrary fragments and electronic agitation

Anyone who knows John Frusciante’s guitar work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and other rock bands will be completely nonplussed by his latest release, Enclosure.

It may even surprise the true fans that already know his avant-garde side. From his first solo album, Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt (1994) through 2012’s PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone, Frusciante’s solo work has always distanced itself from his rock stylings, but it’s striking just how challenging this latest release is. Enclosure features some interesting guitar playing, but it’s positioned more as decoration than the central focus, which is made clear from the very start. “Shining Desert” is a loosely structured electronic soundscape. It begins with a pensive beat and peripheral swells of sound. Frusciante’s processed falsetto overlays itself but remains so low in the mix that it’s difficult to make out all of the lyrics. It’s an intentional gesture that seems to indicate that the words are not nearly as important as the mood he’s trying to create. The guitar doesn’t make its entrance until a full minute into the piece, ushered in with a tom-heavy drum flourish. From that point on, jittery percussion dominates the tune, accompanied by densely layered guitar and keyboard textures. Like a patchwork of corduroy, gingham, and silk, these fragments seemed arbitrarily tossed together without a clear artistic sense. When it can be teased out, the guitar playing is fluid and technically complex, but without a stronger context, it’s hard to appreciate.

This inauspicious beginning is followed by the slightly more coherent “Sleep”, which centers on a theatrical vocal delivery. Unfortunately, the overly busy drum machine beat eclipses the rest of the arrangement, reflecting a short attention span as it jumps from pattern to pattern. The first half of Enclosure stumbles from one experimental jumble to another. It’s not just a matter of defying rock expectations or conventions; the project seems trapped in the echo chamber of Frusciante’s studio-borne flashes of quixotic inspiration and obsessive dabbling. Music like this can sink in and grow on me over time, but the album’s first four tracks never clicked.

Perhaps in recognition of this self-indulgent noodling, Frusciante redeems himself somewhat with the fifth track, “Fanfare”. The simpler electro-pop groove is refreshingly accessible, and he reins in his restless rhythms. With a change of instrumentation, this could find a home in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ catalog, perhaps along with the tunes on By The Way (2002). His lyrical structure is fairly open, but the quiet intensity is pleasant. Eventually, he brings in some guitar during the more aggressive bridge section, but he closes the tune with a cool, Adrian Belew style section, replete with swells of reverse-gated runs. In this case, the outsider approach ornaments the introspective dignity of the piece.

On the next track, “Cinch”, Frusciante finally opens up on the guitar. This instrumental establishes a mournful procession, which provides a good base for his expressive riffing. As the drums sink into nervous, over-the-top fills, the guitar finds a balance between the dolorous foundation and the distracting syncopation. The remaining songs aim for something in between “Fanfare” and “Cinch”. They have a lot more musical structure than the first half of the album, but the scattered drum complexity is a relentless shadow.

A quick sampling of Frusciante’s most recent releases suggests a developing artistic arc. The Empyrean (2009) was more traditionally structured, but incorporated synth elements and a fair amount of production. PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone leaned more heavily on electronic influences, albeit with a Zappa-esque flair, but flashes of drumbeat anxiety do surface. Enclosure magnifies that sense of agitation and embraces it. The promotional push for the album offers another perspective. The album was sent up on a small Cube Satellite and streamed to a custom mobile app for the week or so before the release date. Enclosure’s lack of flow and clarity may just reflect where Frusciante’s head is at these days: somewhere out in the fringes.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Recording review: Lavender Country, Lavender Country (1973 reissue)

Landmark country music act may be raw, but broke down walls 

Important does not necessarily equal good. There’s no argument that the band Lavender Country was important. As the first openly gay country band, they were defacto activists, challenging both stereotypes and their audiences. They made a big regional impact with performances in their home town of Seattle and their eponymous 1973 album, but they didn’t receive national recognition at the time. When their work was rediscovered in 2000, Lavender Country found a home in the Country Hall of Fame archives in recognition of their significance.

The band’s frontman Patrick Haggerty was just the kind of interesting character to pull off this kind of groundbreaking step. He had a supportive father who advised him not to sneak around, and later he became active with the Gay Liberation Front. Politics aside, Haggerty was driven to catalogue his version of the gay experience with a simple, down-home country style. Speaking directly to his gay audience, he blended twang with a sweetly camp attitude on songs like “Come Out Singin’”, “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears”, and “Back In The Closet Again”. In the wake of the Stonewall Riots, but well before Gay Pride made national waves, Lavender Country provided a new voice that was all the more remarkable for being rooted in a traditional country sound.

The album opens with Haggerty’s chipper tone on “Come Out Singin’”, “Wakin’ up to say/ Hip hip hooray, I’m glad I’m gay,” but he bounces around from the minutia of sharing a life with another man to dealing with self-hatred and repression. It’s impressive that he sings so plainly about these issues, especially on the more serious songs like “Waltzing Will Trilogy”. Recounting the horrors of an era where homosexuality was listed as a pathology in the DSM to be treated with electro-shock, medication and institutionalization, Haggerty decries the injustices committed by the medical establishment, “They call it mental hygiene but I call it psychic rape.” His verses present a series of case studies to make his point and, from a purely rhetorical point of view, Haggerty accomplishes his mission. But there’s a fair amount of cognitive dissonance on display, too, and that’s one half of Lavender Country’s Achilles heel. The uptempo “picking and grinning” music sets a rollicking soundtrack for the brutal subject matter. The darker themes on this album rarely find suitable musical accompaniment.

The project’s execution is flawed, even though this kind of raw hillbilly country music is not technically demanding. Performers like the Carter Family have created great beauty within the context of simple melodies and arrangements. Unfortunately, Lavender Country comes across as amateurish. The rough piano work is out of tune honky-tonk, and the keyboard-driven rhythms can be stiff. On top of that, the fiddle player often meanders in search of the right pitch. Haggerty’s reedy voice hits the right notes, and his lyrics can offer a surprising turn of phrase, but those are rare gems. With the bulk of his attention on his message, he seems willing to live with awkward scans and trite rhymes. I can’t blame the band for their priorities, because more polish would not have made these songs any more of a mainstream success at the time, but the rough production makes this a hard album to sink into.

The two best tracks are the mournful folk of “Georgie Pie” and the odd-duck song “To A Woman”. This latter is not really country at all. Instead, fiddle player Eve Morris does a phenomenal job singing a progressive folk love song. Her rich, warm voice caresses the lines and she captures the art rock sound on which Renaissance would later build their career. It’s a remarkable track that doesn’t belong with the rest of the material. I’m guessing that it was the band’s consolation to Morris in recognition of her vocal talents.

Like the rest of American society, the ‘70s were a period of upheaval and falling walls for country music. Around this time, Kinky Friedman and his band the Texas Jewboys recorded Sold American, a humorous Jewish-slanted version of country music. Pot smoking hippies also found their way into the country tent, but it’s interesting to note that it would take another 20 years before another band would directly follow Lavender Country’s trailblazing path. Doug Stevens and the Outband made their own splash in the early ‘90s, with Stevens eventually forming the Lesbian and Gay Country Music Association. Since then, there have only been a few travelers along this rocky path, with Chely Wright and Steve Grand as the latest out country performers. For that reason, Lavender Country deserves our attention, and people should check out this significant reissue recording despite its technical weaknesses.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Recording review - Tokyo Police Club, Forcefield (2014)

Valiant quest for pop perfection loses its way

The perfect pop song sinks into your brain and takes up permanent residence. It’s predictable enough that you already half know it before you’ve heard it the first time, but there’s always a little novel twist that catches your ear on the hundredth listen. The mainstream music industry pumps out their attempts on a regular basis, but it’s a powerful obsession that can even suck in the indiest of hipsters. Tokyo Police Club has never sneered at pop, but with their latest album, Forcefield, they’ve abandoned irony completely to make their own grab for the golden ring.

To give full credit, it’s a valiant effort. Their first single, “Hot Tonight”, is jaunty and cheery, full of shimmery guitar and steady bass. The chorus hook digs in so deep that you can easily picture making eye contact with strangers and bonding as you sing along together, “I’ll burn the house down and I’ll leave it behind/ I didn’t need the money, but the money was nice.” The fills vary from verse to verse, which makes them that much harder to ignore. If it’s not a hit this summer, it’s just because perfection is elusive and the universal ear is fickle. Still, although it reaches for that pop ideal, it falls short on technical points: the mix over-emphasizes the guitar jangle and its low-fi distortion rankles just a hair. It’s a subtle flaw, but Forcefield never does quite find the formula.

On “Through the Wire”, for example, it’s the production that sabotages the tune. The track opens with a live room ambiance – extraneous conversation and an unbalanced acoustic mix – that sounds like an amateurish demo. A mere 15 seconds into this intro, a throbbing bass synth fades in to take the song firmly into the studio. “Feel the Effort”, on the other hand sets up a clear aesthetic that has potential. The smooth keyboard tone finds a common ground between ‘70s easy listening and ‘80s synth-pop that delicately supports the heavily reverbed, soulful vocals. The retro feel is perfect; David Monks gives his rueful lyrics just the right touch of bored nonchalance, “I made a lot of bad decisions/ I feel the effect.” Then, halfway through the piece, they demonstrate one of those decisions when they cut to an incongruous solo. While the volume stays in line with the rest of the song, the guitar is clipped and washed in static. It’s good for indie credibility, but it proves a harsh segue into the more uplifting bridge that follows. While the song eventually finds its way back to the original chorus, it’s a Franken-spliced composition that closes the album on a sour note.

That’s not to say that Forcefield is full of mediocre tracks; most of the tunes show some nice variation and they’re catchy as hell. The band is adept at playing a kind of post-post-punk, cross-breeding new wave sounds with power pop hooks and pop punk drive. It’s telling that Tokyo Police Club is at their best when they break from their pop quest, with tracks like “Argentina (Parts I, II, III)” and “Gonna Be Ready.” The first is a sprawling eight and half minute song cycle that kicks off the album. The galloping pop-punk start is a rallying cry that sets up the tight, close-harmony vocals. Obliquely recounting a romantic connection that begins with worship from afar and ends in self-recrimination, the tune flows smoothly through a roller coaster ride of moods. The band pulls off some subtle tricks to drive the narrative, like using a dynamic drop to create an audible sense of distance for a flashback interlude. The regretful finish, with Monks realizing that he’s been a jerk, is a nice change from the usual flow of this kind of story. I don’t even mind that I can’t really follow his logic when he sings, “Cause if I had known that you were only here for the weekend/ Cause if I had only known what you were thinking/ I would have been so, so, so, so much nicer.

“Gonna Be Ready” similarly satisfies without the same grand scope. The thrashy new wave intro/chorus is a splash of discordant cold water that balances the stripped down, moody verses. While it’s a great song, it’s not a pop masterpiece. Instead, it’s a sign of what the band does best and, actually, what they’ve done well before. I don’t begrudge Tokyo Police Club for embracing their pop side, but 2010’s Champ made a better case for the band’s artistic merit.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 5/5

While there are some good shows this week (Shpongle!), my writing schedule is fairly full with a show review (Zoë Keating) and an album review (Jason Molina's Songs: Cohia collection). So, I'm taking a week off.

Have a good week!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Reissue review: Camper Van Beethoven, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart/Key Lime Pie

Best intentions didn't find their audience at the time, but the reissues show creativity under pressure

It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was just another case of a record label casting around for the Next Big Thing. Camper Van Beethoven’s first three albums, packed with a quirky mix of Eastern European folk, psychedelia and punk, had scored well with critics and college radio, so Virgin Records signed the band in 1987 and probably hoped for the best. Virgin followed the standard major-label script and tried to support the band, but inevitably applied their own creative aesthetic. The production polished the band’s sound and added horns, but it also sanded away some of the character. The musical mélange was still there, but the chaos was more bottled up and the emphasis was on the vocals. Despite all of that effort, they likely didn’t quite understand the end result. They gave Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart the usual record company push and generated some interest on MTV, but the mainstream audience seemed as confused as the Virgin executives must have been. A year later, the label gave it another shot with Key Lime Pie. By that time, though, band tensions were growing; multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel had already left. Their cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” did fairly well, but the rest of the band imploded shortly afterwards.

It’s a shame that Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart never really found its audience. It may not have been destined for mainstream acceptance, but it also missed the mark with many of the band’s long-time fans. While it’s full of gypsy-tinged psychedelia along with David Lowery’s surrealistic lyrics, the band seems less intriguing and the mood is a bit darker. Even when a song does deconstruct itself, like the middle section of “She Divines Water”, it’s just a brief interlude. Lowery’s poetic love song grows in scope, flowering into a celebration of joy and uplifting violin, before melting into a disorienting memory palace of associations. But after a mere 20 seconds or so, a gentle version of the theme returns to put the song to bed. Similarly, while “Turquoise Jewelry” does take advantage of the horn section to suggest early Oingo Boingo’s dark carnival style, the song itself is less exploratory than their earlier material.

Although the original release benefited from the better quality engineering that Virgin provided, this reissue does a fine job of demonstrating the technical improvements since then. Listening to “Waka”, the individual tracks shine with clarity. As the acid rock instrumental steps through its paces, each layer is distinct. The package also includes the usual run of extra tracks. The band honors their punk roots by covering the Buzzcocks, the Damned, and the Stranglers, along with a surprising version of Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome”. But the two most interesting songs are their instrumental surf guitar take on the well-known spiritual, “Wade in the Water” and a Frankenstein’s monster edit reuniting the two parts of “Eye of Fatima”. The former works surprisingly well, summoning the intensity of the Ventures and other surf icons, but the “Eye of Fatima” mash-up doesn't quite score. The two source pieces share a title, but little else; part one is a solid rocker while part two is a slow burn folk-to-psychedelic head-trip. This edit grafts the instrumental onto the end of the rocker, sacrificing the slower intro section of part two. A sharp segue barely attempts to mask the join. That’s the only real misstep on this rerelease.

Although Key Lime Pie continued Camper Van Beethoven’s move towards a more controlled sound and it’s their only album without Segel, I’ve always liked it better than Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. It has a stronger set of songs, especially the one-two punch of “Opening Theme” into “Jack Ruby” that contrasts two perspectives. The first tune is a stately instrumental, relying largely on the violin for moody ambiance. Although Lowery can sneer and effortlessly generate quirky imagery, this kind of melting pot of stylistic influences is what has always attracted me. The hypnotically snaking melody suggests a different era and culture. “Jack Ruby”, on the other hand, opens with a discordant run of acoustic guitar that pushes the piece off balance. Like Sweetheart, this reissue features the same clarity, making it easier to distinguish that what I had originally heard as an echo is actually a second, out of phase guitar. If “Opening Theme” has a well-mannered Old World folk feel, Lowery makes this a modern folk song with his raw recounting of Jack Ruby and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. The new mix also brings the electric guitar fills even further to the front. Other great tracks on the album include the off-kilter “The Light from a Cake” and “(I Was Born In a) Laundromat”, which predates “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but serves up some righteous proto-grunge.

Key Lime Pie takes a different turn for its extra tracks. After “Closing Theme”, which was originally intended to bookend “Opening Theme”, the band serves up a fun, psychedelic remix of “Laundromat” that’s over the top with excess: screaming metallic guitar riffs, back-masked segments and a frat boy chant (“Go! Go! Go!"). Most of the remaining extra tunes are clean but compressed concert recordings of songs from the band’s back catalog. One exception is their live cover of the country classic, “Before I Met You”. The song was originally a hit for Carl Smith in the ‘50s, and Charlie Pride and Porter Wagoner got mileage in the ‘60s. The intro demonstrates the similarity between this melody and “Sad Lovers Waltz”. This take is a duet between Lowery and Segel’s replacement, Morgan Fichter.

These two reissues show Camper Van Beethoven doing their best to tap their creativity from within the confines of their record label. Their sound never did reach the mainstream; Lowery would be much more successful at that with his next band, Cracker. But the improved mix and extras make both of these packages attractive. Omnivore even offers each in vinyl format as well.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)