Saturday, December 21, 2013

Midlake / Israel Nash - Live 2013.12.20

I knew almost nothing about these bands going into the show, but a good friend gave the headliner a strong recommendation and I decided to give it a go.

Artist: Midlake
Venue: The Parish
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: December 20, 2013
Opening Act: Israel Nash

Review:
Israel Nash was apparently born in Missouri but moved to New York City to begin his recording career, only to move outside of Austin in the last few years. While nominally a solo artist, he was backed by four additional musicians. They played music that felt quite rootsy, like it could have been Americana or country, except that there was a slightly deeper edge to it. At first, it seemed like they were consistently opting for the slow burn, but gradually they started playing songs with a little more dynamic energy.

At the time I saw them, it was unclear if the musicians behind the singer were true bandmembers or "just" backing musicians. The thing is, while Nash is a good performer, I didn't find the songs themselves all that interesting, but I did find the musicianship of the backing members to be quite good. In particular, the lead guitarist continually blew me away. He started out playing his parts drenched in my favorite style of a blend of reverb/delay/swell effects, straight from the Chameleons' songbook, but as the set progressed, he began playing more showy, intricate riffs. Since he'd already won me over by his mastery of sound construction, I was surprised to find myself easily impressed by the technical showmanship.

Another musician started out with an electric guitar, doing absolutely nothing interesting. But he quickly moved to a pedal steel, where he showed his true talents. I don't know if this is the credit of the sound mixers at the venue or the band themselves, but the blend of the instruments was perfect. Nash's rhythm guitar was low in the mix; the bass was underneath but prominent; the pedal steel made a pleasant field just above the rhythm guitar; and the lead guitar was a shimmering landscape on top of it all. It would have helped a lot if I felt like Nash had something worth singing about.

Midlake is a psychedelic/indie/folk band from Denton, Texas. They've recently received some notice because their lead singer and songwriter just ditched the band in the middle of recording their fourth album. However, instead of scattering in disarray, hiring a new lead singer that no one likes, or just becoming total crap, they have reinvented themselves and perhaps become even stronger. Guitarist Eric Pulido has taken on lead vocal duties, and they hired a new lead guitarist (Joey McClellan) and an additional keyboardist/flautist (Jesse Chandler), both of whom also provide backing vocals. And then they wrote and recorded a new album with impressive speed.

I had my doubts that such a switch-up could do justice for a band that already had some history behind it. I have to admit, I don't really know what the former singer sounds like, so I would be a poor judge of how well Pulido handles the old songs. But I also must admit that I liked Pulido quite a bit, even though I couldn't really understand his lyrics at all. He felt very earnest and in tune with the environment, and at the conclusion of each song, I could trace a smile hidden behind his beard as he looked down at his pedals (or feet, who knows). His comfort and ease may have been due to the very appreciative co-Texan crowd. Musically, Pulido's strengths were only further enhanced by McClellan and Chandler's backing vocals, which all together made for consistently impressive harmonies.

Midlake is the type of band where it isn't always obvious who is playing what. You can watch the six musicians on stage manipulate their instruments and vocal cords, but their sound is so big and sweeping, you can't always easily pick out the individual parts. This is not a discredit to their live sound or their ideology; to the contrary, I thought the mixing was quite good and their total sound was great. If you listened closely, you could usually identify that there was always a bass and a keyboard part, and you could guess that the assorted high-end sounds came from the other keyboard or the lead guitar. The drums and the acoustic guitar were never too hard to discern, and the flute could usually be identified with a bit of concerted effort. Actually, it's worth mentioning the merit of that flute: far from being a mere ornamental addition, or an oddity thrown in just for attention, it ends up playing integral roles in many songs and filling in extra melodies that blend in just right. Now, if I had to make one complaint about their live sound, it would be that the bassist was a little too low, and while I could tell he was doing some interesting parts, some of them were indeed lost in the mix.

All in all, Midlake reminded me in many ways of Junip, whom I just saw at ACL in October. Both bands seem rooted in folk music; both feature a lead singer/acoustic guitarist surrounded by a large instrumental soundscape in which keyboards are more important than guitars; and both are just a little abstract, a little spacey, a little hard to understand. While Junip sometimes managed to sound a little too simple and pop-driven, Midlake came across decidedly more progressive and exploratory. I liked Junip, but I think Midlake has far more to offer in the long term. (I'm still going to hedge my bets and watch both, though!)

I also bought Midlake's new album, Antiphon. I've already listened to it twice and I'm quite impressed. I think they played about half of it at the show ("Provider Reprise" was definitely the closer of the main set, before the encore), but as Pulido said at the show, they also walked through their back-catalog quite extensively. My impression is that their live show is a little bigger, a little more powerful than their recorded output. At any rate, I liked both quite a bit.

Scores:
Israel Nash: B
Midlake: A
Antiphon (based solely on my hasty first impressions!): A-

[Edit 2014.09.06: After listening to Antiphon plenty more, as well as the preceding albums, I can confirm that Pulido is a very satisfactory replacement for Tim Smith. He might even be better. But either way, while I like all their albums, Antiphon is clearly the best, and I might even give it a solid A.]

Monday, November 11, 2013

FFF Fest 2013, Day 2: Late Night Show at the North Door

After spending all day at the main festival at Auditorium Shores (see my earlier post), I got on my bike and headed to the North Door for one of the festival's free after-party shows. It ended up being quite a late night.

Event: Fun Fun Fun Fest, Day 2, Late Night Show
Venue: The North Door
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 9 November 2013

Introduction: Somehow FFF is able to sponsor free shows all over downtown after the main festival wraps up. There were fourteen options on Saturday. I still can hardly believe it. Not knowing exactly how it worked, I wanted to make sure my venue of choice didn't fill up before I got there, and I decided against hopping from venue to venue. It turns out I was one of the first people to arrive and the show started even later than planned, so I had nothing to fear. In the future, I would consider not just sticking to one place, but that might take more planning than I had done.

First up were Saint Rich, an indie rock duo augmented by three extra musicians on stage. At first I thought they seemed very young, and I favorably compared them to Echo & the Bunnymen in 1980: not really because of sound or style, but rather because of their confidence and composure in the face of unknowing, unwitting listeners. They seemed like they knew what they were doing, like they were older than their years. And it turns out that this kind of makes sense. Although this band is quite new and they just released their first album a month ago, both primary members are also veterans of Delicate Steve, whom I know best as the band described by the most hilarious press release ever. (Seriously, read it. It is glorious. NPR did a great write-up of it.)

Unlike Delicate Steve, Saint Rich are not an instrumental band. In fact, Saint Rich don't sound all that similar to Delicate Steve at all. I can't decide which I like better. Delicate Steve have the wider, richer sound palette, and the allure of almost breaking uncovered ground, but Saint Rich are catchier, and for what it's worth the music industry seems to prefer vocals. Thankfully, Saint Rich have both good lyrics and a good singer, so it wouldn't surprise me if they actually end up going farther in the end. It helps that the musicianship is solid, too. I bought their CD and talked to the singer after the show.

Hunters: I can't find any information about this band. I'm not sure if their name has a definite article. They aren't even the only punk band with that name. The band I saw featured a flailing, very high-energy frontwoman and a male guitarist with great (i.e. big and wild) hair. He sang a few lines, too. I appreciated their intensity, but I couldn't understand a word of the lead singer's lyrics, and their thrashing about got a bit monotonous.

Bleached: Yes, I saw them twice in the same day. They played a similar set to their afternoon performance, but perhaps somewhat shorter. They mentioned playing two covers, but I only recognized the same Damned cover as before. They also had some mic problems; they kept asking the soundperson to raise their vocals and it seemed like they never got what they wanted. I had a hard time hearing their vocals, and it didn't help that they had some feedback problems as well. They still played just as well as before and somehow they still had a lot of energy. This time around, though, I felt like they were leaning far closer to punk rock than the more conventional rock I remembered from the afternoon. I don't know if it was just the environment, or maybe the preceding and succeeding bands, but something made me feel like they were punkier than before.

I was going to leave at that point due to exhaustion, but I started talking to another audience member, and then The Men were soundchecking, so I stayed for most of their set. Honestly, I probably should have just left when I meant to – I wouldn't have missed anything. Despite that they feature two guitarists, a bassist, and a pedal steel player, I could hardly distinguish anything except for the snare drum and some shouted yelps. There was no texture, no nuance, just a wall of distortion. How boring! I must have missed something, because this is apparently a popular band. Maybe they're better on record, but their live performance offered nothing to me. (Of course, their astoundingly creative name makes searching for their music online a breeze. And it's not like anyone else thought of that name first.) How any reviewer could call them "post-punk" is beyond me.

Scores:
Saint Rich: A
Hunters: C
Bleached: B-
The Men: D
Overall: B-

Final Thoughts: I probably should have just left after Saint Rich and found a different venue.

Fun Fun Fun Fest 2013, Day 2

Another fall music festival in Austin? I couldn't resist. However, I only attended the one day that seemed the most up my alley.

Event: Fun Fun Fun Fest, Day 2
Venue: Auditorium Shores
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 9 November 2013

Introduction: FFF is a strange festival. It features three stages of music arranged loosely by genre (roughly alternative/indie rock, punk, and electronic/hip-hop), one stage/tent of comedy (which also featured some music acts), and a skate park. And apparently a wrestling ring. I mostly kept to the Orange Stage, ostensibly the alt rock stage, yet headlined by M.I.A. Anyway, the weather was nice, and I still can't believe how warm it is around this time of year in Austin. I learned my lesson from ACL a month ago and I showed up much earlier in the day, for which I was well rewarded. I saw six acts in full and four in part before heading to one of FFF's late-night after-shows, which I will cover in a separate post.

Bleached are a somewhat traditional rock band hailing from LA, but unlike most of the acts at the festival, the band is fronted by two guitar-slinging women. One was the definitive lead singer and the other the definitive lead guitarist. They were augmented by a woman bassist and a male drummer. Both the lead guitarist and bassist also provided backing vocals, and even though they were mixed rather low, the combined vocals of the three women are certainly the band's strongest suit. The music is perhaps a bit basic, but their energy and attitude made it work. Similarly, the lyrics weren't always the cleverest, but the delivery and the strength of the shared vocals made it sound great. The band has a rather lighthearted and sunny feel about them, which almost makes it feel like they are consciously playing up their Southern California roots. However, they aren't quite so simply boxed in, evidenced by offering a Damned cover in the middle of their set.

Merchandise, from Tampa, tours as a five-piece although I think there are only two or three core members. The band apparently arose from a thriving local punk scene, yet reveal much deeper shades of post-punk and psychedelic rock. With three guitarists (two electric, one acoustic), they generate quite an abundance of sound, but they focus on letting it all blend together in a rather spacey mix. The most obvious touchstone I could think of was the Chameleons, which is perhaps why I enjoyed them so much. I almost get the impression that they haven't heard of most of the 80s ethereal post-punk bands that they sound like. Their approach is a bit more progressive and less pop-oriented, even if both ideas came out of trying to stretch outside of the limitations of punk rock. The vocals were indeterminate but the music was incredible. I'm looking to buy one of their records as soon as possible.

Chelsea Light Moving are known best as the new band of Thurston Moore, once the guitarist/vocalist of Sonic Youth. I was surprised to see the man himself come out early to help set up and then soundcheck; he apparently still stays true to some of his DIY/punk roots. Anyway, after soundchecking and almost leaving the stage, Thurston was told he had a minute before they were on, and true to his style, he just bluntly asked the sound person if they could start early. Good thing they did, because Thurston broke a string in the first song and again later in their set, necessitating a few minutes' break both times to remedy the situation.

Unsurprisingly, this band sounds very similar to Moore's old band: they both play a sort of noisy, alternative, seemingly careless but clearly cleverly crafted avant-punk music. Unlike Sonic Youth, where the guitarists used different guitars for almost every song, each one tuned differently, this band's two guitarists held on to the same instruments the whole time. To be fair, I don't think they were tuned traditionally, but it did make the music seem less dynamic. As far as the actual performance went, some jams were better than others. I can't say I saw anything truly unexpected and thus I wasn't particularly impressed. Thurston still plays a mean guitar, but his guitarist accomplice, Keith Wood, mostly copied Thurston or played simpler, rhythmic parts under Thurston's guitar. The bassist, Samara Lubelski, was something of an enigma, revealing little of her history as a guest violinist on many renowned indie records. I had high hopes for this band but I was admittedly somewhat let down. I know Thurston has more in him than this. It just didn't sound like anything new.

Geographer performed as a three piece: a singer/guitarist/keyboardist, an electric cellist/keyboardist, and a drummer/keyboardist. I couldn't hear a note of the cello and I could barely discern the singer's instrumentation. The mix was mostly just electronic samples, drums, and vocals. Since most of the music at the festival was mixed superbly, this must have been intentional, but it sure was an odd choice. I would have loved to have heard more of that cello, and even the singer's guitar/keyboard parts might have made the sonic palette a little more diverse. The singing was really good, but the music was a bit too simple and clichéd; there just weren't any surprises to be found. Nonetheless, the band clearly has a following.

Television were the reason I was there. Their setlist was as follows:

1. Venus
2. 1880 or So
3. Little Johnny Jewel
4. Prove It
5. Elevation
6. Marquee Moon

Television has an odd history; after reforming in 1992 and releasing a new album, they've continued to tour as they see fit but release no new music. In 2007, they suffered their first lineup change since 1975 when guitarist Richard Lloyd departed amicably, replaced quite suitably by Jimmy Rip. Recently, word has gotten out that this lineup has recorded a new album, but they haven't played it live nor announced plans to release it.

The band certainly stuck with the tried and true. They played their debut single, four songs from their debut album, and one from their 1992 album. Songs from their second album, Adventure, were absent, as were their traditional set of covers and any new material. Nevertheless, it was a supreme pleasure to see them play some of their best material and make it feel like it was still 1977. Lloyd was hardly missed, as Rip played incredible parts and fit right in sync with Tom Verlaine. Tom's voice was a little thinner and weaker than in his youth, and he let Rip play more than his fair share of lead guitar parts, but when he did play a solo, he tore it up. He doesn't even have to try; he just spits out beautifully melodic and clever parts like they came to him in a dream. I could have watched them for hours, but sadly I barely got 45 minutes.

Deerhunter: I have to admit I only saw part of their set and I wasn't paying the best attention. (I was distracted by an amazing vegan Frito chili pie burrito.) I remembered them as being more electronic, but maybe I was thinking of Deerhoof. At any rate, they played a somewhat spacey or psychedelic noisy rock blend. It was good but fairly nondescript. Unfortunately, it didn't stand out enough that I think I can truly provide a full review and a fair score.

Sparks: I knew little about them in advance other than their amazing song "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" and that one of my old friends is a fan. I knew that they were somewhat absurd and theatrical, and that the band has a knack for changing styles and only maintaining a core lineup of two brothers, one on keyboards and one on vocals. But that was about it. Sure enough, performing on the smaller Yellow Stage reserved mostly for comedy acts, the band came out as just the Mael brothers. However, they came out fifteen agonizing minutes late, while I had to sit through horribly un-funny recorded sketches by Sarah Silverman and Norm McDonald.

They are a terrifically strange band. Older brother Ron sat at his keyboard with a perma-scowl, looking straight forward and hardly moving. Younger brother Russell was far more lively and flamboyant and naturally did the vast majority of the talking. However, Ron did take the mic for a spoken part in a segment of their opera The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. Although I only recognized their performance of their biggest hit, I appreciated their wit and non-standard approach to musical performance. Unsurprisingly, the tent was mostly empty by the end of the set, but that could also be due their lateness causing overlap with the start of the headlining shows.

Their set could have been dangerously monotonous due to their limited instrumentation, but the novelty and the quality of the singing and songwriting prevented it from growing dull. While not great, they were rather fascinating and at least reasonably entertaining. I enjoyed it. The best part was their announcement that their Bergman opera is being adapted for a film to be directed by Guy Madden, an old favorite of mine that I trust can do it justice.

They ended with an extended monologue of appreciation from Russell and a short dance and even a few words from Ron.

After Sparks, I wasn't sure where to turn. None of the headliners interested me all that greatly, so I figured I'd wander between each of them. First I saw a few minutes of M.I.A., but the music seemed rather confused and cacophonous at the time, so I figured I'd come back later.

I wandered over to the Blue Stage to see Ice-T, where I caught a guest performer doing a great a capella rap against economic oppression. However, this was followed by Ice T asking some girls in the front row how old they were, and then proceeding to explain his desire to engage in sexual intercourse with these 16 year olds, or in fact "anything that moves". I left the area immediately.

I then went to the Black Stage to see the Descendants. They played a clever anti-conformity song about refusing to be a statistic, but then followed that up with several minutes of uninspired pseudo-punk thrashing. The audience members took the opportunity to repeatedly climb onstage and immediately jump back into the crowd to attempt to crowdsurf. My enthusiasm waned and so I headed back to the start.

On my second go, M.I.A. appeared in better form. I'm still not sure what anyone else on stage was doing; there were about five people who came and went at random and performed ambiguous tasks. One appeared to play keyboards, but maybe not, and another was drumming, but I think most of the music was more samples than not. At any rate, M.I.A. herself was in good form and she was singing well. I happened to catch "Paper Planes", most notable for someone like me due to the sampling of the Clash's "Straight to Hell", but a great song in general for the depth of the lyrics. I do wonder, though, how many of the audience members miming gunshots along with the sound effects bother to read into the lyrics. It made for quite a surreal crowd phenomenon.

I left just a bit early to try to make it to one of the late night events, which I will cover in my next post.

Scores:
Bleached: B
Merchandise: A
Chelsea Light Moving: C
Geographer: C
Television: A-
Sparks: B
Overall: B+

Final Thoughts: I didn't pay enough attention to Deerhunter to feel comfortable scoring them. Similarly, I didn't see enough of any of the headliners to have a substantial enough impression. I can say that Ice-T did not impress me, the Descendents seemed rather predictable, and I should probably pay a little more attention to M.I.A. even if not everything she does interests me. At any rate, I'm glad I went early and saw some of the lower-profile bands, and my longtime favorites Television did not disappoint me, so I had a pretty good experience all around.

[Edit 2013.11.13] P.S. The setlists for Chelsea Light Moving and Sparks have been posted online. Here is Chelsea Light Moving's (source):

1. Burroughs
2. Sleeping Where I Fall
3. Groovy & Linda
4. [Unknown]
5. Empires of Time
6. Alighted

And here is the setlist from Sparks (source):

01. Your Call's Very Important to Us. Please Hold.
02. How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?
03. B.C.
04. Here in Heaven
05. Academy Award Performance
06. Those Mysteries
07. Good Morning
08. Falling in Love With Myself Again
09. I Am Ingmar Bergman
10. The Studio Commissary
11. Limo Driver (Welcome to Hollywood)
12. Oh My God
13. Nicotina
14. Popularity
15. This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us
16. Suburban Homeboy
17. Tryouts for the Human Race
18. The Number One Song in Heaven 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Austin City Limits Festival 2013, Weekend 2, Day 3

Day three was canceled due to inclement weather, as you may know. Many of the affected bands scheduled last-minute tickets-at-the-door shows across town, but I'd checked out for the day and missed my chance. I did hear that Atoms for Peace would be playing late that night at Moody Theatre, home of Austin City Limits TV, and although the $10 tickets sold out practically instantly, the whole concert was webcasted lived. I tuned in and it was great. You can now watch the footage at will on youtube here. Note that the band hit the stage about a half-hour late, so skip that.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Austin City Limits Festival 2013, Weekend 2, Day 2

Event: Austin City Limits Festival 2013, Weekend 2, Day 2
Venue: Zilker Park
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 12 October 2013

Introduction: Day Two! I got to the festival a little earlier and this time I saw the complete sets of four bands, part of another, and a glimpse of two others. It was fairly hot and very humid and of course it rained for the last half hour of the Cure's set.

Junip: I'd heard of José González through my former bandmates, but I didn't know he was also in a band until last week. Perhaps it goes without saying that if I liked his solo work I'd like his band as well, but it is certainly worth noting that the two are quite different. Solo, González is a singer-songwriter rooted in folk music with a good dash of indie rock. As a band, Junip is an indie rock outfit with a dash of folk music. They are more atmospheric than your average indie band, using three keyboardists in concert to make quite a mesh of high-end spacey sounds. It's quite pleasant, and González's solid melodies keep it anchored. He strummed an acoustic guitar the whole time, but it was mixed fairly low. The sound was great, even if I couldn't understand the lyrics, although that probably has more to do with annunciation and accent than anything else. I liked them enough to buy their album.

Silversun Pickups: I saw these guys last year and I have their first full-length. The internet has kindly provided me their setlist:

01. Skin Graph
02. The Royal We
03. Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)
04. Substitution
05. Future Foe Scenarios
06. Kissing Families
07. The Pit
08. Panic Switch
09. Dots and Dashes (Enough Already)
10. Lazy Eye

For the most part, the Pickups followed the same tracks they'd laid when I saw them last year. Only three songs were performed this go around that weren't done at that show: "Substitution", "Future Foe Scenarios", and "Kissing Families". They claimed they hadn't performed "Future Foe" in over a year; the audience was quite appreciative. And just like last time, when they closed with "Lazy Eye", the audience went into a frenzy. Clearly, that song is a hit.

The thing is, while I like "Lazy Eye" quite a bit, it does reveal something to me about the band. The song builds and builds and builds, but in the end, the payoff is brief and not quite as grand as one might hope for. The song is rather long (about six minutes) and in the end it just sort of peters out. And to some extent, that's how I feel about the band. They clearly put some work into their music, and it isn't vapid or hollow, but it does feel like the end result isn't quite what I was hoping for. I like it, but I almost feel guilty for liking it, because it seems like there is some sort of higher essence that they come so close to but never actually attain.

Anyway, to come off my high horse, they did perform well. While I can't help but find Brian Aubert's vocals just a bit annoying, he does sing well. It also helped that bassist Nikki Monninger has returned to the stage after birthing twins, as I found her to be a much better performer than her replacement was (hardly a surprise, I suppose). Her vocals were great but too often buried in the mix. Joe Lester's keyboard work was also hidden a little more than I might've liked, but in contrast, drummer Chris Guanlao was perhaps even more energetic and impressive than ever.

I can't deny they played well. The audience seemed pleased, and for the most part I was too, but I just couldn't help feel like I wanted just a little more out of them. I don't mean in terms of time; they filled their hour-long slot well (even if I would have appreciated a slightly longer appearance). What I mean is that they seem to offer something but they never get around to revealing it in full. You are left wanting more, but I don't think they're ever going to deliver on it.

While walking from one side of the park to the other, I caught a few notes from The Joy Formidable. I was intrigued but didn't catch enough to make an honest judgment.

Little Green Cars: This was another new one for me, but I was seriously impressed by the couple tracks I'd heard in advance, so I made it a priority to book it to their stage after Silversun Pickups to catch the end of their set. It was well worth it, and I almost think I should have left the Pickups early to see more of these guys. They are a new act out of Ireland boasting an indie rock background with incredible harmonies. I only caught about ten minutes of them, including their closer "The John Wayne", which is quite an infectious bit of pop. There were six people on stage, of which five were singing. I couldn't believe how good the vocals were. I was left with a good enough impression that I bought their album.

Wilco: Thanks again to the internet for this setlist:

01. Misunderstood
02. Give Back the Key to My Heart (Doug Sahm cover)
03. Forget the Flowers
04. California Stars
05. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
06. Art of Almost
07. Hummingbird
08. Dawned on Me
09. Via Chicago
10. Impossible Germany
11. Heavy Metal Drummer
12. I'm the Man Who Loves You
13. A Shot in the Arm

I was surprised that Wilco was only given a second-tier billing with just an hour's allotment. I suppose their heyday may have been ten years ago, but I also suppose that their popularity has never quite matched their critical appraisal. To be fair, although I've listened to them via my father and several friends, I've never gotten in to them as much as I've wanted to. Even though I like their music, I don't know much about it. I'll do my best to write something intelligent nonetheless, but I probably can't dig in as deep as I'd truly like to.

The first four songs felt like a decided statement of alt-country mastery. The songs were a a touch mellow but retained an edge, as if there was energy in the band waiting for be released. I recognized "California Stars", which originates from the great Mermaid Avenue project, in which Wilco and Billy Bragg wrote and performed music to accompany unheard lyrics by Woody Guthrie. The musicianship on these songs was quite good but not particularly unexpected, with two exceptions. First was Nels Cline, who ripped up several country/bluegrass guitar solos and occasionally unleashed some abstract noise. Second was fiddle player Richard Bowden, who joined the band for these four songs and took solos in each, which of course only pushed the band further in the country direction.

There was a bit of an abrupt change in atmosphere when Bowden left the stage and the band started into a bit of an odd jam that revealed itself to be "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart". That's the song that first drew me to the band, and this performance was no disappointment. The band revealed their rock side, but Nels's warped guitar work and Glenn Kotche's wild drumming mixed with some sort of electric bells played practically simultaneously showed the experimental and progressive side of the band even clearer. To say the least, that song's performance was amazing.

The rest of the set stayed more on the rock side of things, but traces of country and hints of deeper experimentation were still to be found. "Via Chicago" featured occasional thrash drumming as a counterpoint to the soft flow of the rest of the instrumentation. Several songs featured bits of noise and abstraction that didn't seem abrasive or disruptive but rather right in line with their mood and flow.

Another standout for me was "Heavy Metal Drummer", in which singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy makes fun of the awful metal bands that play in the touristy Laclede's Landing area in St. Louis, the second hometown of both Wilco and myself. It's nice to feel like someone else out there understand your background and perspective.

The star of the show was probably Nels Cline, who kept blowing away my expectations. Practically every single song saw him mastering some sort of guitar technique that I can only dream of. After the bluegrassery of the first songs, a few later songs saw him wielding some sort of presumably magnetic metal bar to generate a noise collage. "Impossible Germany" featured a rather long guitar solo that somehow never got boring or clichéd (although it helped that Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone were also playing cool riffs). For "Dawned on Me", Nels brought out a double-neck guitar (apparently 12-string and baritone). Never overly showy, he somehow managed to be consistently highly impressive and inventive.

Their performance served as yet another reminder that I really should be paying for attention to this band. They put on a great show and I wished it could've gone on much longer. (One can, however, view a 90-minute set with a similar but longer setlist from Bonnaroo here. The version of "I Am Trying..." from that concert is good, but the one I saw was even better.)

I had an hour after Wilco before the Cure hit the stage, but wanting a good spot, I moved as fast as I could across the park. I made two brief detours. First, I stopped to hear a few minutes of Bright Light Social Hour. They are a local Austin band, and I was fairly intrigued by what I'd heard before. The little I heard was darkly toned, yet with a big sound that actually ended up being rather pretty. I wish I'd caught more. Second, I stopped at the Waterloo Records tent. I came away with CDs from Junip, Little Green Cars, and Hundred Waters, an electronic/indie/folk band that I didn't get to see but was quite curious about. So far, I like all three albums.

The Cure: I wrote down this setlist myself, even after it started raining. Of course, you have no reason to believe me, since the someone beat me to posting it online.

01. Open
02. A Night Like This
03. The End of the World
04. Lovesong
05. Just Like Heaven
06. From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea
07. Fascination Street
08. Pictures of You
09. Lullaby
10. High
11. The Lovecats
12. Close to Me
13. Hot Hot Hot!!!
14. The Caterpillar
15. The Walk
16. Stop Dead
17. Push
18. Inbetween Days
19. Friday I'm in Love
20. Doing the Unstuck
21. Want
22. The Hungry Ghost
23. Wrong Number
24. One Hundred Years
25. Give Me It
26. End
27. Boys Don't Cry

When I saw the Cure five years ago in Kansas City, Robert Smith was sick and could hardly sing. The band played a slightly abbreviated set, they were touring without a keyboardist (!), and the mix was horrible. I was really excited about the chance to see them again, hopeful that they would make amends for a thoroughly disappointing show from the last time around.

Oddly, the Cure do not have a new release to promote. They haven't released a new studio album since 2008. However, their lineup has changed a few times since then, which I suppose is par for the course for them. Thankfully, keyboardist Roger O'Donnell is back in the fold, but I was disappointed that long-time on-again, off-again lead guitarist Porl Thompson has departed, recently replaced by Reeves Gabrels. Gabrels is a bit of a surprise, even if he had once guested on the Cure's non-album 1997 single "Wrong Number". I know him best as David Bowie's guitarist through the 90s, most notably on the wonderful and strange Outside album. He seems like a bit of an odd choice for the Cure, since the band is known far more for mood and texture than instrumental virtuosity. I almost fear that Gabrel's talents are not being used to the best of his abilities – but who am I to judge how he spends his time?

Most of the Cure's set matched expectations. They mostly stuck to their favorite singles and their standard favorite album cuts ("Open", "A Night Like This", "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea", "Push", "One Hundred Years", etc.), but thankfully they took a few unexpected turns. The most interesting choice was "Stop Dead", the 12" extra b-side to "Close to Me". It was a good performance, and beforehand, Smith oddly remarked, "Right, I still think this was a single". I also appreciated the two weird pop singles once collected on Japanese Whispers ("The Lovecats", "The Walk") and two cuts from the highly strange The Top ("The Caterpillar", "Give Me It").

Of the many singles the band did perform, some were certainly better than others. I've always found "Hot Hot Hot!!!" (despite the infectious funk riffs), "Wrong Number", "Doing the Unstuck", and the latter-day "The End of the World" to be fairly uninspired, and the live performances of these songs offer little improvement. "The Hungry Ghost" was the only offering from their most recent album, 4:13 Dream, and it fares better live than on record, but I blame much of that on bad production. "Just Like Heaven" and "Friday I'm in Love", much as I love them, are fairly cheesy and their live performances are nothing special, no matter how much the audience eats it up.

On the other hand, every song from the stadium-size Disintegration album ("Lovesong", "Fascination Street", "Pictures of You" in particular, "Lullaby") is always a treat. I don't what it is with that album and those songs, but they truly shine and glow with something special when performed live. I know it's a cliché, but I still think that album is the band's pinnacle, the album they were born to make, even if they've made plenty of other great music.

"Boys Don't Cry" was of course a great closer, although it did sharply reveal the Cure's greatest flaw in the 21st century: Robert's voice just ain't what it used to be. It's not bad, but he's lost some of his grace and range, and as a result he relies on amelodic yelps and artificial inflections more than ever. (See my recent review of The Glove's Blue Sunshine reissue for more complaints in that vein.) Instrumentally, though, the band is still sharp. Robert plays a mean 6-string bass (and I was close enough to notice that he uses it as a lead instrument on far more songs than I'd previously guessed), and Simon Gallup remains the most active member of the band, dancing enthusiastically while playing his excellent trademark bass riffs. Drummer Jason Cooper might not do anything particularly special, but he holds things down well enough. And while Gabrels is clearly talented, he was usually mixed too low and I could hardly make sense of his lead guitar work.

The one sad part of the show was that it started to rain fairly heavily for the last half-hour. A few people left, but most stayed for the long haul – I certainly did. The Cure were supposed to finish at 10pm, and after "Boys Don't Cry" extended just a couple minutes past that, their sound suddenly got cut from the main speakers, leaving only the amplifiers on stage to finish out the song. I suspect the concert promoters wanted to force things to a close due to the weather, but it was rather unceremonious for the Cure, who couldn't even properly thank the audience or say anything whatsoever into their microphones for a closing word.

Scores:
Junip: B+
Silversun Pickups: B-
Little Green Cars: A-
Wilco: A
The Cure: B+
Overall: A

Final Thoughts: I did not see enough of The Joy Formidable or Bright Light Social Club to be able to score them; I think that would be unfair. Honestly, my judgment of Little Green Cars may be similarly unwarranted, but I think I saw just enough to make an evaluation, and anyway I was quite impressed by the little I did see.

For the bands I did see, I was generally impressed and pleased all around. Only Silversun Pickups left me somewhat dissatisfied, but I can't even try to complain that they didn't perform well. I was also generally very impressed by the sound: almost every band I saw (on both days) had a really good, clear mix.

And lastly, a note on day three of the festival: as you may have heard, it has been canceled due to inclement weather (i.e. thunderstorming and flooding). I'm quite disappointed but that's just how it goes. My plan was to see Franz Ferdinand, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, The National, Tame Impala, and Atoms for Peace. I may need to buy a few of their records to make up for it. I was originally also curious about Foxygen, but they'd already canceled their appearance this weekend after acting completely insane last weekend, so I'm kind of over them already. But regarding the rest, if only I'd gone the first weekend instead...

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Austin City Limits Festival 2013, Weekend 2, Day 1

Event: Austin City Limits Festival 2013, Weekend 2, Day 1
Venue: Zilker Park
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 11 October 2013

Introduction: I moved to Austin about five months ago and I immediately bought a ticket for this festival. I just couldn't resist. Too many good bands! Anyway, due to work and other responsibilities I did not get in until about 5:30pm, but I saw portions of three sets from bands I barely knew previously in addition to the entirety of Depeche Mode's headlining set. I have no idea what the setlists were except for Depeche Mode's, and that's the only one that's already been posted to setlist.fm so far. (Why do I even bother writing my favorite bands' setlists down during the show when there's always someone even more obsessive out there?)

So for today I'm going to list each band I saw and write up a short summary of my thoughts. Depeche Mode will get special treatment with the setlist and a more complete analysis, since I have a better idea of what I'm talking about with them.

Okkervil River: I saw the last 30 minutes of their hour-long set. I'd heard good things about them in the past, but before last week, I'd thought they were a country-folk type band. Obviously, I was wrong. They are far poppier than I would have guessed (especially for being named after an obscure Russian short story!), but that's no problem for me. They use a lot of acoustic guitar and keyboard, but they also use electric guitars and brass and harmonies and they end up filling up quite a big sound, but not in a heavy, thick, bloated way. Amazingly, the sound at their stage was really good and I could pick out each part fairly well. (Actually, the sound was great for all the bands I saw, which was honestly quite a welcome surprise.) The lead singer and the general style owe a lot to Bright Eyes, but to be honest Okkervil frontperson Will Sheff's voice doesn't grate on me the way Conor Oberst's sometimes does. (Sorry!) Anyway, I liked their set fairly well. Maybe I'll even buy a record.

The Black Angels: I again saw the last 30 minutes of their hour-long set. I'd never heard of them before last week but they are a local Austin band (as are Okkervil River, apparently) and I guess they've been making records for several years. They play a slightly dark blend of psychedelic rock, drone, and trance noise. It was like the Jesus & Mary Chain with a bigger debt to Pink Floyd and hints of Psychic TV and their comrades. They relied on a lot of vocal effects and atmospherics to make a kind of spacey high-end, while the low-end was mostly fuzz bass or otherwise rather heavy. They reached some good spaces, but admittedly little stood out from it all.

Wild Belle: I saw most of their hour-long set, but I missed the start. They were also new to me and I guess they are new to the world; they just released their first album. The band is really just a brother and sister, and they are backed by a few extra musicians. I have no idea what their album must sound like, because on stage they jumped from style to style with wild abandon and yet graceful ease. One song stood out for it's nice synthpop tones. A few were standard rock or pop structures. A later song was a disco homage. They truly shone when they took a chance and reached further out of the box than most bands bother to. I liked that they could wrap themselves in a given style, but own it and make it theirs instead of becoming swallowed up in someone else's ideas. That said, the songs that were more conventional or predictable didn't do much for me.

Depeche Mode: Depeche Mode!

Setlist:
01. Welcome to My World
02. Angel
03. Walking in My Shoes
04. Precious
05. Behind the Wheel
06. World in My Eyes
07. But Not Tonight
08. A Pain That I'm Used To
09. A Question of Time
10. Enjoy the Silence
11. Personal Jesus

Encore:
12. Shake the Disease
13. Just Can't Get Enough
14. I Feel You
15. Never Let Me Down Again

Woah! Now, as you may know, DM is just a three-piece these days, but they are augmented by keyboardist Peter Gordeno and drummer Christian Eigner. Honestly, the two bonus musicians did most of the instrumental work. As per the running joke, Andrew Fletcher hardly touched his keyboards. Meanwhile, lead singer Dave Gahan apparently never touches an instrument, and songwriter Martin Gore mostly preferred to play guitar, a shocking turnabout from their early days. I suspect that many songs were grounded in backing tapes, but Gordeno clearly did perform most of the complicated keyboard work once handled by former member Alan Wilder, and Gore and Gahan have their signature contributions as well.

The setlist was pretty amazing for only comprising fifteen songs and only lasting 95 minutes. "But Not Tonight" and "Shake the Disease" were definitely unexpected for me, and not only that, both were performed in stripped-down versions with just vocals by Gore and piano by Gordeno. They were great performances and in both cases, the arrangements were new to me.

Actually, most of the back-catalog songs were altered in their arrangements in some way. In some cases, it was just more guitar from Gore; "Personal Jesus" in particular began in a slow tempo focused on Gore's guitar, and he even took a guitar solo in the extended outro! In others, it was Gahan demanding the audience sing along to countless repetitions of the chorus, such as at the end of "But Not Tonight" and in the middle of "A Question of Time" and "Enjoy the Silence". And in yet others, the songs were extended substantially, often incorporating elements from 12" remixes or other versions. This was particularly evident in "Enjoy the Silence", "I Feel You", and "Never Let Me Down Again".

Now, if you know me well from reading this blog long enough, you will know that I am quite fond of such live rearrangements. The band could have played the songs just like they are on the albums or even just sequenced all the parts and just hit play while dancing. (Well, I suppose they did hire someone to play those parts, and Gahan does spend a lot of time dancing with unmatched energy, but still!) Instead, they chose to spice things up a bit, change things around, and make the whole experience for more interesting and engaging for their devoted fans. I appreciate that greatly.

The audience was quite enthusiastic and it's hard to say if certain songs got more fan response than others – with one exception. I was surprised that "Just Can't Get Enough", the earliest song the band still performs, appeared to garner the most adulation. The song is older than I am, but perhaps even new fans are strangely drawn to it. I mean, I guess I am guilty of that myself, but I still like their mid-period albums best.

The weirdest part of the night: "Precious" was accompanied by a video featuring almost-still shots of dogs in front of a brick wall. Huh. (Second weirdest: Gordeno played a high-fretted riff on a bass guitar during "A Pain That I'm Used To". Who would have guessed?)

Scores:
Okkervil River: B+
The Black Angels: C+
Wild Belle: B-
Depeche Mode: A
Overall: B+

Final Thoughts: I had fun and I'm quite excited for the next two days. I only got rained on for about 20 minutes and no one stole my bike, so I can hardly complain. And remember, a C truly means "average" to me, and B is honestly "good". The only reason Depeche Mode didn't get an A+ is because they didn't play longer. (Most of the major headliners are booked for two hours.)

[Edit 2013.10.13:] P.S. The Black Angels' setlist has been uploaded here:

01. Telephone
02. Broken Soldier
03 .Bad Vibrations
04. The Prodigal Sun
05. Young Men Dead
06. I Hear Colors (Chromaesthesia)
07. Indigo Meadow
08. You on the Run
09. Twisted Light
10. Don't Play with Guns
11. Bloodhounds on My Trail
12. Yellow Elevator #2
13. Always Maybe
14. Evil Things

[Edit 2014.10.04: I recently found a bootleg recording of the video webcast of the Black Angels' set, and I've got to say, it was better than I remembered. Probably still somewhere in the B range, but definitely better than C+.]

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Glove - Blue Sunshine reissue (1983/2006)

You can imagine that any fan (such as I) of both the Cure and Siouxsie & the Banshees would be immediately attracted to the Glove, a one-off collaboration between the Cure's main man Robert Smith and the Banshee's bassist/songwriter Steven Severin. You can also imagine that such a fan was very excited about the prospect of a remastered, expanded release of their lone album.

Artist: The Glove
Album: Blue Sunshine
Release Date: 23 August 1983, reissued 8 August 2006
Label: Wonderland/Polydor (original), Wonderland/Rhino (reissue)
Producer: Merlin Griffiths, Robert Smith, Steven Severin

Tracklisting:
Disc 1 (first ten tracks comprise original album):
01. Like an Animal
02. Looking Glass Girl
03. Sex-Eye-Make-Up
04. Mr. Alphabet Says
05. A Blues in Drag
06. Punish Me with Kisses
07. This Green City
08. Orgy
09. Perfect Murder
10. Relax
11. The Man from Nowhere [Original Instrumental Mix]
12. Mouth to Mouth [Like an Animal b-side, 1983]
13. Punish Me with Kisses [Mike Hedges Mix; Single, 1983]
14. The Tightrope [Punish Me with Kisses b-side, 1983]
15. Like an Animal [Club? What Club? Mix, 12" single, 1983]

Disc 2 (previously unreleased demos with vocals by Robert Smith except where stated):
01. Like an Animal
02. Looking Glass Girl
03. Sex-Eye-Make-Up
04. Mr. Alphabet Says
05. A Blues in Drag
06. Punish Me with Kisses
07. This Green City
08. Orgy
09. Perfect Murder
10. Relax
11. The Man from Nowhere [Alternate Instrumental Mix]
12. Mouth to Mouth
13. Opened the Box (A Waltz)
14. The Tightrope (Almost Time)
15. And All Around Us the Mermaids Sang (AKA Torment)
16. Holiday 80 [Original Instrumental Mix]

Review:
You might remember a time in the mid-00s when suddenly every once-popular, nearly-forgotten 80s band was brought back to the light of day with glorious reissue campaigns, restoring the music with nuanced remastering, bountiful bonus tracks, well-written liner notes, and archival photography. This occurred right about the same time that record companies realized that the CD was a format in decline, so the contrast between 2- and 3-disc reissues of 20-30 year old material and a shrinking market for physical releases was put sharply into focus. (The loudness war wasn't helping, either.)

Siouxsie & the Banshees made it as far as their sixth album, 1986's Tinderbox, before lackluster sales halted their reissue project in 2009. (This didn't stop a 3CD/1DVD box set At the BBC in the same year, though.) The Cure marched ahead with double-disc reissues, steadily making it to their seventh album, 1987's Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, reissued in 2006. It wasn't until 2010 that Disintegration (1989) was finally reissued in a 3CD set, and rumors still fly about a potential reissue of Wish (1992).

The strangest part of all this reissue confusion was The Glove's Blue Sunshine. Seeming to follow more in line with the Cure reissues than the Banshee's, it is a double-disc affair with a large host of previously unreleased demos. The most amazing part is that these demos feature Robert Smith's vocals – the original album infamously only featured his vocals on two songs due to contractual restrictions, resulting in the hiring of Jeanette Landray to sing most of the rest. Robert's previously unheard vocal versions were thus the primary reason that this reissue was notable as anything more than a simple remastering. But of course, the story only gets more complicated once you actually listen to the discs.

The original album is a ten-track affair of psychedelia in the utmost degree. With a band name inspired by the notoriously trippy Yellow Submarine movie and an album name derived from a horror movie about LSD, nobody should be surprised. The songs feature odd rhythms, unlikely combinations of instruments, surreal lyrics, and of course the occasional creepy sample. Despite the supreme weirdness of it all, it does fit in alongside the primary members' other recordings of the era: the experimental, weird pop singles later collected on Japanese Whispers; the dark psychedelia of The Top; the strangely arranged and textured pop of A Kiss in the Dreamhouse; and the swirly, deliberately psychedelic homage of "Dear Prudence", recorded during Smith's second tenure in the Banshees. The Glove released two singles, "Like an Animal" and "Punish Me with Kisses", and while both are solid numbers, neither is half as good as "Mr. Alphabet Says", a wonderfully arranged song graced with Smith's vocals even on the original release.

The b-sides of the original singles yield a couple additional songs, and the second disc of the 2006 reissue offers a few more. While these songs are reasonably good, they are still far overshadowed by the prospect of Smith singing all the original album tracks. However, when listening to the second disc, one cannot help but notice a few odd characteristics. First, these tracks are stated to be demos, which is easy to believe if one only listens to the instrumentation. The recordings sound a bit dull, weak, thin, whatever. But then Robert's voice sounds full, clear, and pristine. The vocals sound like they were recorded with professional equipment and then preserved carefully, whereas the instrumentation sounds archival at best. Second, Robert's voice is stretched and stringy, overly maudlin and almost artificially playful. Any serious fan of the Cure will have noted that Robert's voice has changed over his 35+ years of singing, and a quick comparison of his vocals from the Japanese Whispers singles (1982-1983) or The Top (1984) against those from more recent albums such as The Cure (2004) or 4:13 Dream (2008) reveals quite a difference. The vocals on disc two do not use the same inflections or styling as those found on disc one or the contemporaneous singles and albums. They do, however, sound very similar to Smith's latest recorded output.

I am not the only fan to believe that these vocals were not archival performances but rather new recordings. For example, if you want to dig through some fora, see here and here. Amazingly, Steven Severin was approached in November 2012 by a fan and asked about this issue, and he confirmed it (mostly), claiming that some vocals were original and others were new recordings done because Smith wanted to sing them after not having had the chance before. If you follow that last link, you may notice that the commenters cast doubt upon any of the demo vocals being "authentic", and I must agree. All the vocals on disc two sound to my ear like new recordings.

There is naturally room to debate the merits and downsides of these recordings. Certainly, it is nice for Robert to finally have a chance to sing these songs. But one can't say he did a proper job of it, considering that he sang over the demo tracks instead of the final versions, and even worse, at no point did he state or admit that these vocals were recorded in the 2000s, not in 1983. Instead of a "real" album of just Smith and Severin, we are left with muddy demos with misplaced vocals that can't help but sound out of place and artificial. And I still can't get past the deceit: I'd be much happier if Smith had just stated the truth. Of course, maybe the reissue wouldn't have sold as well, but I don't appreciate the deliberate lie.

Sadly, this trend of Smith re-recording vocal parts is not exclusive to the Blue Sunshine reissue. When I purchased the Disintegration reissue, I was immediately struck by both the awful remastering of the live material originally from Entreat and the obviously re-recorded vocals of the "studio alt mixes" found on the second disc. I went back and listened to the Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me reissue and became suspicious of a few of the songs on that release's bonus disc as well. While I am completely convinced that the Glove and Disintegration vocals were rerecorded, I'm not fully confident that the Kiss Me vocals were, but I think it is more likely than not. However, after careful consideration, I'm fairly sure that everything from the previous reissues is authentic. So as best as I can tell, the following Cure songs feature rerecorded vocals:

"A Thousand Hours" (Kiss Me guide vocal/rough mix)
"Icing Sugar" (Kiss Me guide vocal/rough mix)
"One More Time" (Kiss Me guide vocal/rough mix)
"Plainsong" (Disintegration rough take/guide vocal)
"Last Dance" (Disintegration rough take/guide vocal)
"Lullaby" (Disintegration rough take/guide vocal)
"Out of Mind" (Disintegration rough take/guide vocal)
"Delirious Night" (Disintegration rough mix)

At least part of the internet-enabled fanbase of the Cure seems to agree with my assessment (reply #16 is particularly damning). In addition to these vocals, somewhere I've heard a rumor that the above-mentioned "Out of Mind" features an overdubbed guitar part. Also, the work-in-progress mix of "Lovesong" from the online Alternate Rarities: 1988-1989 album seems to feature an overdubbed vocal harmony part, but I believe the low part is original.

Have I missed any other fake vocals? Drop a word if you suspect other songs not yet listed.

Scores:
Original album: B
2006 reissue, blissfully ignorant of the artificial nature of the demos: B+
2006 reissue, with full knowledge of the deceit: C-

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Blondie / X - Live 2013.09.26

Apparently Blondie played at this same venue almost exactly a year ago, but with Devo opening. That would have been cool. This was pretty cool, too, though, so I can hardly complain.

Artist: Blondie
Venue: Stubb's Bar-B-Q
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 26 September 2013
Opening Act: X [the LA punk band]

Setlist:
01. One Way or Another
02. Rave
03. Hanging on the Telephone (The Nerves cover)
04. Union City Blue
05. A Rose by Any Name
06. The Tide Is High (The Paragons cover)
07. Drag You Around
08. Maria
09. Winter
10. Rapture → No Sleep Till Brooklyn (Beastie Boys cover)
11. Atomic
12. What I Heard
13. Wipe Off My Sweat
14. Sugar on the Side
15. Heart of Glass
Encore:
16. Take Me in the Night
17. Mile High
18. Call Me
19. Relax (Frankie Goes to Hollywood cover)
20. Dreaming

Review:
The X in question here is the LA punk band formed in 1977, not the Australian punk band, nor any of the many other bands that happen to share the same name. As best as I could tell, the current version of the band features all of the original founding members. They played a bunch of songs with hardly a pause, which they said was probably preferable for everyone involved instead of babbling too much. I was surprised that bassist John Doe probably sang more than frontwoman Exene Cervenka did, but otherwise they were about what I expected. They play decent punk music, but they aren't pushing boundaries. The weirdest part was guitarist Billy Zoom. He seemed like a cartoon character: he was smiling nearly the whole time, hardly noticing the riffs that he kicked out, focusing rather on staring semi-creepily into the audience.

Blondie has retained singer Debbie Harry, guitarist Chris Stein, and drummer Clem Burke from their earliest days, but have more recently added lead guitarist Tommy Kessler, bassist Leigh Foxx, and keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen. Harry came on stage wearing a X shirt and sunglasses (despite that the sun had already gone down); she sang and spoke enthusiastically but regularly wore a frown whenever she wasn't singing. She finally took the sunglasses off after five or six songs, although Stein never removed his. While Harry glowed in the spotlight, Stein and Burke mostly kept to the back. Burke regularly twirled and tossed his drumsticks but otherwise was hardly a showman; Stein only played a handful of the lead guitar parts and even then, he still usually hid behind the other guitarist.

The newer members were a little more active. Kessler, noticeably younger than most of the others, happily took the front of the stage for his leads and even shredded up a few solos. That was perhaps a little more than I had bargained for, but I suppose it wasn't completely out of place. Katz-Bohen sang backing vocals while handling several keyboards; he too seemed a bit younger and more energetic than the old hands, but maybe that was just because he was wearing a glittery keyboard-pattern vest with no shirt underneath. Lastly, but certainly not least, was Foxx, who seemed like he would have fit right in with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. He stood out mostly because his instrument was the loudest in the mix.

Actually, I think the mix of the entire night was probably the oddest part of the whole venture. X's mix was fairly typical of rock concerts: drums were way too loud, guitar was a little too loud, the bass was hardly present, and the vocals were somewhat muddy and thus hard to understand. Blondie's mix was more confusing: while the drums were loud, the bass was really loud. After that, everything else was a bit congested. The guitars were often indistinguishable unless one watched the players' hands, and even then that didn't always help. The keyboards and vocals were a crapshoot – sometimes they were discernible and clear, but often they were dark and difficult to pick out.

That being said, Blondie has always had a knack for good melodies, and by playing almost all of their greatest hits, they showed off a continual stream of talented songwriting. I was pleased that they didn't only take the predictable route; they incorporated several songs from their 2011 album Panic of Girls and their upcoming album Ghosts of Download into their setlist, and even if I didn't know them and I didn't find them quite as appealing as the classics, I still appreciated it. The biggest surprises were the unexpected covers. When "Rapture" was extended into a heavy rock jam, I didn't even realize at the time that the song had morphed into the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn", which made for a fairly hilarious homage. Similarly, choosing the near-novelty classic "Relax" as their penultimate song was almost too hard to take seriously, but they rocked it. Apparently, the song will be present on their upcoming album, which I'm sure will result in a delightfully absurd listen.

The other highlight was probably the keytar solo in "Call Me". Yes, out of nowhere, Katz-Bohen suddenly had a keytar strapped on, and he came to the front of stage to work his magic. For the rest of the night, he stuck to his keyboard racks, but I'm glad he got at least one moment in the spotlight.

Actually, I was a bit surprised that "Dreaming" was the closer, but I suppose I'm probably not the only one that really likes that song, and the band probably knows that.

Scores:
X: C
Blondie: B

P.S. I probably would have enjoyed myself a lot more if the mix had been better and if three pushy jerks hadn't shoved themselves into my spot halfway through the show.

P.P.S. Thanks to Amelia for encouraging me to go!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

My Bloody Valentine / New Fumes - Live 2013.08.16

Another amazing band came to my new hometown!? Austin is amazing.

Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Venue: Austin Music Hall
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: August 16, 2013
Opening Act: New Fumes

Setlist:
01. I Only Said
02. When You Sleep
03. New You
04. You Never Should
05. Honey Power
06. Cigarette in Your Bed
07. Only Tomorrow
08. Come in Alone
09. Only Shallow
10. Thorn
11. Nothing Much to Lose
12. Who Sees You
13. To Here Knows When
14. Wonder 2
15. Soon
16. Feed Me with Your Kiss
17. You Made Me Realise

Review:
You may recall that this is not my first time seeing MBV. I saw them last in 2008, shortly after they'd reunited (or returned from hiatus, depending on whom you ask), and while I enjoyed the show, I was admittedly disappointed by the prominent use of samples, the somewhat limited sonic palette, and most of all, the lack of new material. This show, however, did a good job of making up for those shortcomings.

First, I should say a word about the opener. New Fumes, apparently from Dallas, is a one-man band mostly featuring guitar, psychedelic visuals, psychedelic laptop-driven soundscapes, and a very strange head garment. Most of his performance was one extended piece, presumably segueing from one composition to another, or at least from one segment to another. This was followed by a few shorter works, similar in tone and vision. Since most of his performance seemed pre-recorded, or at least mostly pre-arranged, it wasn't exactly the most engaging show, but I kind of liked the strangeness of his act, and the music was fairly interesting. It was very spacey, very full, and reasonably appropriate for setting the stage for MBV. His few vocals were entirely undecipherable, which was also in line with the MBV aesthetic, although kind of annoying if that wasn't actually intentional.

When MBV did hit the stage, I was immediately surprised to see a fifth person on stage: a woman hiding in the corner, mostly playing the keyboard hooks at the high end of the spectrum in songs like the opener, "I Only Said", and the trancey "Soon". On other songs, she performed rhythm guitar duties that may have otherwise been performed by Bilinda Butcher, who often merely held her guitar without hitting a note while singing. There were also songs where both played rhythm parts under Kevin Shields' lead parts.

This keyboardist enabled the band to eschew samples for most songs, except for a few bits on songs like "To Here Knows When". Considering that those parts probably cannot be played by anything except a sequencer or computer (something Shields has acknowledged in interviews), I consider that an acceptable compromise. The jungle drums of "Wonder 2" were another of these few sampled parts, which allowed drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig to come to the front of the stage and grab a guitar. I had no idea he could even play the instrument!

"Wonder 2" was certainly not a song I expected the band to perform live, but it actually worked better than I would have guessed. The other new songs performed, "New You", "Only Tomorrow", and "Who Sees You", were all somewhat more conventional songs for the band, and thus less of a surprise per se, but it was still a delight just to see the band play these new songs. With no new material debuted from the band since 1991, this is a big deal. These songs may not represent a great leap forwards for the band, but they are great songs, and their percussion arrangements and vocals melodies do appear just a bit more richly developed and complex than their older material.

My Bloody Valentine were once deemed "shoegazers" because they were part of a semi-related group of bands noted for staring at their feet and hardly moving during performances. This still holds true for the two vocalist/guitarists of the group, Butcher and Shields. Colm and bassist Debbie Googe, however, are much more active, and they are often the more interesting musicians to watch. Part of the excitement of seeing the band live is simply that they carry a lot more energy when they perform together on a stage. I realize that this is a cliché, but it certainly holds true here. I would contend that their studio output is more beautiful, that it has more depth, and that it shows more color and range, but their studio work is also mostly performed solely by Shields and it does tend to be precise, measured, and careful. Live, the band is more collaborative, but also looser, rougher, and more active. Googe, being the only band member to actually move around the stage, draws attention to her parts even when they are buried in the mix. Often, her parts are fuzzier or fuller than in the studio recordings, and it's quite fun to see her throttle her instrument at full speed. Colm represents the biggest difference from the recordings. Famously, most of his parts on Loveless were sampled and sequenced as a result of a hand injury, and even though you'd hardly know if you weren't told, the drums on that album are a bit less dynamic that they might otherwise be. Live, he actually plays fills and infuses more power into the percussion. It's quite a thrill.

In some ways, the band's live performances are almost more trancey or spacey than their recordings, because the vocals are mixed so low as to be completely indecipherable. This is a common statement regarding their studio recordings, but live, it's nigh impossible to even discern syllables. The guitars blend well, but they are rougher and less finely polished, so their distortion fills up the mid-range. The vocal parts exist in a realm just above that, but because they may as well be wordless, they serve as another instrument, on par with the keyboard parts. At times, they were difficult to distinguish without specifically observing the musicians.

MBV have always (at least since the 90s) closed their sets with "You Made Me Realise", which usually lasts much longer than the studio counterpart, because the band extends the noisy drone section into something usually called the "holocaust" by fans. Last time I saw them, that section lasted 23 minutes. This time it was just six, which was somewhat more practical. The band just plays one chord for that duration, so it can get a bit tedious, but it is an intense physical sensation to be a part of. At any rate, six minutes was long enough to lose yourself in it, but not so long that you wondered when the hell they were going to snap out of it. I still don't know how they decide when to break back into the verse. It seems like it just happens, as if the preceding six or 23 minutes didn't just happen.

So anyway, the performances were great, there were few flaws to be found, and their sound is simply amazing. This was the show I was hoping to see in 2008.

Scores:
New Fumes: B-
My Bloody Valentine: A-

P.S. I'd probably give their new album, m b v, a B+. If the weirdness of tracks like "Is This and Yes" and "Nothing Is" wasn't so distracting, it would be higher.