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Archive for the ‘Indie-Rock’ Category

Joanna Newsom: Just give me all your best-of-2006 awards already

Sunday, December 10th, 2006

Usually, my favorite album of any given year doesn’t start to become clear until well into the next year — hence my penchant for posting best-of lists a year late. This year, though, there’s a runaway candidate already in Joanna Newsom’s Ys. Newsom is one of the more polarizing figures on the current indie music scene, although she’s gotten pretty much universal plaudits from the critics (just look at the Metacritic page for Ys). She’s got a voice that’s pretty much instantly unlikable, like a five-year-old singing in a falsetto. But if you can get past the timbre of her vocals, her music is rather astounding. I like The Guardian’s quote: “It may well be the most off-putting album released this year. After playing it, there seems every chance it is the also the most astonishing.”

Also revealed by The Guardian is that Newsom’s been listening to her Henry Cow. In retrospect this is perhaps not entirely surprising, considering that her vocals are about as conventional as Dagmar Krause’s. With that said, I am endlessly amused that in the coffee shop where I’m sitting right now, playing very loudly on the speakers is Newsom’s first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender. Evidently this is not a place that really cares about playing non-intrusive, inoffensive music so as not to scare off potential patrons. (And I do see at least one annoyed face turning up the volume on his iPod.)

Three fantastic 9:30 Club shows

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

Thanks to the thoughtfulness of a friend (many thanks, Chris), I was, in the end, able to go to Wilco last Thursday despite striking out resoundingly in my earlier efforts to secure a ticket. The show sold out in minutes, so naturally the house was packed with plenty of enthusiastic and apparently experienced fans. Chris and I caught a decent chunk of Melomane, the opening band, whose set ranged from ordinary to awful. Their last song in particular sported some of the worst, most heavy-handed “political” lyrics ever penned — “you’re a pacifist/but sometimes you get pissed,” and something about assassinating the president and killing the people on the Hill. Right.

All was forgiven once Nels Cline and company, I mean Jeff Tweedy and company, took the stage. They chose a peculiar song to open with, “Radio Cure,” but overall played a great set with a good amount of energy. They didn’t come close to matching the show of theirs I saw last year, but that was also a show on a long tour and the second of two nights they played in DC. Then, they played for two and a half hour with a ton of interaction between Tweedy and the crowd; this time around, Tweedy was relatively quiet and the band played for a still-considerable two hours. Also, then was the first time I ever heard Cline with the band, and I was just blown away by his stuff; this time around I knew what to expect.

Oddly enough, the highlight of the show for me was a new song (probably called “Impossible Germany”) about which Chris said, “sounds like The Allman Brothers” with a somewhat incredulous look on his face. This song featured a three-guitar jam that was just beautiful, and was so unexpected that I was grinning through the whole thing. It was also at this point that I really realized, as if I hadn’t known before, that I am a total Nels Cline fanboy. He played beautifully on this song and pretty much every other one as well, for the most part adopting a smooth, high tone over which he had complete control. Of course, he was also quite adept at making a shitload of noise, but that should be no surprise to anyone.

Good show then, although I just ran across this great live review at PopMatters that makes this one pale in comparison.

Also, I failed to report on the two shows I saw a few weeks ago at the same place (the 9:30 Club, which has most remarkably clean and clear sound quality of any dingy club I’ve ever been to): Yo La Tengo and Massive Attack. They were both excellent, and the former was close to transcendent. Ira Kaplan has to be one of the absolute best in the business at making, as Robert Fripp would say, “a lot of noise with one guitar,” sounding like he’s always almost about to completely lose control, but always bringing it back down to earth and making his noise sound melodic and beautiful (I’ll stop short of “accessible,” but it’s close). His guitar work really made the Yo La Tengo show a visceral experience — their rhythm section is rather staid and static, but that’s always been their style.

Massive Attack was a completely different experience, a sensual concert with an elaborate light show that at times made me feel like I was at a dance club rather than a rock club. The band had their full complement of guest vocalists on tour with them, which was awesome, and their slow beats, gradual buildups, repetitive themes, and oppressive sexual tension translated really well into the live environment. It didn’t hurt that the inevitable rock-outs at strategic points in each song were invariably headbang-worthy. In particular, they really make “Safe From Harm” — my favorite Massive Attack song already — into a tour de force, stretching it out into the ten-minute territory with a long, loud, cleansing jam.

Amazon Prime: uh oh

Thursday, September 14th, 2006

Today I got in a small order from They have offered me a free three-month Amazon Prime trial, under which anything I buy gets shipped to me by two-day UPS for free. This is normally a $79/year service. I never understood why someone would pay that much, but now that I have it, it makes a lot of sense and is really a prety brilliant marketing move. Now that I don’t have shipping charges to worry about, I can order from Amazon almost at will, even if it’s just one puny CD, and it shows up at my door two days (sometimes only one day) later. The only problem is that I feel slightly dirty for doing so knowing that this is exactly the kind of thing that could put the final nail in the coffin of independent and brick-and-mortar music and bookstores.

Anyway, today I got the new CDs by The Mars Volta, Mastodon and Yo La Tengo. First impressions of each: The Mars Volta’s Amputechture sounds, well, whiny. Nothing particularly stuck in my head, but then again I’m listening at work and not really focusing on the music. Too early to tell even whether I’ll like this or hate it. Mastodon’s new one sounds way more straightforward, especially in the vocal department, than their previous stuff. At some points I was shocked to find myself drawing comparisons to Dream Theater (though, thankfully, not James LaBrie). Uh oh! Last, Yo La Tengo’s new one is, first of all, the best-titled new release in years: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. This would be an awful name if it were an album by a punk or a metal band. But a Yo La Tengo album? Hilarious. And it’s good, too, reminding me more of the heyday of, say, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One instead of the super-slow droney pop of their more recent work. The first and last tracks especially are classic feedback-drenched epics.

The Mars Volta, soaked in piss

Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

Surprise, surprise: Pitchfork’s favorite punching bag, The Mars Volta, get an over-the-top bad review for their new album, Amputechture! The first sentence alone contains the phrases “piss-soaked indulgence” (piss-soaked? really) and “bombastic, mouth-foaming performances.” Pitchfork’s attitude towards this band borders on the comical, and I’m happy to see that the tradition continues in fine form.

I’m pretty excited to hear Amputechture myself, having heard that it’s a long way from the, uh, piss-soaked indulgence of last year’s crappy live album.

On a more positive note, this Sunday’s New York Times had a long article about Mastodon, another exciting modern band with a new album coming out. There’s lots of name-dropping of 70s prog bands and early metal groups.

And finally (links galore today), Dusted just published a feature-length article about the This Heat box, Out of Cold Storage, that I still need to get my hands on.

Isis, Dälek & Zombi: too damn loud

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

On Sunday night I saw what should have been an absolutely astonishingly good show: Isis, Dälek, and Zombi. This unlikely but inspired combination of bands — a metal band, a hip-hop group, and a soundtracky electronic music duo — was the one single show lineup I have been most excited about seeing all year. Isis in particular is one of my absolute favorite modern bands, and I think Dälek’s Absence is one of the best hip-hop albums in recent years. Zombi I had heard compared to the likes of Goblin, and the clips I heard sounded promising.

The bands themselves didn’t really disappoint. I missed some of Zombi’s set, but what I heard sounded interesting — throbbing laptop beats with killer live drumming and the occasional blistering live bass. Definitely less soundtracky and more heavy electronica than I expected, but very cool. Dälek was absolutely killer; the dense, brutal industrial soundscapes that are so abrasive on record are absolutely crushing live. And Dälek (the MC) has an interesting stage presence, all anger and contempt and vitriol, glaring at everything and everyone while spitting his raps into the microphone or nodding his head to the beat. The producer’s rig went out on him at one point, forcing Dälek to freestyle for a bit; he was less than convincing in this respect, but every other part of his set was killer.

Finally, Isis was… pretty much exactly what I expected them to be. They didn’t deviate much from their studio compositions, but they didn’t need to. Their abrupt jumps from headbanging extreme metal to evocative soundscaping were so effective live that audience members were actually laughing in gleeful delight at some of their more powerful transitions. These guys take what Mogwai does best and one-ups them in a big way. Absolutely awesome.

So what went wrong? First, the sound in the club was just stupid loud. My ears were still ringing this morning, some 36 hours after the end of the show. You know how sometimes at shows you can feel the sound making the bottoms of the legs of your pants vibrate a little? Well, at this show all my clothing was vibrating noticeably, all the time. This was definitely the fault of the club and not the bands, as even the filler music player between sets was ridiculously loud, almost at the volume level of what a band at a normal show would be playing at. The end result was that, for Zombi, the live bass lines were so distorted as to be imperceptible; for Dälek, the electronics made Dälek’s rapping all but inaudible; and for Isis, the quieter moments were nearly overcome by what should have been subtle feedback and effects but ended up being overbearingly loud.

Second, I was just too tired. This is the first time that this has happened to me since NEARfest 2000 — I was so tired that it actually affected my enjoyment of the bands. Too bad.

Nevertheless, despite these drawbacks, I have ridiculously fond memories of the show (once my ears recovered). Isis and Dälek were both, despite the volume issues, pretty unforgettably powerful. I can’t wait until these guys come around here again.

Shows: Claudia Quintet, Animal Collective

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006

A couple recent show recaps: The Claudia Quintet and Animal Collective.

I saw the former play at Twins Jazz last week, as I mentioned in the previous entry. This is a pretty nice little jazz club, reasonably priced ($7 for the show plus a $10 food/drink minimum) and intimate. I brought three friends (how often do you get to bring friends to Cuneiform shows?) and we had some good food and enjoyed the Quintet quite a bit. As I said, I’m not entirely sold on the one album of theirs I have, I, Claudia, but as I expected, I was much more enamoured with them live. Bandleader John Hollenbeck’s busy, groove-oriented drumming comes across much more aggressively live, and vibraphonist Matt Moran is a very physical player who’s a joy to watch. I’m still not entirely sure that Ted Reichman’s accordion presence is either necessary or exploited to the fullest extent possible, though — I spent almost all of the show not noticing his contributions at all.

Chris Speed — whose work with Tim Berne’s Bloodcount band in the mid-90s I really enjoy — was the wild card. His contributions on clarinet and sax gave the band their freest flourishes — while one could call The Claudia Quintet an “avant-jazz” group, they’re not anywhere close to the skronky variety. But Speed comes closest to that aesthetic, and indeed blew up in one particularly blistering tenor solo that literally left my heart pounding. On the contrary, though, my friends thought he was the weak link — too free for their tastes, perhaps.

I’m still not a huge fan of The Claudia Quintet’s recorded work, which lacks the immediacy and intensity of their live show. But I’ll gladly jump on the opportunity to see them again the next time their tour brings them to my neck of the woods.

As for the latter show, which was tonight: I’m not all that familiar with Animal Collective, and in fact the opening band, Stórsveit Nix Noltes, was a big reason I decided to go. I’d actually never heard of them before, but the description piqued my interest: an Icelandic big band playing rocked-up instrumental Eastern European folk. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff, and sure enough I wasn’t disappointed. These guys played a seriously fun brand of music that brought to mind all sorts of comparisons — the Scandinavian folk-rockers on the Northside label, say, or even the more upbeat side of Alamaailman Vasarat. The nine-piece played numerous horns, banjo, cello, acoustic bass, accordion, and so on in addition to the usual rock instrumentation, which gave them a really big sound. The diversity of instrumentation was used mostly for unison lines rather than counterpoint, but melodies were occasionally traded between instruments (most often trumpet, accordion, and banjo) to nice effect. A really engrossing, fun show, and I was telling myself that even if I didn’t like Animal Collective at all, Stórsveit Nix Noltes was worth my thirteen bucks.

Which was probably a good thing, because surprisingly, I didn’t really dig the headliners that much. Let’s get this out of the way: Animal Collective are fucking weird. Imagine pastoral folk played over thumping neo-Krautrock beats, and all of it dominated by insanely caterwauling vocals — like Demetrio Stratos at his most obtuse squealing away atop PFM’s instrumental backing, with jolts of Faust and the Boredoms inserted randomly here and there. The combination of such seemingly unrelated elements was refreshingly jarring, but the end result wasn’t anything I particularly enjoyed. It was all a bit too repetitive and monolithic — the band hammering away at a single chord or motive for minutes on end while the vocalist(s) performed wild (and, admittedly, at times wildly entertaining) gymnastics over said static background. I liked some of it, but after a while it actually got pretty boring.

Shockingly, the Animal Collective show was sold out. Which leads me to think, if a band this fucking weird can sell out a fairly large club like the Black Cat, what’s to stop different sorts of avant-rock from gaining a similar kind of indie cred? If Animal Collective, then why not, say, Thinking Plague? If anything, the latter, and similar groups like 5uu’s, are more accessible than the former in all ways except rhythm (the single grounding element of Animal Collective’s music seems to be pounding, simple, danceable rhythms). One can only hope that the state of “cool” in underground music will continue highlight bands trying truly different, and difficult, things.

The Postal Service on a soundtrack

Saturday, February 26th, 2005

It was only a matter of time, and I’m surprised it took this long: The Postal Service have finally made their way onto a soundtrack. I saw an ad for some new hospital drama (what is it with hospital dramas? I’ll never understand what goes on in the boardrooms where corporate stooges decide what to make TV shows about) in which “Such Great Heights” (or at least some oddly sped-up version of it) off of Give Up was used as the background music. Great song, weird context. End result: I felt nauseated.

The Yale Herald hates Wilco

Friday, February 25th, 2005

One last Wilco post. I found this gem in the Yale Herald, Yale’s weekly student newspaper, regarding the selection of the band that was to play at Yale’s Spring Fling in 2004, following Wilco’s performance in 2003:

Following a lengthy selection process, last Friday’s announcement of the band that will be playing at Spring Fling came as a welcome sign that this year’s finale will be far and away the best act that we have had in a long time. After last year’s disappointing display of musical mediocrity by Wilco, Third Eye Blind’s performance is bound to lift our spirits and restore our trust in the Yale College Council’s ability to entertain the student body… Four guys with a reputation of strutting their stuff on stage to cheering crowds will hopefully provide a refreshing contrast to last year’s painful attempts by thousands of students to forget Wilco’s monotonous melodies by imbibing early and often.

Third Eye Blind. Ha!

Wilco @ the 9:30 Club

Friday, February 25th, 2005

So I saw Wilco last night at the 9:30 Club here in DC. I think this might be the first time I’ve seen a Grammy Award-winning band in concert. Ha.

In any case, being a Grammy Award-winning band automatically means that the makeup of your audience is going to change slightly. In this case, it seemed to me that the audience was more annoying than usual for the 9:30 (at least compared to shows I’ve been to) - there were a lot of folks talking loudly during songs and stuff. Or maybe it was just the asshole next to me. Hmm.

Anyway, I was watching Nels Cline a lot. He was outstanding. For a large part of the show - half or more of the main set - he was the lead guitarist, with bandleader Jeff Tweedy playing rhythm. His leads were clean and beautiful for the most part - the man plays with a lot of feeling. I was a little disappointed that some of the wilder freakout sections were led by Tweedy - don’t get me wrong, I love Tweedy’s soloing, and it’s pretty out there on its own; I just wanted to hear what Cline would do given the freedom to completely let loose. It never quite seemed as if he had that freedom, but I guess that shouldn’t be surprising given that, fundamentally, despite all their weirdness, Wilco is a pop-rock band, not a free jazz combo. Cline seemed like he was really into it and having a great time; I was wondering if there would be hints of restlessness as his being a mere sideman in a pop band, but I didn’t see any.

Amusingly, for the first half of the show it almost seemed like Wilco was fucking with their new fans. They were steadfastly refusing to play the big poppy hits like “Heavy metal drummer” (though they did play “Hummingbird” fairly early, and man was it weird to see Cline play a saccharine pop song like that one!), instead focusing on making lots of noise with their guitars and electronics. By the time the encores (two of ‘em) rolled around, though, the band was in crowd-pleasing mode. That said, “Misunderstood,” the only remaining mega-hit from Being There, ends on a distinctly anti-pop note, with Tweedy screaming “Nothing!” over and over and over and over again (as part of the refrain “I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all”). I love this part of the song, if only because it goes on and on and on to the point of discomfort, and it’s fascinating to see how different people react to it. It’s the kind of thing that’s intentionally tailored towards alienating an audience, but the funny thing is that Wilco has become so popular that even that intentional alienation isn’t enough to keep fans from cheering wildly.

The closer of the main set was also the best song the band played - “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” from A Ghost is Born. This is a ten-minute Krautrock freakout which basically gives Tweedy an excuse to flail wildly on his guitar. The studio cut is a bit tame and therefore seems over-long sometimes, but I still enjoy it. Live, it’s a different thing altogether. Tweedy was shredding, and Cline - though disappointingly mostly playing rhythm - also had a few moments of complete, blissful sonic violence. Holy crap, this piece was a fucking beast. The soloing was noisy and amelodic, but so intense and passionate that everyone in the club seemed ecstatic. Great moment.

Those thoughts were pretty scattered, but suffice it to say it was a good show. They played for a long time - two and a half hours or so. I came away very impressed by Nels Cline - I would really like to see him in a jazz context now. I’m not sure I liked the show as much as the one I saw at Yale a couple years ago, but that might have been because I knew more of what to expect this time around. Two years ago, I knew to expect something a little out of the ordinary, but the avant elements of Wilco’s sound took me totally by surprise back then. This time, I might have been anticipating those avant elements (especially given Cline’s presence) a little too much.

Incidentally, the show was streamed on NPR and is still available on their website, if you’re interested.

Nels Cline in Guitar Player

Thursday, February 10th, 2005

Somehow Nels Cline - avant-jazz guitarist and relatively new member of Wilco - has found himself on the cover of an upcoming issue of Guitar Player, and the feature article is an interview with him by none other than Barry Cleveland. The interview’s been posted online, and it’s a good one. There’s a little bit of talk about Cline’s The Giant Pin, with his amusingly misnamed trio The Nels Cline Singers; this is a fantastic album that really straddles the rock/jazz line more effectively than a lot of the stuff I’ve heard lately (and I’ve heard a lot of stuff lately that tries exactly that).

Most interesting in this interview is when Cleveland asks what Cline would like the next Wilco album to sound like:

My take would be based on something Jeff has already suggested—which is a lot of beautifully wrought, interlaced guitar work where we’re highly involved with each other’s parts, and yet there’s still plenty of room for the keyboards. I’m completely into the overtones created by stringed instruments being played together, because, inherently, they’re going to be a little out of tune, and I think that microtonality is part of the glory of a rock band. To plumb that concept further—possibly with some extreme use of effects for balance—would make for an inspiring-sounding record.

That sounds pretty awesome to me. I’m going to see these guys in concert on February 24th here in DC - I’m incredibly excited. I’ll be sure to report.