Archive for March, 2006
Monday, March 27th, 2006
So I was on a whirlwind trip to Würzburg, Germany — home of the Freak Show Art Rock festival — this weekend for a cousin’s wedding (and we’ve accumulated an excellent backlog of reviews to be posted this week). I got back yesterday afternoon, along with a housemate who was in Amsterdam for work for an equally brief time; we were both jet-lagged to hell but needed to stay awake until a reasonable bedtime hour, so we decided to go to see Annie at the Black Cat here in DC.
Annie, of course, is the Norweigian dance/electro-pop star whose debut album, Anniemal, somewhat inexplicably garnered rave reviews from the top indie-rock websites like Pitchfork, Stylus, and Tiny Mix Tapes. Pitchfork even ran a feature-length interview with her. Of the major indie web press, only PopMatters gave Anniemal a less than stellar review. I picked up the album and couldn’t for the life of me figure out why it became such a hipster sensation. My housemate probably said it best: Annie is for indie kids too cool to admit to liking bouncy, fun pop like Britney Spears. The fact that she’s from Norway and has a bit of Euro-techno in her sound gives her that little bit of street cred that her American culture-industry byproducts never had any chance of having.
So that’s what I thought from listening to Anniemal, anyway. To me the album sounds like girl-pop music with more housey backbeats. Don’t get me wrong, I like this stuff, I just didn’t understand why hipsters who wouldn’t touch girl-pop with a hundred-foot pole would glom onto it so obsessively. The music’s not anything particularly out there and the lyrics certainly aren’t any better than anything Christina Aguilera or Kylie Minogue have cranked out (and are sometimes noticeably worse; check out the line from “Chewing Gum” that goes, “I don’t want to settle down, I just want to have fun / I don’t want to settle down, I just want to chew gum!” — yikes!).
But the live show left me with a slightly different impression. First of all, there was a guitarist. Maybe I totally missed this, but I don’t remember much guitar, if any, on Anniemal. But live, he played a big role in the sound, and he wasn’t just playing cheesy melodies or strumming rhythm either; he was playing some pretty far-out shit at times. Second of all, Annie’s vocals were pretty far down in the mix. If she were really the Euro Britney, that certainly wouldn’t be the case; she’d be front and center. Third, the DJ (who also took a pretty nifty electric piano solo in “Come Together”), while often providing a thumping house beat, was also doing some pretty wild synth flailings. Basically, the music was just a lot more “out” than what’s on Anniemal, which was totally unexpected and kind of refreshing. On the other hand, the mix was pretty bad (the guitarist was drowing everything out at times and I think the vocals could have been higher), and I’m not sure I actually enjoyed the music as much as I do what’s on the album. Still, I have a much better understanding of the indie/underground appeal of this stuff now.
Now, after two weeks where there was literally a show every other day that I was interested in, there’s a bit of a dry spell in the DC live music scene, and things aren’t picking up again until late April. Check out my running list of interesting shows in DC.
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.
Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006
Right on cue, a review of Stórsveit Nix Noltes‘ debut album Orkídeur Hawaí (which I bought at the show last night) appears in Dusted today. It’s a bit of a cop-out review, as the writer pleads ignorance as to the band’s influences and thus excuses himself from having to try to describe the music:
“Rather than pretend that I know enough about folk traditions to judge whether or not Storsveit Nix Noltes perform with any kind of authenticity, I’ll merely note that to a casual listener it sounds almost exactly like the kind of thing you could expect to pick up in the world music aisle at your local record store, perhaps with a little more electric guitar.”
Suffice it to say that this stuff is a lot more rocked-up than straight-up Balkan folk music. I don’t know that much about Balkan and Eastern European folk either, aside from what I hear in postmodernist mish-mash folk-rock groups like Charming Hostess or Alamaailman Vasarat, but it’s probably safe to say that noisy electric rave-ups and questionably tonal guitar freakouts aren’t usually part of the equation. (Although admittedly these more “out” elements aren’t a central part of Stórsveit Nix Noltes‘ sound, they’re still definitely there and play an important role.)
The review does raise an interesting question, though:
“Most people who run across [this album] probably will not know enough about the source material to really develop a strong opinion. A record this far outside the box works primarily as a change of pace, and most people who listen to it, myself included, will notice it more for its novelty than for its quality.
I suppose this is true to an extent; the point being that a fan listening to a kind of music totally outside his sphere of experience has no basis by which to judge said music. I remember my initial forays into new genres like jazz and hip-hop (after being pretty exclusively a rock fan), and I couldn’t really tell what was “good” and what was “bad.” But on the other hand, I could tell what I liked and what I didn’t like. By the same token, I don’t know anything about most of Charming Hostess‘ source material on albums like Eat or Punch, but I can very easily say that I love their music and they’re very good at what they do.
In my opinion, that’s really what the job of the reviewer comes down to — being able to tell the reader where an album lies in a greater context is nice, but expressing a simple opinion is still the most important thing.
Tuesday, March 14th, 2006
There’s a really nice Terje Rypdal feature interview/article at AllAboutJazz, discussing his influences from Miles Davis‘ electric period (see also their review of Vossabrygg). I got Vossabrygg, his latest album, a couple weeks ago — part of it is a pretty overt tribute to Bitches Brew — and have kind of mixed feelings about it. There are a couple tracks with heavy electronic sampling that I like the best; although the electronics don’t exactly seem cutting-edge, they do work nicely as a kind of 21st-century extension of the electric, fusionish mentality of Bitches Brew.
On another jazzy note, I’m going to see The Claudia Quintet tonight here in DC, and am bringing a bunch of folks with me. I’m a bit lukewarm about I, Claudia and haven’t heard their new Semi-Formal, but nevertheless I’m pretty excited for the show.
Thursday, March 9th, 2006
A couple nights ago I got to see Charming Hostess live. They performed for about an hour, singing songs almost exclusively from Trilectic and Sarajevo Blues. I like the big-band version of this group better (who doesn’t?), but they were certainly an incredibly entertaining trio to watch even just a cappella. They call themselves “nerdy-sexy-commie-girlie music” or something like that, but it wasn’t until I saw their live performance that I realized just how nerdy they really are. This is something that really appealed to me: Jewlia introduced every single song, regaling the audience with background details on the songs’ subject matters (which tended to the esoteric: a 1920s love affair between a Marxist revolutionary and a German philosopher, or the siege of Sarajevo). It was nice to see all three performers really get into the songs — clearly, even though they sing in multiple languages, they really know what all their lyrics mean, and they feel them as they sing them. Fun show.
A quick roundup of some interesting reading from the indie-rock sites recently…