Friday, July 31, 2009

No. 1 Single Reviews: "I Gotta Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas

I know this one has been at the top of the charts for five weeks now, but waiting three months for "Boom Boom Pow" to drop off the charts, only to be replaced by more Black-Eyed Peas, was so soul-crushing I couldn't open Blogger for almost a fortnight.

It boils down to a crappy, dispassionate "let's go party" song--in other words, it's still the Black-Eyed Peas. There's an oddly psuedo-sentimental, yet up-tempo feeling to the dry, eighth-note guitar strums that I can't quite put my finger on. It's got that perverse "mid-level indie trickles up to the mainstream" vibe. Remember how Kelly Clarkson got her Yeah Yeah Yeahs on with "Since U Been Gone", then got her "Since U Been Gone" on with "My Life Would Suck Without You?" Dilute that by another ten levels to get this. In fact, for the first half a minute it almost seems like it might be a likable song, but as usual the Black-Eyed Peas miss the point entirely. The vocals start, and before long is barking out the verses in four-word tone-deaf burst: "AH GOT MAH MONEY/LET'S SPEND IT UP."

It as asinine and grating as "Boom Boom Pow," but in an entirely different way. It also plays like a checklist of shitty, focus-grouped tricks for radio singles. The lowlights include:


-The "beat cuts out for a split second after an appropriate lyric" manuever, Lyrical Varation 15: "shut it down".

-An early favorite for corniest call-and-response bridge of the century so far, in which Fergie sounds and looks like nothing so much as a pudgy, slow girl ab-libbing along to a record. Fill up my cup
Fergie: DRANK
will.i.a.m: Mazel tov
Fergie: L'CHAIM*

-A shameless, shoehorned "counting down the days of the week bit".

I hate everything about this song. I even hate the title, "I Gotta Feeling." Even Urban Dictionary knows this means "got to" as in "have to", not "got a" as in possession.

That's right; the name of this song is "I Have To Feeling." Congratulations on electing these idiots your best representative for popular music, America!

*Yes, Fergie says "l'chaim," a Jewish toast. Yes, it's Auto-Tuned.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Where are all the Animal Collective sound-alikes?

"You can hardly throw a stone in a record shop without hitting a new album by a band that sounds like Animal Collective." - Dusted Magazine

"We'd love to get through this without mentioning Animal Collective, which has become the indie-focused writer's Beatles or Brian Wilson-- a comparison so overused that it's meaningless." - Pitchfork

"Between 1996's groundbreaking Millions Now Living Will Never Die and 2001's pacesetting Standards, Tortoise garnered a level of influence in indie music that almost rivals that of Animal Collective today." - Pitchfork (again)

Where, exactly, is this proliferation of Animal Collectivesque bands that I've somehow missed?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Concert Review: The Posies (peforming Frosting on the Beater), The Bell House, New York City, June 12

The recent explosion of bands performing full albums live--most notably with the Don't Look Back concert series--has been an interesting new way to focus on the album as a whole piece of work in an era when record sales are down and downloads and shuffle options guide a new generation to think in terms of single tracks. Choosing to do one of these shows is also something of a statement that an artist wants to hold an album up as a classic, or at least their best work, and can be a way to honor underrated albums deserving of more recognition.

The Posies' performance of Frosting on the Beater was an excellent way to elevate both an unheralded classic album and the one of the most severely underrated rock bands of the modern era. They left a string of great albums and should-have-been-hit-singles but never caught on commercially, despite swimming in power-pop cred (we're talking "Ringo Starr covers one of your songs and a Big Star reformation enlists your songwriters and singers" levels here.) Their only flaw was that their music was made for the wrong era, so one of the little ironies of their career is that their most successful and popular album was the one that coated their melodic songwriting in layers of grunge distortion.

It also happens to be their best album, however, and particularly well-suited for a live treatment. Their strongest songwriting meant an hour of sing-alongs, backed by some alternative rock sheen for a little headbanging. The opening four songs salvo is one of the best stretches of guitar-pop of the nineties, and big rockers like "Definite Door" or the era's quiet/loud dynamic on "Lights Out" punched the songs up live.

The band's rotating rhythm section has long since left the album's original players behind, putting the focus squarely on songwriters/vocalists/guitars Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. Auer, who takes the lead on most Frosting songs, was by far the looser performer of the two. While Stringfellow's voice has held up enough to match the records well, Auer's voice seems a bit higher and more nasally than the recordings, and has lost a bit of the deep, breathy quality it used to have. Auer also does most of the lead guitar work, and worked up some good squealing noise for the noisy jam ending of "Burn and Shine" and the drumless "Coming Right Along." For his part, Stringfellow ricochets around the stage and bounces like his legs are pogo-sticks, and the frequency and intensity with which he spits (occasionally soaking the front row) would be impressive for a 20-something punk rocker, let alone a guy who's been in a band called the Posies for two decades.

The second set/encore skewed heavily towards the Frosting follow-up Amazing Disgrace, highlighted by the fierce Stringfellow rocker "Everybody is a Fucking Liar." (A few requests for that song mid-way through the set elicited the Stringfellow gem "Hey, Jon, after the last twenty seconds did you have any doubt we're in the New York area?")

The atmosphere on stage was as loose and fun as the playing, with the band retuning and cracking jokes between nearly every song--most notably a brief running gag about Bret Michaels' recent injury at the Tony Awards, including a "moment of silence." The mood from the unappreciated band before and after the show: Auer joked to the front row about missing roadies as he set up his pedals before the show, and the guys were not too famous to work their own merch booth after the show. They still deserve better--the performance would have, and should have, played just as well to a few thousand instead of a few hundred--but the show was a fitting tribute to a gem of an album.

Set One (Frosting on the Beater):
Dream All Day
Solar Sister
Flavor of the Month
Love Letter Boxes
Definite Door
Burn and Shine
Earlier Than Expected
20 Questions
When Mute Tongues Can Speak
Lights Out
How She Lied by Living
Coming Right Along

Set Two (Encore):
Start a Life
Please Return It
Everybody is a Fucking Liar
You're the Beautiful One

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Covers: "Don't Stop Believin'" by the cast of Glee

I'm not sure what bugs me more: that a cover of "Don't Stop Believin'" by the cast of Glee is No. 4 on the Hot 100--five spots higher than Journey's original peaked--or that it seems to rip off the Petra Haden version. (At least the intros.)

An a capella take on a song isn't necessarily such an original idea that two people can't come to it independently. Haden's cover is from a relatively obscure compilation. A compilation with a "guilty pleasure" theme, in fact. Who knows whether or not the crew of some network television studio is aware of Haden's 2007 cover or not.

They knick the sound, but lose points for effort. Haden went so far with her vocals that she even sang the guitar solo. The Glee kids, however, wimp out. After about a minute, in come the drums and the rest of the band, and by the end of the song the a capella concept seems to have been entirely fazed out.

It's an obscenely bombastic arrangement: the a capella backing vocals stick around, horns show up, and a man and girl duet in the shrieking style of drama kids--Adam Lambert is kicking himself over a missed opportunity right now. (Speaking of Idol, if the girl on this song was a contestant she'd have "pitchy" ringing in her ears.)

If anything, it's that earnest stage sincerity that sets the Glee cover apart. Haden's version is more low-key, goofy, and even seems to be making fun of the song, or at least teasing it. The Glee version sings to the rafters and is intended to get those 12-to-15-year-olds bopping on their couches.

As for how the cover stacks up to Journey, well, who do you trust: Steve Perry or a nation of tweens with iTunes?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Concert Review: Franz Ferdinand, Electric Factory, Philadelphia, May 6

Franz Ferdinand is definitely used to playing bigger venues. They're the first band I've seen who lugged an 18-column row of TV-sized video screens and pillars of lights into the modestly-sized Electric Factory, which holds about 3,000 or less. But just like Franz Ferdinand has always had the singles mentality of a pop band, their live show is stadium-sized no matter how big the arena.

The four-song opening salvo of "Dark of the Matinee," "No You Girls," "The Fallen" and "Michael" felt like, and was received like, a hit-after-hit sequence. (And in the U.K. it would be--top ten, top twenty, top twenty and top forty.) Alex Kapranos has a great mix of natural charisma and what seems like years spent studying/absorbing the pop stars of the video era. He knows exactly when to let his guitar dangle behind his back and clutch the microphone, when a hand gesture amps up a lyric, and when to get a back-and-forth crowd sing-along going. The show even had the classic "introduce each member of the band during the last song" move, cleverly saved for "This Fire," in which each instrument comes in one by one.

The second most animated member, oddly enough, was confined to a chair. Rhythm guitarist Nick McCarthy came out on crutches, offering only "I busted my foot!" as an explanation, but managed to emanate energy from his area of the stage. The pacing of the show was spot on. "Walk Away" provided the first softer moment at a time when a break was needer, the signature hit "Take Me Out" is a second-half rejuvenator, and "40'" and "Outsiders" made for jammy, pleasing dual set closers. "40'" got a spacey, length-doubling treatment and "Outsiders" ended with a unique jam that had the entire group pounding away at the drum kit. (Having four guys with drum sticks also amps up the effectiveness of another classic concert movie, chucking the sticks into the crowd at the end.)

The encore played like a more concise set. "Jacqueline," with it's slow introduction and explosion, is a great opener, and they even threw a b-side into the mix. "Lucid Dreams" provided another moment for the band to stretch and even another drum jam (featuring the excellent opening act, the Born Ruffians,) and "This Fire" followed the wise convention of saving a powerhouse hit to close the show.

The aforementioned video screen was put to good use--everything from simply lights to truly ludicrous videos, including one which sported rotating nude marble statutes, running dogs, and a triangle which featuring the cycling faces of the band. Others were simple but effective lyrical tie-ins--photographs of a girl dancing for "Bite Hard," a pair of smoking lips for "No You Girls"--and use sparingly enough to have maximum impact.

Surprisingly for such a singles-act, those longer, jammier bits were highlights, although the numerous sing-along moments show the band's pop appeal. Although the band's indie favorites status has waned, and the long wait since their last album killed a lot of momentum, the songwriting and showmanship remain intact, and the "best of in the works" setlist shows that it's one hell of a greatest hits CD they're working on.

Dark of the Matinee
No You Girls
The Fallen
Turn It On
Do You Want To
Tell Her Tonight
Twilight Omens
Walk Away
Bite Hard
Take Me Out
What She Came For

Shopping For Blood
Lucid Dreams
This Fire

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Kids These Days!": Asher Roth

Asher Roth's "I Love College" is the most manipulative, faux-sentimental, pandering shit to hit the airwaves since 2000, when a then-31-year-old woman sang about how sad high school graduation can be, man. Roth deserves credit for one thing--at 23, according to his Wiki, at least his yearning for the glory days of keg stands and dollar slices might be legit.

Too bad it's legitimately retarded.

The genesis of the song was a sample of Weezer's "Say It Ain't So." Perhaps Roth thought, not unwisely, that after the most dramatic descent from brilliance into incompetence in alternative rock history Rivers Cuomo would surely clear the sample. But when he asked the Harvard graduate, Cuomo must have said "Yeah, right, you're using my song, and my name is Jonas!" Instead, we're left with a vague approximation of the riff. (Come to think of it, it sounds exactly like the kind of shitty attempt you'd hear from an open dorm window in college, where some asshole annoys you while browsing a guitar tab site and botching rock radio staples.)

At least the music itself stems from a good song. The lyrics are utterly irredeemable. First of all, Asher Roth cannot rap. To rephrase: I am not saying Roth is a bad rapper. I am saying he actually lacks the sense of rhythm, timing and cadence to manipulate his sentences in a way that resembles a single song accepted as hip-hop. His one-note, syllable-a-second delivery has all the vocal mastery of a karaoke sing-along at a bar during $1 pitcher night.

The lyrics, such as they are, indicate Roth was the type of dumbass who coasted by on 12 credits a semester and still took five years to do it. "Thirsty Thursday." "Keg stands." "Chug!" "Freshmen." "Banker's Club." "Miller Lite." The words read like a word cloud of college cliches. In fact, if we head over to Wordle...

"I can't tell you what I learned from school," Roth claims. What he didn't learn is easier to point out: subject-verb agreement ("my good friends is all I need"), slant rhyme (mangling "champion" to "champy-yawn" in a pairing with "beer pong"), and copyright law (the aforementioned sample clearance problems.)

Then again, what do you expect from a song that sports the lyric "time isn't wasted when you're getting wasted," which makes one suspect if the song was inspired by a bumper sticker, or perhaps a particularly profound piece of bathroom graffiti. Following the college theme, if I had to give this song a letter grade, I would defer to Mr. Cuomo's judgment:

Monday, April 13, 2009

No. 1 Single Reviews: "Boom Boom Pow" by the Black Eyed Peas


On their new No. 1 single, "Boom Boom Pow," the Black Eyed Peas claim to bring some kind of futuristic music.

Assertion: "I'm so 3008/You so 2000-and-late."

Fact: This lyric clearly indicates that this song's puns were generated last year, when a 2008 reference would have been timely.

Assertion: "'Cause we got the beat that bounce/We got the beat that pound/We got the beat that 808/That the boom, boom in your town."

Fact: The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer was released in 1980, making it 1038 years old at the time Fergie alleges to be singing from.

Assertion: "I'm a beast when you turn me on/Into the future, Cybertron/Harder, faster, better, stronger/Sexy ladies, extra longer."

Fact: If the Autobots are indeed out there on Cybertron, I have no way of knowing what hot jam they're rocking, but it's probably not an eight-year-old jacked Daft-Punk-by-way-of-Kanye lyric that's not even in the right order.

Assertion: "Them chickens jocking my style/They try to copy my swagger/I'm on that next shit now."

Fact: No one is interested in taking your shitty overused auto-tune filter (a.k.a. robbing Fergie to pay T-Pain.)

Assertion: "Boom boom boom, gotta get-get/Boom boom boom, gotta get-get/Boom boom boom, gotta get-get/Boom boom boom, gotta get-get/Boom boom boom now/Boom boom boom now/Boom boom boom/Boom boom."

Fact: Go to Hell.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Concert Review: Dan Deacon, First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, April 3

Dan Deacon is getting a lot bigger in a lot of ways. The shows are bigger--his current tour swaps his one-man-band aesthetic for a dozen-plus ensemble. The audiences are bigger--the rowdy sell-out crowd at Philly's First Unitarian Church on Friday visibly pissed off a Deacon who just wanted fans to dance without pushing him around. And I daresay the man is bigger--Deacon's packing a few extra pounds around the belly, too!

The opening half of the show was plagued by an over-enthusiastic audience. Deacon performs right in the front of the crowd, hunched over his table of electronics, and it seemed that between every song he grew increasingly irritated at having to ask the crowd not to push into each other or him, knocking him against his equipment. He was, understandably, already cranky from a bus breakdown that delayed the show's doors from opening until 9 p.m., and things didn't really get into a groove until Deacon instructed the audience members to take two steps back and wave their arms around to make sure they weren't bumping into anybody. Granted, half a minute into the next song everyone crowded together again, but most seemed to take the hint and made an effort not to be obnoxious.

It was interesting side to see where a guy who organizes all kinds of fun audience dances and games--he had audience members rooting for a dance contest between people dressed as a circle and a triangle, and closing their eyes and spinning in slow circles to "Snookered"--draws the line at "too rowdy." But, as he pointed out, it wasn't a hardcore show. No one goes to see Dan Deacon to get beat up and come home bruised.

Once the crowd settled, Deacon seemed to loosen up for the most part, aside from frequent requests to the sound guy for "more synth in monitor four!" even during crowd dance-alongs. It shows the interesting dichotomy behind Deacon's personality and music. Yes, it's still a guy in the tackiest imaginable outdoor-sporting-store deer t-shirt with pitched-shifted cartoon vocals singing his songs under the light of a glowing green plastic skull. He's also a music conservatory alumnus who studied electro-acoustic and computer music composition, and his music is absurd but not simple.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find out that Bromst is such a fantastic dance record. Deacon's ensemble focused almost exclusively on songs off his new album, aside from his trademark "The Crystal Cat" and non-album (from what I can find) concert favorite "Silence Like the Wind Overtakes Me." The songs are lush and complex, but driving and incredibly well-paced. On headphones, they can be appreciated for the intricate layering and hypnotic effect, but on the concert floor the ensemble pulses and swells, and the songs seem to retreat and explode in the perfect manner to keep the crowd invigorated and dancing throughout the whole set.

There's also a sense of community at a Deacon show that I hope doesn't go away with the increased crowd sizes, as it seemed at the show's start. It's admirable that Deacon keeps himself right in the the crowd, and dancing alongside him and other fans is sheer fun. Deacon gave a spiel encouraging the audience to dance, even those who thought they couldn't, because the fun of dancing is precisely about not caring if you can or not, but enjoying yourself. The speech might not have peeled any wallflowers, but the music and the rush of the crowd did.

Dan Deacon is getting bigger, but that hasn't clipped the sense of joy from his music. Bromst seems more refined and even a bit more serious than its predecessor, Spiderman of the Rings, but it's just as fun to dance to. A huge ensemble on stage just gives the music more force. Here's hoping the the increasing crowds can take Deacon at his own terms and keep the party going.

Concert-goer shoutouts:
-To the fat morbidly obese blimp-like practically-swelling-before-my-eyes-like-that-one-guy-from-Big-Trouble-in-Little-China dude who took his shirt off: I literally overheard someone say he jumped back five feet when you disrobed, and referred to you as the guy who is always at shows ruining them. Knock it the fuck off. I know Dan Deacon is about unselfconscious fun, but being shoved into an unhygienic lump of a man is no one's idea of fun.
-To the tall dude in the tux who was dancing with toy Hulk gloves before the show: Kudos! This is the type of fun I expect at a Dan Deacon gig!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Concert Review: Travis Morrison Hellfighters, The Bell House, NYC, March 21

Travis Morrison is a huge dork.

You expect the former lead singer of a beloved indie act to be hip, or detached, or at least to sport a haircut with those attributes. You don't expect his on-stage banter to consist of adopting a faux-Italian accent and saying "What a wonderful night, what a wonderful night. That's-a spicy meatball!" And you certainly don't expect him to vocalize the snare rolls to his own jokes.

"A priest, a pervert and a pedophile walk into a bar," Morrison said between songs. "...and then the second guy comes in! Ba-bum-pish!"

Like I said, huge dork.

That dorkiness, of course--or rather that sense of silly fun and lack of self-consciousness--is part of what made the Dismemberment Plan so special, and it's part of what makes his the Travis Morrison Hellfighters' All Y'all a pretty good record and the band's Brooklyn concert a pretty fun gig. It's just that, with a new set of musicians and with Morrison at a different time in his life, it's manifested differently.

The Plan's "Girl O'Clock" featured Morrison's most instantly memorable opening lyric, the stuttered "If I d-d-d-on't have s-s-s-s-sex before the end of the week, I'm going to die!" Now, on a song like "You Make Me Feel Like a Freak," that sense of nervous urgency is replaced by the awkward sexual misadventures of a thirty-something getting picked up at a bar: "Here we are, we're there, yeah, standing at the bar/She says 'Hey, don't you work for NPR?/You're looking the type, and I think you're all right/And you're looking pretty good in those khakis.'" But shouldn't a 20-something and a 30-something sound different when singing about sex? The matter-of-fact, catchy verses about a girl who likes it "right between the toes" explode into a few dissonant jangling chords, a squeaky chorus of "you make me feel like a freak!" The old energy is there, and the song is as diverse as any of his prior bands' tunes: hilarious, energetic, and fun.

Eight of eleven songs from the band's sole album All Y'all were played, along with some new tracks that indicate a line-up that's getting tighter and more comfortable, highlighted by the propulsive bassline of "Henrietta" and the shuffling triplets of "Cruisin' All Night Long," which Morrison said is about "gay cop sex."

And Morrison also remembers that rock music is supposed to be fun and danceable. The band is muscular and funky, and gives Morrison a chance to be a dynamic frontman again in the way his solo album never seemed to. Any live performer with a little spring in his or her step is called "energetic," but with Morrison you get the sense he is enjoying himself so much that he can't help but show it, whether he breaks into a little two-step while dancing, or thrashes on his guitar while looking at his bandmates. Not that he minds enjoying himself by himself: "I know how you feel," he said after someone in the crowd laughed loudly and alone at one of his jokes. "Sometimes I'm the only one in the room who laughs."

Morrison's complete lack of self-consciousness really popped when compared to the audience, which seemed rooted to the floor. There was a five-foot void between the stage and the first row of fans, like some invisible bubble separating the "fun" zone onstage from the "head bobbing only" zone in the crowd. It's been over a decade since Morrison ridiculed stiff-hipped indie kids with the Plan's "Do the Standing Still," but judging by the Brooklyn crowd he's still on the losing end of that battle.

If there was a lack of corresponding energy in the crowd, it's probably because of the same problems that have contributed to the cool reception to Morrison's post-Plan output. By a new band, All Y'all would be a good debut, but the fans of defunct groups with brilliant output aren't interested in just "good." It's a shame, though, that past expectations have burdened a still-vital musician. Here's hoping the next album can get more than 80 or 90 people out to a Brooklyn gig.

I Do
Saturday Night
Crusin' All Night Long*
As We Proceed
Champion Lover* Champion L.V.A.
You Make Me Feel Like a Freak
Money Town*
East Side of the River
Catch Up
I'm Not Supposed to Like You (But)

*New songs, titles uncertain UPDATE: Travis, sweet guy that he is, responded to an e-mail asking about the song titles:

"Yeah it's called Champion L.V.A. really, not Champion Lover, not sure why I said that.
Thanks man!


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Concert Review: Modest Mouse, Electric Factory, Philadelphia, March 14

When did Modest Mouse turn into seasoned indie rock veterans? More importantly, how did they do it without losing any of their vitality? At their show in Philadelphia on Saturday night, Isaac Brock was in top-form for the entirety of the two-hour-plus show, shouting alongside the original song melodies, hollering into his pick-ups, mixing and matching and vamping on lyrics, and taking songs like "Dramamine" and "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" on noisy ten-minute rides.

Yet Modest Mouse seems comfortable. They seem to be settling in with the idea that they're a band with a rich back catalogue, and able to draw upon many eras of their sound. If you want to count Good News For People Who Love Bad News as the first "new" era Modest Mouse album--which it is, based on style and the fans it attracted--their set did an 11/9 split old/new. And there were some true surprises--"Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset," and, according to Isaac, the first live performance of "Jesus Christ Was an Only Child" in a decade.

The diverse setlist, had at least two tracks from every major Mouse release, aside from, predictably, their shelved would-have-been-debut Sad Sappy Sucker and The Fruit That Ate Itself EP. Yeah, the roll-my-eyes-at-the-new-stuff crowd will whine, but "Fire It Up" aside, the band avoided any relative dud cuts from it's newest effort. "Parting of the Sensory," which it's build, dynamic changes, and overlapping vocal breakdown, is a multi-part Mouse song in the classic style, and all hits like "Float On" and "Dashboard" did was match Isaac' rambling vocals to more straightforward drum beats and slicker production.

Although the bigger band set-up made We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank seem a big bogged down, with Isaac's song-writing getting simplified to hold bigger rock arrangements, a six-piece Modest Mouse served songs old and new alike well in Philly--even the rock-star excess of two full drum kits. It's hard to keep track of who did what, but having a violin on hand can sure sweeten a song, and the classic four-note bassline on "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" is a lot thicker coming from a stand-up. And the megaphone finally answered my ages-old wonders about where that sound on "Jesus Christ Was An Only Child" came from; you know, the one that sounded like the buzzing of an angry adult from an old Peanuts cartoon.

Judging by setlists over at, the sets on this tour have varied, both in song selection and placement. It's the sign of a band that's bored to repeat themselves every night, and I'm glad to know that not only did I get a great show, but I got a unique one, as well. We got "Jesus Christ," every other city in the world! Take that!

Concert-goer shoutouts:
-To the dude in the "Cowboy Dan" t-shirt who I gave a boost to go crowd-surfing: Sorry you didn't get to hear your song, but I hope you enjoyed the show!
-To the "OMG I CAN'T BELIEVE PEOPLE LIKE DASHBOARD MORE THAN DRAMAMINE" guy: It's not a mystery. "Dashboard" was the lead radio and video single off a No. 1, RIAA Gold-certified record that came out less than two years ago. "Dramamine" was an album cut off an indie-label debut album that's more than a decade old. Also, judging by the back-to-back reactions to "Doin' the Cockroach" and "Float On," your evaluation of the crowd preference to old versus new isn't even accurate.
-To the "first to post how much I hated the show I paid $40 to see" set: You weren't, perchance, the skinny fuckers I saw with pusses on their face not singing along to a single song, were you? You know, the ones who didn't bob their heads or shake their hips, but got indignant whenever someone (me) who was having fun had the gall to try to get past you?
-To the girl I'm pretty sure was pinching my back during "Parting of the Sensory": What the fuck is your problem?

Black Cadillacs
Parting of the Sensory
Interstate 8
Doin' the Cockroach
Float On
Third Planet
The View
Fire It Up
Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset
Here it Comes
Tiny Cities Made of Ashes
Custom Concern (aborted)/Baby Blue Sedan
Spitting Venom

Jesus Christ Was an Only Child
Paper Thin Walls
Night on the Sun
The Good Times Are Killing Me

Monday, March 9, 2009

Concert Review: James Blackshaw, Issue Project Room, NYC, March 7

James Blackshaw is one of those musician that elicits the response "Huh--he's only twenty-seven?" and leaves anyone younger feeling they aren't using a tenth of their potential the way he does. Wielding a 12-string acoustic guitar, Blackshaw's technique already seems fully-formed, and his playing timeless. A decent fingerstyle guitarist quickly learns to pluck out a bassline with the thumb and lay a melody with the fingers, doing two things at once. Blackshaw sometimes seems to do about ten things at once. He knows when to show restrain and let a few notes or a single chord ring out, when to let phrases loll around between the empty silences, and when to dazzle with his speed. His pieces are long and hypnotic, but rely a lot on repetition and variations on short phrases. They're often long--three of the six tracks on his 2008 album Litany of Echoes pass the 11-minute mark--but melodic and accessible.

The same music and performance would be astonishing and worthwhile from a seasoned veteran selling $50 tickets, so it's surprising in concert to drop ten bucks and hear these sounds come out of a skinny kid from London in a t-shirt. And though his recordings feature some embellishments, like strings, they sound just as full and lush, if not moreso, coming from a solo live guitar.

The Issue Project Room was a nice complement for Blackshaw's performance. The venue is awaiting a move to an old theater, but until it works up the money to renovate they're operating out of a mysterious building in Park Slope. It seems like some sort of old factory building. You pass thick doors with huge barn-style latches, and walk up a few flights of concrete steps to get to a narrow concert space on the third floor. The narrow room isn't conducive to getting a great few from far away, but with a capacity of about 100 that's not much of a problem, and the intimate atmosphere is great for focusing attention on the performers.

The openers were adequate, if a bit sleepy. Metal Mountains, a three-piece of vocals/guitar, guitar, and violin, milk the same low-key, low-tempo, low-action sound too long and for too little, and waste the violin on long, atmospheric notes instead of exploring counter melodies or the instrument's range. I can't find much information about them, and their has an astonishing zero listens as I right this review. At least they kept it short, though. Their sleepy feeling carried over to Meg Baird, whose set seemed to be twice as long with half as much happening. Entry-level fingerpicking on basic chord patterns complemented by a faux-Joni Mitchell whine, but sedated and uneventful. A back-up slide guitarist added a lot to the middle portion of the set, but it was too much of the same.

If anything, Metal Mountains and Meg Baird served as a contrast that only pulled the richness of Blackshaw's music into sharper focus. While the warm-ups were content to drift along on one or two music ideas per song, Blackshaw with one guitar explored more ideas in a single phrase than they did in an entire composition. With the Mountains and Meg, the music lulls the audience into closed eyes and threatens to send them to sleep. With Blackshaw, it's fun to let eyes close just to be able to focus on the drift and pull of the music, which mesmerizes and engages, but doesn't let attention flag.

(On that note, however, a special "fuck you" is in order: Despite the intimacy of the venue and Blackshaw's low profile, I still spotted "that girl" at the show: you know, the one who sits through the entirety of two middling opening acts, yet checks her phone during the main set and leaves before the encore. What the hell? You don't end up at a show for a semi-obscure guitarist on accident, and this wasn't some booze-filled club, where the music is a backdrop to socialize with hipster doofuses. Fuck you, that girl.)

Litany of Echoes was one of my favorite albums of last year, and it would have ranked higher had I been able to appreciate Blackshaw in a live setting a bit earlier. For someone so talented, Blackshaw seems pretty mild-mannered and easy going, and the show went along at a nice even pace. He doesn't talk much or take his hand off his guitar except to sip from a drink between each piece, and stops to retune after each composition finishes. After his set ends, the applause continues within flagging, and he admits that he doesn't usually play encores, but offers up a new piece. Unprepared, he has to ask an audience member to hammer out a few notes on the venue piano to help him tune. Although the piano's tuning itself is suspect, the piece he offers up some the greatest dynamic range out of anything he performed, indicating that this bright young talent, who already shines far beyond his years, has a lot of growing and exploration left to do.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscars 2009: An Alternate Best Picture Ballot

The Oscars have come and gone with no real surprises. (Come on, is anyone really surprised that the Rourke comeback narrative was toppled by Hollywood's Sean Penn fixation?) It was a strange year--on the surface, the nominations and winners were fine enough, and commendable films were honored, but most of the most interesting films were passed over for the awards, and even nominations, that they really deserved.

The Best Picture category, in particular, might have been completely redone and honored five more interesting, more ambitious, more diverse, and just plain better films. Consider the actual nominees:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button racked up the most nominations, despite being no one's idea of the year's best picture. Well-made, and often gorgeous, but a bit overlong, and not a film to revisit. (The Gump comparisons didn't help, either.)

Frost/Nixon was superbly acted, but seemed to inflate the importance of its events while simultaneously forgetting that the interviews themselves are the most compelling piece of the story, focusing instead on superfluous background and absolutely useless and confusing psuedo-documentary talking head interview scenes.

Milk was well-crafted, but Gus Van Sant directing a biopic about a gay, liberal San Francisco politician? This movie wasn't written, it was hatched in the Guaranteed Oscar Genetic Engineering Lab.

The Reader finally gave Kate Winslet's her Best Actress Oscar, but it was essentially recognizing her entire career--Revolutionary Road was the better Winslet performance and the better film overall, but the Holocaust Chamber is next to the Oppressed Minority Room back at the Oscar Lab.

Slumdog Millionaire? Yeah, that was pretty good, but it already won, so what's the fun of including it in our thought experiment?

Instead, I present five other 2008 films for Best Picture consideration. Read, watch, and think about which set sounds more interesting to have in regular DVD rotation ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road.

The Dark Knight
Why is the Academy so reluctant to acknowledge that blockbuster popcorn films sometimes deserve a Best Picture nod? Talk that Heath Ledger would not have gotten a nomination were he alive is true, but few stop to reflect that he actually deserves the award, dead or alive, but would have been held back by the genre of the film. And, as I've written before, The Dark Knight transcends its genre and offers just as much subtext and character development to dwell on as any of the so-called Best Picture nominees, but, hey, comics are for kids, right? I guess my question for the Academy is: why so serious?

In a lot of ways, this is the film that Frost/Nixon wanted to be: a tightly written, small cast, character-driven play adaptation. There are only four actors with significant speaking roles, and all four of them were (deservedly) nominated for Oscars. What does that tell you? Pound-for-pound, Doubt was one of the leanest, best films of 2008. Unlike any of the films actually nominated, there are no clear good guys or bad guys here, only moral ambiguity. It's not a traditionally satisfying film, which might be why the picture as a whole wasn't nominated. And, sure, the nun outfits and the "issue" feel of the movie might make it seem too Oscar-baity, but it's really about people and their perceptions, and Doubt remains a much-nominated film, yet one of the most underappreciated of 2008.

In Bruges
What the hell happened here? Out of nowhere drops a funny, dark, fantastical, violent film that suddenly makes Colin Farrell relevant again. Farrell got the Golden Globe, and as happens in partner movies only one half got the glory. His counterpart, Brendan Gleeson, was nominated but went home with nothing. Strange that it got nominated in the Comedy half, though, but maybe the Globes didn't know what to do with it. At least they did something with it, though, unlike the Oscars which gave it a token screenplay nod and moved on. A movie that veers off in so many unexpected directions you don't want to summarize it for fear of spoiling it, and for knowledge that it wouldn't make sense out of context no matter how hard you tried. A hell of a feature film directorial debut from playwright Martin McDonagh. Here's hoping the indifference to a brilliant film doesn't send him scurrying back to the stage.

The Visitor
Richard Jenkins had no shot against a resurrected Rourke or the perennial Penn, but Jenkins quietly gave the most commanding performance of the year. The Visitor was a character study and a social issue study all at once, and touches on fundamental questions about immigration, prejudice, and homeland security without being preachy or giving any easy answers. Even Jenkins' obvious Oscar clip, in which he shouts down a customs officer about how "it isn't fair" and "you can't just take people away" is curiously stifled and restrained, an impotent outburst by a man who's been stirred enough to care about something he can't change. But he still cares, and I think the film's final scene is an act of protest that has probably moved many of the film's few viewers as much as it moved his character. Quiet, but funny, but thoughtful, but heartbreaking, The Visitor didn't get a wide audience, but I'd bet it sticks with anyone who did see it longer than Benjamin Button will.

The Best Animated Feature Film is a token prize, basically keeping a highly imaginative adventure tale at the kiddie table so the "adult" films can play. Except Wall-E was a lusher, more engrossing treat for the eyes than the kaleidoscopic colors of Slumdog Millionaire or the historical CGI travels of Benjamin Button, which hogged the visual awards. It was the rare kids' movie that remembers that kids don't just like broad jokes, bright colors and silly voices, but movies that take you to another world and have a real sense of wonder. It was only when Wall-E got to the space station and human characters were involved that the movie lost a little steam, but the silent charm of the first half or so was among the best storytelling in years.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Grammys, huh?

What is it about the Grammys that inspires so much writing about their continued irrelevance? Six years ago, I wrote my first Grammy bitchfest. Surely if some high school junior knew in '03 that the awards were useless, everyone else should have figured it out by now, too. But here I am writing yet more Grammy observations, and numerous preview articles and live-blogging efforts detailed the show, from the annual disappointment at the nominations to the play-by-play chronicles of boredom.

Why does it seem like a constant surprise that the Grammys are out of step? Here's a quick experiment: take just 2-3 minutes to think about this decade in music. Think about what artists, songs, albums, genres, will be remembered as the defining sounds lf the era from 2000 until 2010. When the '00s joins the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, what sounds will these years conjure up? Think on that for a moment, then see how your own shortlist compares to the past decade's worth of Grammy Album of the Year Selections:

2000: Supernatural by Santana
2001: Two Against Nature by Steely Dan
2002: Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
2003: Come Away with Me by Norah Jones
2004: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below by Outkast
2005: Genius Loves Company by Ray Charles
2006: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb by U2
2007: Taking the Long Way by the Dixie Chicks
2008: River: The Joni Letters by Herbie Hancock
2009: Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant

Ahh, yes, how could I forget enjoying a Joni Mitchell covers album throughout President Obama's campaign, the sweet relief a posthumous Ray Charles album brought in the midst of the Iraq War, and the way Steely Dan served as the national soundtrack after Sept. 11?

So why do we care? It's in the way they string music fans along, I guess. There are just enough cool nominations and performers listed to fool you into thinking it's worth watching, until you get ten minutes in and realize it's going to be three hours of Jonas Brothers/Stevie Wonder duets.

A third Album of the Year nomination for Radiohead is one such hook that gets viewers (like this one) to tune in, but given that OK Computer and Kid A both lost already--Kid A to the aforementioned Steely Dan--it's doubtful that anyone really held out hope. At least we did get a pretty neat Thom/Jonny/marching band take on "15 Step," even though it was killed by the muddy sound that drowned the whole show. (Tip: If you have no more than ten minutes to set up each performance, and live TV has notoriously awful sound quality anyway, maybe packing drumlines, choirs, and string sections into every single song is unwise.)

At least we got the indelible image of a pregnant M.I.A. wobbling in black and white alongside T.I., Kanye, Jigga and Weezy, but every semi-hip moment was buoyed by a dozen more that were hopelessly outdated, like Neil Diamond sleepwalking "Sweet Caroline" through the 40th anniversary of it's release--probably to coincide with the last year the Grammys were relevant.

And God, even if it's going to be a back-patting contest by aging musicians, does it have to be such a bore? It was obvious the fix was in for Krauss and Plant when they got the coveted "we'll perform right before an award we're up for is given out, strategically putting us on-stage already" slot, and they got the win to a dearth of fanfare. Interestingly, their speech was cut short--by the Grammys own standards, Krauss and Plant recorded the best album of the year, but have to be played off-stage during their acceptance speech for... well, what, exactly? A 90-second snippet of Stevie Wonder playing for a second time tonight? Apparently not even the Grammys care about their winners.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

"Kids These Days!": brokeNCYDE

The "ironic" rock take on a dumb rap single is an old concept, almost exclusively perpetrated by the type of band that likes their rock Pro Tooled and pitch-corrected til it's as dangerous a baby-bumper, but think they're making real music just because it has guitars. And so get misguided covers like brokeNCYDE's screamo rendition of "Low," which entirely misses the fact that you can't make fun of music that was meant to be dumb fun in the first place. The cover is cute and all, but given the premise any listen could pretty much imagine how it might sound to 100 percent accuracy in his or her mind. ("Apple-bottom jeans, and them boots with the FUUUUURS! (backing vocal: WITH THE FFFFFFHUUUUUURRRHRRRSSSS!"))

Harmless enough, but these guys are apparently milking an entire career out of their limited shtik, churning out the same joke over and over and over again in their original material. What do you even call four dipshits from Albuquerque winking and smirking their way through their worst approximation of hip-hop beats and their best efforts at emo shrieks? Their tags offer some suggestions: plain old "screamo"? No, these lads have traded their guitars for a synth. "fashioncore"? I don't care what today's 14-year-olds tell me, a bleached streak in five-inch bangs with a scarf and girls' jeans will never be fashionable. "crunkcore"? The genres are there, but it doesn't quite capture their essence... are, yes, there we are: "myspaceshit."

brokeNCYDE is somewhat funny for five-to-ten minutes, but absolutely intolerable in larger doses--they're the musical equivalent of a third-tier recurring SNL character being fluffed out to fill an 80-minute movie. Yet they've got over a million plays on

Kids these days!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Best of 2008

Tentatively my final list of the top 25 songs and top 5 albums of the year, as determined by me. Mostly by gut feeling, although factors such as longevity and sentimental value are factors in addition to overall enjoyment of the song.

Top 25 Songs

1. Paavoharju - Kevätrumpu
2. Fuck Buttons - Sweet Love For Planet Earth
3. Girl Talk - Play Your Part Pt. 1
4. Estelle (feat. Kanye West) - American Boy
5. TV on the Radio - Golden Age
6. Jay Reatard - See/Saw
7. Lil Wayne - A Milli
8. Ida Maria - Oh My God
9. Kylie Minogue - Wow
10. Portishead - Machine Gun
11. El Guincho - Antillas
12. TV on the Radio - Crying
13. Spiritualized - Soul on Fire
14. Leona Lewis - Bleeding Love
15. N.E.R.D. - You Know What
16. Jay Reatard - Fluorescent Grey
17. Portishead - The Rip
18. Fleet Foxes - Oliver James
19. Bon Iver - Skinny Love
20. Sigur Rós - Gobbledigook
21. Gnarls Barkley - Going On
22. Cat Power - Silver Stallion
23. Jonathan Richman - Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild
24. Bun B - II Trill
25. Kanye West - Flashing Lights

Top 5 Albums

1. Girl Talk - Feed the Animals
2. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
3. El Guincho - Alegranza!
4. Portishead - Third
5. James Blackshaw - Litany of Echoes