Wednesday, May 15, 2019

ChameleonsVox - Live 2019.05.14 Quasimodo, Berlin, Germany


Almost exactly two years ago, I saw ChameleonsVox in Berlin, just days before I signed a job contract and finally put the steps in motion to move here. It was a great show and I was quite excited about the prospect of living in Germany again. I think I've not been shy about my love for this town, and I've managed to see a lot of good music in a mere two years here, so that show was a good sign of things to come. Nonetheless, I actually considered skipping this show, since it started late (10:30pm!) on the other side of town, but I'm glad I followed my instincts and went anyway.

Artist: ChameleonsVox
Venue: Quasimodo
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 14 May 2019

Setlist (Strange Times):
01. Mad Jack
02. Caution
03. Tears
04. Soul in Isolation [including teases of David Bowie's "Be My Wife" and The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby"]
05. Swamp Thing [including a tease of The Beatles' "Rain"]
06. Time / The End of Time
07. Seriocity →
08. In Answer
09. Childhood →
10. I'll Remember

First Encore:
11. Monkeyland
12. Second Skin [including a tease of The Beatles' "Please Please Me"]

Second Encore:
13. Nostalgia
14. Don't Fall

I somehow missed the memo that this tour was specifically a tribute to Strange Times (1986), The Chameleons' third and final album from their original incarnation. Normally my first reaction to full-album performances is to cringe a bit, but it seems to be increasingly popular and I can admit that at times it does work. In this case, I wasn't about to complain: Strange Times is one of my all-time favorite albums! One of my first reviews twelve years ago was of the album, which I gave an A+.

Based on my experience the last time I saw ChameleonsVox (and every live recording I've heard from any version of the band), I wasn't at all worried if the band could do the album justice. The original sequencing of the album was excellent, and the band were able to translate it to the stage quite successfully. The ups and downs of the upbeat, driving songs like "Mad Jack", "Soul in Isolation", "Swamp Thing", and "In Answer" contrasted nicely with the more ethereal and contemplative songs like "Caution", "Tears", "Seriocity", and "Childhood". "I'll Remember" kept its place as a beautifully pulsing closure, although the brief cacophonous end of the album was left out.

Thankfully, the band were touring with a keyboardist, Danny Ashberry, so the many keyboard layers that were absent when I saw them in 2017 were rightfully restored. Longtime collaborator Yves Altana was not present, but Stephen Rice was a suitable replacement on drums. Chris Oliver and Neil Dwerryhouse returned on guitars, and of course Mark Burgess still leads the lot on bass and vocals.

There were some subtle differences in the performance to the original recordings. Burgess kept up his regular tradition of throwing bits of his favorite songs (mostly Beatles and Bowie) into his own, and he also again played with some of the lyrics for more topical relevance. Most notably, "Soul in Isolation" on this occasion featured the lyric "Lost in a Brexit wilderness of pain / And all our leaders are insane". Musically, "Tears" was performed somewhat closer to the original acoustic arrangement, but with electric guitars. It also featured an unfortunately rather annoying keyboard sample throughout it. Additionally, the verses of "Seriocity" were done with more prominent drums but without the distinctive strummed bass chords (or even any bass at all, in fact).

The band gave us two encores with two songs each. Three of the songs were from the first album, Script of the Bridge (1983), and "Nostalgia" was the b-side of their first single in 1981. These are all good songs, and they were played with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, but I do wonder why they deviated from other recent setlists, which have frequently included "Paradiso" (a b-side of "Tears") and "Tomorrow Never Knows" (a cover of The Beatles' song released as a b-side of "Mad Jack"). They also avoided anything from the Where in the World EP (2017), which included new versions of a Strange Times outtake and two tracks originally from the Tony Fletcher Fletcher Walked on Water EP (1987). It would've been cool to see some of the other songs from the same era performed live.

That said, I'm not at all disappointed with what they did play. "Swamp Thing" might be my favorite Chameleons song these days, and they tore into it and had the audience singing along. (Burgess oddly claimed it was inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall, despite that it was written before that happened, although he's also said before that he "regard[s] it as a true prophesy".) "Tears" is another astounding song in any arrangement. There was no song that they performed that they didn't do justice to. Even if full-album performances might be a gimmick, no one can be upset with hearing one of their absolute favorite albums played in full on stage with such passion and commitment.


Score: A

Monday, May 6, 2019

Slowness - Berths (2019)


With a name like Slowness, it's hard not to make comparisons to Slowdive, but strangest of all was that until now, their music wasn't actually particularly slow. However, after a five-year wait for a new album that sounds distinctly downbeat, they've finally managed to make good on their name. I got a chance to listen to their new album ahead of its official release, so I'll report what I've heard.


Artist: Slowness
Album: Berths
Release Date: 7 June 2019
Label: Schoolkids Records
Producer: Monte Vallier

Tracklist:
01. The Fall
02. Rose
03. Berlin
04. Breathe
05. Sand & Stone
06. Asunder

The first single from Berths, "Rose", is a bit deceptive. It shines with an expansive brightness that doesn't sound too far off from the more conventional shoegaze sound of Slowness' earlier albums. The layers of guitars and harmonies certainly sound familiar. But instead of pulsing, grooving, noisy thickness, "Rose" builds up a field of sound based more around reverb and open space. It's pretty, but there are shades of ponderous darkness.

The second single, "Berlin", loses most of the optimism. The simple but angular guitar riffs, the triangle and rolling toms, and the wispy vocals and synthesizers come across like an overcast sky threatening to rain. Instead of some techno party or metaphor of occupation or reunification, the song appears to be a comparison of the political changes of 1930s Germany to the modern USA. It doesn't sound very encouraging.

The rest of the album is closer to "Berlin" than to "Rose". "The Fall" begins the album with a lengthy haze of guitars and then opens up with a slow beat, a looming, spindly guitar part, and stacked harmonies. Bursts of guitar sound like lightning, and the subtle synthesizer could be a persistent drizzle. The lyrics seem to describe the hopeless inevitability of the changing of the seasons.

The second half of the album is even slower and darker. "Breathe" is edgy, aggressive, and weighted down. "Sand & Stone" is somewhat more peaceful and relaxed, but still foreboding. Most of the song forms an instrumental, enveloping pillow of noise. It slowly separates and fades out in sections such that the listener gets a peak behind the curtain of how the soundscapes are put together. "Asunder" is funereal to the point of being reminiscent of The Cure's "Faith". It's the only song where Julie Lynn's voice dominates, but with lyrics like "All is lost / No wonder", it's no more uplifting than the rest of the album.

With six tracks and only 32 minutes of music, Berths is rather slight, but it feels like the exact opposite. Gone are the upbeat, sparkling elements of their previous albums. This album feels heavy and brooding. "Anon, Pt. IV" (from How to Keep from Falling Off a Mountain, 2014) and "Little King" (from the Hopeless but Otherwise EP, 2011) are the closest touchpoints from Slowness' past work. Both are a bit slower and downbeat, but neither are as doom-laden as anything from Berths. The only exception may be "Rose", but even that is still far off from the pure, massive beauty of "Walls of Blue" (from For Those Who Wish to See the Glass Half Full, 2013).

Nonetheless, there is something cleansing about the change of pace. I applaud that the band chose to branch out into a new direction, and I've picked up that they were trying to write something that suited the spirit of the times. Slowness have let their sound open up in a way that I wouldn't have expected. There's something subtle yet still large and moving in Berths. Maybe it's the omnipresent soundbed of effects and noise, or maybe it's the layers of harmonies, or maybe it's the simple yet foregrounded lead guitar lines. It feels deliberate and studied. It feels like it might be storming now, but that can't last forever.


Score: B

P.S. Here's hoping they make it to Berlin on their next tour!

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Ian Fisher / Theodor Shitstorm - Live 2019.05.01 Max's Garage, Berlin, Germany


I wasn't going to write a review of this show. I mean, I already reviewed Ian's show at Prachtwerk the night before. In fact, I didn't even realize at first it would be a concert per se. But I made an offhand comment about Theodor Shitstorm that was apparently amusing enough to warrant putting it in print. (Or, well, publishing it on the internet, whatever.)

Artists: Ian Fisher & Theodor Shitstorm
Venue: Max's Garage
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 1 May 2019

Ian Fisher's setlist:
01. Tables Turn
02. Idle Hands
03. Icarus
04. Road to Jordan
05. My Eyes Have Seen the Glory
06. I Could Do Wrong
07. Koffer
08. Candles for Elvis
09. Long Line
10. Bed Downtown
11. Tears in Dust

Encore:
12. Simple Twist of Fate [Bob Dylan cover]

This was a casual event in a literal garage, and apparently it wasn't decided in advance who would play first. Ultimately, it was Ian Fisher, who played an abbreviated but similar set to what he and the band played the night before. As if Prachtwerk wasn't already an intimate enough venue, this felt even more up-close and personal. The sound quality wasn't exactly stellar, but it was good enough, and the band might have played even better than the night before. I would've gladly heard some more new material or assorted throwbacks, but the Idle Hands songs are a strong set, and the band can translate them to the stage quite effectively, regardless of the environment.

[Ian Fisher.]

Theodor Shitstorm's setlist:
01. Kunst
02. Schuld
03. Ratgeberlied
04. Mama, schick mir die Platten von Reinhard Mey
05. Getriebeschaden in der Slowakei
06. Rock & Roll
07. Nicht dein Typ
08. Selig sind die Verrückten [Reinhard May cover]
09. [brief unknown jam]
10. Der schlechteste Kaffee der Welt
11. Sie werden dich lieben

Encore:
12. [unknown "Einschlaflied" (lullaby)]

Theodor Shitstorm also appeared as a four-piece with guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards. However, both Desiree Klaeukens and Dietrich Brüggemann shared lead vocal duties, and Dietrich played a keytar for rhythm parts and a melodica for lead parts. The style was all over the place, with bits of indie rock, folk, punk, old school rock 'n' roll, traditional Liedermacher tunes, and even a playful touch of Schlager. They not only covered Reinhard Mey's "Selig sind die Verrückten" ("Blessed Are the Insane"), but performed a great original song named "Mama, schick mir die Platten von Reinhard Mey" ("Mama, Send Me the Records from Reinhard May"). Most of their songs featured a sort of deadpan delivery of personal and political storytelling with clever twists. I appreciated their subtle playfulness and humor (to the extent I could understand it!) and I felt just a bit brighter after experiencing their set.

And for the record, my extemporaneous comment was that Theodor Shitstorm sounded like punk if it grew up into something useful. But don't get me wrong, I still like a fair share of punk music!

[Theodor Shitstorm.]

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Ian Fisher / Tim Niehaus - Live 2019.04.30 Prachtwerk, Berlin, Germany


Artist: Ian Fisher
Venue: Prachtwerk
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 30 April 2019
Opening Act: Tim Neuhaus

Setlist:
01. Tables Turn
02. Idle Hands
03. Icarus
04. Road to Jordan
05. My Eyes Have Seen the Glory
06. I Could Do Wrong
07. [new song]
08. Lila [with Tim Neuhaus and Iris Romen]
09. Koffer
10. Candles for Elvis
11. Constant Vacation
12. Long Line

Encore:
13. Simple Twist of Fate [Bob Dylan cover]
14. Bed Downtown
15. Tears in Dust

I last saw Tim Neuhaus as part of the Tour of Tours (which also featured Ian). He again played a set of singer-songwriter pop songs, but this time just accompanied by Iris Romen on vocals and Andi Bukelini (I think!) on electric guitar. Tim already has a strong and soothing voice and plays acoustic guitar with power and deftness, but the additional harmonies and guitar tones really filled out the sound. Still, the experimentation and full arrangements of his studio albums was missing, and some of the songs felt like a solid rhythm section would've really made them shine. That said, I liked Andi's subtle but expansive sound, and his leads were usually perfected suited. Tim has a long history with Ian, and he said that in honor of that, his entire set (minus one song) consisted of songs he'd cowritten with him. That's a pretty cool tribute!

[Tim Neuhaus with Iris and Andi.]

Ian Fisher has been touring Idle Hands (2018) for a while now, and it was only last October that he last played in Berlin. While he again played the entire album (except for "If I Could Buy You"), he thankfully switched up the rest of the setlist significantly. He also played with a somewhat different lineup. Longtime collaborator Ryan Thomas Carpenter was apparently unable to join the tour, so Cornelius Borgolte filled in on keyboards and synthesizer. Bassist Andreas Laudwein and drummer Camillo Jenny returned for the same roles as before.

[Ian Fisher.]

The most exciting part of the set was that Ian played a new song for us. He mentioned being in the studio and recording a new album, but he played it alone with an acoustic guitar. It was a fingerpicked song with a particularly strong folk feel that seemed to grapple with the search for love and/or meaning. I always appreciate when an artist takes a chance and tries out something new: the gamble is usually worth it, and in this case, it absolutely paid off.

The second most exciting part was when Ian brought Tim back on stage to perform a song they'd written together, "Lila", which appears on Tim's recent album Pose I + II (2017). Ian also appeared on the studio version. They played the song unamplified, relying purely on the strength of their voices and acoustic guitars. Iris also drifted on stage just in time to join in for the last part. It was a pretty song and it felt like a special occasion.

[Ian Fisher with Tim Neuhaus.]

The change in lineup did a lot to change the performance, though: Ryan's mellifluous harmonies were absent, as were his humorous interjections. Andreas still provided some backing vocals, but he generally kept to the background where Ryan would jump in loud and clear. Ian also did most of the talking, which makes sense, but the mood was a bit more serious without Ryan's playfulness. However, Cornelius was an excellent substitute for the keyboard parts. His style was different, and while he might not be as proficient in a traditional sense, he demonstrated great flexibility and created a wide spectrum of sounds, particularly with his synthesizer. His contributions turned the extended end of "Bed Downtown" into an excellent, almost Kosmische jam.

Ian's set was as strong as always and I liked that he was willing to switch things up and try some different things. The new song was a delightful taste of what will presumably be a new album, and the mix of other songs was a pleasure. I would've gladly sat and listened to an even longer set if the venue would've allowed it!

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa, Antoine, Brian, and Jordan!

Monday, April 29, 2019

Born to Boogie (1972)


On another whim, I happened to watch Born to Boogie, a film about T. Rex from 1972 that is difficult to categorize. Directed by and featuring several scenes with Ringo Starr, it clearly takes a card from Ringo's goofy, playful style. Most of the film is based around concert footage from two massive concerts on the same day at Wembley. In between are some experimental and comedic scenes and a superstar jam session in which T. Rex are joined by Ringo and Elton John.

If you're a fan of T. Rex and that introduction sounds awesome, then you will probably enjoy the film no matter what else I write. But in truth, the film leaves a lot to be desired. First off, it's only just about an hour long. Secondly, of the dozen or so songs performed, three are repeated (albeit in different arrangements). Most importantly, while Ringo seems like a really fun person to hang out with, he isn't exactly a talented director.

The concert footage is decent, but it is readily apparent that it was either overdubbed or at least partially re-tracked. Harmony vocals can be heard despite no one on stage apparently singing them. Marc Bolan's hands are not always aligned with the guitar sounds, and at some points it even sounds like there are two guitar tracks. Mickey Finn's congas are mostly inaudible. Worst of all, much of the screen time is devoted to rather creepy close-ups of ecstatic young women in the audience.

The studio jam session is admittedly quite cool, but again, signs of overdubbing or re-tracking are apparent. Nonetheless, the three percussionists still have some trouble staying in time. On the other hand, John hammers at a piano with a furious intensity that is impressive to watch. While "Tutti Frutti" seems like nobody's favorite song, "Children of the Revolution" is done quite well.

The other notable segment is described as a "Tea Party" despite that it features nuns eating hamburgers, Finn ravenously eating something apparently bloody, and Bolan playing songs with an acoustic guitar, backed by a string quartet. The imagery, despite being filmed at John Lennon's estate grounds, is mostly bizarre and uncomfortable, but the music is pleasant. They play a medley of "Jeepster", "Hot Love", "Get It On", and "The Slider", all done in clever arrangements with the strings.

Other than a few bits of recited poetry, that's about all there is. Later releases add various interviews from the era, assorted outtakes, and/or the entire Wembley concerts. My interest did not quite extend that far. While I deeply appreciate the cosmic absurdity of T. Rex, Born to Boogie does not do a great job of presenting their best parts. It comes across as indulgent and uninspired. If you can handle that, it still has some fun elements, and it's easy to see why someone so strange could be so inspirational.


Score: C-

References:

P.S. Thanks to Stereogum for offhandedly mentioning this film!

P.P.S. I never released how much Robert Smith borrowed from Bolan in the early days!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Love'n'Joy - Live 2019.04.25 8mm Bar, Berlin, Germany


The last time I saw Boogarins in Berlin, the opening band was a perfect match and really impressed me. When I heard that Love'n'Joy would be playing their own show at a bar in my neighborhood, it seemed like a nice opportunity to see them play with less concern about time constraints.

The Ukrainian trio again appeared with a deceptively simple stage arrangement and initially focused on material from their recent album, Bender on the Silk Road. Their psychedelic rock was just as entrancing as before, and with a huge projection and an enthusiastic crowd, they seemed to be having a great time. The venue was small but crowded, and their sound was big enough to fill the space. However, the sound quality wasn't great, and some of the harmonies and other details were hard to make out clearly.

Halfway through their set, they asked if they could play one more, and after a playing a long jam with extended solos, they again asked to play another. This pattern continued for several increasingly humorous iterations, and each time it seemed like the songs got longer. They also got a bit heavier and more riff-oriented, as if they were reverting to garage rock. The style was simpler, but they still played tightly and rocked out enjoyably enough.


Score: B+

P.S. Thanks to Jochen!

[Edit 2019.05.04:] P.P.S. The venue shared some a video of one of the songs from this show, and it sounds great!

Monday, April 22, 2019

Dance Craze (1981)


I recently had my attention brought to Dance Craze, a 1981 film depicting British ska bands on stage in the height of the second-wave 2 Tone revival. It's appropriate that I just saw The Specials live; the 2019 incarnation might not quite match the original 1981 version, but it got close. In any case, it's amazing to see the original lineup in full force, playing a bunch of their early classics.

Madness, still thickly steeped in ska, are also given a lot of screen time, and they earn it, particularly with their hilariously hyped rendition of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake". The Beat are also given a prominent place and perform at their peak.

The real highlights are The Bodysnatchers and The Selecter, two bands fronted by Black women that didn't last as long as some of the others. The Bodysnatchers are the only band in the film that are all women, and they only released two singles before dissolving. Considering the relative lack of available material from either band, the footage here is perhaps the best opportunity to experience them.

The only band that didn't speak to me was Bad Manners. Even they weren't particularly bad, but their stage antics and songwriting were conspicuously less refined. The film also inexplicably contains a six minute long interlude with old newsreel footage from 1959 about dance crazes. Presumably that segment is there to contextualize the wild youth of the day or to legitimize second-wave ska as the latest in a long string of ever-changing trends. Whatever the intention, it acts purely as a distraction and can safely be skipped entirely.

Other than the interlude, there is nothing to the film except the six bands performing on stage. Director Joe Massot made a solid choice to focus on the high-energy live acts and keep out (most of) the filler. The film is a blast, and almost every song and performer is solid. It reminds me of Urgh! A Music War from the same year, but it is far more focused and serves as a great document of a scene that splintered and shifted shortly soon thereafter.


Score: A-

Thanks to Slicing Up Eyeballs for their article!