Sunday, July 18, 2010

Live: Pavement, 6/25/10

Live Review:

Greek Theatre, Berkeley, CA 6/25/2010

Maybe Pavement ran out of money, or maybe they just got sick of not being Pavement. I'm guessing the latter. But despite what an un-"indie" and masturbatory undertaking a reunion tour can be, Pavement would be in character not giving a fuck either way. For those unfamiliar, Pavement's greatest non-musical accomplishment was igniting an amusingly one-sided feud with Billy Corgan over a line in this song (seriously, Billy?). The fact that Pavement endures, while Corgan seems to be keeping very busy embarrassing himself in public, is testament to the triumph of not taking yourself too seriously.

At the risk of diving into a gaping nostalgia trap, I went all the way to Berkeley for this one. These days I go to shows to hear music I haven't heard before, so it was a different experience, being one of about a thousand people who showed up to do precisely the opposite.

Then again, timeless as their music is, Pavement's heyday was before my time. I'd never seen them live before. As I suspected all along, that's the way their music is meant to be heard. So this was a new experience for me after all. What justifies their oh-so-90's slacker aesthetic is just how good they are, making it all look like they're not even trying. Especially Stephen Malkmus, who's got some amazing guitar chops but never tries to call attention to himself with that lookatmelookatmei'msucharockstar stage presence so pervasive among rock stars.

I could go on gushing, but I wouldn't be helping my case. The moral of the story is that seeing Pavement live is one for your bucket list. Some key data on this show: Original drummer Gary Young appeared and played for a few songs. I didn't catch their complete set list, but it included:

Cut Your Hair
Gold Sounds
Zurich is Stained
Rattled by The Rush
Range Life
Shady Lane
We Dance
Stop Breathin
Trigger Cut
Box Elder
(a new song?)
Two States
Summer Babe (Winter Version)

The opener was Quasi, a band I respect, though their music has never done a lot for me. It's always fun to see Janet Weiss's chops on the drums (See also: Sleater-Kinney, plus Malkmus' other band, The Jicks). This time, Quasi included Joanna Bolme on the bass (also a Jick).

A little nostalgia for your dome:

Monday, June 21, 2010

Live: Delorean, Teengirl Fantasy, Big Spider's Back, 6/6/10

Live Review:
Teengirl Fantasy
Big Spider's Back

Chop Suey, Seattle, WA 6/6/10

Late, yes, but I saw Delorean & Guests at Chop Suey. It was rad.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Live: Fuck Buttons, White Rainbow, 5/16/10

Live Review:
Fuck Buttons
White Rainbow

Chop Suey, Seattle, WA 5/16/10

On Sunday the 16th, I saw Fuck Buttons perform at Chop Suey. The opener was Portland-based White Rainbow. It was really rad.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

LIve: The Globes, Skeletons With Flesh On Them, Kids and Animals, PWRFL Power, 5/15/10

Live Review:
The Globes
Skeletons With Flesh On Them
Kids and Animals

Healthy Times Fun Club, Seattle, WA 4/15/10

There was another band that I missed, apologies if you are that band.

Not a lot of time for blogging lately; when I'm not busy working, practicing music, going to shows, playing Sega Genesis, dancing naked to Cocteau Twins or going on drunken group bike rides, well... There aren't a lot of those moments. I didn't even blog the my previous visit to HTFC; I may have to put a blurb in for it, just to make a record of it.

 So: To be brief: PWRFL Power: Twee as fuck, great songs, awesome use of awesome guitar chops. Kids and Animals: Fun stuff, Modest Mousey, youthful, energetic, all in all pretty good. Skeletons With Flesh On Them: Solid band, alt-countryish, solid performers, good songs. The Globes: I really dug The Globes. Super-tight performance, with a wall-of-sound gazeyness that reminded me a lot of Deerhunter.

Useful Internet links:

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Live: Typhoon, Last Slice of Butter, Universal Studios Florida, 4/30/10

Concert Review
Last Slice of Butter
Universal Studios Florida

Healthy Times Fun Club, Seattle, WA 4/30/2010

For my most recent visit to HTFC, I had the pleasure of seeing Typhoon, a young Portland band I'd never heard before. Their music is pretty, folksy, dramatic and earnest, like a lot of music I listened to a few years ago (Sufjan Stevens fans, take note). Not what I typically listen to these days - but their musicianship, complexity and originality won me over quickly. It wouldn't be for everyone, but it would take a hellishly jaded hipster not to be melted by them at least a bit before the end of the show. The band featured two drummers, two violinists, two guitarists, bass, some miscellaneous percussion (kitchenware included), an accordion, two trumpets, and likely some things I'm forgetting. This show comes on heels of a tour with French post-rock titan Yann Tiersen, best known for his work on the Amelie soundtrack.

Typhoon stole the show, but the evening saw a good performance from Universal Studios Florida, a pair of UW students well-known in the Seattle DIY scene, whose sunny, glitchy, loopy electronica earned them a Pitchfork interview in September. Second on the list was the very loud bass/drums duo Last Slice of Butter, who showed some great chops and an energetic performance.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Live: Spoon, Deerhunter, Micachu & The Shapes, 4/9/10

Spoon - Moore Theatre, Seattle, WA 4/9/2010
Plus Guests:
Micachu & The Shapes

Trying to learn from past experience, I brought a pair of earplugs to this show. Last time I saw Spoon live, before they released the album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, it was at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, and it was one of the loudest shows I've ever seen. This time, the earplugs never got out of their little box in my pocket. From my nosebleed seat in Seattle's Moore Theater, originally an opulent 1920s movie palace, I didn't need them. I might not have needed them had I been in the front row. The fact that a front row existed in the first place, not to mention the sound volume, signaled just how much Spoon's fan base has evolved in its growth since 2006. This production seemed to be catering to the fiftysomething crowd.

This was not lost on Deerhunter's Bradford Cox. The minute he stepped up to the microphone, he had one look at the rows of folding chairs on the floor, and said something like, "This is the weirdest shit I've ever seen." And later, "What is this, the Seattle High School talent show?" In the past, pairing Spoon and Deerhunter might not have been so odd. I imagine that Spoon ten years ago might have been something like Deerhunter today: Young, up-and-coming, fresh, hungry, new.

Fortunately, although Spoon's fans now include the normie crowd, the band is as eccentric as ever. On their latest album, Transference, Spoon shows as untouchable a talent as before for playing old-school rock 'n' roll that still somehow sounds new and hip. I wasn't too sure this would be the case after Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, their most radio-friendly but least interesting effort to date. On stage, while always excellent performers, they've only improved. They played a long set spanning most of their career (I was a little disappointed they didn't play "Metal Detektor" or any other songs earlier than 2001's Girls Can Tell). Singer Britt Daniel's unique brand of stage presence adds an entertaining touch. He's as cool and confident on stage as any singer I've seen. My first time seeing Spoon, I was with a friend who had a huge rock-star crush on him. When he walked into the lobby, she blushed and hid behind me. It's just unfair.

While Spoon didn't disappoint, Deerhunter was the band I came to see. While not so polished as Spoon, they brought an energy and edginess foreign to Spoon's newer work. Despite some things going wrong (a guitar amp died midway through their set) they worked through it well. At first, they stuck to some of their most accessible material. I was especially pleased to hear "Hazel Street," one of my favorite of their songs, but I was also hoping to hear the likes of "Cryptograms," "Microcastle," "White Ink," or something of that weird streak. At first, Deerhunter stuck to more accessible material.

Then they blew my mind. What started as a cover of The Stooges' "I Want To Be Your Dog" morphed into a long, noisy, wild jam, with Cox giving an improvised speech on Curt Cobain, noting that the anniversary of Cobain's death had only been a few days earlier. In Seattle, where Nirvana T-shirts are sold in tourist shops alongside "Sleepless in Seattle" baseball caps, Cobain is fetishized in exactly the way that arguably drove him to suicide. So hearing references to Cobain can get a little tiresome, but not coming from Cox, someone who clearly has a genuine appreciation for Nirvana, who spent his whole day crying at age 12 when he heard the news. "I never thought I'd live to be 27," said Cox, who is now 27 (as am I), Cobain's age at death. He said things like, "I used to dream that Kurt Cobain would come from the sky with his flaming guitar and split open the heads of the kids who used to make me suck their dicks." Heavy stuff.

Micachu & The Shapes also put on a noteworthy performance. Hailing from the U.K. with a DIY vibe, they're a band I'd like to learn more about.

My only major complaint about the event: While Spoon got excellent audio treatment, it sounded like the sound engineer was taking a nap during Deerhunter's and Micachu & The Shapes' sets. Certainly most people came to see Spoon, but you've got to give a little love to the openers.

Watch: Jonathon Fisk by Spoon

"I Turn My Camera On" by Spoon

Hazel St. by Deerhunter (unofficial video?)

"Golden Phone" by Micachu & The Shapes

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Album Review: Atlas Sound - Logos

Atlas Sound
4AD / Kranky, 2009
Paul’s Rating: 8.5/10

I’ve listened to this album many times over during the past several weeks, yet it’s difficult to know where to begin reviewing it. I think I’ve figured out why: Writing about any Bradford Cox project almost invariably turns into a biography on Cox himself. Atlas Sound – arguably even more so than Cox’s more famous band, Deerhunter – Is the Bradford Cox project. At least, this is the one for which Cox is sole proprietor. As Cox’ Wikipedia bio indicates, it has been since he was a child. And this time, he’s brought some friends along, most notably Animal Collective’s Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier.

From the very start, if not for the distinct tremor of Cox’s voice, this would not easily be mistaken for a Deerhunter album. Opening track “The Light That Failed” slowly churns around a delicate acoustic guitar riff, incorporating high-pitched bells and thundering bass with not a lot in between. In doing so, it trades Deerhunter’s shoegazey wall-of-sound density for an expansiveness traditional rock instrumentation could not easily create.

The guest appearances do stick out. The two opening tracks almost go out of their way to avoid hooks. They manage – barely – to dovetail into “Walkabout,” in which Lennox makes his appearance. Catchy and melodic, it sounds like a Panda Bear song, not an Atlas Sound song. It makes the album difficult to parse, because it’s a great song.

It’s at this point one gets the idea that if Cox the auteur does have some grand vision, it’s much more apparent through Deerhunter, while Atlas Sound might represent a separate avenue for experimentation. Most of Logos does bear some of Deerhunter’s trademarks. Atmosphere, ambience, all woven through with threads of driving rhythms and clanging guitars – are present throughout, although accomplished with different instruments and different methods. To fault the Logos for the one thing it lacks: cohesiveness, would seem unfair. Part of its strength is its diversity. It doesn’t seem Cox was trying to create a magnum opus, and that’s okay.

There is something to be said for the overall quality of Cox’s various projects, which is very high, prolific as he is. On top of that, Atlas Sound speaks to his shrewdness for marketing his music. By giving it a separate name, he allows Deerhunter its own identity. It’s fortunate that he hasn’t done so by keeping the rest to himself.

Live: Deakin, Seattle, WA 3/31/2010

Deakin - Neumos, Seattle, WA 3/31/10
Plus Guests:
Peppermint Majesty

I'll admit, my main reason for marking this show on my calendar was because I saw it on the Neumos calendar and thought "Peppermint Majesty" was a good band name. Further research yielded some pleasant surprises. First, I hadn't noticed that Deakin, aka Josh Gibb, one of Animal Collective's three members, was the headliner. I was also unaware that two members of Peppermint Majesty are also in Fleet Foxes. Not to mention Jabon is by day known as Scott Colburn, the audio guru who recorded Animal Collective's "Feels" and Arcade Fire's Neon Bible.

All around, this show was a treat, but it wouldn't be for everyone. Peppermint Majesty bore a lot of similarities to Fleet Foxes, albeit less folksy and more poppy. Some of the songs they played, though not on any FF releases, sounded familiar, and I couldn't help but wonder if the Foxes had played some of those songs when I'd seen them live. PM's harmonies were very much in FF's style, but overall the sound had more Seattle and less Appalachia. Vibraphones and electric pianos and electric clarinet added a playfulness that distinguished them from FF.

It only got weirder from there. Jabon took the stage wearing a mask and robe, and performed a spooky experimental electronic set in the vein of Autechre ("Dark Ambient Avant-Garde Disco Comedy," in Jabon's own words). It was very interesting stuff, though the "comedy" element, as well as some troubles with the laptop on stage (Windows ME? Seriously?) undermined the mystery a bit.

Deakin, on the other hand, went out of his way to be more audience-accessible, even taking the time to explain his musical philosophies before beginning his set. Overall, I found his music much more original and interesting than Jabon's, all of it very much in Animal Collective's style. Even if a slower and more challenging listen, his songs paved a familiar, very lysergic landscape, offering a glimpse of Deakin's contribution to the band. He played sounds unrecognizable as guitar through a multitude of effects, along with some other unidentified noise-making devices. It was all very loud, sounds only a high-powered PA system can do justice.

To my surprise, there was no encore, and the crowd had thinned out a bit by the end of the show. I would have liked to see one, though  will admit I was a little relieved, having forgotten my earplugs. It was a bit over the pain threshold. Don't get me wrong, I like my concerts loud, but if it comes to a choice between losing my hearing and having the sound muffled by earplugs, I'd rather have the volume knob turned back down to "10." If I was just a once-in-a-while concert goer, that might be different, but this is a lifestyle for me, and I hope I have some hearing left by the time I'm 30.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Album Review: Deerhunter: Rainwater Cassette Exchange EP

Rainwater Cassette Exchange (EP)
4AD / Kranky, 2009

Paul's rating: 8.0/10

Just so you're aware, if you buy Rainwater Cassette Exchange on vinyl, it's a 45-RPM disc. Normally I wouldn't feel the need to point this out, even though it's indicated nowhere on the labels or sleeve. But anyone who's listened to Cryptograms, Deerhunter's first album, might think the sound at 33 RPM is exactly what Deerhunter was going for. The sort of thing my dad calls "gas music from Jupiter." It took me a few minutes to figure it out. It's a 12-inch disc, so I started with the assumption it was a 33.

As it turns out, RCE is poppy and accessible, absent the long, droning, trippy instrumental tracks that comprised most of Cryptograms. Which is not to say it's exactly uplifting. Two weeks of misery / Capture my heart and destroy me / Destroy my mind and my body / Invade me like as disease and conquer me are the opening words, contrasting against the sunny, almost tropical jangle of of the guitars.

This seems to be the trend of Deerhunter's work - Introspective and scary as ever, but increasingly accessible. Well, relatively accessible - It's not like they're in any danger of cracking the Top 40.

What I like about EPs is their lack of commercial motives. They can offer insights into an artist's creative process, being such an opportunity for unfettered artistic freedom. This seems the case even in instances when the EP may be an outlet (or less euphemistically, dumping ground) for songs that didn't make the cut for the full-length, and there's some evidence that may be the case here, as the track "Famous Last Words" echoes the motifs of "Never Stops" from Microcastle/Weird Era Continued, the band's most recent (double) full-length, which is absolutely a better fit for that album. Nonetheless, it stands on its own, as do all five of RCE's songs. The fact that they share some of the previous work's devices for mood, hooks and atmosphere can lend a fan like myself a better understanding of just what makes Deerhunter, especially the prolific frontman Bradford Cox, tick. All the songs are rewarding, but "Disappearing Ink," the second track, is as good as any song Deerhunter has yet released, and it demands to be heard over and over. It has a hooky, driving beat, and it evokes the earliest work of another eponymous Georgia band, R.E.M..

Overall, Rainwater Cassette Exchange is an excellent listen. While the unassuming album artwork and the presence of detailed information about the songs are uncharacteristic of Deerhunter's presentation style, they offer some clues how the band creates atmosphere and 60's psychedelia (Swamp guitar! Theremins! Lap steel! Congas! Spring reverb!) The fact that it's not a very high-quality pressing and a somewhat lo-fi recording in the first place give it a gritty "underground" feel. And despite being only 5 short songs, RCE plays through with as cohesive an arc as any good album should.

If I have one complaint, it's that Kranky Records is not in the habit of offering download coupons with their vinyl releases (I paid good money for this, and I'm going to download it one way or another, so I can have it on my iPod), although Deerhunter is overall a fan-friendly band. Still, for the very reasonable price of $9.99, Rainwater Cassette Exchange is worth every penny and more. It has my recommendation.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Live:The Crying Spell, Wild Orchid Children, Some Other Bands: 3/20/10

The Crying Spell - Neumos, Seattle, WA 3/20/10
Plus Guests:
Wild Orchid Children
Dynamo Effect
Ghost Town Riot

Clap Your Hands, Y'all.

Part of gaining some critical perspective is figuring out what you don't like - That's the easy bit. The hard part to avoid becoming a complete asshole in the process. I admit, I have done wrong. When you drunkenly yell at the top of your lungs, "YOU'RE WAY BETTER THAN THE BAND BEFORE YOU," you think you're being funny until someone walks in front of you, puts his hand on your shoulder, and says, "I'm in that band."

This happened during Wild Orchid Children's set. For full disclosure, WOC is the band of a friend and co-worker, but they are quite talented.  They got the opportunity to play a Saturday night show at Neumos (who could turn that down?) but had the misfortune of sharing the bill with some other artists who might as well have been from a different, much more Emo galaxy. WOC played well, albiet to a somewhat bewildered audience, using their great chops for sort of fun psychedelia that's easy to get lost in but never boring.

I won't comment on Ghost Town Riot; I didn't catch their set. I arrived in time to see Dynamo Effect, and I was alone and only 2 songs deep when I decided I it was time to retreat to the bar and spare myself the hearing damage. Sure, D.E. Rocked - And Rocked Real Good - in a similar fashion to the hyper-masculine way Creed Rocked or Hoobastank Rocked, circa 2002.

So whatever it was Dynamo Effect was trying to do, they did it well, but that's not the point. I didn't have time to explain this when the next awkward moment arrived. It wasn't long before I found myself at neighboring urinals with the same guy. I think this is a fundamental part of the male experience. When two grown men are standing next to each other with their cocks hanging out in the open, there's no room for bullshit. I knew I owed him an apology, and he turned out to be a likable and earnest character, though understandably a little bruised. He expressed some disappointment with his own performance on the bass. I hadn't noticed. Not the issue, I tried, and failed, to articulate.

So what was the issue? There's playing well, and there's playing what you play well, and then there's originality, perspective, imagination. If there's any of these areas where D.E. falls short, it's the latter. It's not hard to spot. When I read a book, and the first two chapters completely fail to impress me, I don't feel unjustified in not bothering to finish it. This is no different. And I'm not easily impressed.

To their credit, Dynamo Effect at least had a shred of authenticity. The headliner, The Crying Spell (I could stop there) had all the same shortcomings, but to make matters worse, they seemed intent on blowing more steam out their asses than even their fog machines could manage. If a photo published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2008 is any indicator, these dudes take themselves pretty fucking seriously. A glance at their website, stage props, shiny new instruments, their high-production video of themselves rocking out in the desert (yeah, that's original) and their MySpace page show that for an "unsigned" band, they've got everything money can buy but not a lot that it can't.

Let me be clear: It's only the latter that's a problem, and it takes more than a slick hairdo and striking Christ-like poses onstage and writing songs with titles like "Beautiful" to prove otherwise. TCS have branded themselves thoroughly, but only in the same tasteless aesthetic as the music itself. When you rely on repeatedly pushing the melodrama button, you'll attract a certain audience, but I'm going to guess it'll only be the kind who like to post skanky photos of themselves on MySpace in hopes of showing up in your top friends. It's a path already well worn by The Bravery and The Killers and any number of much worse early 2000s commercial "Modern Rock" acts, the kind of radio-friendly sludge the major labels kept jamming down our collective throats, all the while blaming their declining revenues on Napster. Sure, Wild Orchid Children have an over-designed MySpace page of their own, but at least they had the good sense to smear some dirt on themselves. Clearly they're ambitious and have some resources at their disposal, but it's nice that they don't suck. As for The Crying Spell, I know there are plenty of dudes who work at Guitar Center or pseudo-Goth hairstylists who think this shit is cool. I have news for them: It's not.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Live: Richard Bishop, Seattle, WA, 3/13/10 (Magma Festival 2010, Part 1)

Richard Bishop
Fremont Arts Abbey
Seattle, WA 3/13/10

It's been a busy weekend of concert-going, and I must confess I only caught the very tail end of this one, and none of the openers. Richard Bishop is best known for being a member of Sun City Girls, a band I know very little about, but their Wikipedia page might provide an education.

This was a part of Magma Festival, an annual fund-raiser for Hollow Earth Radio, a fantastic Seattle web-only radio station. I recommend giving it a listen - Especially for anyone interested in the local, eclectic and obscure.

This was a strictly solo show, with Bishop displaying some impressive guitar prowess and sophisticated songwriting. Some of his songs evoked Tom Waits, others were instrumentals with possible middle-eastern and Flamenco influences. He displayed a well-polished variety of styles. His virtuosity alone was enough to make me think I should learn a bit about SCG.

Nothing devastatingly hip about this show, but that would be missing the point. Seeing some good music at a venue I had not yet visited, followed by grabbing a pint with a friend at a nearby pub made for a pleasant Saturday night. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Live: Thousands, Seattle, WA 3/12/10

Thousands - Healthy Times Fun Club, Seattle, WA 3/12/10
Plus Guests: W.M.W., Shana Cleveland, Fancie

Those of you who have been loyal readers may have figured out by now that brevity is not exactly my thing, but today, in the interest of time, I had better try. As you know, I'm a musician myself, so I should probably be spending more time creating and practicing music than writing about it. With that in mind, this being my first "review" of any local artists, I want to preface this by saying my intention is to document the event, not so much critique it. First off, in hoping to gain a foothold on the local scene, I think it's best I avoid stepping on anyone's toes, not that I'll pull any punches if I come across anything really disturbing. I've been thinking of focusing more of my musical attention (and hence, this blog) on the local scene anyway, as indie-label reviews are already pretty well covered by the Pitchforks of the world (Yes, I read Pitchfork, and admittedly plagiarize its style a little... Bring on the anti-hipster backlash, I'm ready for it).

Healthy Times Fun Club is a somewhat exclusive, underground venue in the first place, and I'm hesitant to bring it too much attention, should it become too popular. I consider myself lucky to know about it, and I probably wouldn't if not for being fortunate enough to know some of its proprietors. Even mentioning it in such a light, I feel I risk attracting wannabes who just want to be there because they think it makes them cool, as much as I want to see it succeed. But given how little interest mainstream Seattle shows in its DIY subculture to begin with, and how exclusive my readership is in the first place, I think it's safe for now.

But yes, the music...

Mellowness has not been my forte of late, musically speaking, but now and again, it's nice to have a reminder that edginess isn't everything. Thousands is an acoustic duo - I'm told at least one of them is also a member of Heatwarmer, a very good Seattle band I've also seen in a packed HTFC, who amusingly describe their own music as "Phish-style noodling." This was their LP release party - I didn't bring enough cash to buy all the merch I wanted, but I will try to get my hands on it at a later date. Their sound is gentle and folksy, but they display excellent chops on their acoustic guitars, playing in overlapping arpeggios and singing in pretty harmonies. Mellowness and vocal harmonies were a common theme of the night, with W.M.W. and Shana Cleveland bringing a plaintive slowcore/sadcore kind of style. Cleveland's band featured some light percussion, electric bass and a clarinet, in addition to her acoustic guitar.

Not to discount any of the above artists, but to me, the most memorable performance came from Fancie, the project of Elisabeth Wood, a prolific and musically ambitious sonwriter and multi-instrumentalist of unknown origin (Berlin? Portland? California? Utah? Florida? Her MySpace page and website offer multiple hints but no definitive home location). I did have the opportunity to chat with her after the show, and she didn't mention where she was originally from, but she did mention that she's not from Seattle, she had been living, working and performing in Germany, and (I think) that she's going back there soon. Her MySpace page also has the longest list of band members I've ever seen, only 4 or 5 of whom were present at last night's show.

The mysteriousness Fancie brings to the stage only adds an untouchable mystique to her raw talent. She has a tremendous, unwavering, sultry, colorful voice, a command of the guitar and keyboard, a rock-solid sense of her own jazzy, folksy style, and a band of highly skilled accompanists. On top of that, if the size of her discography is any indicator, she possesses a fierce work ethic. She mentioned that music is still not her sole source of income - Making her accomplishments all the more impressive, but still a reminder that the business of music is not a fair one. But then again, it may well be that the unsung heroes are the most heroic of them all.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Explorations: A Luddite In The The Man Cave


My dad seems to have something good going on. In the big room in the basement I once occupied, during a 2-year period of abject confusion following my college graduation, he's created his Man Cave. On the whiteboard I left on the door, he wrote a Mark Twain quote: "Every house should have a room you can swear in." This is that room. In addition to a very gaudy and cat-scratched couch, not to mention the huge, unfinished HO-scale train set, the most welcome addition is his vintage Hi-Fi system, centered around a Dynaco ST-70 Stereo tube amp and Dynaco PAS-2 tube preamp.Wired into this: a graphic equalizer, a DVD player relegated to playing only CDs, a very nice JVC belt-drive turntable, some very nice Polk Audio speakers, and an iPod-ready end of an RCA cable.

It's interesting discussing this stuff with my dad. In my criticism, I try to distinguish recorded music from live music as overlapping but essentially different art forms. With that in mind, I consider the equipment used to record the sound, whether it's a MacBook or 2-inch analog tape, as much an "instrument" as a guitar or piano or violin, each lending its distinct nuance to the sound. The real wild card, however, is the equipment used for playback, which varies wildly, completely independent of the recording and its medium for distribution. Ask any serious audiophile, and you'll realize there's almost no limit to how much you can spend on your stereo - from speakers costing upwards of $10,000 each right down to the RCA cables connecting your components or even the acoustic design of the listening room. 

My opinion is, after a certain point, one gets diminishing returns for every additional dollar spent on such toys. Especially in how much it might (or might not) contribute to the pleasure of the experience of listening to the music itself, which is always in danger of getting lost amid such materialistic pretensions. I've listened to some pretty nice stereos, and I'll admit, the jaw-dropping clarity of the sound was not lost on me. Then again, some of the greatest pleasure I've taken in listening to recorded music was as simple as blasting my eardrums out to My Bloody Valentine with cheap earbuds on my iPod, or enjoying a beer on my brother's front porch while Pavement drifted out the window from a $100 boombox.

All this leads me to believe that audio is a microcosm for a grander, raging debate on the role of technology in society. It's easy to forget what a new technology recorded music is in the grand scheme of things - It's been around for less than 200 years. Before the phonograph, all music was live music, stored only on sheets of paper for musicians to read, or simply in people's minds. At its advent, there was great concern for how this new "canned music" might diminish the role of live music. In the end, it turns out the two can co-exist quite well, and without that symbiosis, Rock 'n' Roll might never have existed.

Nothing really changes. During the past few decades, it would seem our love affair with technology has let most of us to believe that whatever's newer and more sophisticated is on the whole better than what preceded it - and the predominant attitude has been "out with the old, in with the new." I think there's evidence that this is not entirely true. Consider the fact that most Americans still drive cars with internal combustion engines, a 100-year-old technology only incrementally improved during its lifespan, despite the fact that far safer, cheaper and more efficient technologies have existed for decades. But then again, each one of those assertions is a value judgment, and what ultimately matters is what people want, right or wrong. As a result, it seems involvement (and not just use) of technology becomes relegated to hobbyists, gearheads and nerds. I think the overall social level of involvement could be much higher, and could bring our society wondrous new innovations.

That digression aside, the predominant technological battle over audio these days seems to be one of digital versus analog, but that's a subject for a different essay. The role of amplification, processing & speaker equipment is a far more complicated, unsexy, and generally avoided topic, but it's one that gets my dad particularly animated. His Dynaco set, he explained, is very similar to the first stereo he ever owned - in which he used Dynaco Mark IV power amps (The MKIV is a 40-watt monaural amplifier - Get 2 of them, and you've got a stereo!)

True, the Stereo 70 is a tinkerer's dream and a layman's nightmare. My dad, an engineer, takes giddy pleasure in wielding a multimeter and a soldering iron, schematic diagrams spread out on the table in front of him. It's no wonder this is his kind of toy. At home, I use a simple 90's vintage Aiwa bookshelf system, and I've never bothered unscrewing its cover to look inside. The ST-70, on the other hand, was often sold as a DIY kit for the soldering-iron-inclined. It's a separate unit from the Preamp (which houses the volume, equalization and input controls) and all its remarkably simple innards sit under a mesh cage for all the world to see. This is not a cosmetic feature - The openness of the cage is necessary to ventilate the heat of the glowing vacuum tubes. The cage does, however, have 2 holes in the top, allowing the user to adjust each channel's DC bias potentiometer using a screwdriver, lest we risk damaging any of the amp's other components (multimeter not included). That's something I'll never have to worry about on my consumer-grade Aiwa system, and it leaves me happy to concede that solid-state technologies do have their advantages. But in terms of sound quality, not to mention fun, my stereo just can't quite compete.

Then again, even though I consider myself a rabid technophile, I fear the trend toward greater sophistication in technology seems to put us on a path toward a greater alienation from it. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive - There is no high-tech giant on earth whose executives don't quake in their boots at the prospect of being put out of business by the next Steve Wozniak tinkering in his or her garage. It is true that often it serves us in a way that saves us the trouble of knowing how it works - Most car owners I know don't give a shit how a camshaft works or how many cylinders their engine has, so long as it reliably gets them where they want to go, and to be fair, they may have highly creative pursuits of their own and don't need any other distraction. I'll be the first to admit that while I have a rudimentary understanding of electronics, I don't know the first thing about selenium rectifiers or filter chokes.  Sooner or later though, we'll have to unlearn this idea that newer is necessarily better, and instead ask ourselves whether a new technology is enriching our lives. The possibility always exists that on the other hand, just distracting us, making us fat, alienating us from our communities, deskilling our jobs, destroying our environment, or any number of unforeseen consequences. Or, in this case, just ruining our fun. Don't get me wrong - it's not all bad. I love my iPod. But I think there is something to the old saying, "They don't make 'em like they used to..." - In an economic era of declining real wages, while we're getting new technology, there's the impending sense that we're getting less bang for our buck. In the way that my IKEA dining table will never find its way onto Antiques Roadshow 200 years from now. In its heyday of popularity, the Dynaco ST-70 was the "poor man's Porsche" among audiophiles, competing with far more expensive power amps with its lush, warm, responsive sound. It's one of those rare cases in which the "triumph of craftsmanship over engineering" became affordable for the everyman.

So there's my spiel on the technology. But how does music sound on this charming vintage system? Stay tuned...


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Playlist: Post-Rock

The Car's On Fire, And There's No Driver At The Wheel...

If Marilyn Manson was right when he declared Rock dead, post-rock is its aftermath. As I posted on my review of a recent Do Make Say Think concert, that show revived my longtime interest in the genre, and prompted by a friend's curiosity, I've taken it upon myself to bring it a little attention.

Like any "genre," as these songs will show, it's incredibly diverse, and difficult to put into a box. On its many corners, it shares borders with jazz, pop, classical, folk, punk and certainly much more - and the result is incredibly colorful and sophisticated. It's a reminder of times when latching on to the avant was easier to do.

There are some distinct traits that bind the genre together. Songs tend to be very long, and are often instrumental. While based upon rock instrumentation, many artists augment it with horns, pianos, strings, and other classical instruments. Structurally, the bands aspire to deconstruct rock, borrowing from the complex sequencing of classical music. When they do so, they often build songs with the dramatic dynamics of 19th-century Romantic composers. And like many sub-genres, it has flourished under the patronage and influence of a cutting-edge independent label, Montreal-based Constellation Records.

I love this stuff. I hope you enjoy.

Sigur Rós - Glósóli
Album: Takk
EMI, 2006

Perhaps no band builds drama and tension so delicately and explosively as Iceland's Sigur Rós. I think this video complements the song beautifully. Its climax is never loud enough. This ought to make a fairly accessible introduction.

Tortoise - Crest
Album: It's All Around You
Thrill Jockey, 2004

Tortoise hails from Chicago - Close enough to Canada. This band, in my opinion, represents the apex of the genre's complexity. Of the many bands I've seen live, their musicianship is among the most impressive.

Explosions In The Sky - Yasmin the Light
Album: Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever
Temporary Residence Limited, 2001

Austin's Explosions in the Sky, using traditional rock instrumentation, play heavily with contrasting dynamics, just restrained enough not to edge out their subtleties, but bold enough to bring a satisfying listen. Their live show is among the most energetic I've seen.

Mogwai - Thank you Space Expert
Album: The Hawk Is Howling
Wall of Sound (UK), Matador (US), 2008

It's ill-advised to show up to a Mogwai concert without earplugs, but if they're the last thing you ever hear, it wouldn't be a bad way to finish. As this song shows, while often being absurdly loud, this Scottish band has tremendous talent for melody and atmosphere.

Do Make Say Think - Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
Album: Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn
Constellation, 2003

Toronto's Do Make Say Think show the kinder, gentler side of Canadian post-rock. Their songs, while experimental, are beautiful, restrained, and carry an innocent, feel-good vibe.

Broken Social Scene - Passport Radio
Album: Feel Good Lost
Noise Factory, 2001

Modeled as a musical collective, Toronto's Broken Social Scene have somehow morphed between post-rock and indie pop without ever losing touch with their artistic direction. While it's tempting to post their much more accessible later work (OK, I can't resist, you should really listen to This, This, & This), BSS's first album shows how founders Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning began their project firmly rooted in experimental, patently Canadian post-rock.

A Silver Mt. Zion - God Bless Our Dead Marines
Album: Horses In The Sky
Constellation, 2005

An uplifting song from Montreal's A Silver Mt. Zion, an experimental band founded by a member of post-rock mainstay Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It's yet another example of Constellation Records' impact on the genre.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor - The Dead Flag Blues
Album: F#A#∞
Constellation, 1997

Motherfucker = Redeemer, Part 2
Album: Yanqui U.X.O.
Constellation, 2002

We're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death...

To know Godspeed is to know post-rock. It's not easy to find an earlier, deeper and more inaccessible pioneer of the genre. Relying on samples and spoken word for lyrical content, but ultimately leaning on their instrumentation, Godspeed's music conveys plaintive images of violence, brutality and darkness (The album cover of Yanqui U.X.O., with its image of falling bombs on a beautiful, green countryside, says it all). Yet, couched in such sadness, the music itself is a distant glimmer of hope and optimism, even if not a very bright one. I've purposely started out with more accessible music, but if you want to know what post-rock is, I challenge every one of my readers to put on a pair of headphones, sit in a dark room, and listen to both these songs from beginning to end, perhaps when you would otherwise be watching TV or playing video games. Your time will be well spent.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Playlist: Best Breakup Songs Ever?

OK, I'm not trying to one-up my sister or anything, but she has compiled this great list of breakup songs (Here for the Facebook-inclined). Today being Valentine's day, I thought it appropriate to make one of my own. Sorry, I know this might seem sadistic, but seriously, if you're feeling lovelorn today, I think these songs will make you feel better. Some of her choices would make my list, but in addition, I recommend:

"Headless Horseman" by The Microphones:

"The Face of the Earth" by Dismemberment Plan:

"Let It Die" by Feist:

"Love Burns" by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club:

"The Big U" by The Blow:

"Campus" by Vampire Weekend:

And Last But Not Least:
"Valentine" by Old 97's

Enjoy! This hasn't been a fun holiday for me since puberty, and if you're the same way, hope this does something for you.

Album Review: Built to Spill - There Is No Enemy

There Is No Enemy
Built to Spill
Warner Bros., 2009

Paul's Rating: 7.5/10

It would be unfair, absolutely a curse, for any band, to have Perfect From Now On in their discography. When you make an album like that, everything else you release is forever measured against it. With that in mind, the irony of that album's title is almost too much to bear. What a different time that was. "Indie rock" was not yet a pop culture fad in 1997. Back then, I didn't even know it existed. If "Indie" was ever a style, Built to Spill might have been its poster child. They're still generally categorized as such, even though they've been on a major label since that album's release. Yet clearly, Warner Bros. was not constraining BTS's creativity.

Even under those constraints, There Is No Enemy holds its own. True, nothing they've released since Perfect quite has that album's edge, but that's setting the bar impossibly high. If Perfect is any indicator of whatever kind of psychic tourism this band may have been engaged in, Enemy continues the trend. "Inside my mind, incessant chatter / When will these brain cells cut me some slack / Maybe I'm not smart enough to think of things to think about that matter / Afraid that once you think some things, there's no going back," frontman Doug Martsch sings in "Good Ol' Boredom." I think that's how he keeps things interesting, even though there are moments in this album when Built to Spill shows some slight wear with age. "Finally decided, and by decide I mean accept / i don't need all those of the chances i won't get," Martsch sings on "Life's a Dream."

Nonetheless, on songs like "Pat," BTS show they can still rock out with their cocks out. On their previous album, they proved it with epic 8-minute opener "Goin' Against Your Mind," but following that song, that album had a few that were a little droopy. Overall, Enemy is on a more even keel, and feels like it has a little more depth. It's no less than I would expect from a band I've seen live at least 6 times. A band that opened up a lot of musical doors for me once or twice in a very hot-boxed WOW Hall in Eugene, Oregon. Nice to see their originality is still going strong.

I wish I'd bought this one on vinyl, because the LP comes with CD copy (no jewel case) and boasts all-analog production, but alas, I bought it on CD.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Live: Do Make Say Think: Seattle, WA 2/5/10

Do Make Say Think - Chop Suey, Seattle, WA 2/5/10
Plus guests: The Happiness Project, Years

Before this show, I got into a conversation with some co-workers about why Post-Rock may have fallen out of the vogue. I posited a theory. These being difficult, stressful times for so many people, I think a lot of us, myself included, have taken solace and escape in the predictability and instant gratification of pop music. It did seem people were more excited about this stuff midway through the last decade. We may have been just as broke and pissed-off during the Bush years, but at least we knew what we were up against. Nonetheless, Canadians like Do Make Say Think seem happily unfazed by this trend, and encouragingly, quite a few Seattleites are still willing to vibe out to large bands playing 20-minute-long, unpredictable, instrumental deconstructions of Rock itself (Any less than 8 members in your band, one member mused, and they don't let you across the Canada-U.S. border).

Even more impressive, considering how DMST is one of the least accessible bands of this genre. While not quite so dangerously flirting with free-form jazz odysseys as Tortoise, DMST tease with their rising crescendos, pulling back from them in places where Mogwai or Sigur Ros would have taken the opportunity to blow your head off. DMST's songs are not easy to follow, but if you can manage, you realize the song structures are quite deliberate.

The highlight for me, however, was the experimental "opener" featuring members of DMST, The Happiness Project. The music was built around recordings of interviews with several people, mostly on the concept of playing instruments to the melodies of their speech. A saxophone for an old woman talking about love and happiness. A violin for a 3-year-old girl having a minor tantrum. "It's like a reverse auto-tune," I overheard an audience member aptly describe it. Most moving was a song built around an interview with a woman who had been deaf her entire life and had a cochlear implant as an adult, describing what it was like to hear sound for the first time. "All of a sudden, I felt my body moving in sound," she says. Brilliant stuff. DMST guitarist/bassist/saxophonist/flutist Ohad Benchetrit followed with his solo project, Years, mostly comprised of beautiful solo acoustic instrumentals.

I do admire how jovial and chatty the band members were on stage. While so often I crave some rock-star mystique, Do Make Say Think were refreshingly accessible in their demeanor, letting their music and multi-instrumental prowess speak for themselves. They were having fun. Nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Album Review: Beach House - Teen Dream

Teen Dream
Beach House
Sub Pop, 2010

Paul's Rating: 8/10

Dreaminess is Beach House's specialty. So much so that they're one of those rare bands that has stamped its sound as patently its own. What's even rarer is for an artist to do so without being pigeon-holed in their own creation. Having achieved the former, the Baltimore duo venture into further explorations of their sound in their 3rd LP. This being a stage of awkward adolescence in any career, the title seems descriptive of the band itself. Especially for one that never bothered having a sophomore slump.

The album itself is more adult. Victoria Legrand sings, "Don't forget the nights when it all felt right / Are you not the same as you used to be?" If she's referring to teenage experience, it's a retrospective look.

It doesn't hurt to have such a firestorm of talent as singer/keyboardist Legrand at the helm, and under her lead, Beach House show they're willing to try new things. It's not effortless, but they prove they carry two traits that make (or, if absent, break) a career: Great artistic ambition, and the lack of a single gimmicky note in their songs.

Mostly, Beach House stick to what's worked so well for them thus far: Legrand's sultry, low alto voice. Gentle drum-machine beats. Crawling tempos. Layers of thick, droning keyboard work. Clean, reverb-heavy electric guitar arpeggios. Until now, they have exercised this sound with restraint, lending a folksy appeal to their very electronic sound.

Teen Dream, unlike 2007's Devotion, makes some risky moves into more complex, dramatic territory. Swelling crescendos and soaring synth-strings appear, augmented with live percussion. Some folk appeal is lost, but the execution is never indulgent. "10 Mile Stereo" is the highest-flying song. It's late in the album, a climax, not a showpiece.

That being said, part of the magic of Devotion was Legrand's ability to create tension and drama with the sublest inflection of her voice or a shift in chord progressions. Having heard that before, one might question whether it was necessary to tug any harder on the heartstrings.

Whatever criticism might be due, there are moments of brilliance that erase any notion of this being less than a great album. Legrand's gift for melody and composition blossoms, and while firmly in command, she melds with Alex Scally's guitar work better than ever. While containing tracks more accessible than Devotion's, even its less catchy songs are the kind that grow on you eventually, and in the end, they're the most rewarding.

For the vinyl aficionado, Teen Dream is a real treat. It's double heavy-duty discs in a gatefold jacket, and while the outside artwork is nothing eye-popping, the interior is beautifully designed. It includes a coupon for an MP3 download direct from Sub Pop, plus a DVD with music videos for most of the tracks.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Hello World

This is a brave time to get into reviewing music, I know. A few years ago, I had the sense that there was major movement happening among people who loved music. That is, people who placed its artistic value above its entertainment value, who took interest in a more diverse musical landscape than the major labels had to offer. While the majors collapsed under their own weight, all the while kicking and screaming and pointing their fingers at Napster, I began to take notice just how much interesting stuff there was out there. I've long suspected that major labels' war on piracy had little to do with revenue lost on CD sales (not that it didn't matter) and much to do with the fact that people were suddenly exposed to a far greater diversity of music driven by word of mouth, making the music industry's traditional marketing channels obsolete.

What I do know is that I wasn't the only one reveling in this discovery. There was a period when my brother, a friend of ours and myself were traveling once, twice a week, ignoring our need for sleep, to Portland to join packed venues for the likes of Spoon, The New Pornographers, Built to Spill, Sleater-Kinney, Broken Social Scene, Wolf Parade (the list goes on, of course). We reluctantly accepted the "Indie Rock" label, not because it was descriptive of the music itself, but because it was the easiest way to give a name to this something that was happening. That something was fresh, authentic, decidedly un-commercial and fearlessly optimistic. For young, creative people disgusted by a commercial culture that seemed bent on lowering our expectations, it was amazing to see so many like-minded people in one place.

There's another side to that coin. Any time a subculture starts to seem cool, corporate America takes notice and people start to latch on for coolness alone. I secretly enjoy hearing songs I like in iPod commercials, but it does worry me that this might erode the music's message. While it's encouraging to see more people embracing more sophisticated tastes in music, it's easier to listen to music than it is to pick up the mantle of its cultural ethos. And inevitably, the big backlash ensues, alienating those of us who genuinely take bone-quivering pleasure in music most people think is weird. Throw in a nasty recession, and voila, the wind vanishes from our sails.

Well, not entirely. I think that's the beautiful thing about it. People keep expressing their talents, and new ideas keep emerging. It just gets a little harder to cut through the crap and find the stuff that's really meaningful. I take the perspective that art never exists in a vacuum - it's inexorably tied to culture, culture, culture. What warrants any value judgment is how authentically it expresses its originating ethos, and within that framework, how worthwhile the direction its message pushes its recipients.

If I can offer one fearless insight into my blog's future, it will be this: Most of my reviews will be overwhelmingly positive. Nobody's giving me any free advance records (yet). I don't have the time nor the money to review everything I might want to or buy every new album. Within these limitations, I don't buy an album or go to a concert unless I'm pretty sure I'm going to like it.Yes, I'll let you know if I'm disappointed.

Also, my postings will probably be only occasional, but if you're a friend or family member, I'll let you know when I write something new.

Keep reading. I hope you enjoy.

P.S. If I die, or for any other reason am unable to renew my domain name, please visit my blog via (