Saturday, December 27, 2008
Second is Savant Trigger, who just released a new EP after spending four months in Vienna. If you go to his really crazy website and click on Free Downloads, you can get the EP and the Terminal album from earlier this year, again totally for free. He's an electronic artist that makes a sort of experimental dance pop thing. He's also based out of St. Louis and occasionally has dance parties that totally rock. I recommend spending some time playing around on his extended website maze.
I'd also like to mention Ian Fisher, who is currently touring Europe and probably won't come back to his semi-native St. Louis for a while. He's an acoustic folk artist that often plays with a cellist and/or some other friends. His two albums aren't free, but you can download them from iTunes. According to his website, he's got another full-band album in the works, too. He's a great songwriter and his recordings sounds fantastic.
Someday I'll get some more of my own music up for download online, but currently you can only stream a few songs off my Myspace page and download some old tracks at my old download.com site that I haven't updated in years. Of course, if you want a physical copy of my latest album, just let me know.
Support local music! (And if you don't live in St. Louis... support independent music!)
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
I've written about the Lemp before, and I'd like to do it again. Last time I attended part of a noise festival, but last night was described by the musicians themselves as "a nice night of friends and acoustic music." It's a somewhat different scene, but it's interesting that the audience isn't all that different. Certainly, they weren't all the same people, but I'm sure there were plenty of people at both shows.
Artists: Falsetto Boy / Luc Michalski / Jordan Knecht / You, Crumbling
Venue: Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: December 21, 2008
The Lemp is such a fascinating place. Almost every show is $5, the audience is young (certainly plenty under 21 if not under 18), and their mantra-of-sorts is "no booze, no drugs, no jerks." It also helps that the people that run it and frequent it are just so damn friendly! There's such a community atmosphere there that something like the Pageant (let alone Riverport/Verizon Wireless Amphitheater) could never dream of. That's probably in no small part due to the smaller audience sizes and lack of real stage, but still. It's hard to go there and not have a good time.
So, anyway, this was an acoustic show featuring four different acts. I'll write a little bit about all four. I have to apologize for not being able to be as descriptive as I'd like – I accidentally left my notebook at home, so I'm going off of my fairly poor memory.
Falsetto Boy came first. The act is actually just one man, Jim Fitzpatrick, and his acoustic guitar. He played four or five songs, and I would say that of the four performers, he was probably my favorite. (I'm not just saying that because he's my friend. I swear.) His songs often feature some slightly odd tunings and strangely shaped chords, but it gives them a great sound. Nothing sounded dissonant, but Jim takes advantage of the chordal possibilities of a guitar to create voicings that are just a little bit out there. This was combined with his melodies that didn't always follow predictable patterns – several parts provided some nice counterpoint with the guitar riffs. The best song was a longer piece about death, inspired by the passing away of his grandfather. The lyrics were intelligent and there were several distinct segments that together built a cool song.
Luc Michalski was second. This was his first show (although an audience member shouted something to the effect that he has played in a band before), which is cool, but it kind of showed. I'm sure he did better than I did at my first show, but his guitar was consistently out of tune and he was visibly nervous, meaning that he was just a bit shaky and warbly. Regardless, I thought his melodies were good, and he certainly didn't perform poorly. This is definitely someone who has potential. With more experience (and a better guitar), he could become a really good act. He didn't do bad for his first show, and I suspect he'll do better in the future.
Jordan Knecht performed next. He forms half of the sort-of-broken-up Muscle Brain with Jim, but in that band, he plays/played drums, whereas here he was sporting an acoustic guitar. Like the other performers, he also played only maybe five songs. His guitarwork was decent on the first few songs, but then for one song, he plugged in to a looping pedal and a small amp and preceded to make a pleasant sonic landscape for himself to sing over. His vocals were probably the best of the night; he sounded the most trained and the most accurate. For his last song, he had a friend (I think the name was Michelle) come up and play one of her own songs, to which Jordan added baritone harmony and lead guitar parts. It was a good set.
You, Crumbling came last, and sadly, at least a third of the audience left before he started playing. This is the solo act of Curtis Tinsley, who played on a steel-stringed classical guitar with a rope for a shoulder strap. I wish I could remember more about his set, but what sticks out in my memory is that his guitar-playing was perhaps the best of the night. I was quite impressed by his ability to whip out great little riffs and melody lines on his guitar. I don't think his vocals were anything special, but I specifically recall a few guitar parts that were just really cool.
On the whole, this was a nice evening. As advertised, it was a pleasant night of friends and acoustic music (and free cider and hot chocolate!). I love the environment, and the music was good. Check out the links to each artist's webpages if you want to hear some of their recordings.
Overall score: B
Thursday, December 18, 2008
I'd like to do something a little different for once. I'd like to provide a sort of statement of intent, or an explanation of where I'm coming from when I write reviews. This will be a bit biographical, but I hope that you will bear with me as I attempt to clarify why I hold the opinions that I have. I barely ever introduced myself on this blog, so I'd like to do that in a more organized fashion now. (My previous attempts can be found in the opening paragraphs of my first and fifth posts.)
Hello! My name is Patrick Vacek, and if you can't tell based on a quick statistical analysis of where my live reviews come from, I currently live in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. I am a student, and although I don't study music, I have been playing music as a hobby for about eight years. I have played in a few different bands of various degrees of seriousness, but my solo act (The Nowhere Man) is the only one currently active. Because of my background in music, I evaluate other people's music with a modest understanding of music theory and a degree of experiential knowledge. [Edit 2014.01.05: It should hopefully be obvious that I no longer live in St. Louis. I also haven't been a student in a very long time, and my own musical adventures continue to grow and evolve.]
Perhaps I owe it to my father for more or less introducing me to good music, but it wasn't until years later that I began to appreciate many of his favorite bands (the Beatles, Neil Young, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, etc.). My interest in music began with what was on the radio (bland modern rock), then went through industrial music (Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc.), and has now taken me primarily in two different directions. The first path is the best of contemporary "alternative" bands, like Radiohead, the Faint, Belle & Sebastian, and in particular, the Smashing Pumpkins. The second path correlates moderately to the favorite bands of those bands on the first path, such as the Cure, the Smiths, Bauhaus, Joy Division, et cetera. All of these bands fall under the heading of post-punk, and I remember that when I first learned about these and other similar bands, I devoured every album I could find. To this day, finding "new" post-punk music is often more exciting for me than learning about new releases. [Edit 2014.01.05: I certainly wouldn't describe my tastes in such a sweeping binary anymore, even though the bands mentioned by name remain some of my favorites.]
Post-punk is arguably a very broad title, and I think that's fine. After the rebellious torch of punk music exploded on itself in 1977, the next ten years or so brought out some very creative music, and the most common thread is simply that it was born out of the energy of punk rockers that grew tired of the constraints of punk. Somehow, much of this music was largely overlooked at the time, especially in America. For me, post-punk brings together many aspects of modern music that appeal to me greatly. Of course, every genre has the possibility of doing this, and occasionally, each genre does. There are merits to be found in nearly every corner of the musical spectrum, but I find that certain corners tend to yield better results than others. This could be attributed to my own inherent prejudices. You decide.
For the second half of this post, I would like to spend some time explaining my opinions on various aspects of music. Hopefully, this will help make sense out of my reviews. Everybody notices different things about music and is attracted or bored by certain aspects of songs. I would like to explain what catches my ear and appeals to me, since these are the things that guide me in writing reviews.
The first thing that usually grabs me when I hear a piece of music is simply how it sounds; that is, what instrumentation was used and how it was played and processed to end up sounding how it does. I absolutely love songs that just sound different. I like guitars, but I often like them best when they are used in unconventional ways or when they hardly sound like guitars. Using unusual instruments or performance techniques or recording methods or processing tools really attracts me.
The opposite to this is a band that continually uses the same instruments and tones with little or no change in total sound. This happens to be one of my biggest problems with a lot of metal music – the continual sonic attack of distorted guitars means that the notes and texture get lost and muddled in the mix. This can be desirable, but overuse leads to a generally uninteresting sound with no auditory depth. This is similar to how I feel about screaming. I usually can't understand what screamers are screaming about, and it is rather alienating for someone to expend so much energy into something that is largely ununderstandable. I prefer texture and melody over a harsh, vocal cord-destroying scream.
The next thing I'll probably notice about a song is its structure. This takes a bit more effort to analyze, but it's usually not too hard to figure out if a song is fairly static or has several different parts with different rhythms or textures. I'll take a dynamic song with several diverse parts over a verse-chorus-verse-chorus song any day. Everyone can write songs using the 12-bar blues or just three chords borrowed from the folk or punk back catalog – I'm far more interested in complex chord structures, tricky contrapuntal solos, a variety of multivariate segments, or completely avant-garde or nontraditional song structures. In particular, highly repetitious music can really bore me. Rarely is a chorus worth repeating more than three times in a song. I fault a lot of dance and hip-hop music for their repetition, but at the same time, these genres often excel at making really cool rhythms and beats, which can make an otherwise bland song quite interesting.
After general sound and structure, the main thing left to observe is the lyrics. Simply because of the devotion necessary to focus on all the words and make sense of them, this is usually the last thing I notice in a song, but that certainly does not mean I don't think lyrics are important. To the contrary, a song with little else to its credit can be extremely meritous if its lyrics are top-notch. However, inane or prejudiced lyrics, even in an otherwise cool-sounding song, nearly instantly turn me off. I love listening to a song and learning something new or seeing something from an angle I'd never thought of before. Therefore, I'm incredibly tired of hearing songs about nothing more than trying to sleep with members the opposite sex of the singer. Music about love/romance/sex is so incredibly dominant that it becomes a serious bore to listen to a new song that rehashes the same idea already sung about hundreds of times. Some bands, though, have realized that even these topics can be approached from new or alternative angles and made more interesting (for example, the Faint's "Casual Sex" or "Worked Up So Sexual"). Of course, a songwriter could simply pick a different topic and come up with something creative.
Generally speaking, I like it when bands try something out of the usual status quo. I love a healthy dose of experimentation, and I adore songs that just sound "out there" and cool and different. When I review, I tend to disapprove of bowing to mainstream interests and thus to appreciate the nontraditional.
Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.
[Edit 4.4.09: I'd like to clarify my grading scale here, too. I use letter grades. That means a "C" is average, "B" is fairly good, "A" is great, "D" is disappointing, and "F" is outright horrible. I use pluses and minuses as appropriate. I rarely give an "A+", since that implies that the work was quite nearly perfect, but I also don't give many "F" and "D" scores since I don't really like bad music and I usually avoid it.]
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Remember when I saw the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra for free a few weeks back? Well, thanks to SLSO Publications Manager Eddie Silva and fellow blogger Chris Maue, you can do the same (albeit through slightly different means). Skip to the end of Chris' latest SLSO post at Highway 61 and read a quote from Eddie on how to get your free tickets.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
I know, I know, I just saw and reviewed the Faint in Columbia. And it's also true that every single one of my friends that had wanted to go with me to see them in St. Louis dropped out, but still. How can you pass up $20 tickets for a great band on a boring Friday night when you're trying to avoid the reality of a massive amount of homework? So, yeah, now the Faint are not only the only large-scale band I've seen twice, but they're also the only band I've seen three times.
Artist: The Faint
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: December 12, 2008
Opening Acts: The Pragmatic; The Show Is the Rainbow
01. Agenda Suicide
02. Drop Kick the Punks
03. Take Me to the Hospital
04. Forever Growing Centipedes
06. In Concert
07. Posed to Death
08. Desperate Guys
09. Get Seduced
10. The Conductor
11. Worked Up So Sexual
12. Machine in the Ghost
13. Mirror Error
15. I Disappear
17. The Geeks Were Right
18. Glass Danse
So whatever, I went alone, just like I did to the Columbia show. This time, though, instead of sitting in the balcony, I decided to hit the pit and dance for once. I made the decision to attend roughly fifteen minutes before the show began, which is also the approximate amount of time it takes me to drive from my apartment to the Pageant. Again, whatever.
The first opening act was the Pragmatic, a local quintet (whose Myspace claims they have a second hometown in Porto, Portugal) that does pretty great nearly-pure synthpop. I say "nearly" because they use a live drummer, but I actually generally prefer that anyway. The other four members all danced around their keyboards and synthesizers, with a lead singer that looks, sounds, and acts eerily like one of my friends who had to work during the concert and therefore couldn't attend. He mostly just sang and only did a little bit of keyboard work, but their only female member contributed the occasional vocal part, too. I have to admit, I think I missed the first few minutes of their set, but from what I did hear, I like them. They might not be absolute standouts, but they had some good hooks and rhythms and all that. I'm currently downloading their latest digital single from their website. Free music rocks.
The second opener was The Show Is the Rainbow, again on tour with the Faint. Frontman/only member Darren was just as wild and active as when I saw him last, but this time he didn't have a drummer and he had a larger venue to run around, which he made full use of. Even if I think he's immature in his lyrical topicality, I love his self-deprecating but simultaneously self-aggrandizing sense of humor and attitude, and his energy is just so intense. Every song finds him running around stage, and usually he ended up jumping into the crowd and then either dancing with audience members, running around the bar, or climbing on top of tables. It was great. He ran past me several times, so I gave him a solid high-five. So much energy.
Finally, after at least a half-hour of waiting after The Show Is the Rainbow left, the Faint hit the stage. And then.... they played the exact same setlist as when I saw them two months ago in a city just two hours away from this venue. On one level, it doesn't matter, but on another... it was pretty much a nearly identical concert; a total repeat. The same songs rocked just as hard and got the same crowd response. (To be specific, the songs that rocked and got the best response were just about all the songs they played off of Black-Wave Arcade and Danse Macabre, specifically "In Concert", "The Conductor", and "Glass Danse". "Take Me to the Hospital" was again fairly unexpected (relatively speaking) and fairly cool.) They played the same video projections and said just about as little as they did at the Columbia show.
The mix was a beat weak because the extreme lows were too loud and the normal bass guitar range was too quiet, as were the guitars during most songs. It's a shame, considering that I like their guitar and bass parts just as much as their synth parts. At a couple different points, though, we were treated to little noise solos by Todd on his special sampler/synth thing. I'm pretty sure he did one between "The Conductor" and "Worked Up So Sexual" at the Columbia show, too, but this time he did one as an introduction to "Mirror Error", too. Also unique to this performance was Todd's mic failing during the last verse of "Birth". His voice went unheard until he grabbed Jacob's mic halfway through "The Geeks Were Right". After that song, they spent a few minutes sorting out the issue, and during that, Dapose did a nice sampler/synth solo of his own.
Other than that... I don't know what else to say. The show was 90% the same as the Columbia show, so read my review of that night if you want more details about their general live performance. It was fun, but it was kind of a drag to realize a few songs in that they were using the same setlist. I was expecting some different songs or a longer setlist or just something different, but alas, only the first opening act was different.
If I don't take into account the fact that the show was basically identical to when I saw them two months ago: B+
If I do: D+
[Retrospective Score for The Pragmatic: B
Honestly, I was disappointed that I didn't get almost anything new. At the same time, though, if I hadn't been to the previous show, I probably would have thought this one was as good as that one, because, by and large, it was. However, I do I have to say, I just listened to The Pragmatic's "Circles" single, and although it is good, I like Haii Usagi's album better.
Why couldn't the Faint have pulled a total surprise akin to covering the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" like they did when I saw them in 2004?
Friday, November 28, 2008
On the band’s current tour, christened their 25th Anniversary Tour, the band has been playing double-night residencies in each city they play in. They use just about the same setlists in each city for the two nights; the first is billed as “Black Sunshine” and the second as “White Crosses”. The former tends towards the louder, heavier, more guitar-centric songs while the latter is more balanced with softer and more acoustic songs and thus probably more interesting. In a few cities, they just are just playing one night, blending the two setlists together. One of these cities was St. Louis, which is where I caught them.
Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
Venue: The Fox Theater
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: November 26, 2008
Opening Act: None
03. Kill Your Parents → Siva
06. Tonight, Tonight
07. A Song for a Son
09. Heavy Metal Machine → White Rabbit [Jefferson Airplane cover] → Glass' Theme
10. Landslide [Fleetwood Mac cover]
12. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
14. Cherub Rock (“Cocktail Version” tease)
15. Cherub Rock (normal version)
19. The Sounds of Silence [Simon and Garfunkel cover] → Lil' Red Riding Hood [Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs cover]
20. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun [Pink Floyd cover]
After reading Pitchfork’s roast of the current Smashing Pumpkins tour and being aware that Corgan has a tendency to preach or rant or just get obnoxious at recent shows, I wasn't quite sure what to expect out of this show. However, I liked the look of the setlists and sound of the bootlegs that I have been able to get a hold of. I went on in hoping for the best.
The core touring band (singer/songwriter/guitarist Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin from the old days along with second guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Ginger Reyes, and keyboardist Lisa Harriton) came out to some guitar feedback that led into “Tarantula”, the lead single from Zeitgeist. Next came the new single, “G.L.O.W.”. Both of these newer songs were performed well, but neither is a particularly great song; both are loud, heavily-distorted rockers, but at least “G.L.O.W.” has some good dynamics.
The band then started doing a little jam bit that I was fairly sure I recognized, and sure enough, it was the intro jam to “Siva” (dubbed “Kill Your Parents” by fans), only performed live back in the day. “Siva” is simply one of the best songs from the Pumpkins’ 1991 debut album, Gish, and its live performance was quite a treat, since they rocked it well and extended the middle break sections into creative feedback and guitar jams. This was followed by “Eye”, one of the band’s coolest songs (available on the Lost Highway soundtrack or the Rotten Apples greatest hits compilation). It is also one of the most electronic, which means live renditions never mimic the studio recording. This take was largely adapted to guitars, which made it rock even harder, and several parts were still done on keyboards to keep with the general sound.
Harriton’s keyboards on “Eye” were accompanied by second keyboardist Kristopher Pooley and by 10-string violinist Gingger Shankar. These two musicians are new to the Pumpkins’ touring band, and they appeared now and then on certain songs, totalling about half of the concert. Some songs also featured Gabrial McNair on trombone and Stephen Bradley on trumpet. So far, all of the touring members are yet to appear credited on a studio release, but it would seem that at least the core three members (Schroeder, Reyes, and Harriton) are full-time members. However, Corgan does have quite the reputation for being a perfectionist and playing all the non-drumming parts on his albums, so I suspect there is little chance of these members appearing on record. (Past touring keyboardists, such as Jonathan Melvoin and Mike Garson, and Chamberlin’s replacements during his temporary leave of absence were never considered official members, but original bassist D’arcy Wretzky’s replacement, Melissa Auf der Maur, was somewhat recognized as an official member.)
All these additional members really made “Tonight, Tonight” sound full and comparable to the orchestrally-arranged studio version. They stayed out for “A Song for a Son”, which is a new, as-of-yet-unreleased song that features some nice guitar work and classic Pumpkins dynamics. The melody is catchy, it builds up into a great full arrangement, and it has some good keyboard parts, too. Out of all the songs the reunited Pumpkins have performed, this may be my favorite.
Next came “Superchrist” (available as the b-side of “G.L.O.W.”), a long jam with just a few lyrics. Corgan has claimed the song is the sound of the band “back in free territory”, but I think it’s the sound of a band that likes to play really loud electric guitars and play mundane metal riffs. They can do better, and most of their other new songs demonstrate this.
A restructured “Heavy Metal Machine” followed. The band has played it consistently since reforming, and they continually rearrange it, in part by throwing in lyrics from other peoples’ songs. Other than the frequent “White Rabbit” segments (which are the coolest parts of the medley), on this tour they’ve usually thrown in parts of Laid Back’s “White Horse”, Ted Nugent’s “Strangehold”, and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and “YYZ”. (Since I am not familiar with any of these songs, I cannot verify if they were done at this performance.) Generally, though, the song just felt overlong. It seemed that the band was just reaching for any excuse to add another segment to the song, and many of these extensions were based on just using different thickly distorted guitar riffs that don’t do anything for me. It ended well, though, by segueing into the awesome Machina II rocker “Glass’ Theme”. I wonder if the lyrical content of the medley is coherent in any sense.
After that, everyone but Corgan and Schroeder left the stage, and they traded their electric guitars for acoustics to do a pleasant version of “Landslide”. Schroeder left while Reyes, Shankar, and the horn section returned for “Disarm”, which Billy claimed he wrote at 6am while standing under the St. Louis Arch. Since he also said during the show that he likes to lie and he does it frequently, something tells me his story is inaccurate. You can never be sure, though.
Billy left the stage, but the rest of the band stayed to do a beautiful take on a rearranged “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, which was never performed live before this tour. Billy then came back and led the band through four really awesome classics. “Soma” was great, but “Cherub Rock” was one of the best moments of the show. It started with a false start because Corgan forgot to switch guitars, but then the guitarists did a short smooth-jazzy “cocktail version” of the song before the band played the real thing.
The last part of the show was the Billy jam-fest. “Gossamer” is an unreleased song that has been played since the initial reunion shows, and it was given a decent rendition without doing the full half-hour version from some of the concerts last year. The song is a long, multi-segment prog-rock piece that is largely an excuse for Billy to do some extended guitar solos, but it does sound pretty cool. This was followed by two covers morphed into incredibly long jams that crossed over from the cooler prog-rock territory into the somewhat less-cool space-jam territory. “The Sounds of Silence” sounds nothing like the original and wasn't particularly worth the amount of time it took to perform. “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” mostly followed this pattern, but it was superior due to a better arrangement. After a significant period of aimless noodling, the band hit their experimental jam peak when the members started changing instruments. First, Corgan set down his guitar and played on some timpani (even though he didn't really do anything that cool with them). Next, Schroeder set down his guitar and started playing with a theremin and Reyes traded her pick for a bow. The resulting segment of abstract jamming was actually pretty cool. It was out there, but it came together and worked. (It helps that theremins and the like fascinate me.)
Now, on the whole, those three jam sessions lasted about 45 minutes, and although they were mildly interesting, they weren't that great, and the worst part is that afterwards they just left. No encore, no goodbyes, nothing. They just left and the stage lights came on. I think everyone was expecting the band to come back and break out into “1979” or something similarly riveting. After all the abstract spaciness, I think everyone was sort of mellowed out and ready for a rousing conclusion. And yet it failed to materialize.
I can’t really complain too much here, especially since the band played for nearly two and a half hours and they did do a lot of my favorite songs. However, I did notice that we only got twenty songs, whereas every other show on this tour thus far has had more like 23 or 24. (“Only” must of course be used relatively here.) Again, I think the jamming only occasionally entered exciting territory, but I probably wouldn't be so negative about it if they had finished with just one or two more great songs. It would have really sealed the deal and made for a near-perfect night. As it was, I enjoyed it a lot, but it just felt like it wandered off at the end of the night and got lost out past Neptune.
The setlist is also intriguing. Most nights they've played two or three of their newly-written unreleased songs, but on this night we just got “A Song for a Son”. As much as I like it, other new compositions (“99 Floors”, “Owata”, “As Rome Burns”) were overlooked. Also noticeably absent was anything from the recent American Gothic EP, which I rather liked.
Actually, if you analyze the setlist, you’ll notice that the greatest concentration comes from the Pumpkins’ two best-selling albums (at a rate of four from each: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Siamese Dream. Much as I love these albums, I also love Adore, from which nothing was played, and Machina II, from which only one brief song was played. Furthermore, only one song was played from each other album (Gish, Machina, and the recent Zeitgeist). None of this would be of much concern if it weren't for this tour being billed as a 25th anniversary tour. If this is supposed to celebrate 25 years of their (discontinuous) existence, why would the song selection be so imbalanced? Wouldn't it have been cooler to play a few of the rare early songs? Couldn't one or two of the less creative extended jams have been replaced each for three or four better selections, or at least the more obnoxious segments of the jams excised in favor of five minutes towards an Adore track?
What I’m trying to say is that I liked a lot of what the band did, but the more directionless jams were a lot less engaging than they could have been. I’m happy to have my favorite band back and putting on fairly good shows, but they are holding themselves back from being truly impressive and invigorating. They have potential, but they aren't living up to it quite as fully as they could. Nonetheless, I do not hesitate to say this show was incredibly enjoyable. I never got to see the band in their original lifetime, but I am not disappointed by their current incarnation. The various replacement members actually do a decent job of living up to the original members, and they play some great material. Despite their many imperfections, they play a good show.
P.S. In Atlantic City, the band covered the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man”, obviously one of my personal favorites. If anyone comes across a recording of this performance, please let me know.
[Edit 2008.12.12: Via LiveSmashingPumpkins.com I found the cover of "Nowhere Man" from the Atlantic City show. In fact, if you're willing to pay, you can get mp3s, flacs, or CDs of soundboard recordings from each night of the tour. I bought this concert and the single "Nowhere Man" track, and the quality is great.]
[Edit 2014.10.12: The concert recording is now available from livedownloads.com.]
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Event: Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (loosely part of the Guitar Festival), conducted by David Robertson
Venue: Powell Hall
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: November 15, 2008
1. A Prayer Out of Stillness, composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage, 2007, featuring John Patitucci on acoustic bass and electric bass guitar
2. Beautiful Passing, composed by Steven Mackey, 2008, featuring Leila Josefowicz on violin
3. The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky, 1911-13
I took four pages of notes while listening, but most of them are incomprehensible and I think that getting that detailed wouldn't be helpful. I'll just go a work at a time and then give an overall impression.
The first piece, A Prayer Out of Stillness, was probably the one that netted the association with the Guitar Festival, which was actually more related to the previous Thursday, where the SLSO played Frank Zappa and some other out-of-the-ordinary pieces at the Pageant. Regardless, this piece featured John Patitucci on electric 6-string Yamaha bass for half of it. The work is divided into four parts, and each did have a different feel.
The first part, "First Prayer," featured Patitucci on his upright bass, mostly plucking in the higher registers, but then also bowing. The second part, "Second Prayer," had Patitucci switch to the electric bass for some intense fingerpicking runs in the higher strings. Throughout, the rest of the orchestra, using only a fairly small set of musicians, played fairly simple parts, clearly just laying a foundation for the soloist to work off of.
The third part, "Call and Response," was just that: a second bassist came out on an upright, and Patitucci stayed on his electric. The other musicians remained silent as the two bassists held what in the rock world would be called a bass-off. I figure there are two ways to view this: either it's a very, very skilled, theoretically masterful improvisation, or it's just "disconnected noodling" (as my compatriot half-jokingly quipped). I was fairly absorbed by it all, really. The dual nature of flawless electric fingerpick-soloing and comparable bowing in the lower ranges on the acoustic bass was pretty cool. The fourth part, "Third Prayer," was something of a reprise of the second part, with Patitucci on acoustic bass and the rest of the orchestra again in tow.
Instrumentally and compositionally speaking, Beautiful Passing was a step higher. The orchestra brought out some percussion (including a drumset!), a harp, a piano, and the woodwinds and brass (which were notably absent from the previous piece). Leila Josefowicz was featured on violin. She led things off, but then the orchestra started doing short crazy parts every few measures. The piece continually alternated between very frenetic segments and much calmer parts with Josefowicz a bit more prominent. At the height of it all, she was bowing her highest notes, then doing great trills accompanied by the woodwinds, and then sliding all over the strings. Things got progressively louder and louder, more and more intense, with Josefowicz all over the place and the orchestra crashing hard on the percussion and hitting some dark notes. Eventually it calmed down and came to a slow end with Josefowicz on a final long note.
The Rite of Spring was probably the highlight of the night. Although I'd heard the piece before, I'd never seen it performed, and it is quite the experience. A video projector carried explanatory text during the piece, as it was originally written for a ballet, and the context would have been otherwise lacking. "Part One: The Adoration of the Earth" begins with a pleasant festival, with the woodwinds, brass, and strings all doing nice bits, but slowly moving in some more intense and dark parts. Before long, timpani entered, the cellists were tapping their bows against the strings, and the other string musicians were doing great pizzicato parts.
As the festival dance gets a bit more extreme, things continued to amp up and get darker. The cellos in particular were great, and the timpani and cymbals let us know things were awry. During a duel with a rival tribesman, the instruments exhibited jabs in line with what must have been the fight. A new cacophony rose as a sage appeared, but then suddenly things settled down significantly. The music droned at low volume and got steadily more intense before pausing briefly to transition to "Part Two: the Sacrifice". Strange sounds started things off; the violins did a quick repeating ascending part, then the music became more drone-like before once again becoming very intense. As a girl is sacrificed, the strings shrieked and the percussion crashed about. After slowing and calming down for a minute, the music returned to the frenzy, and as the sacrificial girl fell, the pitch of the instruments rose and suddenly stopped.
For the most part, the music of A Prayer Out of Stillness failed to impress, but I understand that the main draw was the featured bassist, and Patitucci was certainly talented. I rather wish that I could have seen him perform a good melody over a more interesting piece. Beautiful Passing was more complex and dynamic, and Josefowicz instilled a lot of passion into the piece and helped keep my attention. However, even she was no match for The Rite of Spring, which blew me out of the water. I can't think of any other piece I've heard that is quite as extreme and dramatic and nearly avant-garde (while still maintaining structure) as this one. The orchestra really put a lot of energy into the work and it showed well.
As a sort of sidenote, I rather enjoy observing the nature of a symphony concert. The culture is somewhat fascinating. Everyone dresses up very well and barely so much as coughs during the performance. (Imagine a rock band demanding that kind of respect!) I'm never sure what other people think about a young, longhaired (post-)punk coming and making postmodern social commentary, but maybe if the orchestra can go out on a limb and do The Rite of Spring, I don't stick out too much.
Thanks again to Eddie and Chris.
[Edit 11/22/08: Here is the permanent link to Eddie's main post on the SLSO blog (hilariously titled after a panel in Chris' comic), here is a link to another review of the show by Jen from the Euclid Records blog, and here is a link to a related post on Confluence City.]
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Artist: My Brightest Diamond
Location: University City, Missouri
Date: November 11, 2008
Opening Act: Clare and the Reasons
01. Golden Star
02. If I Were Queen
04. To Pluto’s Moon
07. From the Top of the World
08. Black and Costaud
09. Ice and the Storm
10. Inside a Boy
11. Hymne a l’Amour (Édith Piaf cover)
12. Gentlest Gentleman
The show was supposed to start at 9pm but of course started late. The opening act, Clare and the Reasons, came out all dressed in red (not in uniforms, just in entirely red outfits). I’m guessing by their accents, multilinguistic abilities, and comments about green cards that they are French-Canadian, but I have no proof of this. Their setup was Clare on guitar and vocals, a cellist, a violist, and a violinist/bassist/xylophonist. They did about a 40-minute set, including an imaginative cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and a hilarious song about their beat-up car. It was enjoyable and fit well with the style of the headliner.
After a long break, My Brightest Diamond finally hit the stage after 10pm. I noticed that the main bandleader/singer/guitarist Shara Worden was accompanied by the same trio of musicians as Clare – but now they were all dressed in fanciful stylized black and white outfits. Their general format is similar to what Clare and the Reasons presented, but My Brightest Diamond takes things a step further in experimentation and innovation.
Worden had three or four guitars at her disposal, in addition to a nice set of at least a dozen pedals and a few assorted other instruments. She also had a weird-looking mic that produced a Faint-style distorted output (but was only used for one song) and a drum machine of some nature that she used intermittently for some backing beats.
Worden has a fascinating guitar-playing style. I think all of her guitars were tuned to different nonstandard configurations; I suspect her main guitar was in open-D but the others are anybody’s guess. She alternated between fingerpicking and strumming, and although she usually kept to repeated patterns, those patterns were usually intricate and clever. The most interesting part was that the guitar she used for “Disappear” had an unsharpened pencil positioned under the strings next to the fretboard so that it suspended all the strings above the highest fret. She had it tuned just right so that she could pluck patterns on the open strings above the pickups to get harmonious notes, but for a few parts of the song, she plucked on the other side of the pencil (above the fretboard) to get a slightly different set of notes. I’m curious as to what sort of tuning she used for that guitar.
The interesting instrumentation didn’t stop with the guitars. “Apples” had Worden using a weird little wooden box with metal strips that she would pluck with her thumbs. She only used it to make one or two repeated melodies, but it generated a quite unique sound. [Edit 2014.06.09: This is known as a kalimba or thumb piano.] “To Pluto’s Moon” featured a plastic tube that, when spun around, generated different high-pitched tones. These were used again by the other musicians during one of Worden’s stories, which she told a couple of during the night. One explained the opera experience that inspired “Black and Costaud” while another summarized a book about a boy and a horse named Diamond that provided the source of “From the Top of the World”. Worden implied that the name of her band is derived from the story.
Between “To Pluto’s Moon” and “Disappear”, Worden stepped back for a minute to allow the violinist/bassist to do a little magic show. There wasn’t really an explanation, but it added the feeling that the concert was more than just a band playing songs of their latest record. The feel of the music is too much of a blend of classical and pop elements with a healthy dose of the avant-garde to feel like a normal rock show. The volume level was kept at a tolerable level, and the audience remained fairly well-focused and appreciative. The way Worden talked about her songs and chatted with her bandmates kept the mood intimate and slightly unusual.
As things drew to a close, the out-of-the-ordinariness came to a climax. During a cover of “Hymne a l’Amour” (available on the “From the Top of the World” EP), Worden sang accompanied only by her guitar while the other musicians set up a puppet show off to the side on a table that remained otherwise unused. Because the stage isn’t set very high, they asked those of us in the front rows to crouch down so the back could see.
After that, the band ran off-stage, but they barely even got into the green room before turning around and jumping right back on for what I suppose could be considered an encore. Worden picked up a ukulele while the other musicians, joined now by Clare (still in red), huddled around microphones to provide backing vocals for “Gentlest Gentleman” (available only as an iTunes bonus track to her second and latest album, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth), which they encouraged the audience to help out with.
Although My Brightest Diamond only played twelve songs and were on stage for just about an hour, it didn’t feel like a short performance (and for ten dollars, who could complain?). They kept things interesting with their assorted interludes, sideshows, and instruments, and the audience was dedicated and absorbed by the performance. Their version of what most critics call chamber pop is precise and well-thought out, but it is brought to a different level with Worden’s multifaceted, wide-ranged vocals and innovative guitar work. If she keeps making music this interesting, I suspect she will be met by larger crowds the next time she tours.
To see Worden’s eccentric haircut, her weird box used on “Apples”, and two of the same songs she performed at this show, check out her performance on Pitchfork.tv’s “Don’t Look Down”.
Much thanks to Josh Potter, who provided my introduction to the band, my ticket, and the setlist. I couldn’t have asked for more.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Artist: The Faint
Venue: The Blue Note
Location: Columbia, Missouri
Date: October 19, 2008
Opening Acts: Haii Usagi; The Show Is the Rainbow
01. Agenda Suicide
02. Drop Kick the Punks
03. Take Me to the Hospital
04. Forever Growing Centipedes
06. In Concert
07. Posed to Death
08. Desperate Guys
09. Get Seduced
10. The Conductor
11. Worked Up So Sexual
12. Machine in the Ghost
13. Mirror Error
15. I Disappear
17. The Geeks Were Right
18. Glass Danse
The first opening act was Haii Usagi, a local Columbia duo that played a half-hour set of electronic music. It reminded me of Air's Moon Safari minus some of the layers, but a bit rockier and harder, with more active drums. One guy just played keyboards and used a laptop to add some samples in; the other guy faced him and sat on a drumset that had a keyboard where the tom-toms should have been. He usually just drummed, but on several songs he played some keyboard bits, sometimes using one hand to drum and one to hit the keys. I thought they totally rocked; I bought their handmade album after the show for just five dollars. You can't argue with that – and the album is great. Look them up on Myspace or something.
The next opener was The Show Is the Rainbow, a self-proclaimed one-man-show from Nebraska (although a friend played drums). The music was mostly pre-recorded, played off of a laptop, but the main guy did play a few guitar lines. He mostly just sang and danced around. He was incredibly energetic and active, jumping in the audience on almost every song and even crowd-surfing a couple times. Each song also had a video accompaniment, which were usually fairly lo-fi animations that sort of went along with his lyrical content. The mix wasn't very good, so I wasn't all that impressed with the actual tunes, but the energy kept it interesting and made for an exhilarating performance. After the show, he gave me a sampler from his record label with a few of his songs on it, and with the advantage of the studio, his songs sound much better. He's pretty cool. If you're already on Myspace checking out Haii Usagi, check out The Show Is the Rainbow, too.
After The Show Is the Rainbow's 40-minute set and then a half-hour wait or so, the Faint hit the stage at about 10:00. Lead singer Todd Fink came out in a scientist's white lab coat and goggles. The band immediately rushed into "Agenda Suicide" from Danse Macabre (2001), with a projector playing the music video in the background. The band appeared quite into their performance; they all danced in their little areas, with synthesist Jacob Thiele bending around especially much while still hitting his keyboard notes. Todd occasionally also played on a little synthesizer, and either he or Jacob ran the samples that they couldn't replicate otherwise. I prefer when bands do everything they can to keep things live, but they did a good job not relying on samples too much.
I was impressed with the amount of parts that they did on guitars. Dapose handled most of the guitar and Joel Peterson the bass, but on several songs, mostly the new ones, they switched instruments. On "Machine in the Ghost" Dapose added extra synth parts and Joel did guitar, and on "The Geeks Were Right" both played guitar. Clark Baechle handled the live drums well, covering even the parts that on record must be electronic. During the whole show, the projector was on, but it mostly kept to abstract two-tone images, often of the band members.
Generally speaking, I was really pleased with their setlist, especially "Take Me to the Hospital", which was only released on a compilation from their former label, Saddle Creek. The song is great but something of a rarity; I was hoping they'd play it at the last show of theirs I caught, so I consider myself lucky that they did it this time. "In Concert" (from 1999's Black-Wave Arcade) was a special treat, and "Worked Up So Sexual" (from the same album) and "I Disappear" (the single from 2004's Wet from Birth) elicited a huge crowd response. "The Conductor" was a particularly energetic and riveting performance with some awesome guitar work from Dapose. They did a good job of picking the best of their back catalog and playing the better half of their new album, Fasciinatiion (2008). I would have liked to hear "A Battle Hymn for Children" off the new album or maybe "Call Call" or "Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat" from the older ones, but what they did do was excellent.
They didn't experiment with their sound much, but some of the synth tones were different than on record. The guitar and bass parts were great; I was impressed by several of them, particularly the metallic-sounding rhythm guitar in the bridges of "Forever Growing Centipedes". Several songs featured Dapose or Jacob on processed, robotic backing vocals (like for the "like a cast shadow" line in "Agenda Suicide"). Todd used the processed mic for the verses of "The Conductor" and "Mirror Error".
The mix was good and the audience was really enjoying the show. The venue seats over 800, and although it wasn't sold out, it was nearly full. The floor was filled with people moving to the beat, and even on the balcony people were dancing to the music. It was a fun night.
After about an hour, the band left the stage, but they quickly returned for a short encore. "Birth" was particularly rocking, but "Glass Danse" was even better and the audience loved it. Todd thanked us, and Joel told us to vote for Obama before everyone left the stage.
The Faint rock. Go see them and dance your head off – and enjoy the opening acts, too.
[Retrospective Score for Haii Usagi: A+
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Since I started reviews, I've wanted to write about a show there, and now I'm finally ready to do it. This weekend is NoisefeSTL V, the fifth annual instance of bringing together noise musicians from across the Midwest to a single venue for a long weekend. I attended the first night, and I'd like to write about what I saw. I'll start by describing the bigger picture and then each performance and my reactions. I'll give each act a score.
Event: NoisefeSTL V (Day One)
Venue: Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: October 17, 2008
If you aren't familiar with the noise scene, it deserves a certain amount of explanation. The scene is dominated young musicians that tend to be male and a part of the counterculture. Most of the acts are soloists, but duos and collaborations are frequent. Full bands of three or four or more are the exception, and they tend to be more of a structured noise-rock thing, like Einstürzende Neubauten or Neptune. Many of the musicians simply have huge pedals boards that they use to process and filter whatever their input is. Simple sine-wave generating oscillators can be found right next to microphones, home-made percussion, guitars and bass guitars (often fairly maligned and atonally tuned), and the occasional keyboard or synthesizer. Signals are frequently overdriven and distorted. Tonality is normally absent and the volume levels are very high. (Earplugs are a necessity).
Most artists work just with sound, and if they vocalize, there are no audible words. Those that do sing or speak generally process and distort their vocals; the subject matter is diverse but often is based on social commentary and rarely just about relationships and the standard matter of pop songs. The overall sonic quality is very harsh, and the artists frequently get very into their music. It is not uncommon to see musicians jumping around and lashing out, occasionally even hitting each other, walls, or the audience (which, at the Lemp, stands around the artist at a distance of just a few feet without any sort of elevation or officially designated "stage"). There is usually no consistent beat to the noise, but many audience members focus on the beat frequencies of atonalities or just whatever they feel like and end up moving their bodies in any number of ways along with their notion of the beat of the music. Often, audience members' gyrations are out of sync with each other, but there is more consistency when things get intense and people start to move their bodies around more.
Crowd sizes vary; the Lemp has a dedicated base with several people who seem to be around just about every night. An official city document above the door to the place claims the fire code limit to be 70 people; I'd estimate at any given moment at this night of NoisefeSTL that number was not exceeded, but probably nearly so. Throughout the night there were probably a hundred people there.
Also: the whole night was just $6, and they had coffee, awesome lentil-butternut squash soup, and a few other dishes all for free. This was just the first night of three plus an afternoon and three workshops, so there is much more to come (that I will not be able to write about). To the artists:
Porcelain Dorsal Fin (from Milwaukee, Wisconsin): This artist used a didgeridoo as his input into a series of effects pedals. His performance was short and consisted of a lot of thick noise and distorted screaming. I liked the didgeridoo, but I felt like the sound he produced wasn't very interesting.
Unknown (I can't figure out who this was): This artist simply used a microphone to generate massive feedback from his amplifier. I think he was playing with his input jack to generate some more noise. I was not particularly impressed; the passion was there but this is the type of thing that literally anyone can do.
Peter J. Woods (from Milwaukee, Wisconsin): This guy started out by criticizing a few of the musicians from last year's NoisefeSTL, then explained the point of his set, which was something along the lines of "do your own thing" and "we're all family here, and if you don't like, it's just how it is". He started by reading some lyrics, then also making some very pleasant ambient drones on a bass guitar. Gradually both the vocals and the bass got harsher and harsher until he was thrashing on his bass strings and screaming "there is romance in this" over and over. Eventually he set his bass down and screamed his last lyric with every bit of his body that he could. Very intense.
Ghost Ice (from St. Louis): I've seen him before, and he hasn't let me down yet. He uses a series of pedals in a big cabinet and has a keyboard (or maybe just oscillators?) and a mic for inputs. It seemed like he was vocalizing, but because of his processing, there was no apparent correlation between his vocals and what came out of the speakers, which is a weird thing to observe. He got a lot of sounds and was all over the place (in a good way). He had some good dynamics and several layers going on.
Boar/ARU (from Iowa): These guys were a very intense duo. One had a drum machine and a feedback loop along with several pedals. He also had single drum that he used near the end of their performance. The other mostly vocalized (at one point putting the mic in his mouth) and maybe had some oscillators. He got really into it and started jumping around quite a bit, hitting some audience members at one point. Their noise had some movement to it, though. There was a building-up, and the beats from the drum machine and drum meant the audience had further incentive to get into it. I dug it.
Charlie (from St. Louis): He started with some vocal processing but then began focusing more on his keyboard and the effect pedals hooked up to that. It seemed that he used something to keep some of the keys depressed so he could fiddle with knobs with both hands and modulate more effects. Near the end he added some more distorted vocals to the mix. I liked parts of what I heard, but a lot of the middle section just seemed like jumbled blurts that didn't seem to have any connection. The result was that I'm not sure that any of the effects being modulated were really given a change to show themselves. I really liked some of the vocals and sounds earlier in his performance, though.
Dave Stone and Danny McClain (from ?): These guys were really a avant-garde free jazz band (if any label fits). They are a duo, sax and drums. They played a very frenetic extended piece. The saxophonist would just go all over the place and wail as he saw fit, while the drummer kept a constant clatter of snare and toms with only some hi-hat. I thought their energy was great, and I liked that they weren't on quite the same spectrum as most of the rest of the performers.
Eric Hall (from St. Louis): He did something of an ambient dub performance with sampled loops. It started very ambient, just warm tones, but he had a drum machine come in at one point. That's where the dub qualities came in – the snare had huge reverb. He also had a DJ's CD player and would "scratch" it and play with and process that sound to add some nice touches. Near the end, either his drum machine or some other source got some extra kicks and he was making some rougher noise, but it was still fairly warm. (It reminded me of the noises in Radiohead's "Palo Alto", if that helps.) He kept it up for a while, but the beats kept the audience swaying. I liked it a lot, and I appreciated that he opted for more pleasant tones instead of the harsher tones favored by most of the other artists.
Ben Allen (from ?): His most interesting feature was some sort of sound generator that appeared to be similar to a theremin (one of my favorite instruments, much like the ondes Martenot). His version worked such that his hand's nearness to an antenna jutting out of the box controlled either pitch or some distortion effect. He must have also had some other means of generation. He was alright but mostly kind of lost me in his continual, messy noise. I liked the instrument but once he stopped playing with it as much his dynamics were lost.
Overall, this was fun. I'm happy to be able to say a few words about these artists, because they are at a level of underground that simply does not ever get reported on. I was sad that there were another four artists or so listed on the tentative schedule that did not perform. Nothing was announced about them at the show.
Anyway, if you like the avant-garde and are into sonic experimentation, check this scene out. Many of these artists have MySpace accounts, they usually play shows fairly frequently, and many have highly-independent albums and singles out. If you catch this post in time, try to catch the show tonight or one of the ones tomorrow.
Overall score: B
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Artist: Ben Lee
Venue: Webster University (Parking Lot E)
Location: Webster Groves, Missouri
Date: September 26, 2008
Opening Act: Tim Session
Just like with Mat Kearney, I'd never heard of Ben Lee before. I quickly learned that he's an Australian pop musician, but that's all I knew going in. I have no idea what the setlist is, and I could only halfway pay attention to the whole show, so I must give a word of caution that my review can't be considered too seriously; I wasn't an active participant. From where I was standing for most of the night, the sound was bouncing off our parking garage and creating some weird delay, so I don't think I got the full auditory experience (or visual, considering that I was a ways away from the stage). Nonetheless, I'll say a few words about my general feeling about the show.
Opener Tim Sessions played four or five songs. He is a a guitarist and singer, but he has some of that fancy overdubbing and playback equipment so he can record loops live and play different parts or instruments over that all by himself. It's pretty cool, but I think anyone that can do that (that is, buy the whole electronic setup) is kind of cool. He didn't really do anything that out there, but it was fine.
Ben Lee hit the stage after a short break and brought just his acoustic guitar and a fellow keyboardist. He played for something like 75 minutes. With just two instruments and his voice, he wasn't making a big show, but his songs worked pretty well. He's a poppy singer/songwriter, so I think a certain amount of where he's coming from is is pretty uninteresting and dull, but he did a good job of doing what he does. I wouldn't call his music bland, just unexceptional: not much in the ways of surprises, fairly basic structures, fairly constant tone throughout the set. He had plenty of catchy bits and kept things lively, but not much stood out strongly.
I wasn't really enthused about the concert, but it was pleasant. It was music that if I heard it in a store or at a low-key party I wouldn't mind, but it's not the sort of thing I would go for on my own prerogative. I kind of wonder what his album sounds like, but I don't really like many of his guest musicians and famous friends (Mandy Moore, members of Good Charlotte, etc.).
However, I wish I could have caught more of his lyrics, because I heard him mention that one song was dedicated to Yoko Ono. Well, after the show, he invited everyone to come say hello to him at his CD booth, and once I finished my work, he was still over there, so I went up and asked him about the song. Turns out the song is named after and written for Yoko. I said that I thought that was great, since I think everyone unfairly looks down on her, and he said that was the point of the song. I have to admit that I'm impressed.
It helps that he was really friendly, and even though the crowd was fairly small (probably just a couple hundred), he was appreciative to everyone there and seemed happy just to play. I particularly liked that when his main set was over, he told the audience that instead of leaving the stage and coming back, he and his keyboardist would just turn their backs, let the audience cheer for two minutes, and then turn around to play the last two songs. He might do that at every show, but it was kind of fun and he seemed sincere about it. It felt like he had to have made a more intimate connection with the crowd to be able to do that, even if it was perhaps aided by the smallish quantity of people.
[Retrospective Score for Tim Session: C+]
P.P.S. It's sad that I thought Ben Lee was a notch better than Mat Kearney but Kearney attracted like four times as many people. Such is the nature of popular music, I suppose. The year before that, though, was Edwin McCain, and I only stayed long enough to see the opener, my friend the talented Ian Fisher. Oh, and this past spring semester we got the Roots (and I worked at that one, too). I'd meant to review that one and never did. I'd give them... a B. Not really my thing, but they did a good job, and that place was packed. People were way into that. And the openers were Illphonics, whose frontman is a charismatic and intelligent figure around my university.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Artist: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Venue: Riviera Theater
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Date: September 29, 2008
Opening Act: Black Diamond Heavies
01. Hold On to Yourself
02. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
04. The Weeping Song
05. Midnight Man
06. Red Right Hand
07. The Mercy Seat
08. Nobody's Baby Now
10. God Is in the House
12. Get Ready for Love
13. We Call Upon the Author
14. Papa Won't Leave You, Henry
15. More News from Nowhere
16. Jesus of the Moon
17. Hard On for Love
18. Stagger Lee
Originally, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds were scheduled to play just one show in Chicago: this one. Me and some friends got our tickets right away, which was quite to our luck as the show sold out. At some point, though, they added another show the night before. That one didn't sell out, but that's the one all the local reviewers went to.
Anyway, the show started at 8:00, opening with the Black Diamond Heavies. For being a two-piece (just a drummer and a keyboardist/vocalist), they kept the volume and intensity pretty high. The keyboardist had a few guitar pedals to make his tones a bit fuller and more distorted, but they sure pulled off a heavy, thick sound for only two instruments. They kept it up for about 45 minutes. I wasn't too into it, but it was an appropriate introduction for the more multilayered but fairly intense headliner.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds hit the stage around 9:15 and rolled right into a couple songs off the new album, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! Although the sound was a bit muddled for the first few tracks, I thought their take on the title track was great. The song rocked a bit more than the studio version and felt a bit looser (which worked to its advantage). The backing vocals (coming from just about every member of the band) sounded particularly good.
Sadly, their performance of "Tupelo" was subpar, and while the music to "The Weeping Song" was fine, Nick Cave forewent the normal duet nature of the vocals. In the studio version, former member Blixa Bargeld (also known for being the frontman of Einstürzende Neubauten) did a fantastic job of trading verses with Cave. With Blixa being sadly absent (which is quite a shame, considering how well he'd fit with the noisier tendencies of the last two albums), I was hoping one of the other members would pick up the part, but Cave just did it himself.
In any case, "Red Right Hand" was performed extremely well; the band was tight and Cave slinked around the front of the stage while delivering the lyrics. On the whole, the song selection was pretty good; they picked plenty of songs scattered throughout the band's long career. I'm still not too familiar with the new album, which is naturally where many of the songs came from, but I was quite surprised that they picked just one song from their previous album, the double-CD Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus (2004).
The band performed the material well, and Cave definitely kept command over the audience, but it felt like something was just a little bit off. I think that after Cave formed Grinderman (a band composed of himself and three of the other Bad Seeds) and recorded a raw, noisy album with them, he wanted to bring some of that intensity and power back to his main band. Considering that the Bad Seeds started as a fairly raucous post-punk band that grew out of the ashes of The Birthday Party, an even noisier No Wave band, maybe it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that Cave and the Seeds are going strongly in that direction. However, that's overlooking several albums in the 90s and 00s where Cave started playing keyboard more and more, Warren Ellis joined the band to provide violin (and later, mandolin, flute, and other instruments), and the general tone of the band became more personal, softer, and less harsh. These are some of Cave's most beautiful works (especially The Boatman's Call (1997) and No More Shall We Part (2001)). One of my co-attendees likes to differentiate between "Old Testament" Nick Cave and "New Testament" Nick Cave.
It is perhaps because of that shift that Bargeld had left the band: his experimental/noise background and spooky guitar tones (and voice) didn't mesh well with the softer sound, but ironically, right as he left, the band created Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus, which sounded a lot punkier that anything they'd done in ten years. The Grinderman album saw Ellis move from making traditional, sweet violin sounds to acting as a sample-master while distorting his violin into incredible feedback and noise, and that's only continued onto the new Bad Seeds album, where he also plays electric mandolin and tenor guitar. Live, he took things yet another step farther. He now looks like a wild pariah hippie Jesus, he leaps and lunges around onstage, and he distorts all his instruments to the point that I think he was covering some of the parts that are normally done on electric guitar. Oddly, Ellis' role has become most like what Blixa's once had been (and certainly what Blixa's role is in Einstürzende Neubauten!), but he now seems to play one of the most important roles in the band, acting as a background (and foreground) noisemaker and a key rhythm and lead player.
The point of this long divergence will come clear in a second. The other change Grinderman brought about was Nick Cave picking up the electric guitar. On Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Cave still mostly plays keyboards, but live he played keyboard on just a couple songs (notably, "God Is in the House" and the solo in "Red Right Hand"). Mostly he just thrashed on his guitar or just strutted around while singing. The problem that I mentioned before I think is rooted here. All of Ellis' noise and Cave's messy guitar means that the band rocks quite a bit, but what they've gained in rocking they've lost in texture and intricacy. The band actually has two keyboardists right now (not counting Cave nor Ellis' and guitarist Mick Harvey's occasional contributions to the same instrument), but one, James Johnston, barely plays on the new album and isn't with the band on tour. The other, Conway Savage, just does handclaps and backing vocals on the album, and although he did perform live, there were a few songs where he walked off stage or sat on the side, and many were he just played auxiliary percussion. When he actually was playing keyboards, he was often entirely drowned out.
For most of the material, the main things coming through the PA were Cave's voice and Ellis' various parts. Harvey's guitar was often slightly audible, but if both him and Cave were playing guitar, one was always drowning out the other. Martyn P. Casey's bass was there if I looked for it, and the drums were there, but since there are two drummers (Thomas Wydler and Jim Sclavunos), their parts sometimes blended together, too (although they did often trade different percussive roles). It just feels weird that an eight-piece band that is quite capable of using each member quite well could just as easily been cut down to a four- or five-piece for the show and hardly anyone would have noticed the sonic difference.
It was fun to see the band play more rocking versions of their songs, but I view it is a harsh trade-off that might not have worked totally in their favor. I felt their complexity was often absent. In the same vein, Cave's more melodic and beautiful vocal tendencies were traded in for his raunchier, darker, and slightly sloppier side. It fit with the music, but I value both sides to his swagger. However, much as I'm complaining, I still recognize that this is simply a byproduct of the band growing and transitioning. Perhaps I should be glad that a 25-year-old band can still grow, although certain elements are quite reminiscent of their earliest records.
Despite the general noisier tone to the concert, both "God Is in the House" and "Nobody's Baby Now" were performed closer to their more melodic studio versions. "The Mercy Seat" and "Deanna" were both rousing renditions of classic tunes, and "More News from Nowhere" was treated with an especially good performance. To solidify which side of things Nick Cave was on for the show, his encore included the rough "Hard On for Love" (complete with references to Lazarus and Leviticus) and closed with what is perhaps the crudest song in the band's oeuvre, "Stagger Lee".
Even if I have some misgivings about some of the angles with which the band approached the performance, I had a lot of fun, and the concert totally rocked. The instrumentation got a bit mixed up in the delivery, but most of the songs turned out fine, and several were great. On the whole, this was a very good concert.
[Retrospective score for Black Diamond Heavies: C-]
P.S. Thanks to Keagan for getting me a ticket and for providing his perspective and domain knowledge. Actually, thanks to Niza and "the Czech", too. The input of all three helped me write this review and the last.
Saturday, October 4, 2008
Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Venue: The Aragon Ballroom
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Date: September 27, 2008
Opening Act: Hopewell
01. I Only Said
02. When You Sleep
03. You Never Should
04. (When You Wake) You're Still in a Dream
05. Cigarette in Your Bed
06. Come in Alone
07. Only Shallow
09. Nothing Much to Lose
10. To Here Knows When
13. Feed Me with Your Kiss
14. You Made Me Realise
I've been a fan of My Bloody Valentine for years, but I'd counted them amongst the many bands that had stopped making music and that I would never, ever see a performance of. The band never did actually break up; it was just that after recording Loveless (1991) and spending forever to make a new album, they just stopped functioning. Frontman Kevin Shields has often talked about reissuing this or that album or EP or unreleased thing, but finally his band has made some real progress and has decided to regroup and do an international tour. I was lucky that one of their five US dates happened to be within 300 miles of my residence.
Anyway, I got their fairly early and had a fairly good spot on the ballroom. The opening act, Hopewell, came on stage early at about 7:50pm. The five-piece played for about 40 minutes. I'd never heard of them before, but then again the opening act had never been announced before the show – it was a complete surprise. Their version of rock, a bit psychedelic, a bit indie, a bit noisy, and a bit dancey, was rather enjoyable and worked well as an opening act for a beautifully noisy rock band. One of my friends particularly enjoyed the selection of a Jane's Addiction cover as the closer.
My Bloody Valentine took their sweet time to hit the stage. It was about 9:15 by the time they came out. The members, by now certainly in their 40s, still look good and have largely kept their heyday looks. Kevin had a large array of pedals and switched guitars for just about every song. Belinda Butcher remained much more constant, using just a few guitars and pedals. Debbie Googe kept to the same bass for every song but one, and Colm Ó Cíosóig didn't bring out any surprises behind his drumset, except for maybe a few samples that would take a little much trickery to play live (although they could have hired a keyboardist).
The choice of material wasn't really a surprise, either. They played over half of their acclaimed second album, Loveless, and four songs each from their first album, Isn't Anything (1988), and the preceding You Made Me Realise EP. Despite playing every song but one from that EP, nothing from their other numerous other EPs and mini-albums appeared. I'm not trying to make a big deal about it, but it is a slightly odd distribution. Regardless, I am complaining that their setlist hasn't changed for several concerts and the previous ones had only a few alterations. I would have loved to hear "Sueisfine" or "Sometimes", but the songs that they did perform were well-chosen.
Much as most of these songs really rocked, I can't get over the fact that the general sound was pretty monotonous. I was able to recognize each song and catch the different parts, but the vocals were mixed so low (even lower than on the records!) that I barely caught a word more than "slow" from the song of the same name. The guitars sounded awesome, but at the same time were often just slightly distinguishable tones. I could barely tell that they were playing "Only Shallow", which on record is such a distinctive song. At other times I had to just focus on the bass to tell what was going on. One of my co-attendees was a total neophyte, and she gave the clichéd but appropriate criticism that it all sounded the same.
The one big "trick" that My Bloody Valentine is fond of pulling in concert is extending the closer, "You Made Me Realise" into a 25-minute so-called "holocaust", in which the bridge is converted from a noisy one-minute drone into a 23-minute sonic assault. Even my co-attendee that was a fan was left unimpressed. I knew what was coming, since they've pulled this at every show they've done since the 90s, but it was a bit much. I understand the purpose – getting lost in the intensity could be quite an interesting mental and physical sensation, but my mind just wandered and I'm surprised I didn't get impatient. It was an experience, even slightly enjoyable from my perspective, but I can't recommend it to anyone but noise musicians and curious meditators.
Both the holocaust and the general noisy distortion are only enhanced by the extraordinary volume of the concert. The band is considered to be one of the loudest ever and the doormen to the venue gave out free earplugs with an appropriately strong recommendation. The whole intensity of the thing is further amplified by the annoying lighting. Throughout the whole concert, during just about every song, the stage lights are directed at the audience and often strobe brightly into their eyes. I know the band are pioneers of the Shoegazing genre, but I prefer to be able see the bands I pay money to see. Again, I understand that it's their "thing" to be so unengaging, but they said all of two things to the audience throughout the whole night: a thank-you from Belinda followed by a barely sincere "Yeah, thanks" from Kevin.
In spite of all my criticisms, I still think the show rocked. It was flawed and I really wish they'd do some new material, but it was awesome to hear Debbie fuzz out her bass far more than as heard in the studio versions and then rock out in her part of the stage. Colm was active, but he is a drummer and the band's music videos sure made it seem like he was the only one capable of movement anyway. The songs were all well-performed (except for a slightly off-beat sample in "Come in Alone") and it was fun to see Kevin trade his guitars for all his different tunings and sounds. He even got out an acoustic for "Cigarette in Your Bed".
I'm quite happy that had I had the opportunity to see My Bloody Valentine in the body, and it was a whole lot of fun. Their 75-minute set was fairly rocking, the opener was good, and I'm not really surprised that the gig was sold out. I just wish they weren't quite so seemingly distant... and apparently unwilling to do an encore.
[Retrospective score for Hopewell: B+]
[Edit 2016.06.27:] I finally found Hopewell's setlist!
1. The Angel Is My Watermark
2. Realms of Gold
6. Trumpet for a Lung
7. Of Course [Jane's Addiction cover]
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Artist: Billy Bragg
Album: Talking with the Taxman About Poetry
Released: September 1984, reissued 2006
Label: Go! Discs (UK), Elektra (US)
Producer: Ken Jones, John Porter
01. Greetings to the New Brunette
02. Train Train (The Count Bishops cover)
03. The Marriage
05. Levi Stubbs' Tears
06. Honey, I'm a Big Boy Now
07. There Is Power in a Union (traditional adaptation)
08. Help Save the Youth of America
09. Wishing the Days Away
10. The Passion
11. The Warmest Room
12. The Home Front
Reissue Bonus Disc:
01. Sin City (Flying Burrito Brothers cover) (Outtake, 1986 / Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards b-side, 1988)
02. Deportees (Woody Guthrie cover) (Greetings to the New Brunette b-side, 1986)
03. There Is Power in a Union (instrumental) (traditional adaptation) (Greetings to the New Brunette 12" b-side, 1986)
04. The Tracks of My Tears (The Miracles cover) (Outtake, 1986)
05. Wishing the Days Away (Alternative take)
06. The Clashing of Ideologies (Alternative version)
07. Greetings to the New Brunette (demo)
08. A Nurse's Life Is Full of Woe (Outtake, 1986)
09. Only Bad Signs (Outtake, 1986)
10. Hold the Fort (traditional cover) (Outtake, 1985 / Square Roots compilation, 1986)
Billy Bragg is basically a folk musician, but unlike most singer-songwriters (myself and David J being the only other exceptions I know), he uses an electric guitar while playing solo. His music began as just guitar and vocals, but he gradually began adding more instruments and eventually even assembled a band. Talking with the Taxman About Poetry is his third album and finds Bragg still alone with his guitar quite often, but many tracks feature overdubbed guitars and occasionally bass, horns, mandolin, or piano. A few even have backing vocals and percussion (but no drums!). Lyrically, Bragg fits in quite comfortably in the folk tradition, even as he leans towards a more rock sound as time has gone on. He usually sings about love and politics, and in both cases, from a variety of angles. I like his guitar parts, but his witty lyrics might be even better.
The album opens with "Greetings to the New Brunette", quite possibly the strongest song on the album. It is Bragg's first real pop-esque song, and his most arranged up to that point. Studio sounds and effects can be found here and there, and percussion, bass, backing vocals from Kirsty MacColl, and lead guitar from Johnny Marr all grace this track. Marr's guitar is great, but Bragg's lyrics really lift the song to a higher plane. He finds a great way to discuss relationships with getting clichéd, as for example: "Shirley, you're my reason to get out of bed before noon". Somehow Bragg manages to wrap up his two primary subjects into one song. The narrator discusses his relationship with Shirley, a socially progressive woman who seems to make the narrator rethink his ways: "Shirley, your sexual politics have left me all of a muddle / Shirley, we are joined in the ideological cuddle". Although he stands by his love, the narrator does seem to get a bit frustrated partway through: "Shirley, you really know how to make a young man angry / Shirley, can we get through the night without mentioning family?"
"The Marriage" begins with a great trumpet part and features several overdubbed guitars to great effect. (I wonder if Bragg took a cue from the Smiths via Marr.) The instrumental in the middle of the song has a great part with three rapidly descending chords that I could listen to a hundred times. Again, the lyrics are fantastic; the chorus is: "And marriage is when we admit our parents were right". Bragg takes the anti-traditional perspective of shunning marriage in favor of just loving and living: "If I share my bed with you / Must I also share my life? / Love is just a moment of giving / And marriage..."
"Ideology" is the first purely political song on the album, and it harkens to the sound and feel of Bragg's first album, with just a solo guitar, a vigorous indignant, strongly accented voice, and a lot of reverb. Bragg uses the song to criticize politicians interested more in financial and personal gain than the common good. Apparently the song is based off of Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom".
"Levi Stubbs' Tears" is perhaps subtly political and subtly romantic, much like "The Marriage". The female figure of the song married "one of those blokes, the sort that only laughs at his own jokes", and the stress of their marriage led to him shooting her, but, for better or worse, she lived, leaving her quite alone with her Four Tops cassette. Their lead singer, Levi Stubbs, remains as something of a constant through her upheavals. The music is mostly just a guitar, but the namechecking bridge kicks it up a notch with some tambourine, and the end has some drum bops and a horn part.
"There Is Power in a Union" is a traditional adaptation (of "Battle Cry of Freedom"), done with just a guitar or two and some extra vocals for the anthemic chorus. The title is self-explanatory, and the song is a clearly an old union chant appropriated by Bragg for relevant contemporary politics. This is appropriately followed by "Help Save the Youth of America", which cracks me up: "Help save the youth of America / Help save them from themselves / Help save the sun-tanned surfer boys / And the California girls". Beyond the humor, Bragg makes a point: "And the fate of the great United States / Is entwined in the fate of us all". America can get quite wrapped up in itself, but, "The cities of Europe have burned before / And they may yet burn again / And if they do I hope you understand / That Washington will burn with them / Omaha will burn with them / Los Alamos will burn with them". Omaha sticks out as a sore thumb (especially as that's where my parents are from!), but I take the point to be that even smaller cities are still a part of the big picture (although it may not be coincidence that there is a significant air force base, including the headquarters of US Strategic Command, in Omaha).
"The Passion" is a sad song about a marriage slowly splitting apart, featuring Marr again on lead guitar and MacColl on background vocals. "The Warmest Room" is a resoundingly upbeat song that goes all over the place but seems to focus around some strong feelings for another person that appear to be requited. And "The Home Front" is sort of about family politics, about a traditional, fairly conservative family structure. Gender roles are uphold, the "quiet life" is the ultimate, "the lonely child looks out and dreams of independence", and "nostalgia is the opium of the age". The family seems to ignore and generally not understand politics, but it is Bragg's aside that add the poignant edge: "If paradise to you is cheap beer and overtime / Home truths are easily missed", and "If it takes another war to fill the churches of England / Then the world the meek inherit, what will it be worth?"
Not every song is a winner, to be sure. I like all the ones I described above, but the others are a notch lower. "Train Train" is an old cover that, despite some nice viola and guitar parts, has fairly and uninteresting typical lyrics. "Honey, I'm a Big Boy Now" uses a harpsichord to get a more country sound or something. It feels like a song that'd be played at a bar in the 30s, which was probably the point, but I think Bragg can sing about a girl leaving a guy for someone else in a better way (and he has). "Wishing the Days Away" also has a more country or folksy feel, and again, the traditional theme of be impatient for a phone call or meeting with a loved one could simply be far more interesting.
The common theme in all three of these lesser songs is that Bragg sings about relationships in the same context as everyone else, and instead of adopting folk to a more interesting rock blend, he tries to use older, tried-and-true styles that aren't quite his own. When Bragg gets more adventurous and creative, he makes far better music. He can sing about families, government, and love in plenty of ways and bring up some worthwhile ideas, but when he falls back on what's been done before, it's not nearly as interesting.
The reissue adds a second disc of ten tracks. None of them are totally awesome, but a few are worth a good listen. The first two ("Sin City" and "Deportees") are covers done with Hank Wangford, a mandolinist and singer, and the third is an instrumental version of "There Is Power in a Union" done with producer John Porter on mandolin. Each was released as a b-side at some point, but these aren't your typical Bragg fair. Even those these are very folky, traditional songs, they don't sound quite as trite as the songs I complained about from the original album. If you aren't a folk fan, though, you probably won't like these songs. (Personally, I think some folk music is really bland, but some is great, and Bragg transcends even that with his best material.)
There are three alternate versions of album tracks, each of which just sounds lower-fi and has some different lyrics and plainer arrangements. The four real outtakes are fairly interesting. "The Tracks of My Tears" is a fairly un-special cover of a Miracles song; it's not bad but not standout. "A Nurse's Life Is Full of Tears" and "Only Bad Signs" are unadorned but nicely done. The former is often difficult to decipher (and is one of the few songs for which I cannot find a lyrical transcription online) and the latter is a decent way of lamenting that a loved one is with another person. "Hold the Fort" is a traditional cover, another old union anthem. It is done a capella with vocals from Robert Handley.
The bonus disc may not be worth repeated listens and a few of the album tracks might be duds, but most are winners, and I deeply appreciate Bragg's music and lyric sensibilities. His politics are a bit radical and a bit strong, but I like that he actually bothers to write about the things he sees wrong in the world – as my mother has pointed out, no one else seems to be writing about modern politics anymore. (Contrast with CSNY's "Ohio" from 1970, quite a number of late 70s and early 80s punk and new wave bands, 60s Bob Dylan, or 70s John Lennon.) Furthermore, when he does sing about relationships, he usually branches out from the standard language and vocabulary of love songs. He tries to explore different situations and do something a bit unusual. I heartily appreciate these efforts, as I think they are not in vain. Folk rock music like this is hard to come by.
Original album: A-
P.S. I should consider giving a bonus point for the awesome subtitle: "The Difficult Third Album".