Sunday, October 21, 2018

Leo Grande - Live 2018.10.20 Prachtwerk, Berlin, Germany

Artist: Leo Grande
Venue: Prachtwerk
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 20 October 2018

Leo Grande played the first night of their German tour in their hometown at the cozy Prachtwerk. Antonio Hoffman led the group with acoustic guitar and vocals, preferring a folky fingerpicking style over anything heavy. His vocals were stronger than I was expecting, although his annunciation was casual and loose such that I didn't quite catch every word. The lyrics were in German, and from what I could I understand, they were personal but amusing and often focused on social connection and understanding. Their looming cover of Ton Stein Scherben's "Mein Name ist Mensch" ("My Name Is Human") fit right into their themes.

However, Leo Grande was far more than just a singer/singwriter with a backing band. The interplay of all four musicians was what made their performance successful. Jonathan Kirchgeßner played keyboards that sometimes kept to the shadows but often swelled with drama. His tones set the mood of their songs towards darkness or light. Raffael Bernhardt supplied superb harmonies while holding down an upright bass. His variety of techniques meant that the bass was more than just filler for the low end. Andrea Zuliani also offered a mix of styles and rhythms with his drumset that kept the pace from being monotonous.

Their style was jazzy, but not just because of the upright bass and the brushes on the drums. It was more about how the musicians worked together to construct a cohesive and compelling sound without getting lost in pretentious complexity or pandering with simplistic clichés. Their sense of balance was essential: Antonio took a few brief solos, but for the most part, they played off each other and just let the instrumentals build up together. That feeling of collaboration was what made them special. No one member was the star: they all had something to contribute.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Cure - Mixed Up reissue (1990/2018)

Mixed Up was the last Cure album that I purchased. I was never particularly excited about it. I mean, a remix album? Of a post-punk or alt-rock band? Why? But in truth, it is an interesting prospect, especially with some of the re-recordings and the presence of a new song, "Never Enough". And as the latest edition of the protracted reissue series by the Cure, there's now even more material with which to debate the relative merits of the album.

Artist: The Cure
Album: Mixed Up
Release Date: 5 November 1990, reissued 22 June 2018
Label: Fiction (UK), Elektra (US)
Producer: Robert Smith, Chris Parry, Mark Saunders, Dave Allen

Disc 1 (original album):
01. Lullaby [Extended Mix]
02. Close to Me [Closer Mix]
03. Fascination Street [Extended Mix]
04. The Walk [Everything Mix]
05. Lovesong [Extended Mix]
06. A Forest [Tree Mix]
07. Pictures of You [Extended Dub Mix]
08. Hot Hot Hot!!! [Extended Mix]
09. The Caterpillar [Flicker Mix]
10. In Between Days [Shiver Mix]
11. Never Enough [Big Mix]

Disc 2 (Mixed Up Extras: Remixes 1982-1990):
01. Let's Go to Bed [Extended Mix]
02. Just One Kiss [Extended Mix]
03. Close to Me [Extended Mix]
04. Boys Don't Cry [New Voice Club Mix]
05. Why Can't I Be You? [Extended Mix]
06. A Japanese Dream [12" Remix]
07. Pictures of You [Extended Version]
08. Let's Go to Bed [Milk Mix]
09. Just Like Heaven [Dizzy Mix]
10. Primary [Red Mix]
11. The Lovecats [TC & Benny 12" Remix]

Disc 3 (Torn Down):
01. Three Imaginary Boys [Help Me Mix]
02. M [Attack Mix]
03. The Drowning Man [Bright Birds Mix]
04. A Strange Day [Drowning Waves Mix]
05. Just One Kiss [Remember Mix]
06. Shake Dog Shake [New Blood Mix]
07. A Night Like This [Hello Goodbye Mix]
08. Like Cockatoos [Lonely in the Rain Mix]
09. Plainsong [Edge of the World Mix]
10. Never Enough [Time to Kill Mix]
11. From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea [Love in Vain Mix]
12. Want [Time Mix]
13. The Last Day of Summer [31st August Mix]
14. Cut Here [If Only Mix]
15. Lost [Found Mix]
16. It's Over [Whisper Mix]

The Cure had always described Mixed Up as a way to lighten up, take a break, and do something fun after the doom and gloom of Disintegration and the long, intense Prayer tour that followed. They may have succeeded, and certainly much of the album is upbeat, but the irony is that all four of the singles from Disintegration appeared in some version of Mixed Up. "Never Enough" might be fairly uptempo, but the truth is that the Cure have always had a dark side and a light side, and Mixed Up just continued to demonstrate the myriad ways that the band intermingled their dichotomies. The full triple-disc reissue offers plenty more of both old and new remixes, and I will proceed to break down the contents.

The original album was dominated by the Disintegration remixes. Three of them, "Lullaby", "Fascination Street", and "Lovesong", are simply the extended 12" versions. All three are perfectly fine, but don't offer substantially more than the original versions other than just being longer. "Pictures of You", however, is instead the slightly more obscure "Extended Dub Mix", originally labeled the "Strange Mix", a proper remix featuring a new arrangement of the bass and drums. It's not an improvement over the original per se, but it does successfully change the feel of the song.

The first two singles from Mixed Up are unsurprisingly probably the most successful tracks. "Never Enough" is the only new song, an ironically guitar-heavy affair. It's a little over the top, but it's a decent song that seems like a radical departure from anything on Disintegration. The "Big Mix" seems like less of a remix than just the full, unedited version of the recording. "Close to Me [Closer Mix]" mostly just features a baggy drum beat, and for some reason it works better than I would've guessed.

The third single, "A Forest [Tree Mix]", was apparently a re-recording. The multitracks for that and "The Walk" couldn't be found, so both were entirely remade for this album. Both are more direct and aggressive that the originals. "A Forest" has new guitar parts and effects, and "The Walk [Everything Mix]" has more modern synth sounds and a faster-paced drum machine.

The remaining tracks from the original album are the least impressive. "Hot Hot Hot!!! [Extended Mix]" was never a great song to begin with, just an absurd funk workout. This mix is the same version from the 12" single from 1988 and there isn't much more to it. "The Caterpillar [Flicker Mix]" and "Inbetween Days [Shiver Mix]" are both proper new remixes, but neither really works. "The Caterpillar" is sparse, spacey, and weird. "Inbetween Days" has new drums, electronics, and even some more guitar and bass. It takes the song in a much different direction that loses most of the pure but confused joy of the original.

One remix from the original double vinyl/cassette release of Mixed Up has never appeared on the CD versions. The original excuse was that it exceeded the 74-minute limit of the time, but now that the limit is upwards of 80 minutes, the excuse no longer holds. However, the band at least put "Why Can't I Be You? [Extended Mix]" on the second disc, Mixed Up Extras: Remixes 1982-1990. That said, it's another song that I was never fond of in the first place, and the remix is overlong and tedious. It too was taken straight from the original 12" single in 1987.

Most of the second disc is focused on collecting these assorted 12" remixes, which was supposedly one of the original motivating factors behind the original release. Now that the band has finally followed through with that, it makes for quite a nice collector's piece. "Let's Go to Bed [Extended Mix]" and "Just One Kiss [Extended Mix]" are decent early 80s mixes that are pleasant if unexciting. "Close to Me [Extended Mix]" is a highlight if for no other reason than the big brass section solo by Rent Party. "Boys Don't Cry [New Voice Club Mix]" is a bit of an overlooked obscurity. With vocals resung by Smith in 1986, it's a weird blend of old and new. "A Japanese Dream [12" Remix]", originally the 12" b-side to "Why Can't I Be You?", is another highlight. It's nothing dramatically different, and yet there is something exciting in both its energy and the relative rarity of the track itself. "Pictures of You [Extended Mix]" is the "other" original 12" single version. It's only barely longer than the album version, but the structure and arrangement are slightly different. However, it is still quite straightforward in comparison to the "Strange Mix".

The last four tracks from the second disc are b-sides from the remix singles and an actual outtake. None are labeled as re-recordings, but the older songs sound like they could be, especially considering that other "remixes" of early tracks were. "Let's Go to Bed [Milk Mix]", originally the 12" b-side of "Never Enough", is much more electronic and dance-oriented. It's actually a compelling arrangement. "Just Like Heaven [Dizzy Mix]", originally a b-side of the "Close to Me" remix single (and later on Join the Dots from 2004), is oddly short for a remix and rather unexciting. It has different drums that sap its energy and a stereotypical breakdown. "Primary [Red Mix]", the 12" b-side from the same single, is more interesting. It's an aggressive remix with heavy guitars and a very different sound from the original. "The Lovecats [TC & Benny Mix]" is an obscure track that once appeared on the online-only Greatest Hits Rarities in 2001. In addition to the peppy percussion, it features a jarring distorted guitar part.

Oddly, three of the historical 12" remixes are still missing from this reissue: "Primary", "The Lovecats", and "Inbetween Days". The liner notes claim they will be available digitally, but so far this has not borne out to be true. However, these were the three weakest remixes the band ever released, so this isn't exactly a big loss. There are also a ton of 7" mixes that have never been assembled in one place, but most are barely different than the album versions, and many are on Galore (1997) and Greatest Hits (2001). Several other interesting remixes released on Join the Dots have also not been reproduced here (which is fine): "Icing Sugar [Remix]", "Hey You!!! [12" Extended Remix]", and "How Beautiful You Are [Remix]". "Harold and Joe", a new song released as a b-side of "Never Enough", was also collected there. Also missing, of course, are any remixes from Wish (1992) or thereafter. And what happened to "Let's Go to Bed [12" Duke Remix]", the other obscure, largely unexplained remix from Greatest Hits Rarities?

The third disc, Torn Down, is a collection of new remixes by Robert Smith. The originally announced plan was to have other artists remix the Cure's songs, but that was scrapped for unknown reasons. Smith's arbitrary restrictions were to choose one song per "album" (defined loosely) and to generally keep the song structures and lyrics intact. That doesn't leave a lot left to work with. However, Smith mentioned finding unused elements that didn't make it to the final mixes that he tried to work in. He also (almost across the board) redid the drums to sound more modern and added various forms of electronics.

The disc starts quite strongly. The first four tracks are all substantial departures from the original recordings. One again wonders if they were actually re-recordings, considering the reasons cited for why other early tracks were re-recorded for Mixed Up. However, the liner notes deny that. In any case, these versions sound contemporary without being cheesy or overdone. They blend the updated drums and electronics with creative reuse of the original elements. "The Drowning Man [Bright Birds Mix]" is a rare case where the remix is actually markedly better than the original. It feels like the logical conclusion of where the song was going. It sounds grand, dark, dreamy, and beautiful.

After that, though, the quality starts to decline. Few of the remixes offer any improvements over the originals. "Just One Kiss [Remember Mix]", "Like Cockatoos [Lonely in the Rain Mix]", and (surprisingly) "Want [Time Mix]" are the only ones that get interesting, but even those still aren't better than the originals. Most are just slightly different seemingly for the sake of being different. That isn't always bad, but in almost every case, it's a downgrade. "A Night Like This [Hello Goodbye Mix]" sounds dated and silly. "Plainsong [Edge of the World Mix]" is more relaxed, but without the epic scope of the original, it looses something. "Cut Here [If Only Mix]", clearly an important and personal song for Smith, is the epitome of a remix done simply for the sake of doing a remix. There are plenty of subtle differences in the mix, but every single one is a downgrade.

The original album was always a mixed bag, which is usually the case with remixes and remix albums. Mixed Up feels like an aberration for the band, but that's exactly what makes it interesting. It doesn't quite succeed in being an enjoyable listen from start to finish, but at least the interesting ideas slightly outweigh the embarrassing parts. Mixed Up Extras: Remixes 1982-1990 actually makes for a marginally more satisfying listen because the average quality ended up being higher. Torn Down is the other way around: a few tracks succeed with flying colors, but most fall flat. The high points of the whole package still manage to make it worth it for a dedicated fan, but no casual listener will be interested in sorting through so many second-rate remixes to find the gems.

Original album: C+
Mixed Up Extras: Remixes 1982-1990: B-
Torn Down: C-
Entire reissue: C+

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Ian Fisher / Antoine Villoutreix - Live 2018.10.06 Privatclub, Berlin, Germany

Artist: Ian Fisher
Venue: Privatclub
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 6 October 2018
Opening Act: Antoine Villoutreix

01. Idle Hands
02. Tables Turn
03. Icarus
04. Road to Jordan
05. My Eyes Have Seen the Glory
06. I Could Do Wrong
07. Rotted on the Vine
08. Change of Heart
09. Why Do I Go?
10. Nero
11. All Ya Need
12. Koffer
13. Candles for Elvis
14. If I Could Buy You
15. Long Line

16. Bed Downtown
17. Tears in Dust

The show opened with singer/singwriter/guitarist Antoine Villoutreix, accompanied by Karsten Lipp on lead guitar. Antoine's songs appear deceptively simple, but his lyrics are subtle, clever, and humorous if you listen closely. To be fair, I can only speak for the parts in German and English; he also sings plenty in his native French that is opaque to me. But even when I couldn't understand the words, his gift for melody and catchy songwriting craft carried the songs just fine. Lipp's guitarwork was an excellent addition as well. He played just the right parts to underpin the songs without overwhelming them, and he filled the instrumental breaks with proficient solos.

Ian Fisher appeared with a complete band: Ryan Thomas Carpenter on keyboards, guitar, and backing vocals; Andreas Laudwein on bass and backing vocals; Ollie Samland on pedal steel; and Camillo Jenny on drums. They started out by playing several songs from the new album, Idle Hands. The title track was a strong opener. The smart lyrics were only reinforced by an extra edge in the live performance. "Tables Turn" marks a turning point in songwriting and arrangement for Ian, showcasing his ability to stretch into classic pop and simultaneously push forward. "Road to Jordan" followed suit. "Icarus" and "My Eyes Have Seen the Glory" are conspicuously slower and sparser, but show growth in being able to make the minimalism work with getting tiresome.

After playing about half the new album, everyone left except for Ian and Ryan. They played three songs from the 2013 album Ian Fisher & the Present, which also featured just the two of them. It was a delightful throwback. Ryan switched to guitar and they shared a mic. Their guitars and voices still blend just as sublimely as they did five years ago. There is still a special place in my heart for Ian's acoustic folk, even if I also enjoy his growth and development with a full band into a wider array of styles. I also liked that Ian slightly changed the arrangement of the old songs by playing a 12-string guitar.

Ollie returned to the stage for "Nero", the opening track of Ian's album of the same name from 2015. It was a slow build that demonstrated the dynamic power of Ian's voice. For "All Ya Need", Ryan stepped off but Andreas and Camillo returned. Ryan rejoined to complete the full band for a rousing take on "Koffer". The arrangement was somewhere between the tightly produced, almost electro-sounding studio recording and the original acoustic demo (both of which, incidentally, appear on Koffer from 2016). The band also gave us a strong rendition of Ian's signature song "Candles for Elvis", dedicating it in protest to Donald Trump. Again, they played a new arrangement that was slightly different than any of the three studio versions Ian has released over the years.

Ian and the band then proceeded to complete their performance of Idle Hands. "Long Line" and "Bed Downtown" were both already strong on the album, but live they had even more energy. "Bed Downtown" in particular shone, giving extra time to contemplate the moral ambiguity with a bit of a noisy jam at the end. I think it was Ollie's pedal steel that was given a chance to wield some effects and get weird. For "Tears in Dust", everyone left but Ian and Ryan, who played a synthesized string part to match the arrangement on the record. It was a beautiful way to finish.

Ian Fisher's latest step into stately, carefully crafted, Americana-inflected pop turned out quite successfully, and the transition to the stage went off without a hitch. His humor was on display as well, and the interplay with Ryan and the rest of the band was fun. The extensive use of 12-string guitar along with the other subtle changes to the old songs meant there were plenty of extra touches to keep things interesting. Ian continues to impress me no matter what direction he takes.

P.S. If you want to catch a taste of the live band (albeit without Ryan), check out their set recorded just a few days ago for Radio Zwei in Bremen.

P.P.S. Thanks to Alyssa, Laurent, and Eva!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Beach House / Sound of Ceres - Live 2018.10.02 Huxleys Neue Welt, Berlin, Germany

Artist: Beach House
Venue: Huxleys Neue Welt
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 2 October 2018
Opening Act: Sound of Ceres

01. Levitation
02. Wild
03. Dark Spring
04. Lazuli
05. Beyond Love
06. Wishes
07. L'Inconnue
08. 10 Mile Stereo
09. Pay No Mind
10. Sparks
11. Drunk in LA
12. Space Song
13. Girl of the Year
14. Master of None
15. Myth
16. Lemon Glow

17. Real Love
18. Dive

Sound of Ceres opened the show and immediately got weird. Their four members remained mostly motionless behind their instruments and produced an ethereal, mostly synthesized, heavily effected haze that drew strongly on Cocteau Twins and the night's headliners. The music was warm and pleasant, but not particularly captivating. The main attraction was their light show. They used a set of focused lights to generate figures of light on the center of the stage. With each song, the patterns changed and developed. The singer increasingly interacted with the lights as well and frequently played as if she were summoning the figures herself. While most of the stage was shrouded in darkness, they used fog machines, bright spotlights directed at wispy garments, and flashlights rhythmically pointed across the venue.

The weirdest element was that between some songs, two of the members enacted dramatic readings with some sound effects. The words didn't make much sense and the theatrics came off as rather cheesy and overly earnest. I didn't get the point. I'll take Golden Dawn Arkestra's focused messages of love and environmentalism any day, but this lacked clarity and intention.

Beach House also relied on an unusual light display, although it was different than what they used on their last tour. They kept the stage mostly dark, but used spotlights to periodically light the band from behind or at oblique angles. The video screen behind them occasionally showed psychedelic patterns similar to the album artwork of their latest album, 7, and their recent music videos. During a few of the songs, the screens even showed the band members. However, the cameras were pointed at their instruments and their hands without showing their complete bodies.

The band appeared as a three-piece: the two core members and drummer James Barone. Unlike the last tour, there was no bassist or additional keyboardist. Instead, there was a conspicuous use of more samples and prerecorded backing tracks. It was rarely distracting or detracting, and they've always used drum machines and some backing tracks, but it did occasionally contribute to a sense of rigidity and stiffness.

On record, Beach House presumably spend a great deal of time and focus on sounding large and dense. Their arrangements are rarely especially complex, yet they are mixed to sound full and thick without being overly compressed. It's an impressive feat that contributes to why I like them so much. On stage, they presumably try to reproduce that effect, but it's harder to do so as effectively. I've complained before that sometimes it sounds like something was missing in some of their live performances, and this time it was only exacerbated by the lack of a fourth performer. This was most noticeable at the start, when something seemed wrong with the mix. In particular, Alex Scally's guitar was too quiet.

The setlist demonstrated their standard practice of mixing old and new songs rather unpredictably, although there was still some overlap with the two shows I'd seen before. They don't have a bad song in their catalog, and they played several of my favorites alongside seven new songs. While it's hard to complain about that, I was hoping we might get something from the B-Sides and Rarities compilation released last year or some of the more obscure songs from their first two albums. I was also surprised that they didn't play anything from their previous album, Thank Your Lucky Stars (2015).

By and large, despite some minor complaints, Beach House still came across as powerful and enveloping. Their songs are often on the long side and yet they never get boring or tired. While some of the renditions felt slightly different than on record, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Some songs just had a different energy to them, and "10 Mile Stereo" and "Dive" ended with extended, noisy jams. Even if there were some occasional lapses in their wall of sound, it was easy to just get lost in the field and enjoy the experience.

Sound of Ceres: B-
Beach House: A-
B-Sides and Rarities: B
7: A-

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!