Archive for April, 2007

Holy fuck the Dismemberment Plan are still amazing

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

I would be remiss if I didn’t post about my 23rd show of the year — the much-anticipated Dismemberment Plan reunion concert at the Black Cat. A quick Technorati search reveals a ton of breathless blog reviews of the two shows these guys did this weekend (for instance here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). And you know what? Even my rather jaded showgoing self can’t help being really, really excited about last night’s show.

In various pre-weekend interviews, the D-Plan’s frontman Travis Morrison had said that he actually felt that the band were better than ever — better musicians, more comfortable with the material despite not having played any of it in three and a half years. I was skeptical, to say the least, but I honestly have to say that last night’s reunion show was easily the best show I’ve ever seen the band put on, and I saw them four times during their prime. The sound was perfect and their performance was shockingly tight, as if they hadn’t just picked up after three and a half years apart. They played all the songs one would expect — “You Are Invited,” “Time Bomb,” “The Ice of Boston,” and so on — playing almost all of Emergency & I and their usual selection of earlier stuff like “Onward, Fat Girl” and “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich.” The only notable omission was “Superpowers,” though I also wished that they had played “Sentimental Man.”

Setlist aside, the energy at the show was just tremendous. I caught the second opening band, whose frontman said, “We’re going to play a short set tonight, because we’re not stupid.” An apt statement, as everyone there was clearly there for one reason only. People had traveled from all over to see this reunion show, including someone from London and a bunch of people from up and down the eastern seaboard. The crowd was as I remembered from previous D-Plan shows, dancing spastically, pumping fists, jumping all over the place. What was different was the singing: it seemed like every song, the crowd was singing along as enthusiastically as Travis himself was singing into the mike. The band seemed a little overwhelmed by the response, which was understandable — during “The Ice of Boston,” in which traditionally the band asks audience members to join them on stage and dance, the crowd flooded up onto the stage to the point that the band didn’t have enough room to play their instruments, and by the end of the song Travis had given his guitar to some dude, Jason Caddell and Eric Axelson had stopped playing, and it was just Travis singing with Joe Easley tapping out the beat on drums. And everyone in the club singing along, of course.

They played two full encores, although they quipped to the crowd that they were running out of songs that they remembered how to play (they claimed to be making stuff up as they played “Bra” and “Onward, Fat Girl,” but damned if I noticed except for one flubbed line in the former). The band-audience dynamic was unforgettable. And it was all for a good cause. By the end of the year, I’ll probably have gone to many shows that were more challenging, musically ambitious, and whatnot, but I doubt any of them will have matched the atmosphere of this one.

UPDATE: There is now a review up at Pitchfork (complete with crowd shot in which one of my friends is visible, wooo), and I added to the list of blog reviews above.

Most boring live show?

Friday, April 27th, 2007

Over at I Love Music, there’s a thread going on called “Most boring live show ever?” I’ve been to a lot of shows recently, but it’s interesting how I can only really think of a couple that I would consider “boring.” Bad, painful, embarrassing? Sure. Boring? That’s a little more rare. Only two shows come to mind: Eluvium, a kind of ambient post-everything solo affair that I suffered through a couple years ago; and Tord Gustavsen, whom I actually enjoyed, but all his stuff was so downtempo, samey, and ECM-ish that I actually fell asleep in my seat for a few minutes.

At various post-rock shows I have been bored at times — this includes Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Sigur Rós, Slint, Explosions in the Sky — but never for too long. With that kind of music it almost seems like part of the expectation, although maybe that says something about the genre.

Aereogramme @ the Black Cat, still screaming

Friday, April 27th, 2007

A small crew of fans came out last night to see Aereogramme at the Black Cat’s back stage. This is a neat little space that’s ideal for folk and acoustic jazz performances (Ken Vandermark played there a couple years ago with his Free Music Ensemble), but for heavily amplified rock, it’s definitely not the best spot. Sadly, Aereogramme’s overdriven guitars and pounding drums overwhelmed the sound system and made for a trying listening experience.

There were still some nice surprises, though. The story with these guys is that they started off as a curious cross between indie-pop and death metal, combining saccharine melodies with crushing riffs and screaming vocals. Their lead singer, Craig B, caught a nasty throat infection a couple years ago, and they went on an informal hiatus before releasing a new album this year, My Heart Had a Wish That You Would Not Go (an emo-sounding title if there ever was one, but it’s actually a quote from The Exorcist). With Craig B rendered unable to scream anymore after his ailment, this new album dumps almost all of the metal influences in favor of a borderline sappy alt-indie sound that’s like a more interesting and heavily orchestrated Coldplay.

Still, a recent collaboration with Isis (In the Fishtank 14) led me to believe that Aereogramme have not completely exorcised the heavy elements from their music, and this show proved that belief right. Their set spanned their entire career, including a couple favorites like “Indiscretion” and “Dreams and Bridges.” The band didn’t shy away from the metal, either, as Craig B’s plaintive vocal melodies often gave way to crunchy riffs and, yes, screamed vocals courtesy of another band member with a presumably more healthy throat. Satisfyingly powerful at times, at others they were hamstrung by the very muddy sound — the drums often overpowered everything, especially the vocals and orchestrations. Also, the densely layered orchestrations were completely sequenced, which was very disappointing; I was hoping for a live violinist or something, or at least for those lines to be played live on keyboards. Instead, they were played back pre-recorded from a laptop. Pretty lame.

Despite the crappy sound, overwhelming volume levels, and stripped-down orchestration, I still enjoyed myself, if only because I was pleasantly surprised that these guys still play their edgy older material in addition to the more heartstring-tugging new stuff.

I’m on last.fm

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

“What the hell is that thing at the top of your blog?”

I’m still trying to figure out how to integrate it into the blog, or even if I want it at all, but for now, that graphic up there is a list of my recent listening courtesy of last.fm (and if you click on it, you can see an expanded list and much more). In my recent efforts to figure out just what the whole Web 2.0 social networking thing is all about, I’ve gotten myself to start using the likes of del.icio.us, flickr, Digg, and now last.fm. Actually, I started using last.fm a while ago, maybe a year and a half ago, but when I upgraded to the newer version of my music playback software (as detailed in this post), at the time version I upgraded to didn’t support the last.fm functionality.

So what exactly is this thing, anyway? It’s a “social music” site, which catalogs everything you listen to on your computer and sticks it in a database. Then, it shows you other listeners who have been listening to similar stuff as you, so that you can see who shares your tastes and what else they are listening to — kind of a cool way to find music you might like, in the same manner that del.icio.us lets you find links you might like. It’s a neat idea, especially with some of the new functionality allowing users to list concerts they’re going to and hook up with like-minded listeners in real life.

The flaw, of course, is that not all of my listening is done at my computer at home — I also listen on my MP3 player, in my car, and at work, and none of that can be catalogued by last.fm. Still, a neat idea and one that I am only just beginning to explore the full implications of.

Loreena McKennitt @ DAR Constitution Hall

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

Despite feeling rather under the weather, last night I went to see Loreena McKennitt play at DAR Constitution Hall here in DC, a very swanky 3700-seat theatre-style venue. Sadly, I was kind of in the wrong headspace for this show, as my attention kept wandering and I was generally a little spaced out. This was too bad because if I had been completely with it, this could have been one of my favorite shows so far this year. McKennitt’s music is very evocative, rich in imagery, history and detail, and this all really comes through in concert. She has a nine-piece band playing all sorts of instruments — lutes, oud, bouzouki, lyra, hurdy-gurdy, violin, cello, various types of percussion — and she herself rotated between piano, harp and accordion, all while singing with that inimitable voice of hers.

The setlist drew almost equally from her last four studio albums, without too many big surprises (perhaps the biggest surprise for me was a rendition of “The Lady of Shalott” from The Visit, which is still probably my favorite of her long-form poems set to music). Seeing the music live gave it a whole new dimension, though; on record, much of McKennitt’s music has a nearly soporific effect on me, perfect for chilling out; but in concert, the rich arrangements and deep harmonies took on a life of their own and made every moment fascinating, even despite my state of mind. And when Brian Hughes cranked up the electric guitar, there were some positively Floydian moments, as in “The Bonny Swans,” in which all I could think of was David Gilmour in his prime. Many of the more upbeat songs had an almost fusionish intensity in the instrumental arrangements. This was no new-agey wallpaper music.

I took the opportunity to pick up an advance copy of her Nights at the Alhambra DVD/2CD set; I watched part of the DVD today and it seems very representative of the performance I saw. If anything, that’s my only complaint: despite some of the instrumental fireworks, most of these songs, including the older material, were played very much straight, without much in the way of rearragement or adornment. While the strength of the arrangements alone made seeing this music live worthwhile, I would have liked some more variation from what’s on the studio albums (or, for that matter, the 1999 double-live album Live in Paris and Toronto. Nevertheless, it was a pretty fabulous show that I appreciated even though I know I could have absolutely loved it had I been in the right state of mind.

What’s spinning, April 25 edition

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

The past two months have seen an unprecedented amount of new music cross my path. Here’s what I’ve been listening to lately…

  • Aethenor - Deep In Ocean Sunk the Lamp of Light — Dark ambient stuff by members of Sunn O))) and Guapo (now there’s an inspired combination!). Not surprisingly, this is very creepy stuff, utterly devoid of the structures of the two aforementioned bands.
  • Alamaailman Vasarat - Maahan — Their fourth album harkens back to their earlier material, namely the stuff before the collaboration with Tuomari Nurmio. For most fans, this is a good thing.
  • Michaël Attias - Credo — Very tuneful avant-jazz on Clean Feed. I am starting to really get in to this label, thanks to the prolific amount of material they have on eMusic.
  • Cato Salsa Experience and The Thing with Joe McPhee - Two Bands and a Legend — A free jazz group collaborates with a garage-rock band, and the result is nothing short of awesome. Seriously.
  • Cowboy Junkies - At the End of Paths Taken — Their umpteenth album is, well, kind of boring, despite a new emphasis on electric instruments and some aggressive instrumental passages.
  • Kevin Drumm - Sheer Hellish Miasma — I’m not a huge noise-rock fan, but this stuff is just brutal. Maybe the most balls-to-the-wall intense electronic music I’ve ever heard, this sure is one aptly titled album.
  • Earthless - Rhythms From a Cosmic Sky — Pretty great heavy space/psych-rock, the kind of thing that readers of the Aural Innovations site will go bananas for.
  • The Electrics - Live at Glenn Miller Café — A nice cross between structured avant-jazz and purely sound-based free improv.
  • Lane/Vandermark/Broo/Nilssen-Love - 4 Corners — I am getting seriously addicted to both Vandermark and Nilssen-Love these days, and this is one of the more immediately accessible collaborations of theirs that I’ve heard lately.
  • Loreena McKennitt - Nights at the Alhambra — Wonderful DVD/2CD set for fans of this Celtic/world musician. The CDs are probably redundant for those who own Live in Paris and Toronto, but the DVD is essential.
  • Nadja - Touched — Sludgy doom-metal that, in my opinion, puts Sunn O))) to shame. Maybe it’s just that this stuff is much more accessible and, dare I say it, almost tuneful.
  • (((Powerhouse Sound))) - Oslo/Chicago: Breaks — More Ken Vandermark; this band seems to be trying to go for the Spaceways Inc. avant-jazz/funk crown, but with more noise and more electronics. I dig it.
  • Runaway Totem - Esameron — Everyone’s favorite second-tier zeuhl band releases their new, well, second-tier zeuhl album. To be honest I find this stuff pretty damn annoying, although fans of their other material (or Amygdala’s album) might like it.
  • David Torn - Prezens — Tim Berne fans relax, this is definitely not the new Hard Cell album despite the lineup. More than anything else, this is like Cloud About Mercury, re-envisioned and updated for the 21st century.

The Thing @ Sangha

Friday, April 20th, 2007

Last night I made my first trip up to Sangha (don’t bother with their website, it’s pretty dysfunctional) in Takoma Park, Maryland, to see The Thing. It’s kind of amazing that somehow I’ve never been to Sangha before, as they regularly host Transparent Productions and other off-the-beaten-path shows there. The Thing offered up a good first show! Consisting of drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, this is an avant/free-jazz trio with a penchant for covering pop/rock songs — in the set they played, they “covered” pieces by Lightning Bolt and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; their recorded output includes covers of PJ Harvey and The Strokes songs.

In this particular show, the covers were fairly opaque to me — it seemed like they were pretty much just improvising the whole time, playing loose and free until all of a sudden they were playing some ridiculous unison lines or coming to a full stop altogether, seemingly without any visual or auditory cues that I could discern. It was pretty amazing. I saw Nilssen-Love and Håker Flaten with Atomic a few months ago, and they were equally jaw-dropping this time around; Nilssen-Love was on fire the whole time, hands all over the kit (he did play some more straightforward lines once or twice, and that was fun to see), while Håker Flaten’s thinking on his feet was really fun to watch, and he was absolutely fierce, punishing his instrument as much as he played it. I’ve been scared off by Gustafsson on record a couple times, but he was reasonably accessible here, and is one of the most physical players I’ve ever seen — at times dancing with his instrument, at other times fighting it, at all times moving his entire body with the flow of his music.

But it was collectively that these three guys were most impressive; I mentioned in my comments on Atomic’s show that it was fun watching their visual cues, but as I already said, I couldn’t discern any cues whatsoever with these guys. This kind of telepathy is neat when it’s with a group playing carefully composed pieces (say, Ahleuchatistas), but it’s even more impressive when it comes in the context of wild collective improvisation. The ease with which this trio went from dissonant improv with free-flowing rhythms to garage-rock anthems with pounding 4/4 drums, and then back again, was pretty great.

While I still prefer the more structured work of avant-jazz groups like Atomic, The Vandermark 5, or various Tim Berne groups, these last two shows I’ve seen (this one and Brötzmann/Pliakas/Wertmüller last week) have definitely been helping to build my ever-growing interest in the freer stuff.

My “office”

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

I know you are all dying of curiosity: what exactly does the Ground & Sky International Headquarters look like?

There you have it! Click for a larger version.

This Internet radio bullshit…

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

I’m just now tuning in to this really, really unfortunate controversy over Internet radio royalties. Basically, from here it looks like independent Internet radio is pretty much dead after the latest news. This is too damn bad — I was never much of a listener, but I did enjoy popping over to Aural Moon once in a while, especially for Sean Powell and Sean McFee’s shows. There are good summaries of the issue — specifically, a March ruling that would force Internet radio providers to pay massive royalty fees — at Ars Technica and Save Our Internet Radio. The following is from the latter site:

On March 2, 2007 the US Copyright Office stunned the Internet radio industry by releasing a ruling on performance royalty fees that are based exclusively on the number of people tuned into an Internet radio station, rather than on a portion of the station’s revenue… Under this royalty structure, an Internet radio station with an average listenership of 1000 people would owe $134,000 in royalties during 2007 - plus $98,000 in back payments for 2006. In 2008 they would owe $171,000, and $220,000 in 2009.

Like so many other things the RIAA has done, this doesn’t even seem to make very much long-term economic sense. If I understand this correctly, this is obviously going to drive all but the biggest corporate Internet radio sites out of the market. Unlike file-sharing, where the arguments are a bit muddier, Internet radio is a pretty obvious case of a distribution mechanism by which listeners “try before they buy” rather than simply taking and running. I can’t imagine there are many folks out there making the effort to copy low-quality Internet radio streams to MP3. Instead, they’re listening casually, hearing the occasional song they like, and then maybe buying the CD off of that experience.

All this of course is my own conjecture and based on no evidence at all, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what the industry would accomplish by condemning Internet radio to extinction. It’s true that artists and labels probably were receiving very little in the way of royalties from Internet radio, but now they’re not going to be receiving any.

Also, speaking of Aural Moon, over at their discussion forums there’s a pretty active thread on this matter.

I saw Peter Brötzmann live and now I can’t hear a goddamn thing

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

As noted in the previous post, on Friday night I trekked up to Baltimore to the Red Room, which is a really neat concert space that’s basically a side room of a great little used bookstore. The room had probably 35-40 chairs and that was it — a very intimate setting for the very experimental music they tend to book.

Brötzmann/Pliakas/Wertmüller did not disappoint. The lineup was Brötzmann on sax, Marino Pliakas on electric bass, and Michael Wertmüller on drums. Brötzmann’s music is heavy and intense enough when he’s playing in an acoustic band — add in an electric instrument and all bets are off. I kind of knew what to expect here, both from the Outer Space Gamelan review I linked to below and because I got, from Dimeadozen of course, a recording of their show in New York a few days back. If you didn’t read the fantastic OSG review, here is an excerpt that describes well what I was in for:

Right from the git-go the chips are on the table with Brotzmann immediately laying down sloping mountains of the post-Ayler blowisms you’d never mistake for anything else, while Wertmuller adds the kind of frantic/restrained combo drumming one might expect to hear in a band like Ruins. Pliakas is the blue blood coursing through the veins of the unit, steering the band in every direction from speed-reading through and on to molasses lullabyes (but usually only for a brief instant)… I find this whole disc to have a very “metal”-like atmosphere throughout…then again Brotzmann’s always been more metal than half the jokers in the genre anyway.

So, uh, this was intense stuff. Brötzmann was at his most brutal, blowing hard almost throughout the concert’s duration; Pliakas was playing an unusual bass guitar with no head, and he had an unusual playing style to match, sometimes with his hands flashing all over the place, other times playing repetitive ostinatos, constantly playing punishing rhythms that went hand in hand with Wertmüller’s drumming. Wertmüller was a revelation for me — this guy was amazing, playing so hard and so fast I often couldn’t tell what he was doing at all, even though I was sitting in the front row like five feet from his kit. It was his drumming that made the trio sound like a free-jazz take on grindcore and extreme metal: lots of double bass drumming, fills and rolls everywhere, only the occasional attempt to actually hammer out a mid-tempo, comprehensible beat.

The result was a wall of sound that was immediately overwhelming but, over time, became totally exhilirating. They only played four or five pieces over the course of two sets — it was the kind of thing where fifteen minutes into a piece, I would think, “holy crap, they’ve been playing this hard for how long now?” and then they would keep doing it for another ten minutes. The endurance of these guys, especially Brötzmann (who is 66 years old!) was astonishing.

This was “free jazz” that would appeal more to noise-rock and extreme metal fans than your average jazz fan. Sadly, the band lost some of their gear and most of their merchandise on the plane to the U.S., so I was not able to pick up their album, Full Blast (an apt title if there ever was one). I’ll be hunting for it now, because this was a pretty mind-expanding show, even if at times it was incomprehensibly overwhelming.

UPDATE: Here’s another review of this same show.