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.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Recent Changes

I'd like to do something a little different and introduce a few changes to this blog.

Over the past months and weeks, after spending a lot of time writing reviews of all the concerts I've been attending, I started thinking about some bigger picture ideas about music. My first thought was to write a post explaining my changing musical interests and directions, and I may still write such an essay, but in the meantime I took the more measured step of writing an About page. My previous attempts at introduction didn't feel representative anymore, so I decided I needed a fresh start at explaining the purpose of this blog. I also moved the Music Game to its own page in the process.

Then I decided that I wanted to provide more space for the opening acts of the concerts I've attended. A few (e.g. Haii Usagi or Other Lives) have always stood out to me, but many were not properly labeled, and some were not even scored. I've gone back and applied retrospective scores where necessary in best faith of my thoughts then and now.

This led to a realization that there were several formatting issues that I wanted to clean up. Most are so minuscule that I expect no one to notice them except myself, but in the process, I reexamined almost every post I've written. Along the way, I corrected the stray typo somehow left unnoticed for years, I expanded my usage of labels, and I added notes where I felt like a comment or update was necessary. My early posts were often rambling, inconsistent, or even sloppy, and while I haven't changed their occasionally idiosyncratic nature, I have intermittently added a comment to contextualize some of my ideas.

I don't expect anyone to suddenly feel inspired to re-read my old posts – any changes I have made are decidedly minor. But if someone were to stumble into the archeology of this blog, I want to present a slightly more consistent perspective. At any rate, I do encourage readers with any curiosity to review the (relatively) new About page.

I also noticed one other thing when reviewing my old posts. I used to write about a wider variety of topics (not just concerts!) and many of these posts were shorter and more to the point. Since I think about music a lot and frequently have realizations or ideas that don't fit inside a standard review format, I want to again open myself to the opportunity of writing different types of posts. Don't expect a constant stream of two-sentence nonsense blurbs, but don't be surprised if you see the occasional shorter, less structured exposition of some musical topic on my mind.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Andrew Bird / Jesse Woods - Live 2014.06.16

I happened upon the news of an Andrew Bird show in my new hometown quite by accident. Since he hadn't yet announced what is now his latest album, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I figured it was well worth a shot.

Artist: Andrew Bird
Venue: The Paramount Theatre
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 16 June 2014
Opening Act: Jesse Woods

Setlist:
01. Ethio Invention No. 1 [solo]
02. Hole in the Ocean Floor [solo]
03. Plasticities [solo]
04. Dyin' Bedmaker [Traditional cover]
05. Tin Foiled [The Handsome Family cover]
06. Dear Old Greenland [originally performed with Bowl of Fire]
07. Effigy
08. Frogs Singing [The Handsome Family cover]
09. Give It Away [one mic]
10. When That Helicopter Comes [one mic; The Handsome Family cover]
11. Something Biblical [one mic]
12. Near Death Experience Experience
13. Three White Horses
14. Pulaski at Night
15. Danse Caribe
16. Drunk by Noon [The Handsome Family cover]
17. Tables and Chairs

Encore:
18. MX Missiles [one mic]
19. The Giant of Illinois [one mic; The Handsome Family cover]
20. If I Needed You [one mic; Townes Van Zandt cover]
21. Don't Be Scared [The Handsome Family cover]

Review:
Some background may be necessary here, so pardon my diversion from the show. Astute readers may recall that I have seen Andrew Bird twice before: once as a total neophyte in 2009 for his Noble Beast tour and again as a casual fan in 2012 for the Break It Yourself tour. Just after the latter tour, he surprise-released a second album in 2012, Hands of Glory. After years of pursuing violin- and loop-heavy indie folk/rock/pop, this album showed a country bent with a decidedly older-school approach. While the violin and looping pedals were still present, the violin was far more folk than classical, and the looping was secondary to more traditionally-arranged country tunes, including several covers. It was a weird album, but it's grown on me and I do like it.

But after that album, Bird took a low profile. At the end of 2013, a stray EP appeared under the name I Want to See Pulaski at Night with hardly any fanfare. This EP was also an odd release, featuring six instrumentals consisting mostly of looped violin along with a semi-eponymous track ("Pulaski at Night") featuring vocals. Again, I liked it, but it was hard to figure out what Bird was trying to express with it. Subsequently, my regular correspondent J. Potter theorized that Bird was at a crossroads and in a unique position to shift his career into a new direction. He had already done once before, in transitioning from jazz/blues/folk with his earlier group Bowl of Fire to the indie rock/pop of his solo career. The fact that both of the latest releases were disparate, incongruous affairs led us both to think that he was clearing out his vaults of old ideas and preparing for something new and adventurous.

But then he announced a new album, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of..., to be released just about a week before this show. The catch is that the album consists entirely of covers of songs by the Handsome Family, a clear longtime favorite of Bird's, considering that he's been covering them since at least 2003. The album features a new backing lineup, eschewing most of his collaborators from his previous few albums and tours in favor of a very old-school country/folk-oriented band dubbed The Hands of Glory. The whole album was recorded live in three days on one mic with no studio manipulation whatsoever. While the novelty is intriguing, I don't actually find the music very interesting.

So when Jesse Woods came out with his band and proceeded to play a half-hour of country/swing-leaning rock, I wasn't surprised at all. It was clear what direction Bird was looking in, and for once he found an opener that was on the same path. (I wasn't very fond of the openers the last two times I saw Bird.) Woods' songs were simple, but delightfully arranged. I loved that the lead guitarist wasn't showy at all but still managed to play great melodies, and I thought the organ tones were perfect. Woods certainly got an above-average reception for an opener, but it probably helped that he is a local Austinite.

As seems to be the tradition, Andrew Bird came on stage unaccompanied and performed a few songs built up with his looping pedals. The first track was a stunning medley of various themes and improvisations, perhaps most closely related to "Ethio Invention No. 1" from the recent Pulaski EP. He also offered an alternate take on "Plasticities", which I thought was good but admittedly frustrating. He played it as if he refused to allow any of the dominant and prominent hooks shine through, as if the listener was expected to fill in the holes mentally.

The Hands of Glory then came out and the band played a new song, "Dyin' Bedmaker", which is actually an old, traditional gospel tune usually known as "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed" or "In My Time of Dying". (Yes, this is (loosely) the same song recorded by Blind Willie Johnson, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin.) From there, the setlist varied widely among back-catalog favorites, Handsome Family covers from the new album, unpredictable selections from Hands of Glory, and a few surprises.

The covers had some charm, but they weren't what I wanted to hear. The back-catalog tracks were good, but felt a little by-the-numbers, even if the performances were great. The appearance of several tracks from Break It Yourself was quite welcome even if not really otherwise notable, as they still held up quite well in live performance. But the real highlights were a few cleverly rearranged older tunes and a few newer songs that transcend the genre lines.

To be specific, the older surprises were "Dear Old Greenland", a repurposed song from the Bowl of Fire days, and a rearrangement of "MX Missiles". Both were rearranged to suit the current style, and managed to benefit from it more than the covers did. The newer songs that caught my attention were "Three White Horses", the haunting, semi-fatalistic opener of Hands of Glory, and "Pulaski at Night" from the similarly-named EP. The latter was the perfect cross between traditional country mysticism and modern ethereal pop, aided by prodigious looping. The former might just be a playful exploration of the Chicago landscape, but it too stood to gain from the melding of styles. Andrew provided a rare explanation for the song, offering that it was inspired by a Thai exchange student that uttered what is now the title of the EP, despite that Pulaski Road is apparently a rather run-down, unappealing stretch.

Bird seemed caught between his two halves, preferring his old-timey country/folk esoterics over his much more modern take on indie rock, but still holding on to both and progressing neither. In keeping with the new album, several songs were performed with the entire group crowding around one mic, as was done for the encores of the last tour and once upon a time with the Bowl of Fire. While I think the gimmick is cool, it gradually began to feel like too much of a gimmick, and the absence of bassist Alan Hampton's voice in the mix made the harmonies less impressive than they should have been.

On one hand, it's a good thing that Bird isn't just relying solely on his biggest trick (looping), but on the other, it's hard to feel like he isn't retreading ground already covered instead of pushing somewhere new. The Hands of Glory are good, but instrumentally and vocally, the previous group had more going for it. New singer/guitarist Tift Merritt might serve as a good foil for Bird, and drummer Kevin O'Donnell might be a great old-school drummer, but pedal steel player Eric Heywood was too far in the background, and with Hampton relegated exclusively to double bass, the band didn't have quite the same sonic power of the last lineup. It's hard not to miss Dosh's elaborate drumming and keyboard work, Jeremy Ylvislaker's exquisite guitar and effects, or Mike Lewis' occasional brass and woodwind excursions. Bands move on and change and grow, and it can be good to try something new, but I think The Hands of Glory still have some growing in to do.

Scores (including some recent releases for reference/fun/why not):
Jesse Woods: B+
Andrew Bird: B
Hands of Glory: B-
I Want to See Pulaski at Night EP: B+
Initial impressions of Things Are Great Here, Sort Of...: C

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Austin Psych Fest 2014 Day 2 (Part 2)

Introduction: This is a continuation of my previous post about Austin Psych Fest. That post introduced the event and discussed the first six or so bands I saw during the day. This post will cover the six or so bands I saw in the evening and conclude with some additional analytic remarks.

I think the attendance of the day's festivities peaked around the time Temples went on stage, or at least that seemed to be the most crowded show I saw all day. It's understandable; I think some of the early arrivers were getting ready to leave, but the latecomers were certainly there by then (the set started at 8:15pm), and the band has been getting a lot of hype. It's not without reason: Temples are a classic psychedelic band, marrying a blues/hard rock core with spacey sounds, lots of effects, and an otherworldly, slightly mystic vibe. (I mean, consider their name!) Live, the spaciness was less apparent and the rock was a little more in focus. They seemed to float between being a Tame Impala rip off and a less melodramatic Led Zeppelin acolyte. I like the style, and the sound is good, but it still seems like it's missing something to make it really special. I watched them soundcheck and caught the singer asking for the vocals to be pushed as loud as possible. They were almost certainly the only band at the festival to make such a request, and it went a long way to make them stand out. Maybe that makes them too conventional, but I appreciated being able to understand the words.

[Temples. My last picture of the night, taken as darkness was falling.]

I then went back to the Levitation Tent to lie down and listen to Mono for a while. They are an instrumental rock band, and I'm absolutely sure I'm far from the first person to make the Godspeed You! Black Emperor comparison. Admittedly, they have very different ideas of what instrumental rock can be, but their guitar tone was very similar (I recently dubbed it "bulldozer guitar" because of the thick, distorted delay effects) and the sense of dynamic rising-and-falling seemed familiar from the GY!BE playbook. It's probably an unfair comparison, but I couldn't help thinking of it while I was listening. The guitarwork was good, but I think their overall sound is just a little too guitar-heavy. Without vocals, I think other instruments, or at least more focus on the bass and drums, might have made things more exciting.

Next up for me was Unknown Mortal Orchestra, whom I'd heard of but never listened to. I gather they have quite a following, and I was initially hesitant to buy in, but I made myself give them a fair chance, and I found myself enjoying it. They performed as a power trio, with the singer/guitarist as the clear central figure. I was expecting to resent his showmanship (ugh, what's the gender-neutral version of that word?), but I actually found his solos quite appealing, and I liked that the drummer fit right in with them and complemented the guitar. Even if the frontperson was the focus, it was clear that the other members had important contributions to make. The sound was a little hard or heavy, but balanced by a pop feel.

Setlist (borrowed completely from here):
1. The Opposite of Afternoon
2. Thought Ballune
3. How Can You Luv Me
4. Strangers Are Strange
5. Monki
6. Ffunny Ffrends
7. So Good at Being in Trouble
8. Boy Witch

I intended to catch some of Acid Mothers Temple at the Elevation Amphitheatre, but the riverbanks were about as full as they could be, so I decided to give Medicine a shot instead. They seemed to be in line with the shoegaze trend, very similar to My Bloody Valentine. It was like a mix of the drone and trance of a song like "Soon" with the darker, thicker mesh of guitars of Isn't Anything. I found the music to be a little too static and invariant. The bass was pleasantly prominent but yet rather simple. The vocals weaved some good harmonies, but they sounded fairly vague and low in the mix.

Setlist (borrowed in full from here):
1. Christmas Song
2. Long As the Sun
3. The Pink
4. Miss Drugstore
5. The Reclaimed Girl
6. Never Click
7. Farther Down
8. Aruca
Encore:
9. One More

I left their set early to get a decent spot to see The Horrors. They immediately had a stage presence and atmosphere that seemed right out of the gothy, synthy era of the late 70s and early 80s. Their sound would have fit right in with Gary Numan or some corners of the Siouxsie & the Banshees catalog. I had a nagging feeling that they sounded identical to one of my favorite bands, but I couldn't (and still can't) figure out which one, which probably means they absorbed the influences of some of my old favorites and made something new out of it, which should probably be considered an impressive feat. I liked the post-punk bass and the big, moody synthesizer. The singer seemed a little dark and gloomy, almost to a fault, since I couldn't understand him at all. The guitarist started out the set only contributing a useless mess of noise, but by the end he was playing riffs that fit right in. Despite that particular improvement, I actually thought their set kind of dragged downwards as it went on. I enjoyed it, but couldn't connect with it like I thought I should have. It probably wasn't helping that the lightshow was bothering me greatly by that point.

I was getting pretty worn down by that point, so I just sat down and waited for The Brian Jonestown Massacre to start. Most bands only had 30 minutes between sets and 45 minutes to play, and while the Horrors had been given an hour to play, BJM were still scheduled to go on a half hour after that. Despite their 12:15am billing, they were still setting up at that time. They finally hit the stage at 12:45.

Setlist (thanks to here for filling in the holes):
01. Whoever You Are
02. Who?
03. What You Isn't
04. Jennifer
05. Anemone
06. The Devil May Care (Mom & Dad Don't)
07. When Jokers Attack
08. Sailor
09. No Come Down
10. Days, Weeks and Moths
11. Oh Lord

Admittedly, the setlist was awesome, even if they didn't really play any of their "hits". They mixed several classics from their great 90s albums with a few new tracks ("What You Isn't", "Days, Weeks and Moths"). They claimed that they had never played two of the songs live before ("The Devil May Care", "No Come Down"), both of which were great tracks that I was happy to hear. It was also great to see longtime member Matt Hollywood back in the band; he even sang lead on two songs ("No Come Down", "Oh Lord").

But that's about where the party ends. First of all, the band itself is confusing. Their current form has eight members: frontperson/singer/guitarist Anton Newcombe, apparent second-in-command/guitarist/vocalist Matt Hollywood, two other guitarists, a keyboardist/guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and the humorously odd tambourinist Joel Gion. For having four (or sometimes five) guitarists, you'd expect a lot of nuance to their sound, but in fact, they usually all played the exact some chords. Some were even playing what appeared to be identical instruments. The music was cool, but I couldn't help but feel like there were some inherently wasted opportunities. At times one of the guitarists would play a lead line recognizable from the recordings, but the others would still be sharing a single part.

Second, partway into their set, the sound of horrible, all-consuming feedback enveloped the soundscape. It wasn't the ear-destroying screeching of microphone feedback, but more akin to the loud, warm sound of a giant engine. It didn't destroy the music, but it was louder than it, and it kept going for several songs, only fading when they paused between songs. By watching the performers carefully, it was clear that Anton's semi-hollow guitar was the culprit – and I've heard the same voluminous sound from similar instruments. Oddly, no one else seemed to notice, not on stage nor in the crowd. I wondered if I was just in some terrible type of dead zone, but I moved through the crowd and it wouldn't go away. After four or five songs, it finally faded away for good, but it had ruined half of their set in the meantime. I don't understand how their extra half-hour of soundchecking resulted in them having the worst sound of any performer at the festival. How did they get that so wrong? Perhaps having so many redundant guitarists didn't help the problem.

But that's not even the worst thing. Since they started a half-hour late, and I had heard the festival was to end at 1:30, I assumed they'd still give us 75 minutes of music as scheduled. Like I said before, certainly no noise ordinance could be in effect, so who would mind if they played late? However, at 1:30, they unceremoniously bowed out, awkwardly looking at each other and questioningly laying down instruments. They finally mumbled some words of appreciation and then left. The audience cheered for more, but house lights and PA music came on, and stage hands came out, indicating that the show was over. No encore. 11 songs, 45 minutes. That was it. The topmost-billed headliner of the entire festival only played for 45 minutes!

Final Thoughts: First, a word about the environment. Being a ranch, the location isn't exactly great, but there is something nice about being a little removed from the big city and closer to nature. However, the only natural benefit was the backdrop of the Colorado River, and the city is actually inescapable because the airport is very close by and planes continually fly low overhead. My experience was rather dusty, hot, smelly, sunny, and windy, but not so much of any one thing so as to be terribly annoying. In fact, listing those things in sequence makes it sound worse than it was. What was truly annoying was the lightshow. In fact, I'm not sure if it can even be called a lightshow if in practice it just meant blinding the audience. Seriously, those lasers were pointed right at my eyes for almost the entire set by the Horrors and much of the other evening sets as well. I thought I had paid money to see bands play live, not stand in a crowd with my eyes closed.

The other annoying thing was that there was absolutely no oversight of the shuttles at the end of the night. A line formed, but when I say "line", I mean "mob", and it got a little pushy after the first shuttle filled up and we had to wait for the next one, which was going to a different location anyway. I did get on the third one, but there were plenty of people still left behind after that.

I think the overall experience was cool. Ultimately, I didn't really see any great performances, but I did see a lot of good bands, and I had a fun time. I think the sum was actually better than the parts. I'm still not going to give an "overall score" as I have occasionally done before, but don't let all the B grades make you think I didn't enjoy it enough.

Scores:
Temples: B
Mono: B-
Unknown Mortal Orchestra: B+
Medicine: B-
The Horrors: B
The Brian Jonestown Massacre: D+

P.S. BJM is a really good band, and I'm not happy about giving them such a low score, but that's what they deserve. It might not even have been their fault; it's entirely possible that the sound techs, the venue staff, or someone else entirely sabotaged their sound and schedule. Whatever the case, it could have been so much more.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Austin Psych Fest 2014 Day 2 (Part 1)

Event: Austin Psych Fest 2014 Day 2 (Part 1)
Venue: Carson Creek Ranch
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 3 May 2014

Introduction: I heard about the Psych Fest when I was at SXSW, when it came up in connection to some of the psychedelic bands I saw there. I was immediately interested, but frustrated that it was going to be taking place on the edge of town, in a location essentially inaccessible by bicycle. I wrote it off at first, but then a week before, I checked the details again and heard about a shuttle from downtown Austin. That just about sealed the deal for me, so I decided to go for one day and check it out.

Learning from my past festival experiences, I decided it would be best to show up early. The bands started playing at 12:30 and I got there about 3. However, unlike other festivals that end around 11pm because of municipal noise ordinances, the Psych Fest actually takes place just outside city limits and thus is free from such limitations. Somewhere I read that it would wrap up around 1:30am.

I stayed until the bitter end, and because I saw about twelve bands and over ten hours of music, I'm going to split my review into two parts. This first one will cover the daytime bands, and the next one will cover the nighttime bands and a few final thoughts.

[Barn Owl at the Elevation Amphitheatre, overlooking the Colorado River.]

After riding my bike to the shuttle stop, waiting for the bus, finally getting on and getting to the venue, my ticket wouldn't scan. Before I could even protest, the person doing the scanning just waved me through and told me it was fine; he didn't care. Once I finally got to the grounds, I was conflicted whether to see Barn Owl or Steve Gunn. I first opted to see Barn Owl, assuming that their experimental electronics would be more interesting to me, but I was quickly bored by their noisy drones, so I turned around and caught most of Steve Gunn's set. Apparently once part of Kurt Vile's backing band, he's had a solo career for a while as a singer-songwriter with a guitar-centric folk/jam bent. I thought his guitarwork was excellent, particularly with regards to his fingerpicking technique. He was better than I was expecting, but mostly stayed with the tried and true. He had a few sound problems, and the bassist's EQ was biased far too low to allow for a good sound balance, but the music was still pleasant.

[Steve Gunn at the Reverberation Stage, presumably the "main" stage.]

I couldn't resist seeing Boogarins again, even though I'd just seen them at SXSW in March. Now that I have the album and I've studied it in depth, I felt like I could appreciate their live performance even more. However, of the seven songs they played, only three were from their album ("Infinu", "Lucifernandis", "Doce"), but each one was extended with additional jam sections. The other four songs were presumably all new works destined for a follow-up album. I thought the mix of old and new was perfect, especially since they'd retooled the old songs to keep them fresh and dynamic for the live experience. While I don't think they were as heavy as last time I saw them, they still had a lot of power. The brighter sound of their record was a little more obvious, lending them a nice balance between serious virtuosity and sunny melodies. Their bassist really stood out, and the lead guitarist was great, too, even if he relied on his rotary effect just a little too much.

[Boogarins.]

I was hoping to catch the last ten or fifteen minutes of Pure X, but they were wrapping up as I approached the stage. The few minutes I caught sounded oddly similar to Steve Gunn. The folky vibe seemed in defiant contrast to their name (reduced from their original name, Pure Ecstasy).

Instead, I headed back to the Elevation Amphitheatre to see Jacco Gardner, a Dutch musician who seems to have his head stuck in the 60s. Retro can be cool, and his keyboardist's tones were great, but the overall sound just felt too predictable and derivative. It wasn't a bad sound, but it wasn't a very clever or creative sound, either. It didn't help that the bassist was way too loud and the lead guitar was all but inaudible.

[Jacco Gardner.]

I was getting hungry at that point, so I found an African food truck and ate vegan curry while watching part of a set by Bardo Pond. I liked the vocalist and her flute contributions, but the guitars were pretty basic, which made having two seem rather redundant. Their sound was heavy, sludgy, almost doomy. The dragging tempos and dark sound were offset by a warmer high end from the flute and vocals, which were the only part that I actually enjoyed.

[Bardo Pond.]

After just recently seeing Imarhan Timbuktu at SXSW, I was both intrigued at the prospect of seeing another Tuareg guitarist and simultaneously concerned that it might sound a little too similar. Thankfully, Bombino exceeded my expectations and went in a rather different direction. The core of his guitar technique was similar to Imarhan's (which is to say it was fantastic), but whereas Imarhan was admittedly somewhat static in their sonic palette, rhythms, and tempos, Bombino wasn't afraid to borrow more from other genres. (To be fair, when I saw Imarhan, they were playing without their full lineup, so I can't really say I saw the real deal.) Bombino used a similar method of playing sharp riffs running up and down the scales, but his guitar tone was a little more distorted and searing. His second guitarist kept it simple, employing few chords but careful rhythm, while the bassist played more dynamically. The drummer was quite exciting, too, playing a variety of beats and rhythms that made each song feel a little different. The grooves were consistently comfortably danceable, and I couldn't help but feel that a little funk or reggae influence had crept in.

[Bombino.]

I finally went to the third stage, the Levitation Tent, to see most of a set by The Octopus Project. At first I thought their vocals were awfully hard to understand, but then I realized I was actually hearing a theremin! I looked closer, and sure enough, a woman (who I could swear did sing at some point) was holding her hands carefully in the air near some gadgetry. (I've never seen one in concert before, although I did play with one once at an ironworks museum in Germany.) I liked that the band could switch between noisy electro-rock and something akin to dancey synthpop. I didn't think the performance was actually particularly exciting, but I was intrigued enough that I'd like to see them again, especially since they are from Austin.

[The Levitation Tent. No musicians pictured due to the lighting in the tent.]

Scores:
Steve Gunn: B-
Boogarins: A-
Jacco Gardner: C
Bardo Pond: C+
Bombino: A-
The Octopus Project: B

P.S. I didn't see enough of Barn Owl or Pure X to be able to judge them appropriately.

P.P.S. The rest of the day will be continued in the next post!