Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mutual Benefit / Suno Deko / Taft - Live 2014.10.21

I wasn't excited about another super-late-night show on a work night, but for Mutual Benefit, a rising band that has captured my attention like few others, I couldn't resist.

Artist: Mutual Benefit
Venue: Red 7
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 21 October 2014
Opening Acts: Suno Deko, Taft

Setlist:
01. Strong River
02. Golden Wake
03. Auburn Epitaphs
04. Statue of a Man
05. Desert Island Feeling
06. Advanced Falconry
07. Stargazer
08. That Light That's Blinding
09. Statue of a Man
10. Backwards Fireworks
11. Animal Death Mask
12. C.L. Rosarian
13. Strong Swimmer
14. Moonville Tunnel

Review:
The evening started off with Taft, a solo singer/guitarist. Apparently, he normally operates in a five-piece rock band framework, but was trying out something different. At face value, he reminded me just a bit of Billy Bragg, with his solid solo electric guitar technique and his tuneful, earnest lyrics. His songs always had good groove and just enough of a hint of a hook to keep my attention. I'll admit, when he was walking up to the stage, my expectations were pretty low, but he immediately impressed me with his voice and style. His songwriting was excellent and his voice was always jumping into places I didn't think it could go. He could slip into a falsetto without pause and then fall right back into his normal range. He was far more vulnerable and expressive than I would have otherwise imagined. He ended with a solid cover of the Kinks' "Strangers", but his own material is what really impressed me.

Next up was Suno Deko, a solo looping act. Considering that that's the style in which Mutual Benefit started, too, it seemed like an appropriate match. However, whereas early MB focused on unusual soundscapes and experimentation, Suno Deko takes a more direct pop approach. Every song of his followed the same pattern of overdubbing a simple snare drumbeat, a simple pitch-shifter-assisted bassline, a couple guitar parts, and maybe a keyboard part, and then singing and/or playing additional guitar parts on top. Only one song featured his extra stage props, a violin and a shaker, both used to minimal effect. I think there's promise in his approach, but as it is now, it ends up sounding like every guitarist with a looping pedal. It didn't help that the mix was overdriving and muddying his high-end, so there was nothing to grab on to in the higher ranges. His lyrics were almost totally indecipherable, so anything they may have added was lost. I was hoping for some surprises, but he just stayed in his one idiom and wouldn't break out.

When Mutual Benefit finally hit the stage, it was as a quartet, as opposed to the seven-piece outfit I was expecting after I'd seen one of their performances at SXSW. I was a little disappointed that the bassist and violinists had departed, but I suppose a full national tour as a small, rising band on a small label probably makes it infeasible to tour with a large cast of characters. The current lineup features frontman Jordan Lee on guitars, banjo, keyboard, loops, and lead vocals; his sister Whitney on keyboards, accordion, and backing vocals; Mike Clifford on lead guitar; and Dillon Zahner on drums and backing vocals.

Lee has spoken before in interviews of the challenge of adapting his recorded compositions to the live stage. His songs usually feature a large number of parts, many contributed by a wide variety of friends, and it's easy to understand that rearranging the songs for a limited number of performers on stage would take some work. I think the material benefited greatly from the seven-person lineup, where it sounded rich and full, and while the four-piece edition did a good job with what they had, some songs felt like pieces were missing. Jordan's loops helped build up the songs, but the lack of sounds afforded by the missing violinists and bassist meant there was simply a smaller spectrum to work with.

The mix was better than with Suno Deko, but the high end was still getting abused. The loops and keyboards often ran into each other or were simply too low in the mix to be heard, so one really had to strain to pick apart some of the individual parts. Whitney's left hand frequently contributed bass parts, which certainly added to the frequency range, but it was still no substitute for a real bass, whose absence I felt a little too keenly.

The setlist started with the opening songs of Mutual Benefits debut album, Love's Crushing Diamond, and the band proceeded to play the entire album in order, interspersed with a variety of cuts from their assorted EPs. The album is short, as are the EPs, mostly because all their songs are short, so the entire 14-song set only lasted about an hour. "Strong Swimmer", the final track of the album, was the only extended piece, and it came off beautifully. Other highlights were "Desert Island Feeling" and set closer "Moonville Tunnel", which are the type of songs that open up your heart in an unexpected way, somehow coming off sweet and tuneful despite the strange tales they tell.

The steady beat of a drummer brought a little more power to the songs, and the song selection leaned towards the more melodic side of the band, so I found myself moving and singing along with songs I thought I barely knew. The musicianship was excellent and somewhat unconventional, especially since Jordan plays guitar in a deliberately unostentatious manner. Whitney's accordion and Jordan's banjo were also welcome additions that added to the depth of the sound. I'm a big fan of Jordan's lyrics as it is, so it was easy for me to get lost in the show.

Despite that Mutual Benefit began as an inauspicious solo affair, I think the music calls for a larger, grander representation. The performance was good, but it felt a little restrained, like there was more hidden underneath a veil, waiting to come to light. The small venue and mediocre sound hurt their presentation greatly, but their spirit was strong and the music never faltered. I enjoyed it thoroughly yet felt like I wanted more.

Scores:
Taft: A-
Suno Deko: C
Mutual Benefit: A-

Bonus scores:
Love's Crushing Diamond: A+
The Cowboy's Prayer EP: A-
I Saw the Sea EP: C+
Mutual Spirits split 12" with Holy Spirits: B-
Spider Heaven EP: B
Drifting EP: C+

[The Cowboy's Prayer EP original artwork.]

P.S. Love's Crushing Diamond might be a short album, but every minute is just about perfect. The Cowboy's Prayer, recently reissued on vinyl, is the obvious next in line, and while it is very, very short, it too is nearly perfect the whole way through. The other EPs are a mixed affair, with great tracks next to sonic experiments that sometimes stretch a little too far. Spider Heaven is probably the best of these, as it contains the standout tracks "Desert Island Feeling" and "Moonville Tunnel". Most of these releases can be downloaded from bandcamp, several as "name your price".

[Spider Heaven EP.]

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Smashing Pumpkins - Adore Reissue DVD

As should probably be no surprise, considering how many times I've written about The Smashing Pumpkins before, I've been buying their ridiculous reissues and eating them up. Each time, I get high hopes for the live DVDs that accompany them, only to get frustrated each time by certain glaring flaws.

[The Adore reissue, using the original vinyl artwork.]

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
DVD: Adore reissue bonus disc: Fox Theater, Atlanta, Georgia: August 4, 1998
Release Date: 23 September 2014
Label: Virgin

Tracklist:
01. To Shiela
02. Behold! The Night Mare
03. Pug
04. Crestfallen
05. Ava Adore
06. Tear
07. Annie-Dog
08. Perfect
09. Thru the Eyes of Ruby
10. Tonight, Tonight
11. Once Upon a Time
12. The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete
13. Drum Solo → Where Boys Fear to Tread [tease] → Zero [tease] → Bullet with Butterfly Wings
14. Shame
15. For Martha
16. Summertime [Gershwin cover tease] → Blank Page
17. Transmission [Joy Division cover] → Let's Dance [David Bowie cover tease]

[The DVD insert. For a moment I thought these might be the same buildings on the cover of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.]

Review:
The Adore era tours have always been special because no other part of The Smashing Pumpkins' career has ever tried to do something remotely similar. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was temporarily out of the band, in his place were three live percussionists, Mike Garson joined on keyboards, the band mostly played Adore material and skipped anything before Mellon Collie, almost every song was performed in an extended and dramatic fashion, and all the proceeds of the US tour were donated to local charities. In contemporaneous interviews, Billy Corgan admitted that the album was largely written and performed just by himself, but stated that the live show was a more inclusive, democratic band effort. It's hard to know if that really is true, but the concerts certainly sound different than the album.

The setlist contains every track from Adore except the primarily electronic songs "Daphne Descends" and "Appels + Oranjes" and the forgettable, brief "17". The first two were played at other dates, and while "17" was never played live, it is widely considered to be derived from the rarity "Blissed and Gone", which was played live on a few dates of the tour, but sadly not this one. Otherwise, the setlist contains three songs from Mellon Collie and a hyperextended closing jam in the form of a cover of "Transmission" (instead of the band's traditional closer, "Silverfuck"). Also sadly, "Let Me Give the World to You", an excellent unreleased outtake played many times on the tour, was not played on this date, and nor was the full-band rearrangement of "Stumbleine". Saddest of all is that "1979", despite being played live at this show (see here for details and here for the bootleg recording of the radio broadcast), is not included for unspecified reasons.

In general, the performances are excellent, with only two exceptions. One is the dismembered version of "Bullet with Butterfly Wings", which is mostly a heavy jam that doesn't go anywhere and offers no surprises. If the anger of the original version was already on the line of being over the top, this arrangement just feels futile. Maybe that's the point, but for a ten minute song (if you include the drum solo), it really drags. Second is the aforementioned "Transmission", which features a few great elements and many, many vapid sections. Some nights of the tour, the jam would turn out great. Others, like this one, it starts out well enough and then ends up falling apart. Corgan starts to tell a story but loses the thread, he hoists audience members on stage to take the band's instruments when he gets bored, and the music just doesn't hold together. If only the whole twenty-five minutes of the song were as good as the first five or ten.

But otherwise, the best part about this tour and this particular recording is that the band manages to take a carefully crafted, electro-acoustic, dour, heavy album with themes of loss and death and turn it into something more direct, electric, large-scale, and powerful. Adore might be my favorite Pumpkins record, the one where the band's maturity, style, and melody reached a clear apex, but the live shows have entranced me even more ever since my sister gave me a bootleg of their Houston gig. These performances are part of the reason why "Thru the Eyes of Ruby" might still be my favorite song of all time. It was the moment the band realized they could be more than a rock band, but still rock. The track lengths might carry on close to ten minutes a little too often, but the music manages to be simultaneously graceful, heavy, unusual, and elegant all at once.

So what's my real complaint? My setlist squabbles mentioned above are but a trifle, and a few duds in the setlist is no crime. The more serious problem is the mix. This isn't my first time complaining about a Smashing Pumpkins DVD mix, and if I were to review each of the reissue bonus DVDs, I'd be making the same complaints every time. It's like the band was just Billy and drums, and in this case, some keyboards, too. But where you might think that three drummers means a really dense percussion mix, you'd be wrong. Only the primary drummer, Kenny Aronoff, can be heard in the mix. Additional percussionists Stephen Hodges and Dan Morris only occasionally contribute to the sound output despite performing just as often. They rarely appear in the camera shot, but most of the times they do, you simply cannot hear what you can see they are playing.

Even worse is the case with James Iha and D'arcy Wretzky. Iha's guitar is mixed so low in most songs that his parts are rendered useless. In several songs ("Behold! The Night Mare", for example), the camera will show Iha playing a guitar solo, but you wouldn't even know it otherwise, because it is mixed so low that Corgan's absurdly loud rhythm guitar drowns it out. His parts do turn up in a few songs, such as "Thru the Eyes of Ruby", but more often than not, you wouldn't even know he was there.

Similarly, D'arcy might as well have not been on stage that night. It is far from uncommon in rock music that the bass is mixed annoyingly low, but D'arcy's bass is so low as to be simply not present. Rarely are her parts even audible. Even in songs like "Ava Adore" and "Pug", which are ostensibly centered around the bass parts, her bass is practically mute. D'arcy frequently sang backing vocals live, but the only time you would know it from this DVD is on a brief segment of "For Martha", where her vocals are suddenly mixed almost as loud as Corgan's. Iha, too, is given the silent treatment; he sang backing vocals less frequently, but he is nearly inaudible the entire time.

Whoever made this decision had to realize how bizarre and artificial this is. Musicians can be seen playing instruments and singing into microphones, yet Corgan's blazingly loud guitar render them inaudible. Bootlegs from the same era do not suffer these mixing problems and are correspondingly superior. Was Bjorn Thorsrud, the credited audio mixer, at fault, or was this done at Billy's instigation? Presumably, this rather expensive "super deluxe" reissue is only aimed at the hardcore fan, but is it not reasonable to expect that a large number of these same fans would recognize these mix alterations? I'll admit the visual presentation is welcome, but if I'm going to listen to a live concert recording from the band, I'll still be sticking to my bootlegs.

Scores:
Original album: A+
Entire reissue package: A-
Fox Theater, Atlanta, Georgia: August 4, 1998: C+

P.S. Make no mistake, all of the DVDs in the current deluxe reissue series suffer the same flaws. This one may have been the most egregious and obvious, but they are all mixed in a frustratingly revisionist manner.

[The back of the DVD insert.]

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Austin City Limits Festival 2014, Weekend 1, Day 1

Event: Austin City Limits Festival 2014, Weekend 1, Day 1
Venue: Zilker Park
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 3 October 2014

Introduction: After having such a good time at ACL last year, even with the rainout, I really wanted to go again this year. However, when I saw the lineup, I was really turned off. I was sickened to see Eminem given top billing, I am less than excited about Skrillex or Calvin Harris, and even Pearl Jam isn't really a draw for me. But I was curious about Beck and there were several second- and third-tier acts that I was interested in. Thankfully, the schedule worked out such that the Friday lineup was by far the most appealing to me. Since ACL decided to sell single-day passes again this year, it was an easy decision to just go on Friday.

Learning from past experience, I showed up quite early to make the most of the day. My back hurt by the end of it from all the standing, but it was well worth it. I took pictures when I could, but I didn't always get good opportunities.

So, arriving about 12:30pm, I walked in and decided to see James Bay, a British singer-songwriter who was sometimes accompanied by a keyboardist/percussionist. I caught about half of his set. Although he had some decent skills and charm, he didn't offer much to keep my attention. All of his lyrics were simply about relationships with women and there was nothing notable or clever to be had. If he'd sing about something else he might get more interesting.

As Bay was wrapping up, I moved over to see Moats, a British band with some post-punk vibes and some spacey psych undertones. I originally was planning on seeing Temples, but since I'd seen them once before, I decided at the last minute to give a band I'd never heard of a chance instead. Their lead guitarist continually let out spidery, twisting lines with loads of reverb and other effects. It was a cool sound, but borrowed straight from the post-punk canon. The singer was mediocre and probably the weakest element. He barely played his guitar and did not sing well. The real star was the bassist, who managed to play really funky riffs under everything else. He might be able to keep the band above water on his own.

[Moats.]

I got bored with Moats fairly fast, so halfway through I decided to check out Temples again after all. I saw them earlier this year at Austin Psych Fest, but I think they may have put on a better show here. That's something of a feat considering the last time they had a presumably more sympathetic audience and played at dusk (when a lightshow is actually visible), whereas this time they played early and faced into the sun. Their love of 60s music was amply evident; there was more of a psychedelic feel on this occasion, but there were still hints of the heavy side. The melodies and harmonies shone even more, and the guitars were very spacey. The whole package sounded just a little better and grooved more.

[Temples.]

The next choice was obvious: Jimmy Cliff, one of the original kings of reggae. I knew parts of his setlist, but the almost whole thing is already online:

01. Bongo Man → Rivers of Babylon
02. King of Kings
03. Miss Jamaica
04. Wild World (Cat Stevens cover)
05. Under the Sun, Moon and Stars
06. Rebel Rebel
07. Vietnam (Afghanistan)
08. Treat the Youths
09. [Unknown]
10. Many Rivers to Cross
11. Wonderful World, Beautiful People
12. The Harder They Come
13. I Can See Clearly Now (Johnny Nash cover)
14. You Can Get It If You Really Want

[Jimmy Cliff and co. performing the "Bongo Man" / "Rivers of Babylon" medley.]

I immediately knew I was in for a good time when Cliff came out dressed in a gold suit and a red headband. His backing band (except for a woman singer) all wore orange shirts with a screenprinted image of King Tut. Cliff was immediately dancing around the stage, still quite active despite his age. The first song was performed with just vocals and percussion, but most of the songs involved lots of extra vocal and percussion parts, along with the standard string, brass, and keyboard parts. The energy was always high, Cliff kept moving, and the band was always groovy. Cliff's stage presence was hard not to like, and his tunes were solid. I appreciated his classics (which are perhaps most popular from their appearance in The Harder They Come and Cool Runnings) and especially that he transformed his old protest song "Vietnam" into a song about Afghanistan.

[Jimmy Cliff and the band in regular raggae format.]

I took a break to get something to eat and listened to most of a set by Lake Street Dive in the process. They were a jazzy, soulful quartet with a hint of rock. Most of their set was vocals, guitar, double bass, and drums, but for the crowd-pleasing cover of "I Want You Back", the guitarist switched to a trumpet, which made for a creative minimalist take. I didn't find the music particularly engaging or compelling, but the vocals were strong and the obvious center of attention.

[Lake Street Dive 1.jpg – Lake Street Dive.]

When I had left the so-called Honda stage area after Jimmy Cliff, I noticed that hoards of young women were heading the opposite way. It wasn't until I headed back that way myself that I realized they were rushing there early to get a good spot for Chvrches, and my decision to do something else between the sets meant I forfeited any chance of a good viewing location. There was no other band that I saw this day with as big of a crowd; I simply could not get anywhere close to the stage.

The band had a very simple stage setup: two synth racks and some space in the middle for singer Lauren Mayberry. Iain Cook picked up a bass and a guitar for a couple parts, but he and Martin Doherty mostly stayed put. Mayberry is extremely charming, and her bandmates moderately so as well, but there was a certain lack of stage presence nonetheless. It didn't help that their sound didn't come across well. It may have been my poor position in the crowd, but their music sounded somewhat simple and monotonic. I am a longtime fan of old-school synthpop, but I couldn't help feeling like something was missing. I might like some of the sounds, and the singing is good, but the dynamics and the energy weren't very engaging.

Next up for me was St. Vincent, who my regular source JDP turned me on to a few months back. I'm really glad I bought her latest album and sought out her performance, because it was delightful and weird. Delightfully weird, one could say. Annie Clark came out in a black dress adorned with sequin eyes and mouths, her hair dyed in her characteristic white with dark roots. Everything about her performance seemed carefully choreographed, including the movements and look directions of her keyboard players. At one point, Clark broke the guise for just a moment to address the crowd and stated that she was there for some reason we were: because we wanted something different, the world didn't seem right to us, and we hadn't given up faith that there was another way. I appreciated her confidence that we shared her worldview, but her mad smile made it hard to disagree.

[St. Vincent on top of her stage mount.]

The strange part about St. Vincent's music is that it sounds completely synthesized, yet Clark wields a guitar. When she plays, it takes a moment to realize that the sound you hear is related to the movements she makes with her instrument. I have no idea what combination of distortion, noise gates, and other effects she uses, but it is strange and wonderful. She's a modern virtuoso on the instrument, yet she obscures the face value of her talent by using an otherworldly set of tones. Her guitar skills are matched by her lyrics, which reveal deep imagination and subtle anger at the rigidity of the modern world.

Near the end of her set, she jumped down to the edge of the stage barrier and hovered with the help of some of the crowd. She passed her guitar to audience member and implored them to play the guitar while she interacted with other members. At one point, she took someone's phone, took a picture with it, and politely handed it back.

I took another break to eat more food but decided to try to see some of a set by Foster the People. I happened to come up while the singer was repeating the same line: "It feels like a coming of age". Combined with the terrible pseudo-indie pop sound, it was a mess of cliché. I tried to sit through it, but I couldn't take the co-opting of indie aesthetics by a derivative mainstream pop act for long. I realized that my time was better spent trying to get a good spot for the next band. (For what it's worth, their setlist can be found here, but I'm not going to bother reprinting it myself.)

I was glad I got to Belle & Sebastian early, because I got a good spot and it started to get crowded. I got the whole setlist on my own, except for Stuart's new song. The internet suggests it may be named "Allie".

01. The Fox in the Snow (string quintet tease)
02. Expectations
03. Another Sunny Day
04. The Stars of Track and Field
05. Funny Little Frog
06. Sukie in the Graveyard
07. Piazza, New York Catcher
08. Allie
09. Perfect Couples
10. I Didn't See It Coming
11. The Boy with the Arab Strap
12. Legal Man

Amazingly, the overlap in the setlist the last time I saw them (last year in Austin) is only three songs. Although festival appearances usually mean reduced set lengths, they still played an amazing set of career highlights and hidden treasures and also fit in two new songs. As far as I can tell, these songs have only been played a couple times before. Stuart Murdoch sang lead on one that went unnamed [Edit 2014.10.20: "Allie"], but Stevie Jackson's lead vocal piece was announced as "Perfect Couples". Other notable songs were a brief tease of "The Fox in the Snow" by the touring strings players while the band walked on stage; a full-band, low-key arrangement of "Piazza, New York Catcher" (previously only done solo acoustic); and Stuart jumping in the audience to bring a bunch of audience members up to the stage to dance for the last two numbers. Also: apparently, trumpeter Mick Cooke has officially (amicably) left the band, but I'm still just a bit confused about the extra touring guitarist/bassist.

[Belle & Sebastian, although Sarah Martin is obstructed from view.]

Last on the bill for me was Beck. I knew most of the setlist, but I owe it to the internet for filling in the blanks for me.

01. Devil's Haircut
02. Loser
03. Black Tambourine
04. Hell Yes
05. Think I'm in Love → I Feel Love (Donna Summer cover tease)
06. Soul of a Man
07. Gamma Ray
08. Blue Moon
09. Lost Cause
10. Wave
11. Waking Light
12. Girl
13. Timebomb
14. E-Pro

Encore:
15. Sexx Laws
16. Debra
17. Strawberry Fields Forever (The Beatles cover tease) → Where It's At

Beck's latest album was the acoustic, orchestrated, folky
Morning Phase, which led me to expect that his set was going to focus on his sparser, folkier, more melodic and "serious" side. I was wrong. He blasted out with the heavy "Devil's Haircut" and then ran through the stoner anthem "Loser" like it was still the early 90s. He jumped all around his career, but actually played more songs from Geuro (2005) than the new album. The weirdest part was that he went from all these technically proficient, dancey, showy, groovy hipster tunes into a brief foray of acoustic folk ballads with barely a pause. I appreciate Beck's wide variety of interests and outputs, but the transition was jarring. Equally incongruous was the shift right back into the hip postmodern jams à la Geuro.

Especially strange was the encore, which started with two tracks from
the weirdo funk-rock pastiche Midnite Vultures (1999). "Sexx Laws" might have been a single, and it might have a clever hook ("I want to defy the logic of all sex laws"), but "Debra" is a straight-up bizarre song. Parading as a trashy, sleazy, clichéd slow jam, the lyrics poke fun of typical male machismo songwriting: "I wanna get with you, only you, girl / And your sister / I think her name was Debra". Live, Beck took it even further, extemporizing lyrics and dropping references to Austin. His band has become a top-notch set of players, running with whatever changes take over Beck's mood. Maybe it's all pre-rehearsed, but they make it feel natural, in the moment, and totally slick. It's parody and mockery of the highest order. Much like my feelings about Devo, I just hope the audience is on the same page.

The closer was an extremely extended take on the Odelay classic "Where It's At". At some point in the performance, I think Beck uttered all the words heard in the studio version, but he also ad-libbed entire extra verses and stopped the performance several times to introduce the band and allow them to inject portions of other music. Each time, though, instead of sounding like an excuse for the musician to show off a dumb macho riff, the player in question would start into a riff, and the rest of the band would jump in like they all knew right where to be. And then at just the right moment, they'd switch right back into "Where It's At". It was either extremely well-rehearsed or the band is just that tight. It was absurd, yet oddly impressive.

Beck was supposed to be done at 9:30, but his protracted take on "Where It's At" ran an extra fifteen minutes. I'm sure there weren't many complaints. Outkast was scheduled until 10pm, but I opted to find my bike and get home.

Scores:
James Bay: C-
Moats: C+
Temples: B+
Jimmy Cliff: A-
Chvrches: B-
St. Vincent: A
Foster the People: D
Belle & Sebastian: A
Beck: B+

[Edit 2014.10.06:] P.S. Chvrches' setlist has been uploaded:

01. We Sink
02. Lies
03. Lungs
04. Gun
05. Night Sky
06. Strong Hand
07. By the Throat
08. Science/Visions
09. Recover
10. Tether
11. Under the Tide
12. The Mother We Share

[Edit 2014.10.16:] P.P.S. St. Vincent's setlist has been uploaded:
01. Rattlesnake
02. Digital Witness
03. Cruel
04. Marrow
05. Surgeon
06. Cheerleader
07. Birth in Reverse
08. Huey Newton
09. Bring Me Your Loves
10. Krokodil
11. Your Lips Are Red

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The War on Drugs / Califone - Live 2014.09.28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scores:
Califone: B-
The War on Drugs: B

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Merchandise / Lower / Institute - Live 2014.09.23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Devo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Duty Now for the Future, 1979.]

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

[Freedom of Choice, 1980.]

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

[New Traditionalists, 1981.]

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

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

[Greatest Hits, 1990.]

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

[Greatest Misses, 1990.]

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

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

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!