Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The War on Drugs / Califone - Live 2014.09.28

The War on Drugs have been on my radar for a while, especially since their latest album, Lost in the Dream, has gotten very good reviews. I had hoped to see them at Austin Psych Fest but didn't end up going the day they played. I don't know their music all that well, but on a whim I decided to give the show a chance.

Artist: The War on Drugs
Venue: Stubb's Bar-B-Q
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 28 September 2014
Opening Act: Califone

Califone have also been on the periphery of my awareness, but my impression was never anything special. Still, I know they are well regarded in some sectors and I didn't want to miss their set. They came out sooner than I expected, so I'm glad that I was early.

Most of their songs had a standard indie rock vibe, which is to say they were just fine, but not particularly exceptional. The one odd feature was the very prominent usage of slides – at least half of the songs featured at least one of the guitarists using one. It sounded good in some songs, but in others, it was just another sonic cliché: the sound of an open-tuned guitar sliding up the neck to the next chord. At any rate, I actually kind of liked the country inflection that it often lent. One song even had a distinctive bluesy feel.

Their lead singer was rather nondescript and unemotive, especially compared to the lead guitarist/ harmony vocalist, who seemed to have a more expressive and compelling voice. I understand that the band is mostly the solo project of the lead singer, and his songwriting talent is the core of the music, but the vocals gave the music a restrained feeling that was only reinforced by the drawling, spaced out instrumentation.

Several songs relied on drones and/or feedback, and while I think those segments were meant as background or foundation, sometimes they got out of control and overwhelmed the sound stage. It made me wonder if it was intentional or not, which is probably not a good thing.

The War on Drugs is also often considered merely a vehicle for the primary songwriting member, Adam Granduciel. However, bassist Dave Hartley has been in the group for almost a decade, and keyboardist/guitarist Robbie Bennett has been around for several years. (This is also where I need to make the requisite statement that Kurt Vile was a founding member and songwriting collaborator for several years.) A drummer, a saxophonist/keyboardist, and yet another keyboardist rounded out the live lineup. They seemed like a motley crew, ranging from Hartley's cool, composed, David J-style white suitcoat (over an Austin City Limits t-shirt), to Bennett's New Traditionalist-era Devo look (but with a lumberjack-looking shirt), to the drummer's 70s polka dot shirt, to the extra keyboardist's folky farmer look. Actually, Granduciel looked the plainest of the bunch.

However, despite the number of musicians, most of the guitars, keyboards, and brass were lost in the mix. That isn't to say they contributed nothing, but I could rarely pick out individual instruments other than the bass, drums, and Granduciel's vocals and guitar. Even the saxophone was often indistinguishable from the keyboards. Oddly, several songs had programmed drum samples despite that the drummer was barely doing anything. He worked with a reduced set, and despite his enthusiasm, he stuck to rather simplistic beats. Actually, most of the backing musicians didn't seem to be doing anything particularly complicated, but it was clear that their combined work laid down a solid layer for Granduciel to work on top of.

Granduciel was the clear lead musician, and it was his vision that led the band and set the mood. He excelled at channeling his energy into his voice and guitar, often emitting endearing yelps at the end of verses. When he blasted off into an extended guitar jam, the other musicians picked up their energy level and fed back into Granduciel's playing. Their cohesiveness was impressive, even if no other individual player stood out.

I had originally hoped to write this review without invoking the name of Bob Dylan. Granduciel is a well-known acolyte and his songs suffer frequent critical comparisons to Dylan's. However, my plan was immediately challenged by the War on Drugs' choice of the Byrds' excellent cover of "My Back Pages" as entrance music, and ultimately shattered when the band started their encore with a rendition of "Tangled Up in Blue". The cover was a good performance, done mostly straight but with one of Granduciel's trademark solos at the end.

But the fact that I liked the relatively simple cover so much got me thinking. I enjoyed the show, but found myself looking for something that was absent in all the other songs. I'm no Dylan apologist, so this surprised me. The only clear difference I could find was that "Tangled" has a distinct chorus with a clear hook, a unique beat, and even a lead-up pre-chorus section. None of the War on Drugs' songs worked like that. They were all just loads of verses and guitar solos. Ironically, Dylan is famed for writing songs with countless unending verses, yet even his modestly melodic choruses add just enough of something different to keep his songs compelling and appealing.

While I like the War on Drug's enthusiastic jams and Granduciel's spirited solos, his songs get stuck at one level and never quite jump into the next. The songs have a certain amount of appeal, but they never quite live up to the promise that they will lead somewhere new and special. I want to like his songwriting, and it's easy to get drawn in, but I am left feeling like something is missing. I want him to reach into a new dimension. I think he may even get there sooner or later.

Califone: B-
The War on Drugs: B

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Merchandise / Lower / Institute - Live 2014.09.23

When I first saw Merchandise almost a year ago, I was blown away. I'd never heard of them before, but they were the best band I saw on that day at Fun Fun Fun Fest (except for maybe Television, naturally). I forgot about them for several months afterwards until I re-read the review and saw the imperative I'd left for myself to buy one of their albums. I immediately bought their second album, Children of Desire (2012), and it didn't take me long to get Totale Nite (2013). I purchased the "Begging for Your Life / In the City Lights" single as soon as it was released a few months ago and picked up After the End when it came out a few weeks ago. I can't get enough of them. When I heard they were coming to Austin, I immediately bought a ticket.

Artist: Merchandise
Venue: Red 7
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 23 September 2014
Opening Acts: Institute, Lower

01. Corridor →
02. Enemy
03. In the City Light
04. Green Lady
05. In Nightmare Room
06. True Monument
07. Telephone
08. Little Killer
09. Winter's Dream
10. Anxiety's Door →
11. Totale Nite

Like many of the smaller venues around Red River and 6th Street, exactly what bands play on any given night, and what time they will hit the stage, is often left unknown or unannounced until the doors open. At a place like Red 7, where the doors usually don't open until 9pm, and bands get added the bill with no apparent notice, this can mean a headliner doesn't hit the stage until midnight. For those that have things to do in the morning, this can be quite frustrating. Nonetheless, for a band that I really like, I'll still do it on occasion, especially when tickets are just $12. (However, there have been times when I've had to say no, even after already buying a ticket.)

So on this occasion I found myself at the venue a few minutes after 9pm, unaware of the set times until I walked in the door. Seeing it would be an hour until the first of two opening acts I'd never heard of, I settled into a corner with my book. Bauhaus and Joy Division came through the PA, presaging the music to come.

First up was Institute, an Austin punk/post-punk band. They played a noisy, aggressive 20-minute set with just enough nuance and musicality to keep me from retreating to the corner. The singer clearly wanted to be a punk; his band perhaps preferred something marginally more sophisticated. The band held it together fine, except for the bassist's amp going out on the last song, unrepaired until the singer stormed off stage at the end of the song. The singer was on some sort of weird trip; he had some kind of unsettling substance smeared across his face, he could only sing while sneering over his right shoulder, his twitching and jerking about landed him off the stage twice, his singing was mostly garbled yelling and atonal grunts, and he did it all while wearing a Never Mind the Bullocks, Here's the Sex Pistols t-shirt. How punk. At their best, they might hope to be considered a Fall knock-off. At their worst, they're a mess of punk clichés that could gladly be left back in 1977.

Second in line was Lower, a Copenhagen band that seems to reside somewhere in the realm of post-punk. I couldn't figure them out, although if I had known at the time that they were Danish, maybe I wouldn't have thought so hard about their appearance. The lead singer could have been a frat boy in America but instead was a harmless crooner. A couple songs got into a good groove with the bass and drums locked together under some appealingly angular guitarwork, but most of the songs just dragged.

Merchandise eased into their set with the opening duo from their new album, After the End. Carson Cox started into "Corridor" with wide, vast acoustic guitar sweeps, while Chris Horn played a synth part and Elsner Niño offered a sparse percussion arrangement. This led seamlessly into "Enemy", which already provided a taste of the big sound that the band is aiming for. Cox's strumming sped up, Niño laid down a bouncy beat, David Vassalotti offered a catchy lead guitar hook, and Patrick Brady's bass kept it all moving. In the bridge, the guitarists went wild and the whole thing sounded like a rave-up.

This is a band that hardly makes sense. Emerging from a punk scene, they initially gravitated to noise and industrial music. In the midst of a constant stream of output, they suddenly signed onto 4AD and released something of a pop album. It sounds huge, it has melodic guitar hooks all over the place, the lyrics are actually printed on the insert, and somehow it actually sounds like a natural step forward.

It must be some kind of miracle that when I heard the cheesy electronic tom-tom roll that introduces "Green Lady", it immediately felt like the best moments of their industrial-jam back-catalog, I eagerly anticipated the big guitar hook that was about to start, and the combination thereof made me want to dance in a way that rock music almost never does. Why I do I love that retro drum sound? It should be incongruous, but instead it just makes them seem even bigger.

The best words I have to describe this bands are simple like that: big, vast, wide, expansive. Their earlier records partially obtained that result through extended song lengths, often in the area of ten minutes, but ever since Children of Desire their production has been aimed at opening up into a wider space than any average punk or noise band would care to consider. They now excel at the art so well that they have been able to hone their songs into more traditional pop-song length and arrangement without losing their sense of vision and scope.

Played live back to back, "In Nightmare Room" (from Desire) and "True Monument" (from After the End), both highlights of their respective albums, sound like they belong together. You wouldn't guess that from their recorded studio versions, in which the former is dark, shadowy, uptempo, and driven by a drum machine, and the former is bright, melodic, moderately paced, and adorned with vocal harmonies. On stage, their differences merge and they seem cut from a similar cloth. "In Nightmare Room" brightened up with a live drummer, and "True Monument" picked up an extra edge.

If there's a misstep on the new album, it's "Telephone", which sticks out awkwardly in the middle of the album. The poppy beat is garishly over the top, the titular sound effects are crassly cheesy (and they already successfully used a telephone sound at the end of "Satellite"!), and the lyrics are awful and clichéd. Just like on the album, it stuck out during the show and brought it down a notch. The song fared better live, where it shed the telephone ringing and gained more energetic guitar work, but it was still the low point of the set.

The other problem that also translated directly from studio to stage was the inescapable feeling that the audience is being had. How could a band like this make something so akin to pop? It isn't a complaint in itself, but it is hard to feel like there isn't some joke or ironic gesture. Something feels just a little forced. It's so hard not to like the catchiness of the new songs, but I wonder if I'm supposed to reject it. Is it some kind of statement to prove that audiences are foolish enough to accept anything with the right mix of pop magic? Or is it a statement that punks, hardcore types, and anyone too obsessed with "authenticity" are ridiculous to think that a band like Merchandise could "sell out" by presumably aiming for mass appeal?

The only other distracting issue was the mix. Horn's keyboard parts were almost indiscernible, and Cox's vocals were also a little low. The drums and guitars sounded great, but the upper registers felt underrepresented. (Also, where was Horn's sax?) This is one case where seeing them on a big stage at something like Fun Fun Fun Fest was clearly preferable. With their sound as big as it is, a smaller venue like Red 7 makes the music almost claustrophobic. At the festival, they sounded huge. The massiveness of their sound made an instant impression on me. At Red 7, they sounded restricted and restrained. I think they would have torn the walls down if they could.

Institute: D-
Lower: B-
Merchandise: B+

Bonus scores:
Children of Desire: A
Totale Nite: B+
"Begging for Your Life / In the City Light": A-
After the End: B

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Devo

Devo has been on my mind a lot recently, ever since they came to my town on their Hardcore Devo tour in July. The tour was primarily based around their early material, particularly their home demos recorded before they signed a major label contract. I decided not to go, primarily because I find some of their early material to be problematic. In fact, after realizing that I didn't want to see the show, I started reevaluating my collection of Devo albums. I had bought their first four albums in rapid succession in 2005, and although I've listened to several of their other albums and collections, no others appealed to me enough to merit purchase.

Over the last two or three years, I've reviewed my entire music collection from start to finish. (Yes, it really did take two or three years.) In the process, I realized that my tastes had changed and that my ideas about collecting music were not the same as they once were. The complete story perhaps merits its own more complete post, but the short of it is that I started getting rid of anything I didn't connect with. Some things I'd outgrown (Everclear, Green Day), some just weren't actually very good (INXS, Adam Ant, Richard Lloyd, Daniel Ash), and some were things I'd bought because they were "important" but I just couldn't get into (Raw Power, Suicide, U2).

In this process, I realized that most Devo albums aren't actually very good. Devo's politics, social commentary, and satire are among the best commercially available, but their early and latter-day writing leans too heavy on relationship songs that are uninteresting, clichéd, or even repulsive. Musically, their creativity and experimentation appeared to peak with their debut album, and it gradually drifted away as their career progressed. They still managed to periodically write good tunes and wield clever concepts, but the rate of innovation took a sharp downturn.

As a result of this realization, I did something I've never done before: I sold everything except their first album and bought a "greatest hits" compilation. I'll save the detailed explanation of the personal significance of such an act for the aforementioned separate post, but I think Devo's career merits a greater discussion at present to justify my decision.

["Mongoloid" b/w "Jocko Homo" single, 1977.]

Devo was founded in the early 70s in Ohio in the wake of the Kent State shootings, the same source of inspiration for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio". They started out as more of a performance art or cultural critique outlet based around the ideas of Gerald Casale and the long-forgotten Bob Lewis. Mark Mothersbaugh brought additional, similar ideas along with greater musical proficiency and equipment. As friends and siblings joined to form a band, Lewis gradually shifted to something of a management role before leaving under seemingly contentious grounds around the time the band signed a contract with Warner Bros. Records.

In the meantime, the band had been ceaselessly writing songs and recording homemade demos for years. Most of these recordings never saw the light of day until the Hardcore Devo compilations were released in 1990, although a few appeared on a supposedly official "bootleg" under the title Mechanical Man in 1978, and the best of the bunch were later re-recorded. The forgotten songs, the same ones being featured on the recent tour, are unfortunately a decidedly mixed lot. While the band had boundless creative energy, many songs were blatantly sexist. Although I realize they may have intentionally pushed the envelope in the name of satire, I find many of these early songs unlistenable for this reason.

[Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, 1978.]

Nonetheless, by 1977, the band began releasing singles on independent labels and managed to catch the eyes of Neil Young and David Bowie. The next year, they recorded their debut for Warner Bros., Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, produced and financed by a certain Brian Eno. Somewhere in the process, the more objectionable songs were filtered out in favor of a strong set of cultural and social critiques. "Jocko Homo" was a statement of purpose in 7/4, "Satisfaction" is among the greatest cover versions of all time (and it doesn't even use the signature original riff!), and "Mongoloid" challenges preconceived notions of developmental disability. The album is full of pointed sarcasm whose bitterness does not detract from the strength of the message.

[Duty Now for the Future, 1979.]

Devo's second album, Duty Now for the Future (1979), is a classic example of a sophomore slump. Most of the album featured further re-recordings of older material, but the song choices are decidedly second-rate. Only "Blockhead" and "Secret Agent Man" were successful reinterpretations, and "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprize" (sic) was the only worthwhile new song. The only other redeeming quality is the cover, which mocked the new requirement of placing UPCs on album jackets. Musically, the increasing use of synthesizers was somewhat intriguing, but lyrically, the album suffered terribly. "Pink Pussycat" is particularly egregious, but "Clockout" is also quite disappointing for taking a promising idea and going in a poorly chosen direction.

[Freedom of Choice, 1980.]

Devo's mostly widely recognized and best-selling album is probably their third, Freedom of Choice (1980). The band unabashedly embraced synthpop and produced an early landmark of the genre. It features their biggest single (at least in the US), "Whip It", as well as several other fantastic singles ("Girl U Want", "Freedom of Choice", "Gates of Steel"). But even if the stylistic traits and the singles excel, the rest of the album is a bit of a drag. Most of the songs just aren't very compelling, but a few ("Ton o' Luv", "Don't You Know") are outright bad.

[New Traditionalists, 1981.]

New Traditionalists (1981) follows a similar trend: the singles "Beautiful World" and "Through Being Cool" are excellent, but the rest is bland or worse. Almost all of the other songs are relationship-based and offer nothing clever or insightful. I don't even know what to make of "Love Without Anger".

There seems to be a pattern here. Devo has always been a band with great ideas, but new ones came increasingly infrequently, such that most of their albums after New Traditionalists are lucky to feature a single good song (e.g. "Post Post-Modern Man"). In their quest to challenge and critique, they've often been on the line, and their earliest work is often on the wrong side of it. Their debut features the cream of the crop of several years of songwriting, but no later album could live up to that level of consistency. The lesson to learn is that Devo should perhaps be considered a singles band. Their albums tend to contain a lot of filler around a small number of truly exceptional songs and ideas.

[Greatest Hits, 1990.]

This should not be interpreted to imply that Devo is best forgotten or that they aren't worth the hype. To the contrary, Devo's contributions to underground and mainstream music cannot be overstated. They pioneered music videos, they presaged merchandising, they spearheaded synthpop, they practically invented postmodernism in music, they were outspoken advocates of the then-superior laserdisc (the precursor to today's DVD and Blu-ray), they resolutely believed in the idea that a true modern artist should provide a complete multimedia experience, and they did it all while criticizing and mocking the entire system that they existed within. They never backed down or sold out. That being said, the quality of their songs didn't always match the strength of their ideals, and especially early on, they sometimes let their sexual frustrations obscure their vision. I do not mean to downplay the apparent misogyny present in some of the dark corners of their back catalog; even if meant ironically, some songs present an image of sexual relations that are simply crass or unacceptable.

[Greatest Misses, 1990.]

It is for these reasons that I sold everything except Q: Are We Not Men? and started looking for a compilation. The obvious and most widely available choice (in the US) is the Greatest Hits collection, possibly augmented by or substituted with Greatest Misses. However, neither one succinctly and sufficiently comprises their best material, and both feature several weak tracks. Between the two, they contain most of Q: Are We Not Men?, which is redundant since the album is still worth owning individually, and most of Duty Now for the Future, which is disappointing, since it's a relatively weak album. A clearly superior choice is Hot Potatoes: The Best of Devo. It does contain several mediocre tracks from Oh No! It's Devo (1982), as well as an atrocious remix of "Whip It", but otherwise, it manages to collect just about every worthwhile track up through New Traditionalists.

[Hot Potatoes: The Best of Devo, 1993.]

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo: A
Duty Now for the Future: D+
Freedom of Choice: B
New Traditionalists: C+
Hot Potatoes: The Best of Devo: A-

Further reading:
Interview with Mark Mothersbaugh (The A.V. Club, 1997)
Interview with Bob Lewis (The Daily Record, 2010)
Interview with Jerry Casale (Flavorwire, 2009)
Bob Lewis' history of Devo (pdf; currently available only on archive.org)

P.S. Although I wasn't interested in Devo's most recent appearance in Austin, if I had been living in here in 2012, I would have loved to have seen the double-billing of Devo with Blondie!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Peter Hook - The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club (2009)

Title: The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club
Author: Peter Hook
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (UK), It Books (US)
Year: 2009 (UK), 2014 (US)

I haven't done a book review in a while. A very long while, actually. But I've recently read several music-themed works and I'm feeling inspired. In the interest of full disclosure, I got this book for free through a promotion from the US publisher. (I was one of the two lucky winners of this contest.) Perhaps the fact that I got it as a promotional tool makes me more inclined to write about it. It is also worth noting that the US edition comes five years after the original UK release and appends a new postscript. I'm not aware of any other changes beyond the cover and the addendum.

[The UK cover.]

I'll admit: I probably would not have bought this book on my own. However, I was curious enough to put my name in the contest. While I like Joy Division, New Order, Factory Records, and the idea of a record label opening a venue/club for the obvious crossover appeal, the reality is that the Haçienda was far better known for acid house and rave music, which do not interest me. Oh, and ecstasy, which also doesn't interest me. Since Peter Hook is well-known for being something of a egotist and power-tripper (do some research around here to see what I mean), I wasn't sure how much I wanted to hear about drugs and booze and rock 'n' roll yet again.

But I got the book, so I certainly wasn't going to not read it.

The Haçienda is structured chronologically, with individual years serving as chapters. It begins in 1980 as New Order rises from the ashes of Joy Division while the band and their label (Factory) start thinking about opening a club. It opened in 1982, primarily making a name by hosting indie bands, most of whom were not even affiliated with Factory. The Smiths infamously played some of their first gigs there, and countless other noteworthy bands came and went during the early years. Oddly, New Order performed there rather infrequently. Success eluded the Haçienda until the late 80s, when the DJ nights became increasingly popular. Drug use was rampant, gang activity and violence became increasingly problematic, and the police and local government grew displeased. It closed inauspiciously in 1997 when the licensing came up for renewal and money problems became insurmountable.

Hook spends most of each chapter telling stories about himself and the club, sometimes interesting, sometimes not, and frequently quite indulgent. The worst offenses are a prologue detailing a long night of partying at the Haçienda at its height in 1991 and an interlude detailing a long night of drugs and drunk driving on Ibiza in 1988, while Hook and the rest of New Order were supposed to be recording Technique, an attempted crossover album that hasn't dated well.

However, he also summarizes the activities of the year and provides some perspective on the management and general atmosphere of the place, which is the real root of the narrative. Each chapter also includes an excerpt of the financial accounts of the year, a schedule of the major events (sometimes even with setlists!), and a few notable quotes. The financial records are usually left unexplained, but mostly seem in line with the perpetual joke/myth that the place never turned a profit. Surprisingly, at its height around 1989 and 1990, it appears that the Haçienda may have actually earned money, although it was probably used immediately to pay off debts.

The ancillary material is mildly interesting, but ends up turning about a third of the page count into pure reference material. Considering the considerable thanks heaped upon Claude Flowers (who "got the ball rolling and prompted me to remember a lot of stuff I thought I'd forgotten") and Andrew Holmes (who did "a fantastic job shaping the raw material and bringing it to fruition"), I wonder how much content was actually written by Hook. This isn't helped by Hook's acknowledgment that he began DJing only as a "celebrity DJ" who just picked the records but otherwise did no work and just partied.

That being said, there are certainly some humorous stories and revealing statements. I was bemused at the thought of Einstürzende Neubauten bringing a pneumatic drill into the venue for a show in 1985 and proceeding to attack a central pillar. Seeing the lists of amazing bands that played there proves that the management's taste and reach was impeccable – at least in the beginning, when they were perhaps dangerously ahead of the curve. Hook even dispelled the longstanding joke/myth that every copy of the "Blue Monday" single lost them money. Apparently the first two million copies netted them a loss of ten pence each, but the subsequent runs were simplified to cut costs and thus earn a profit.

The book is not without ironies, though. One is that Hook quotes from Tony Wilson's novelization of 24 Hour Party People, although the movie it was based on is quite famously largely invented. The line between truth and fiction is again blurred as a result, which casts doubt on some of Hook's more exotic tales, like launching fireworks inside the venue for a New Year's party and subsequently setting about five grand on fire.

The greatest irony, though, comes in the epilogue, where Hook states, "Would I run a club again? No. Too much responsibility – plus the wife would kill me." This section is followed by a postscript (written in 2010, after the first UK pressing) in which he describes opening a new club, FAC 251 – The Factory, located in the former Factory label headquarters.

Score: C-

P.S. I realize that providing a score in the C range risks being meaningless or content-free. The point is that if you love Hooky or the Haç to death, you'll love the book; otherwise you won't. So for the average reader, this book ends up being at best average, perhaps boring or even depressing.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Crosby, Stills & Nash - Live 2014.08.28

Artist: Crosby, Stills & Nash
Venue: The Long Center
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 28 August 2014

Set 1:
01. Carry On/Questions [originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]
02. Marrakesh Express
03. Long Time Gone
04. Southern Cross
05. Just a Song Before I Go
06. Delta
07. Don't Want Lies [The Rides cover]
08. Back Home [new song by Graham Nash] → The Weight [partial; The Band cover]
09. To the Last Whale: Critical Mass [Tape] / Wind on the Water [originally performed by Crosby & Nash]
10. Our House [originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]
11. Déjà Vu [originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]
12. Bluebird [originally performed by Buffalo Springfield]

Set 2:
13. Helplessly Hoping
14. Girl from the North Country [Bob Dylan cover]
15. I'll Be There for You [originally performed by Graham Nash]
16. What Makes It So [new song by David Crosby]
17. What Are Their Names [originally performed by David Crosby]
18. Guinnevere
19. I Used to Be a King [originally performed by Graham Nash; performed with Shawn Colvin]
20. Burning for the Buddha [new song by Graham Nash]
21. Almost Cut My Hair [originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]
22. Wooden Ships
23. For What It's Worth [originally performed by Buffalo Springfield]
24. Love the One You're With [originally performed by Stephen Stills]

25. Teach Your Children [originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]

When I saw CSN just about two years ago in Kentucky, they were in good form and put on a great show. They played just about every classic I could have asked for and threw in some new tunes as well, which actually went over quite well. The five-member backing band seemed excessive, but having a solid team is hardly a crime.

It's worth remembering, though, that that tour was actually originally supposed to have a very different form. In fact, it was supposed to be a 30-date tour of a reunited Buffalo Springfield. After Neil Young backed out, Crosby and Nash invited Stephen Stills to join their planned tour as a duo, and so the summer tour was reconfigured for the CSN trio format. (Does this remind anyone of a few past moments in history involving Neil Young and Stephen Stills?)

More recently, while CSNY were preparing to release the CSNY 1974 box set, it would seem that almost everyone involved was hoping for a full quartet reunion tour to promote the album. (For example, examine the hopeful thinking of Graham Nash and David Crosby.) Unsurprisingly, a certain member was apparently uninterested, so it was left to the other three to do the job. And thus we have another CSN tour!

At face value, the show was very similar to the one I saw two years ago. The setlists share most of the same classic material (and in almost the same order), the same backing musicians were present, Graham Nash was again barefoot, Crosby again claimed one of the musicians was from the area (this time James Raymond, obviously not true), Stills played just about every guitar solo, Crosby and Nash were responsible for the harmonies, and so on. In practice, though, the night was quite different. Because of the many similarities, I won't rehash what I already covered thoroughly last time, but rather focus on the differences.

First of all, the crowd was possibly the oldest audience I've ever seen. Even last time I saw CSN, there were still plenty of younger people to offset the baby boomer bias. But in Austin, a town where young people simply cannot stop moving, and a town known for such a lively, abundant, and young music scene, I've never before seen a show where I might've been the youngest person I saw. Even bands accused of being nostalgia acts, like Paul McCartney or the Monkees, attracted a large cross-section of all ages.

But more importantly, once the band started playing, it was clear something was off. Specifically, that something was Stephen Stills' voice. Although he might have struggled two years ago, it wasn't really a problem then. It is now. He couldn't annunciate anything. Most of his songs ended up as a garbled mess, where words were only decipherable if someone else was singing harmony. Stills could usually hold a tune, but sometimes he seemed to forget his lines, making his mumbling all the worse. He let Nash take most of his parts on "Wooden Ships" (like last time), but he had the audacity to mock Bob Dylan at one point, impersonating his hypothetical take on "Helplessly Hoping", but in fact sounding like an accurate representation of himself! The lowest points were probably his cover versions ("Don't Want Lies", which Stills co-wrote, and Dylan's "Girl from the North Country"). Both were sung with little or no harmony additions, and their relative unfamiliarity in the CSN canon made it impossible to parse the words.

Not helping anything were Stills' guitar leads. Last time around I thought he played excellently, even if his style was a bit indulgent. This time, indulgence was the order of the day. He could play fine, but his parts weren't as compelling, and his need to take the lead on almost every song began to drag them down with the excess weight. For some odd reason, he had a weird little slide part that he tried to fit into every single solo, regardless of how well it fit the mood or rhythm. Rarely did it fit, and often he couldn't even get it right, so it stuck out awkwardly almost every time. "Bluebird" was the worst offender, as Stills could not be stopped, no matter how bad his solos got. He spent minutes stuck on doing simple volume swells before descending into the depths of drunken blooze cliché.

At least Nash and Crosby held up well… mostly. Nash's new songs "Back Home" (a tribute to Levon Helm) and "Burning for the Buddha" (in honor of self-immolating Tibetan monks) were decent, and Crosby's new song "What Makes It So" was good, too. But the point of using the recorded tape of "Critical Mass" to introduce "To the Last Whale" is lost on me. Also, Nash's latter-day "I'll Be There for You" was positively one of the worst songs I've ever heard from a professional musician. In general, Nash's abilities have held up as well as ever, and he can still hit every harmony perfectly on cue. Crosby, though, honestly surprised me with how well he could sing. It may have been the best I've ever heard from him. He was powerful and hit notes that I don't think I've heard from him before. The strength of his voice was probably the high point of the night.

Among the many oddities of the show was the surprise appearance of Shawn Colvin to sing the lead of Nash's wonderful "I Used to Be a King". Less exciting was whatever excuse was necessary to extend Déjà Vu into an unending mess with seven (!) instrumental solos – one for each backing musician, bookended by more of Stills' indulgence. And while I was disappointed that "Guinnevere" was performed at a snail's pace, I was pleased with the minor rearrangements of "Almost Cut My Hair" and "Wooden Ships". However, on the latter, the band shed any subtlety of the line, "Who won the war?" by answering it themselves with, "No one!"

"For What It's Worth" still resounds strongly today, especially in the wake of events like the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. Conversely, "Love the One You're With" sounds increasingly cynical and seems an odd choice for a singalong song. And I have to admit, when the band came out for the encore, having again ignored the same two obvious choices as last time I saw them, I was disappointed when they left after "Teach Your Children", leaving "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" for another day. I doubt Stills could have done it justice, anyway.

Score: C-

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

P.P.S. I was also annoyed that Nash claimed that Stephen Stills wrote "Southern Cross". It is well-known that the song is based off The Curtis Brothers' "Seven League Boots" and thus they are credited as cowriters.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Peter Murphy / My Jerusalem / The Boxing Lesson - Live 2014.07.29

I almost didn't buy the brand new Peter Murphy album, Lion. Murphy is a little past his prime and I'm tired of his occasionally ridiculous arrogance ("I just think I'm out of place, really. I'm like Bowie, Iggy, Frank Sinatra, Elvis all rolled into one"; quoted from here). It doesn't help that his increasingly esoteric interests make him a tough figure to follow, although his continual willingness to follow unexpected paths does mean that you never know when he'll surprise you with an amazing song. Since tickets for the show were surprisingly reasonable ($25), I decided to give the album and the show a chance.

Artist: Peter Murphy
Venue: The Belmont
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 29 July 2014
Opening Act: The Boxing Lesson, My Jerusalem

01. Hang Up
02. Low Room
03. Low Tar Sands
04. Memory Go
05. Peace to Each
06. Deep Ocean Vast Sea
07. Gaslit
08. Eliza
09. Holy Clown
10. A Strange Kind of Love
11. Silent Hedges (originally performed by Bauhaus)
12. She's in Parties (originally performed by Bauhaus)
13. Velocity Bird
14. The Prince & Old Lady Shade

15. Cuts You Up
16. Uneven & Brittle

The show started early (7pm) but featured two opening acts that I was curious about, so I decided it would be worth it to be timely. I assume the fact that the Belmont is an outdoor venue downtown was the reason that the show was scheduled to be done by 10:30pm, although I can hardly complain, since I had to get up early for work the next morning regardless of set times. My punctuality was rewarded with a good spot on a balcony overlooking the side of the stage. I may have suffered some sound quality loss, but the clear and close-up view was worth it.

The Boxing Lesson opened the show; they are a local group that are not appearing on other dates of Peter Murphy's tour. The band is a rock trio of guitarist/singer Paul Waclawsky, synthesist Jaylinn Davidson, and drummer Dancing Eagle. Waclawsky was quite good, even if his singing wasn't particularly notable and his guitarwork was a bit indulgent, but the highlight was Davidson, whose keyboard deck produced the primary colors of the soundscapes. She held down the bass parts while also alternating between rhythm and lead parts. The band had a big sound, a little haunted, a little heavy, but never nihilistic or dreary. In fact, it felt somewhat bright and upbeat, despite the dark vibes. I enjoyed the performance quite a bit.

[The Boxing Lesson.]

My Jerusalem came next; they are the regular openers for this tour, although they are also based out of Austin. Their sound was fairly conventional rock, in the direction of the generic, pseudo-"alternative" bands of the late 90s and early 00s. Some of the musicianship was good, particularly from the lead guitarist/keyboardist, but I found the style to be unconvincing. The music was monotonous and their lyrics mundane. At least they could rock with some energy.

[My Jerusalem.]

When Peter Murphy came on stage, he was accompanied by new guitarist Andee Blacksugar, bassist/violinist Emilio DiZefalo-China, and drummer Nick Lucero. They unsurprisingly started with the opening track of the new album, but this was followed by the relatively obscure "Low Room" from 1992's Holy Smoke. The core of the setlist came from Lion and its predecessor, Ninth (2011) – this is hardly a nostalgia trip or a run-through of the greatest hits. Murphy played a mere two Bauhaus songs and just three other songs from his career before Ninth, all from Deep (1989), his most popular album.

[Peter Murphy.]

Actually, I was quite surprised by how little time Murphy spent looking back. When I saw him in Hannover in 2009, he was amidst his Secret Covers tour, but spent most of the setlist either previewing material eventually to be released on Ninth or reaching around the corners of his back catalog. I liked the variety, even if some of the choices were misfires. This time, though, I found myself wondering if he'd ever do a favor for fans of Cascade (1995). I suppose a nod to the 2012 In Glad Aloneness EP by Dali's Car was totally out of the question.

I think both of the most recent albums are decidedly okay; they are far from bad, but also aren't exactly top-notch, either. They are decent works from an aging alternative artist that isn't ready to fade from view. Thankfully, the live band does a great job bringing these songs to the stage, where they are able to keep most of the strengths of the studio versions and add a bit more live energy, even if some nuance is lost. Murphy did rely on some backing tracks, but fewer than I remembered him using the last time I saw him.

It was hard not to wonder why Murphy was skipping most of his hits and singalongs. Obviously, "A Strange Kind of Love" and "Cuts You Up" were quite welcome inclusions, but other than those and the Bauhaus songs, he was aiming for the dedicated fan. He even played a b-side from The Secret Bees of Ninth EP (2011), "Gaslit", which conveniently happens to be the best track from the EP. But Murphy has a history reaching back to the title track of the debut album by Bauhaus, In the Flat Field, in which he tends to write songs with short, simple choruses but long, wordy verses. It's his normal style of songwriting, and it usually works fine, but it does make the songs very hard to sing along to!

The highlights of the show were basically any time that the band broke out of the normal electric guitar-based rock mode. Hence, the rather atmospheric "Gaslit" stood out, as did both "A Strange Kind of Love" and "Cuts You Up", both of which featured Murphy on an acoustic 12-string guitar. The former also gave DiZefalo-China a chance to use his violin for the lead parts. Both Bauhaus cuts were excellent choices, but "She's in Parties" was particularly strong. Murphy's melodica parts may have been a little off, but at the conclusion of the song, he started bashing around on a drum pad and the song transformed into a wonderful dub-styled jam.

[12-string guitar and violin for "A Strange Kind of Love".]

The most disappointing part was that Murphy exited the stage at the end of "Uneven & Brittle" and called the show. They were scheduled to play another ten or fifteen minutes, and the set did seem short. When I was leaving the venue, I happened to see one of the written setlists that another fan procured. It included the song "Lion" before "Uneven & Brittle", and apparently either "Subway" or "Ziggy [Stardust]" was listed as the closer, but was scratched out. Either would have made for a much better closer than what we got!

I doubt I'll ever know why the band cut the show short, but I felt like I had missed out on part of the deal. At least the performances were good and the band ventured outside of the straightforward alt-rock sound for several songs. I won't complain that Murphy played a very forward-looking set, but then again, his last tour was a 35th anniversary tour of Bauhaus material, so maybe he was ready for a change.

The Boxing Lesson: B+
My Jerusalem: C-
Peter Murphy: B-

Monday, July 28, 2014

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds / Nicole Atkins - Live 2014.07.19

Artist: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Venue: Moody Theater (Austin City Limits Live)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 19 July 2014
Opening Act: Nicole Atkins

01. We Real Cool
02. Jubilee Street
03. Tupelo
04. Red Right Hand
05. Mermaids
06. From Her to Eternity
07. West Country Girl
08. Into My Arms
09. The Ship Song
10. God Is in the House
11. The Weeping Song
12. Higgs Boson Blues
13. The Mercy Seat
14. Stagger Lee
15. Push the Sky Away

16. Deanna
17. Do You Love Me?
18. Papa Won't Leave You, Henry
19. The Lyre of Orpheus

Nicole Atkins came out with just a guitarist and a drummer; she carried no instrument herself. Despite only playing for about half an hour, her set packed some power and variety. At first I was picking up a sort of folk vibe, but then it shifted to something more like blues (or even hard rock!), and as the set progressed, I also heard bits of indie rock, such as guitar phrasings from the Radiohead playbook. The highlight was clearly Atkins' own voice, as she was always able to maintain strength, volume, and range. Her guitarist was solid and did a great job making a bedrock for Atkins. He must have been using a loop pedal for the more intense sections, as at times he would play leads or solos that seemed fuller than what one guitar is capable of. The drummer wasn't showy or flashy but skillfully punctuated the rhythm of the songs. It was the type of skillful playing that you wouldn't notice without looking for it, although the small number of musicians on stage made it easier. The only weak spot was that the songwriting was inauspicious and the lyrics merely par for the course.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, despite their thirty-one-year history, are still a growing and changing band. Their most recent studio album, Push the Sky Away, released in early 2013, mostly features keyboard- and loop-heavy songs with mysterious shapes and extended, meandering trajectories. It's a subtle, slightly unnerving record, leaning on the edge of predicting a strange technopocalypse. It's borderline ambient at times. This comes after the band made Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! in 2008, a raucous and loose album seemingly influenced by the garage blues punk side project Grinderman. A more extreme about-face is hard to imagine, but this is the band that followed the rocking Tender Prey with the piano-based The Good Son and the violent Murder Ballads with the serene The Boatman's Call. When I saw the Cave & Co. on tour in 2008, Cave picked up a guitar for about half the set and played in a loose, noisy, almost cavalier style. Before the debut of Grinderman in 2006, Cave rarely played guitar, preferring piano or nothing. This time around, Cave returned to his previous form: he never touched a guitar, and only played piano on less than half of the songs.

[A calmer moment.]

The other source of growth and change in the band is the revolving door of musicians that accompany Cave. Founding member and guitarist Blixa Bargeld left in 2003, long before I saw them the first time, but in the meantime, founding member/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Mick Harvey left the band in 2009. Ed Kuepper joined on guitar to temporarily fill the void, but only on stage. By the time recording commenced on Push the Sky Away, it seemed as if the band couldn't handle being left with Nick Cave as the only original member. Quite unexpectedly, Barry Adamson (bassist on the band's first four albums) was suddenly found playing bass on two tracks, despite that longtime bassist Martyn P. Casey is still a regular member. Additionally, without any guitarists left in the band, a new name cropped up, playing twelve-string on two tracks: George Vjestica.

As the tour for the album commenced, regular drummer Thomas Wydler was not present, supposedly due to illness. Despite that the band has another full-time drummer (Jim Sclavunos), Adamson moved to drums – and filled in some keyboard work. Kuepper was again found on guitar. (This can be seen in the Live at L.A. Fonda Theatre video available on the official website, recorded in February 2013.) Although the band traded Kuepper for Vjestica on stage in May, by the time the band recorded Live from KCRW in November 2013, the band was trimmed to a five-piece without a guitarist or regular keyboardist Conway Savage. Adamson accordingly focused more on keyboards. Now that Savage and Vjestica are back, Adamson is splitting his duties between drums, keyboards, and xylophone. Wylder still remains inexplicably absent.

Despite all the shake-ups, one thing remains clear: violinist/noisemaker/tenor guitarist Warren Ellis is the bands undisputed second-in-command after Cave. Just as when I saw the band in 2008, Ellis dominated the sound spectrum and seemed to call the shots of how mellow or intense the sound levels would be. While Cave's wild guitarwork in 2008 seemed to render Harvey redundant, in Harvey's absence and without Cave's guitar, Ellis' tenor guitar and general noise construction still managed to make Vjestica an almost unnecessary addition. Vjestica mostly played acoustic and/or twelve-string parts, but even when he picked up an electric, he was decidedly in the background.

Adamson, too, was oddly obfuscated. His drumming usually merely doubled Sclavunos' parts, and his keyboards were often lost behind Savage and Cave's parts. His only opportunities to stand out were on a few songs where he played distinctive keyboard parts or moved to the marimba. I like Adamson, and he's had a long and distinctive career, but he seemed relegated to the shadows.

Nick Cave was in top form, slinking around the stage and staring down audience members right in the eyes, but the band felt loose. They wield power and they still make a good sound, but they weren't always quite on target. Much like on the last tour, they don't come off as a very tight band, despite their years of experience.

[Note Cave at the edge of stage, in front of the monitors, pointing right at an enthusiastic audience member.]

To be fair, these complaints hardly matter. The songs still rock or roll just as well as you could hope, and Cave always remains keen and sharp. The song selection was good, comprising about half of the new album and a varied run-through of the band's long back-catalog. The setlist does bear remarkable similarity to the show I saw in 2008, but with the Lazarus songs replaced by new songs. I wish they'd throw more curveballs and reveal some more tricks up their sleeve, but how could I complain about "The Ship Song", "Do You Love Me?", "The Mercy Seat", and so on? I will complain that "The Lyre of Orpheus" is one of my least favorites from the otherwise quite good Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, but that was the only selection they played from the double album. In fact, nothing else was played from their oeuvre between 2001's No More Shall We Part and the new album. Also, as time goes on, I have a harder and harder time appreciating "Stagger Lee", which is just too crass and harsh for my tastes anymore. I know it's supposed to be a cathartic, dark, fabled storytelling event, but it loses me.

It was hard not to feel like the band was going by the numbers at times. Cave and Ellis put in a lot of energy, and the band is still good, but there is an element missing. Maybe it's just Harvey or Bargeld. (Certainly "The Weeping Song" is worse off without Bargeld's vocal part.) I like Barry Adamson, but I feel like he was just filling in holes in the space of the other members. I like Push the Sky Away and I like how the songs are done live, where they sprawl and grow even more, but some of the old songs feel stale, like the well overdone "God Is in the House". Maybe it would help if Ellis would share his sonic space a little more.

Nicole Atkins: B+
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: B-