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 understated. 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.]

Scores:
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]

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

Review:
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

Setlist:
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

Encore:
15. Cuts You Up
16. Uneven & Brittle

Review:
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.

Scores:
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

Setlist:
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

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

Review:
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.

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

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"Blaue Augen": A Brief History

In the continued spirit of trying something different, today I'm going to provide a brief history of one of my favorite songs, one usually overlooked by English-speaking audiences. The song "Blaue Augen" ("Blue Eyes") is an odd blend of English pop, German punk, and international new wave, a combination usually labeled Neue Deutsche Welle ("German New Wave"). There are a variety of bands associated with the classification, but this song, with its unusually complicated history, involves two of the best.

The story starts with Neonbabies, a West Berlin-based band started in 1979 by two sisters, Annette and Inga Humpe. After quickly rising in the live circuit, they recorded their debut EP, self-released in March 1980. This was the first appearance of the song "Blaue Augen", but not the last. Annette, the writer of the song in question, founded a second band, Ideal, in early 1980, and by summer she had left Neonbabies to focus on the new group. Annette brought the song with her, and a new arrangement appeared on Ideal's eponymous debut album in November 1980. "Blaue Augen" became the band's second single (after the amazing "Wir stehen auf Berlin"), and it quickly became a hit. Meanwhile, Neonbabies kept active with Inga at the helm, and they recorded another version for inclusion on their own debut eponymous album, released in 1981. Both bands' debut albums were among the best-selling independent albums in German at that time.

[Neonbabies – "I Don't Want to Loose You" (sic) EP]

I first encountered the original EP version on the Verschwende deine Jugend compilation that I heard through my sister. It features Annette on lead vocals, Inga on backing vocals, the punkiest sound of any of the versions, and several bizarre saxophone segments. Ideal's version naturally also features Annette's vocals, but the song was rearranged for a more syncopated reggae rhythm. The lyrics were revised, and the verses were downplayed in favor of a big chorus sound, featuring a bright keyboard accompaniment. The second Neonbabies version is similar to the original, but what it gains in higher production values it loses in raw energy and enthusiasm. Inga takes the lead on this version, but her voice is just a bit thinner than her sister's.

[Neonbabies.]

I still find the first version to be the best. The vocals more consistently display the alternation between the frustration of the verses and the excitement of the chorus without going into excess. The Humpe sisters working together brought their best strengths to the original arrangement, and it rocks in a way the others don't, even if Ideal's version has a good but different groove. I also prefer the weird saxophone over Ideal's guitar solo.

It's worth taking a look at the lyrics. Again, the original features the best variation, but they're all similar. A translation of Ideal's version can be found here (alongside the German text), but I will provide my own translation of the original Neonbabies text:

"Blue Eyes"

Neonbabies on TV
Leaves me cold inside,
And the whole artists' scene
Is just too much for me.
So I stay cool – no emotion.

Garish rags from the 50s, 60s –
All hollow and rotten.
I won't be going anymore
To Skoda or Fiorucci.
So I stay cool – no emotion.
But only your blue eyes
Make me so sentimental.
Those blue eyes!
When you look at me
Nothing else matters at all.
Nothing at all!
Your blue eyes are phenomenal.
Hard to believe –
But what I feel
Is not normal anymore.

This is dangerous, life-threatening!
So much emotion, not cool anymore.
So much emotion, not cool anymore.

The insider parties put me to sleep,
And I don't want to be in London.
I get bored to tears
With sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll.
I stay cool, no emotion, no emotion!

All the hassle for dough
Leaves me deaf and dumb.
I won't bend over backwards
For a meager luxury.
Only the Sheik is really rich.

Diligent readers may know that love songs often bore me. However, I admire a song that can take a common theme and twist it. "Blaue Augen" is a great example – at face value, hearing only the chorus, one would clearly think this is a standard love song. "But only your blue eyes / Make me so sentimental" and "When you look at me / Nothing else matters at all" might be the epitome of cliché, but just consider the bridge! "This is dangerous, life-threatening" – maybe there's more going on here!

In truth, the verses express exhaustion and disaffection with the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. I appreciate the anti-commercial, anti-capitalist sentiment, and I like that she takes it to the extreme of even opposing the artistic or musical scene that the singer is caught up in. She seems genuinely surprised at herself for being so emotional about the titular blue eyes, considering how worn out she sounds in regards to everything else.

Sadly, like most songs sung in any language except English, this song has hardly ever received attention in the English-speaking world. As far as I can tell, the Neonbabies versions were never even pressed in any country except Germany, and while the album has never been reissued or released on CD, the original version was included on the Verschwende deine Jugend compilation in 2002. Ideal's Ideal saw limited international release throughout Europe as the album became more popular in Germany and Austria, but certainly never made it so far as the USA. It was issued on CD in 1987 and reissued in 2005.

[Ideal.]

Lest one think that was the end of the careers of the Humpe sisters, allow me to disprove that idea. After both bands released three albums each, they split up, but the sisters reunited briefly for the weirdo Tauchen-Prokopetz project, also known as DÖF (Deutsch-Österreichisches Feingefühl), then later formed Humpe & Humpe (known as Swimming with Sharks in the UK). Both women have extensive careers as top producers in Germany, and both still keep active with their own creative projects: Annette can be found in Ich + Ich and Inga with 2raumwohnung.

And now that you know more than you ever possibly wanted to know about these bands, how about actually listening to the song? The original Neonbabies version can be heard here (despite the appearance of the debut album cover!) and the Ideal version can be seen and heard here.

Sources:

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Hundred Waters

Hundred Waters were one of a handful of bands scheduled to play the Austin City Limits Festival last year that I had never heard of but suddenly got really excited about. Somehow, despite my interest, I missed my chance to see them then. However, I bought their first, self-titled album at that time, and it cemented my appreciation. Then came South by Southwest. I again missed a chance to see them at the Empire Garage, but finally got to see them the next day at The Owl. However, the sound was poor and the setlist fairly short. I wanted more.

When they announced their first national tour as headliners, I immediately bought a ticket for their local Austin show. It was at Red 7 on June 23rd. However, days before the show, I realized that circumstances at my job would basically prevent me from going. I was disappointed, because this had never happened to me before, but I suppose after all the wonderful shows I've seen so far in Austin, I can't be too upset. To make up for it, though, I'd like to say a few words about their new album, The Moon Rang Like a Bell, as well as their debut.

[Hundred Waters.]

Hundred Waters first appealed to me because of the unique blend of folk instrumentation and electronic production heard on their first album. Right next to the swaths of synths, keyboards, and pads are flutes, acoustic guitars, and hand drums. The beats are mostly synthetic, but parts sound like conventional percussion. The vocals of Nicole Miglis are soft, airy, otherworldly, and almost certainly incomprehensible without the printed lyrics sheet. The first track, "Sonnet", appears to be based around a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, but the phrasing is so strange that the traditional poetic format becomes transformed into something entirely new and different. I think the strength of the album is that it sounds like a perfect blend of both artificial and authentic, synthetic and acoustic.

Right after Hundred Waters was released in 2012, the band moved from the obscure Elestial Sound label to Skrillex's OWSLA. The new label reissued the album and gave it a deservedly wider release, but the pairing struck me as odd. This was not a band playing EDM or dance club music; the odd time signatures, shifting beats, and occasional subtle and muted tracks seemed to indicate quite a distance from those scenes. But after all, I suppose there's no reason Skrillex can't have some good taste, so why not be on his label?

When follow-up The Moon Rang Like a Bell finally came out in May, it immediately struck me as a band with a different mission. Long gone were early contributors Sam Moss and Allen Scott, and also left behind were any traces of the acoustic. I think the band may have felt the folk label was inappropriate, and they reacted by ditching almost anything that could be construed in that genre. My initial reaction was disappointment – what to me was their original selling point was now nowhere to be found. But after a few weeks of regular listening, I've found plenty to enjoy.

[The Moon Rang Like a Bell.]

First of all, the opening a capella "Show Me Love" is a great performance with a great lyric. The second track, "Murmurs", might start off with an annoying repeated vocal sample, but once it settles in, the vocal melody and the piano become something beautiful. The piano actually plays a very strong role throughout the album, absorbing nearly all space left by the forgotten acoustic elements. The album might be primarily electronic and beat-oriented, but several tracks disobey that trend, including "Show Me Love" and the abstract closer "No Sound". Standouts are "Cavity", "Down from the Rafters", and "Xtalk", and the only misstep is "[Animal]", which delves a little too far into dance music cliché. While I might prefer the clever blending of styles found on the first album, The Moon is still a beautiful album with a rewarding intricacy.

All these changes make me wonder if in the future they will edge closer to dancey EDM or if they will rebound back to a broader and more acoustic sound. When I saw them live at SXSW in March, they seemed to occupy an entirely separate third space, preferring live drums but electronic instrumentation otherwise. However, there were exceptions: the drummer also had a rhythm pad and one song featured electric guitar and bass. I was curious to see if as headliners they would bring more instruments to encompass a wider scope of sounds... but I missed my chance to find out. I'll just have to wait until next time!

Scores:
Hundred Waters: A-
The Moon Rang Like a Bell: B+

P.S. I also appreciate that their name is derived from the wonderful artist/architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. (I have made several pilgrimages to see his work; for example, see here, here, and here.)