Sunday, September 23, 2018

Talking Heads - Bonus Outtakes and Rarities (2006)

Artist: Talking Heads
Album: Bonus Outtakes and Rarities
Release Date: 28 February 2006
Label: Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino

01. I Want to Live
02. New Feeling [Alternate Version]
03. First Week/Last Week... Carefree [Acoustic Version]
04. A Clean Break (Let's Work) [Live at CBGB's, 10/10/77]
05. These Boots Are Made for Walkin' [David Byrne Solo Acoustic Version]
06. I'm Not Ready Yet [David Byrne Solo Acoustic Version]
07. Thank You for Sending Me an Angel [Alternate Version]
08. Warning Sign [Alternate Version]
09. Artists Only [Alternate Version]
10. Electricity [Instrumental]
11. Drugs [Alternate Version]
12. I Zimbra [12" Version]
13. Crosseyed and Painless [Alternate Version]
14. The Lady Don't Mind [Moog March Version]
15. People Like Us [John Goodman Vocal Version]
16. Gangster of Love
17. Lifetime Piling Up
18. Popsicle

Bonus Outtakes and Rarities is a digital-only collection whose contents are clearly intended to compliment the Talking Heads' reissue series in 2006 (first released as a box set known as the "Brick" in 2005). Most of the band's limited catalog of b-sides and non-album tracks appeared there as bonus tracks along with some outtakes, alternate versions, and remixes. This collection digs even deeper, scraping together further obscurities in a haphazard fashion. My guess is that at some point on the process of preparing the reissues, a decision was made to switch from standard CD releases to DualDiscs, which had about a 60-minute limit. This album is presumably most of what had to be cut to fit the constraints.

Initially, it was only released in mp3, but at some point in the last few years, lossless versions started showing up in online retailers. There are no liner notes and hardly any details to be found anywhere online. I've only found one other review online, and it's not very long or detailed. It's fairly negative and it skewers the quality of the presentation and most of the contents. Certainly there is something lacking about the package; the lack of information is annoying, and the whole thing feels a bit hastily thrown together. In particular, there are several mastering errors. Volume levels vary noticeably among the tracks. There are conspicuously long gaps of silence between some tracks. There is a bad edit at the end of "Electricity". "A Clean Break" has what sounds like tape damage at the end.

Also frustrating is that while it gets very close to being a perfect summary of the band's released catalog in tandem with the reissues, it misses the alternate "experimental pop" version of "Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town" and the Naked outtake "In Asking Land", both released on the 2003 Once in a Lifetime box set, as well as the version of "New Feeling" from the "Love → Building on Fire" single (although an even fuller mix is present here) and some of the "movie versions" of the True Stories songs. There were also tons of extended remixes and such found on rare 12" singles, although most of them are admittedly forgettable and offer no material not already present on the regular versions.

Despite those complaints, there is plenty to say about the actual music contained within. First, while some of the tracks from the first half had been available on various bootlegs for years prior, I'd never heard them in this quality. Second, while many of these appeared on Sand in the Vaseline in 1992 and/or the Once in a Lifetime boxset in 2003, about half were previously unreleased as far as I can tell.

Much of Bonus Outtakes and Rarities consists of alternate versions from the first half of the band's career. "New Feeling" is the early "experimental pop" mix, similar to the b-side version but with extra horns on top. "First Week/Last Week... Carefree" sounds like the album version without any of the overdubs. The others ("Thank You for Sending Me an Angel", "Warning Sign", "Artists Only", "Electricity", "Drugs", and "Crosseyed and Painless") all sound like early demo versions. There are few (if any) overdubs, and they sound like just the four members of the band running through the songs, before Brian Eno started working much of his magic. In each case, the album version is superior, but it is still instructive to hear these versions.

"Thank You for Sending Me an Angel" has the same structure as the album version and the "Country Angel" version, but none of the overdubs and detail. "Warning Sign" has simpler lyrics. "Artists Only" is much slower and features much longer instrumental breaks. "Electricity" is recognizable as an early version of "Drugs" and yet is completely different. It has a great groove and is already a bit weird. It's close to the first live version on the 2004 reissue of The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, but even simpler. "Drugs" is an early, shorter mix with fewer sound effects but a weird bendy guitar bit from Robert Fripp. It is more obvious that David Byrne was singing while jogging, which is to say he sounds grosser but more human. The song is less otherworldly than the album version, but just about as bizarre. "Crosseyed and Painless" is much simpler but much longer. The arrangement is moderately full, but sounds incomplete in comparison to the complexity of the final version. The song finishes with a long jam over repetitions of "facts" rap.

"I Want to Live" is a demo from 1975, long before Jerry Harrison joined the band. It's an acoustic number that shows where the band started but also what they left behind. "A Clean Break (Let's Work)" is an early song that was apparently never recorded in the studio. Another live version was released on the reissue of The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads. It's strong enough that one wonders why it was overlooked at the time. "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" (yes, the Nancy Sinatra song) and "I'm Not Ready Yet" are both brief acoustic bits by Byrne solo. He was clearly just being silly in the studio, but they're both fun.

"I Zimbra" is a 12" version supposedly remixed by Brian Eno, but it doesn't offer much except a standard-issue remix breakdown at the end. "The Lady Don't Mind" is surprisingly not just a remix, but apparently an extended alternate version with different lyrics and a much different arrangement. It's better than the original and hard to believe that it really wasn't previously released. "People Like Us" is the "movie version" with John Goodman's vocals, originally released as the b-side of "Wild Wild Life". It's weird.

The last three tracks were all unfinished outtakes from the latter years of the band that eventually appeared on Sand in the Vaseline. All three have decent grooves but it's easy to see why they didn't make the first cut. "Gangster of Love" was apparently based on outtakes from Remain in Light in 1980 and Naked in 1987, but it wasn't completed until the band's last sessions in 1991. "Lifetime Piling Up" was a Naked outtake and is probably the best of the bunch. "Popsicle" was a Speaking in Tongues outtake from 1983. It's creepy and one of the band's least appealing songs.

There aren't many jems in this collection, but it nonetheless serves an important role in gathering most of the band's sundry leftovers that didn't fit on the reissues. For a dedicated fan that wants to collect every track as simply as possible, this is a goldmine. However, I'd image that for someone who had followed the band since their early days, this would be frustratingly redundant. Most of the best material had been previously released. Of the rest, the various alternate versions are worth a listen, but are far from essential. The "Electricity" instrumental outtake and the "Moog March" version of "The Lady Don't Mind" are the two biggest exceptions. Both are strong in their own right and deserve better than this obscurity. It's hard to recommend the album, but it's perfect for the right type of consumer. Apparently that happens to include me.

Score: C+

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Holy Wave / Soft Crystals - Live 2018.08.22 Musik und Frieden, Berlin, Germany

I'd seen Holy Wave twice before at festivals in Austin and enjoyed them quite a bit, so when I heard they were coming to Berlin for the first time, I was immediately curious.

Artist: Holy Wave
Venue: Musik und Frieden
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 22 August 2018
Opening Act: Soft Crystals

Soft Crystals, a Berlin-based Scottish band, opened the show. They played a chill, rather minimalist indie rock. They were tight with a steady rhythm and groove, and while the songs were simple, every element was played with finesse. The guitarist generally kept his tone clean and didn't overwhelm the stage, letting the keyboards and bass share just as much space. This pattern shifted slightly on the third song, when the guitarist unexpectedly took a brief solo with a psychedelic edge underlain with heavy phasing and reverb. Each subsequent song also had a solo, usually brief and melodic, but occasionally leading back into psychedelic territory. The vocals benefited from some harmony parts from the keyboards. Their unpretentious demeanor was deceptive and they played a strong set.

[Soft Crystals.]

Holy Wave, based in Austin but originally from El Paso, continued in their vein of heavy psych jams with touches of classic 60s tones and modern sounds akin to the Brian Jonestown Massacre. I've been hearing a lot of people making references to My Bloody Valentine about their recent work, and while there are traces, I think Holy Wave are less shoegaze and more indebted to the garage rock that begat the original psychedelia. This is particularly evident in the band's earlier records, but they've maintained garage elements even in their newest album.

[Holy Wave.]

Their set ran the gamut of psychedelic territory, including trance drones, unsophisticated rave-ups, bits of synthesizer experimentation, heavy jams, organ-heavy pseudo-pop, and nuanced dual-guitar interplay. Some songs dragged, and the vocals weren't as strong as on record, but there was plenty of compelling material to keep me engaged. As their set came to a close, they brought things to a peak with a couple really strong, high-energy psych jams, and I was sad to see them go after just about an hour. Thankfully, they came back for an encore of two more lengthy songs of similar style and caliber.

Even if few of their songs stand out on their own, the sum of their sound is generally a consistent pleasure. It's nice to have a periodic reminder of the wonderful sounds of Austin that I got to hear so much of when I lived there.

[What's with the bunny ears with the German national colors!?]

Soft Crystals: B+
Holy Wave: B+

Sunday, July 1, 2018

David Byrne / Yasmine Hamdan - Live 2018.06.27 Tempodrom, Berlin, Germany

David Byrne is an erratic character. His post-Talking Heads work has been spotty and inconsistent, but he has been involved in a variety of musical, theatrical, and film collaborations, he is a well-regarded writer, and now he's become something of a cultural icon offering sage advice about music, technology, and people. Despite that I didn't find his new album particularly exciting (yes, even though most of it was co-written by Brian Eno), there has been quite a bit of hype about his stage show, so I figured it was worth a shot.

Artist: David Byrne
Venue: Tempodrom
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 27 June 2018
Opening Act: Yasmine Hamdan

01. Here
02. Lazy [X-Press 2 song]
03. I Zimbra [Talking Heads song; lyrics adapted from "Gadji beri bimba" by Hugo Ball]
04. Slippery People [Talking Heads song]
05. I Should Watch TV [originally performed with St. Vincent]
06. Dog's Mind
07. Everybody's Coming to My House
08. This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) [Talking Heads song]
09. Once in a Lifetime [Talking Heads song]
10. Doing the Right Thing
11. Toe Jam [Brighton Port Authority song]
12. Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) [Talking Heads song]
13. I Dance Like This
14. Bullet
15. Every Day Is a Miracle
16. Like Humans Do
17. Blind [Talking Heads song]
18. Burning Down the House [Talking Heads song]

Encore 1:
19. Dancing Together [originally performed with Fatboy Slim]
20. The Great Curve [Talking Heads song]

Encore 2:
21. Hell You Talmbout [Janelle Monáe cover]

Yasmine Hamdan is a Lebanese singer who has worked in a variety of styles. At this show, she was joined by a drummer, a guitarist, and a guy who seemed to mostly be playing samples. The sound was a balance of modern electronic and traditional Arabic folk music. Half of the drummer's kit was synthetic and the guitarist played half the set with an effects-laden ebow (and one song with an actual bow). Hamdan was a strong vocalist, and combined with the rhythmic music, she produced a rather dramatic effect. The guitarist and drummer were also quite skilled and had unique styles that helped set the mood, but the song structures were somewhat formless and nebulous. Despite the many aspects I enjoyed, it felt like there was an element I was missing, although this may have been related to my inability to understand the lyrics.

[Yasmine Hamdan.]

For David Byrne's set, the stage was surrounded in the back and on the sides by long, thin curtain strands, such that the audience could just barely see if a person stood behind them and the musicians could pass right through while performing. For the opening song, "Here", Byrne sat a table with a plastic brain on it and proceeded to sing while seated and then while manipulating the brain. The members of his band performed from offstage and occasionally appeared throughout the first two numbers, finally appearing in full for the classic Talking Heads song "I Zimbra", which was also when the audience collectively decided to stand up and start dancing.

The band consisted of twelve members. Six of them played various forms of percussion: Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Aaron Johnston, Tim Keiper, Mauro Refosco, and Davi Vieira. Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba provided backing vocals. Bobby Wooten played bass, Angie Swan played guitar, and Karl Mansfield played keyboards. Byrne himself also played electric guitar on several songs. All twelve performers wore matching gray suits and carried their instruments. Other than the occasional prop, there was nothing on stage. There was no drumset, no keyboard rack, no microphone stand, and no effects boards. Byrne claimed that everything was performed live, but he left out the important detail that all effects and processing had to be done by somebody offstage. The sound crew must have been skilled and well-practiced.

The freedom of movement on stage was taken to full advantage. Even when the band were playing less exciting songs, the action on stage kept things interesting. At different points they stood in a chorus line, rotated in a circle, stood just offstage with their instruments peeking through the curtains, ran across the stage while a bright light at the front of the stage cast shadows upon the curtains, and danced about in every combination you could imagine. It made for a very energetic experience.

The choice of songs was a widely mixed bag. Byrne played seven songs from his new album, American Utopia, eight Talking Heads songs (all but one from the classic dance-rock albums Fear of Music, Remain in Light, and Speaking in Tongues), four songs from various collaborative projects, one older solo song ("Like Humans Do"), and one cover. Oddly, or not, there was no overlap in material with the Tom Tom Club show I saw back in 2011.

The highlights were, just as one might expect, the classic Talking Heads songs. The band brought the rhythmic complexity of the songs alive in a way that was almost hard to believe was real. The band was tight despite their physical choreography and the grooves were irresistible. The other particularly notable song was the cover of "Hell You Talmbout" by Janelle Monáe. The entire band performed percussion while chanting variations of "Say his name!" and listing the names of various Black Americans who were murdered by the police and/or as the result of racist violence.

While the two consistent threads in Byrne's songs are a critical but wise and witty perspective on human perspective and a love of percussion, his songs explore a wealth of styles, albeit with varying levels of success. On stage, I often felt like the shifts in tone and sound were arbitrary and subject to whimsy. Sometimes it seemed like he was being weird just to be weird, or trying something purely for the sake of trying it. While I fundamentally appreciate such a willingness to experiment, the result is often that Byrne's songs come across as jarring, bizarre, ridiculous, or nonsensical. One gets the impression that Byrne's brain works in unusual ways, but even if half of his songs don't quite work, the half that do are brilliant. Combined with a very creative stage set, it made for a show well worth seeing.

[David Byrne.]

Yasmine Hamdan: B-
David Byrne: B+

Monday, June 25, 2018

Golden Dawn Arkestra - Live 2018.06.24 Kantine am Berghain, Berlin, Germany

I have seen this band six times before, and it was bands like this that made leaving Austin a less than easy decision. However, I'm clearly not their only fan, and their stature is such that this wasn't even their first European tour. They also just released their second full-length album, Children of the Sun.

Artist: Golden Dawn Arkestra
Venue: Kantine am Berghain
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 24 June 2018

01. Children of the Sun
02. Osaka
03. Wings of Ra
04. Cosmic Dancer
05. Afropocalypse
06. Spacewaves
07. The Wolf
08. Dimensions
09. Promised Land →
10. Disko
11. Stargazer
12. Sama Chaka
13. Masakayli

14. Percussion solo →
15. Saharan Knights
16. Clouds

The band started the night in their standard fashion with a march through the crowd with incense and whatever instruments lent themselves to mobile performance. The venue was too small for the experience to be as grand as it could be, but it's always a good way to start the show. "Children of the Sun", the title track of the new album, served as a fitting opener. They proceeded with a balanced mix of songs from their catalog, ultimately playing more songs from their first album (Stargazer, 2016) than from the new one. They avoided most of the slower and softer songs of Children of the Sun and focused on their more intense and dance-friendly material.

However, they did perform "Promised Land" in the extended version that closes the new album, with a long, low-key, spaced out instrumental section. Naturally, this segued directly into another powerful groover, "Disko". The other big change was that at the start of their encore, initially only the three primary percussionists came out. They played with the audience and tried out some varying rhythms until the rest of the band slowly came on stage and joined in for "Saharan Nights" from their debut EP. Other highlights were "The Wolf", which they described as their "fight song" for love and light, and "Masakayli", which they transformed into an even more extended jam than it normally is. At the conclusion of "Clouds", the members gradually started jumping into and dancing with the crowd.

Compared with past shows, this set was as solid as ever. The new songs they played fit right in, which is hardly surprising considering that at least three of them have already been played live for at least a year or two. However, on this occasion there were only ten members on stage. (Only ten! I know!) Musically, they were only lacking another horn player or a second guitarist. The biggest difference was the lack of dancers. Only one member focused mostly on dancing, although she also provided backing vocals and percussion. I also recognized an eleventh member of the band at the forefront of the audience, and although he danced energetically throughout the show, he was not in costume.

There's not much else that I could write about this band to say that I haven't written before. They've never disappointed me yet. I was curious how the rigors of international touring would affect the band, but if I hadn't have paid close attention, I barely would have noticed anything different from an average Austin show. Musically, excepting a few barely missed cues, they were perfectly on point. The grooves were strong, the mix was good, and their appearance was as bizarre and impressive as ever.

Score: A

P.S. Do not be deceived: this show was not in the infamous Berghain club. It was around the corner in a much smaller venue. However, I did get to walk past the long and ridiculous line of clubbers waiting to get in the main attraction.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Novo Concertante Manila / Zielinski Singers - Live 2018.06.16 Filharmonia, Szczecin, Poland

Artists: Novo Concertante Manila / Zielinski Singers
Venue: Filharmonia
Location: Szczecin, Poland
Date: 16 June 2018
Event: XI Międzynarodowy Festiwal Chóralny (XI International Choir Festival)

I ended up at this concert on something of a whim. My partner and I were in Szczecin for the weekend, and a friend of a friend suggested the concert when we got into town. It seemed like a chance worth taking, but when we arrived at the venue, the box office was already closed. Our companion asked an usher if there were still tickets. He disappeared and came back a minute later with free tickets for us. The advertised price was cheap, but nothing beats free!

The Filharmonia moved into a new building in 2014, a modernist building with subtle exterior lighting, a bright white foyer, and a gold-plated concert hall. The venue was host to the annual Choir Festival, which on this night featured the Novo Concertante Manila from the Philippines, conducted by Arwin Tan, and the Zielinski Singers from the USA, conducted by Richard Zielinski.

The twenty vocalists of the Novo Concertante Manila sang in mostly traditional styles, but they covered a variety of material in multiple languages. Their execution was well-honed and captivating. The diversity of the voices and the perfection of their harmony was incredible. Just when their set started to get slow, they performed a song that involved a loud click of the tongue by the men in the choir, which immediately restored my focus. They managed to earn an encore from the audience, for which they offered a traditional Polish piece that received a very warm welcome from the crowd.

The conductor of the Zielinski Singers, Richard Zielinski, is the director of choral studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, but he apparently worked in Szczecin in the past. The choir started with a couple haunting, modern, experimental pieces. I was immediately taken in. After this initial strong start, they gradually transitioned to traditional American folk tunes, hymns, and ultimately, gospel. The vocal performances were strong, but the material was less adventurous and the lyrics were uninteresting. To close the night, they invited the Novo Concertante Manila back to the stage. Together, they all sang a traditional Polish song for which the entire crowd reverentially stood up and sang along. The final number was a rousing gospel song with a country-inflected solo part.

I had never witnessed unaccompanied choirs of such skill before. I was thoroughly impressed, even if the songs themselves didn't always speak to me. I appreciated that the two choirs were rather different and that a diverse array of works were presented. Ending the show with two collaborative songs seems like an obvious choice in retrospect, but in the moment, it was a delightful and successful surprise.

P.S. Thanks to Ola and Alyssa!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

"Militürk" / "Kebabträume": A Brief History

Back in 2007, I bought Fehlfarben's debut album, Monarchie und Alltag (1980), and enjoyed it so much that it was one of the first albums I ever reviewed on this blog. The review might be just a bit naïve, but thankfully some commenters with better knowledge of the era and environment provided some deeper insight. One song on the album always stood out to me: "Militürk", a song with not many lyrics and a cauldron of bizarre and paranoid imagery. In the spirit of my review of "Blaue Augen" by Neonbabies and Ideal, I'd like to go into the details of this song a bit deeper, mostly with links to better-informed bloggers. A word of warning, though: all of the links are in German, just like the song.

An important detail that I didn't mention in the review was that Fehlfarben weren't the first band to perform and record the song. They weren't even the second. As mutanten melodien explains, the song was first recorded by Mittagspause, with lyrics by Gabi Delgado-Lopez while he was still a member, before he co-founded D.A.F. (Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft). The music was supposedly originally inherited from a song by Charley's Girls, whose members Franz Bielmeier and Peter Hein took the tune with them when they formed Mittagspause. Hein brought the song to Fehlfarben just after Delgado-Lopez brought it to D.A.F. under the title "Kebabträume" ("Kebab Dreams"). The blog also mentions several other later versions, including a remake by D.A.F. (inferior to the first version), a spoof by Xao Seffcheque & Die Pest titled "Fortschrittsträume" ("Dreams of Progress") that turns the song into a joke about the contemporaneous German indie/punk music scene, and another spoof by O.R.A.V. (actually Xao Seffcheque and Peter Hein) in a mock-singer-songwriter style. Countless other cover versions abound. (Check out mutanten melodien to hear all of the above versions and more.)

I went into what I took to be the meaning of the song in my Monarchie und Alltag review, but I'd like to expand on that with the assistance of some more intelligent perspectives. I translated some of the lyrics myself, but for a complete version (side by side with the original), see here. In interviews, Delgado-Lopez dodges questions and claims that the song speaks for itself. Since the song may appear racist or anti-immigrant at first glance, that's a dangerous decision. However, he also does not hesitate to speak out on issues of social and economic justice.

In an interview with from 2010, Delgado-Lopez explains that the song was written during a trip to West-Berlin in 1979 to play at a punk festival at SO36 in Kreuzberg, but he says little else about the song itself. Instead, he speaks out about the exploitation of the Third World by western nations and espouses a decidedly pro-refugee stance. When the interviewer asks why Delgado-Lopez usually leaves out two of the lines when he sings the song now, he responds that he prefers to write about larger connections, not just day-to-day politics, without explaining what made the two lines in question any different than the rest.

In an undated interview with Dearly Demented, Delgado-Lopez sidesteps a question about provocation and shows little concern about his songs being misinterpreted. He does mention that fascist skinheads would occasionally turn up at D.A.F. concerts, particularly in England, leading to arguments and the composition of blatantly homoerotic songs like "Der Räuber und der Prinz" ("The Thief and the Prince") to troll them. He again mentions the backstory of when the song was written, and adds that he was never upset or jealous about Fehlfarben's version. While there was no specific agreement or understanding about it, he also says that wasn't necessary, and the copyright situation was handled correctly and fairly. He again speaks about immigration, declares it inevitable, and notes that as one group integrates and assimilates, the reactionary fears shift to the next new group to arrive.

In "Protestsongs von Punk bis HipHop" from fluter, Ulrich Gutmair writes that the song was a skillful satire of pre-existing stereotypes and fears. The humor lies within the confusion and combination of resentment towards Turkish immigrants and paranoia about communism and the Eastern Bloc. Gutmair also claims that the song was one of the first punk songs to be sung in German. That isn't entirely true, but it was still early enough to be a novelty. The article also discusses Advanced Chemistry's 1992 single "Fremd im eigenen Land" ("Foreign in One's Own Country") and compares the two songs.

By far the most detailed exploration of the song was undertaken by Barbara Hornberger for the Songlexikon in 2016. She goes into great detail about the first D.A.F. version of the song, picking apart every detail of the music and lyrics. She notes that the manner in which Delgado-Lopez delivers the song is staccato, militaristic, unusually emphasized, and rather androgynous. The lyrics are fragmentary and describe an atmosphere rather than a specific event. She also points out that Turkish immigrants were rare in East Germany at that time, so the juxtaposition of the DDR, the Soviet Union, and Turkish immigrants "behind barbed wire" creates irrational vision of terror and confusion. It simultaneously also speaks to the ghettoization of Turks in West Germany, both in the sense of their marginalization due to their migrant background as well as the physical situation of the sizable community in Kreuzberg. The titular "kebab dreams" are presumably the dreams of prosperity hoped for by the immigrants.

The crux is in the final line: "Wir sind die Türken von morgen" ("we are the Turks of tomorrow"). On one hand, it pairs with the preceding line, "Deutschland, Deutschland, alles ist vorbei" ("Germany, Germany, it's all over") to form an exaggerated picture of conservative fear of losing national identity. On the other hand, Hornberger posits that the final line can be seen as a commentary of or antithesis to the rest of the text. It may represent a shift in the authorial perspective. Or is it implying that the "we" (West Germans, presumably) will soon be infiltrating and spying into other countries?

I'm hard-pressed to say whether the Fehlfarben version or the original 1980 D.A.F. version is my favorite. Both have a richness and complexity that are lacking in the rough, punky Mittagspause version or the later, more direct and simplified 1982 D.A.F. remake. Fehlfarben managed to push the punkiness to its borders with a groovy bassline, funky guitar, and squawks of saxophone. D.A.F., in their original five-piece formation, emphasized the electronics and made an unsettling soundscape. Both of these versions express an alienation and eeriness that match the lyrics.

Thanks to Jochen for the mutanten melodien link and the Czech for introducing me to the music in the first place.

P.S. And for something completely different, Stereogum has a great article about the unusual #1 single by the Singing Nun from Belgium in 1963. Be sure to check out the awesome/ridiculous synthpop remake from 1982!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Thom Yorke / Oliver Coates - Live 2018.06.01 Tempodrom, Berlin, Germany

Having been a long-time fan of Radiohead, it might go without saying that I have also tracked Thom Yorke's solo career. Although his various side projects have never quite matched his work with Radiohead, he has always been an interesting figure to follow.

Artist: Thom Yorke
Venue: Tempodrom
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 1 June 2018
Opening Act: Oliver Coates

01. Interference
02. A Brain in a Bottle
03. Impossible Knots
04. Black Swan
05. I Am a Very Rude Person
06. The Clock
07. Two Feet Off the Ground
08. Amok [Atoms for Peace song]
09. Not the News
10. Truth Ray
11. Traffic
12. Twist → Saturdays
13. Pink Section
14. Nose Grows Some
15. Cymbal Rush

First Encore:
16. The Axe
17. Atoms for Peace
18. Default [Atoms for Peace song]

Second Encore:
19. Spectre [Radiohead song]

Oliver Coates is the principle cello with the London Contemporary Orchestra and thus performed a key role on Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool (2016). He opened his solo set with a beautiful traditional piece apparently specifically requested by Thom Yorke. Thereafter, however, he stuck to his own material, which can, in various forms, be described as cello with electronic beats, cello with sorrowful synth, and cello with guitar effects. The latter was the most successful: in the best moments, Coates worked with tones reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine. The downbeat synth tracks were respectable, but perhaps too subdued and restrained. The beats did nothing for me.

Thom Yorke came out with his regular collaborator Nigel Godrich and visual artist Tarik Barri. Godrich has produced Radiohead and Yorke since 1995 and is/was a member of Atoms for Peace. Barri has been collaborating with Yorke for several years now, including on the "City Rats" installation for the ISM Hexadome.

It is unclear exactly what material this tour was intended to focus on; Yorke's last album was Tomorrow's Modern Boxes in 2014. However, since 2015, he's been slowly introducing new songs into his sets, leading some to suspect that a new album is in the works. At this show, he played seven or eight unreleased songs (depending on whether you count "Saturdays" as a unique song) but only five of Boxes' eight tracks. In addition to two songs from Amok (2013, with Atoms for Peace) and four from The Eraser (2006), the biggest surprise was "Spectre", Radiohead's rejected James Bond song.

The show opened on a high note with Yorke sitting at a keyboard for the gradual lead-in to "Interference". After that, he mostly stuck to guitar, bass, and electronics. Godrich mostly stuck to his spot behind a laptop and a stack of electronics, but he also picked up the bass on occasion and sometimes walked over to Yorke's set-up to manipulate something while he was elsewhere. I also caught Godrich adding some heavily processed backing vocals.

The new songs largely followed in the mold of Tomorrow's Modern Boxes: dark, murky electronics with Yorke's wispy, sporadic, manipulated vocals. Any hints of guitar or bass are blended into the mix such as to make the provenance of the sound difficult to determine with certainty. Yorke's beats tend to be unusually punctuated and subtly complex. The sound is primarily electronic, and the rhythm is important, but it's not strictly dance-oriented. There's something vague and obscure about his music that makes it difficult to put your finger on or label conveniently.

The older songs ended up being the predictable highlights simply by virtue of being more deliberate, melodic, and clear. Yorke's politics have always been fairly easy to read if you take the time to listen, but he made that easier in the songs on The Eraser, where the songs have more traditional verse-chorus structures and the lyrics are (relatively) easier to follow and understand. His more recent material tends to be less explicit and more free-flowingly structured.

Barri's visuals ran the gamut of forms and patterns that one could imagine accompanying modern electronic music. It's a good strategy for someone as low-key and reserved as Yorke to have such a strong and varied visual component, because it certainly helps make the scene more interesting. However, Radiohead have always had a great stage and lighting set even when they could get away without it, so Yorke is presumably no stranger to these sorts of considerations. This is why I was a bit disappointed by the "City Rats" installation: I had expected more, and thankfully the visuals at this concert were quite a bit better. The style was substantially different and much more active. Barri didn't seem to follow the rhythms too closely, but the energy with which the visuals moved and developed matched the varying intensity of the music.

While I appreciated Yorke's sense of adventure in trying out so much new material, I didn't find it particularly engaging. His music is enjoyable, but hard for me to focus on. I often found myself drifting and distracted despite my best intentions and legitimate interest. At times I found myself more focused on the visuals than on the sound. Some people tried to dance, but the unusual heat and the humidity of a rainstorm dampened and exasperated the mood of the audience. Yorke's solo work doesn't provide much to hold on to, and the show felt wilted and formless as a result. "Spectre" was quite another matter, but without any accompaniment to the piano and vocals, it too felt robbed of its power.

Oliver Coates: C-
Thom Yorke: C+
Tomorrow's Modern Boxes: C-
Amok (Atoms for Peace): C+
The Eraser: B-

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Johnny Marr - Live 2018.05.21 Festsaal Kreuzberg, Berlin, Germany

I've been waiting for a chance to see Johnny Marr since his comeback in 2013. For some reason I've since forgotten, I missed my chance to see him at Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2013, which was the only time he played somewhere I was living. After the initial hesitation of having to deal with Ticketmaster, I gave in and bought a ticket.

Artist: Johnny Marr
Venue: Festsaal Kreuzberg
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 21 May 2018

01. The Tracers
02. Bigmouth Strikes Again [originally performed by The Smiths]
03. Jeopardy
04. Day In Day Out
05. New Dominions
06. Hi Hello
07. The Headmaster Ritual [originally performed by The Smiths]
08. Walk into the Sea
09. Getting Away with It [originally performed by Electronic with Neil Tennant]
10. Bug
11. Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me [originally performed by The Smiths]
12. Easy Money
13. Boys Get Straight
14. Rise
15. How Soon Is Now? [originally performed by The Smiths]

16. Actor Attractor
17. Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want [originally performed by The Smiths]
18. New Town Velocity
19. There Is a Light That Never Goes Out [originally performed by The Smiths]

After years of collaborative projects, Johnny Marr's debut solo album Boomslang (2003; credited to Johnny Marr + the Healers) was lackluster and hasn't aged well. Marr tends to ignore it, perhaps deservedly so, and prefers to count his albums starting with The Messenger from 2013. It's a respectable album with a refreshing burst of energy and enthusiasm, even if the second half doesn't hold up to the first. This was followed quite rapidly by Playland (2014), which mostly followed in the same vein, albeit less successfully. Adrenalin Baby, a live album from 2015, was rather unexciting except for the Smiths songs, "Getting Away with It", and "I Fought the Law". Marr then took a break for a couple years. He hasn't yet released his new album, Call the Comet, but the two advance singles are telling: "The Tracers" picks up where Playland left off, and "Hi Hello" is a moodier number with a guitar line that quotes from "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out".

The concert was just about what I expected: a bunch of new songs, a few cuts from recent albums, and several classic Smiths renditions. The new songs were decent; a few were noticeably dancier, the singles were particularly strong, and a couple were a bit dull. It was a lot of new material, but it didn't wear me down. However, I was surprised that they only played three songs from previous albums. The Messenger had a number of songs that I would've gladly seen on the stage.

The Smiths songs (and "Getting Away with It") were the natural highlights. None of the choices were a surprise (except for maybe "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me"), but they were all executed with skill and taste. They played the songs fairly conventionally, with Marr singing with Morrissey's meter and melody, but without his flair and whimsy. In each case, the songs were slightly extended or rearranged to emphasize the instrumental guitar jams.

As always, most of Marr's instrumental breaks weren't necessarily what you would call a solo. He didn't bother with any wailing or shredding. He focused on melody, emotive phrases, atmosphere, crescendoing energy, and interplay with his bandmates. (These are the marks of a truly skilled guitarist!) Instead of aggression and pure showmanship, he worked with mood and texture. This has been less obvious in his solo work, but still present. When he plays the Smiths songs live, it's an impressive sight and sound to behold.

His backing band was solid, even if they mostly kept to the background. It's the same crew that appears to have been backing him since 2013: James Doviak on guitars, keyboards, and backing vocals; Iwan Gronow on bass and backing vocals; and Jack Mitchell on drums. The backing vocals were a nice touch, but they rarely tried anything as fanciful as harmony. Doviak's guitarwork was occasionally indistinguishable from Marr's, although he never took a solo. He mostly played the strummed or jangling patterns that underpin the songs, but he regularly committed the unnecessary sin of using an acoustic emulator with his electric guitar instead of just playing a proper acoustic guitar. The band used samples for some parts, although thankfully not for "How Soon Is Now?" (as far as I could tell!).

Marr's recent solo albums were hailed as returning to his classic style, despite that in reality they sound more similar to the Britpop and alt-rock that was inspired by The Smiths. There's less subtlety, less acoustic guitar, more dance-oriented drums and production, and a thicker layer of sound. The bass and drums, while not without their moments, lack the finesse and delicate interplay of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. Marr's vocal style is not particularly similar to Morrissey's, and he thankfully doesn't try to copy it. Lyrically, he clearly has ideas, although he doesn't always find the best means of expressing them.

Both Morrissey and Marr initially declined to play Smiths songs after the breakup of the band, and both also seemed to consciously move into other styles. Morrissey slowly let Smiths songs back into his repertoire in the mid-90s and 00s, but Marr waited until 2013 to play them again. While Morrissey has had his ups and downs over the years, Marr has kept a steady pace, albeit less prominently. His years of consistent hard work may be paying off. In light of Morrissey's worsening public stature and meager recent albums, Marr seems to have become the proper heir to the Smiths crown at present.

[Making use of the disco ball for "Getting Away with It".]

The concert: B+
The Messenger: B
Playland: C+
Adrenalin Baby: C

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Tarik Barri & Thom Yorke / René Löwe & Pfadfinderei - ISM Hexadome 2018.04.07

Installation: "The P!eace" and "City Rats", ISM Hexadome
Artists: René Löwe & Pfadfinderei, Tarik Barri & Thom Yorke
Venue: Martin-Gropius-Bau
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 7 April 2018

Despite being less than impressed by Brian Eno's installation at the ISM Hexadome, I returned again to the space to see what Thom Yorke and his partner in visual arts, Tarik Barri, had to offer. I came just as their installation was ending and thus just in time to catch the other team's work in full.

[Pfadfinderei's asteroids and lemon wedges.]

Pfandfinderei's visuals were nothing revolutionary, but they were fun and they certainly looked cool. They used three projections, each duplicated once. They started in a space setting before descending into an impressive cloudy region. That eventually cleared up to reveal a colorful moon-like landscape with occasional bursts of what looked like sliced lemon wedges. This was followed by a rather cheesy space city, a brief section of even cheesier graphs and charts (disappointingly not even synced to the music), and then a return to asteroids and space. While there was nothing unpredictable besides the lemons, most of the imagery simply looked great.

[Pfadfinderei's space city.]

René Löwe's music was well-suited to the visuals. The style was fairly conventional faux-futuristic or pseudo-space-age electronica. There was a steady beat throughout and warm washes and pulses as befit the imagery. The music maintained a fairly regular energy level throughout, although there were a few dips during transitions and a loud swell near the end. Their installation lasted about 20 minutes, and I could've gladly absorbed more.

[Tarik Barri's light beams.]

Tarik Barri and Thom Yorke started out much slower and lower-key. Barri's visuals were initially almost completely dark with only occasional spreads of yellowish light. Occasionally, a brief snatch of Yorke's face would appear. This may have been hampered by the fact that it was daytime and some light come in from outside, but there wasn't much to see. The switch to 90s screensaver-style colored light beams didn't help. After what seemed like a long time, things finally started to pick up when multiple copies of Yorke's face started appearing, often smeared and distorted by clouds of smoke. These effects were far more interesting than the rest of the visuals, but they didn't last long before being replaced with less exciting closeups and manipulations of Yorke's face. This gradually faded back to the initial light spreads and eventually into darkness.

[Tarik Barri's replication of Thom Yorke's head with smoke effects. This was the best my phone camera could do; it looked significantly better in person.]

Yorke's music was similarly minimal for most of the installation. It started with sparse synth lines and simple repeated vocals phrases such as "in your headlights" and "I woke up with a feeling that I could not shake". While I thought the former might have been an allusion to Yorke's 1998 collaboration with Unkle, "Rabbit in Your Headlights", this was not pursued any further. Around the same time the visuals were building up, the music followed suit, with a bit of an actual beat and a more intense layer of vocals and cold synth lines.

Their installation lasted about 30 minutes and felt slow. I can appreciate a build-up, but I don't think that's quite what they were going for. I liked that they used all six projectors independently without repeating, although there was so little going on for most of it that they still felt underutilized. Yorke's music also took advantage of the web of speakers around and above the installation. While Eno's music sounded mono and Löwe's seemed to have just a slight sense of space, Yorke played around with throwing his voice around the sound stage. Combined with Barik's six-projector visuals, it made for a much more immersive experience. Unfortunately, that still didn't quite make up for the less exciting elements of their presentation.

René Löwe & Pfadfinderei's "The P!eace": B
Tarik Barri & Thom Yorke's "City Rats": C+

Monday, April 2, 2018

Brian Eno - Empty Formalism, ISM Hexadome 2018.04.02

Installation: "Empty Formalism", ISM Hexadome
Artist: Brian Eno
Venue: Martin-Gropius-Bau
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 2 April 2018

The Institute for Sound and Music is a new organization in Berlin devoted to honoring the creation of electronic music and sound. Their first large project is the Hexadome, an installation featuring six projectors and a network of speakers for which a series of artists have created unique works. Brian Eno's "Empty Formalism" is the first installation for the Hexadome. It opened on March 29th and runs until April 5th.

Eno's installation consisted two gradually changing visual patterns, each repeated on three projectors, and characteristic minimalist ambient music. The projections were mostly colorful concentric circles with subtle texture, occasionally interspersed with thick, straight bars. Close study revealed a minor lack of symmetry between the right and left sides, but this may have been unintentional. There was a hint of a line at about two-thirds the way up the projectors that was also presumably unintended. Otherwise there was little to discern. The music consisted of long, low drones, high-range tinkles, and occasional rumbles and washes. There was no beat or melody.

Eno described the work as meaningless by design, asking the audience to appreciate the visuals just for what they are, as is usually the case with music, as opposed to trying to "understand" the work, as is typically expected with visual art. While the notion is valid, the practical implication leaves something to be desired. I sat for an hour in a room with fifty other people, all staring blankly or appearing to meditate. There was nothing distasteful or offensive, but little to pull me in or hold my attention. It would've been pleasant or peaceful or even escapist if I could've erased my awareness of everyone around me. As it was, it was merely a mostly quiet, oddly lit, slightly awkward space that made for merely passable contemplation.

Score: C-

Further Reading: