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Archive for June, 2007

Quick update: I went to NEARfest

Monday, June 25th, 2007

So I went to my first NEARfest in seven years. Saw some good music and some mediocre music, but no bad music. Also no transcendently great music, although Magma at times got close (but they were compromised by an atrocious mix, at least from where I was sitting). I’ll post at length when I have time, but for now here is the box score:

  • NeBeLNeST was the first band I saw (drove in Saturday morning), and they were good, but the mix seemed a little flat and that robbed them of some power.
  • Bob Drake was hilarious.
  • Magenta was surprising. As you probably know, I’m not exactly a certified neo-head, but I found myself really enjoying their performance.
  • Hawkwind was ehhhhh (but then, I am totally unfamiliar with their material). I left after a few songs.
  • Indukti was the first real highlight for me. They were great and their drummer is a beast!
  • La Maschera di Cera, like Hawkwind, I didn’t know beforehand and the concert didn’t inspire me to learn more.
  • Robert Rich and Pure Reason Revolution I skipped to run some errands, although from the reports I’m actually kind of bummed that I missed the latter.
  • Magma was intense, exhausting, overwhelming. And the keyboardist was way too loud and drowned out all the vocals, damnit.
  • The vendor rooms were dangerous. I kept myself mostly in check, though. And I picked up a copy of the rather OOP first Lard Free album from Dave Kerman.
  • The people were both great and hilarious (in all sorts of ways), met a bunch of characters I hadn’t met before, and missed meeting many more.
  • The drive home was uneventful, well except for the beginnings of a high-speed chase I witnessed outside of (where else?) Baltimore.

More later.

Wilco @ Merriweather Post Pavilion: old is great, new is boring

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

Last night, several jazz musicians I really like were active on the east coast: Tim Berne playing with his Hard Cell trio at the Vision Festival in New York, Slava Ganelin with his Ganelin Trio Priority at An Die Musik in Baltimore, and Nels Cline with… Wilco at Merriweather Post Pavilion in suburban Maryland. I went to see the latter, because it was closest (if Berne had been closer he would have been the choice), I had friends going, and ever since Cline joined the band I’ve been a bit of a Wilco fanboy.

This was my fourth Wilco show in five years, so I more or less knew what to expect, and the band delivered. They were pretty on, and for a large venue the sound was pretty good. The wild card was the new material: as I mentioned before, I’m not much of a fan of the Sky Blue Sky songs, and I was hoping that seeing them live would improve my appreciation. Sadly, the opposite happened: when contrasted with their older material, the new songs came off even more lame and stilted than before. Half the fun of Wilco for me is the contrast between beautiful pop melody and all-out joyful noisemaking (Cline in particular adds a lot to this aspect of their sound, of course). Sky Blue Sky’s songs have a complete dearth of the latter, and a lot of them lack the former as well. The most telling transition was one between “Via Chicago” (a perfect example of an effective meshing of melody and noise) and one of the new songs. My heart was thumping and I was grinning during “Via Chicago,” but then once the next song started, I sat down and quickly lost interest.

Oddly enough, then, my favorite song in the set was actually one of the new ones: “Impossible Germany.” This is the one that so surprised me last year, when Chris compared it to The Allman Brothers. Then, and on record, the three-guitar jam that makes up the second half of the song was nicely melodic, if completely inoffensive. But at this show, while Tweedy and Sansone played the interlocking melody straight-up, Cline went and fucked it all up, playing the kind of noisy solo that would have fit much more comfortably on Downpour (his free-improv set with Andrea Parkins and Tom Rainey from FIMAV last year) than Sky Blue Sky. The result was phenomenal, an instrumental passage that combined the white-knuckle tension of the best free jazz solos with the consummate melodicism that marks so much of Wilco’s earlier work.

The other highlight was “Poor Places,” whose noisy denouement transitioned smoothly into the motorik beat of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” I was shocked and delighted that they would play the latter song at all, given how it’s 180 degrees away from their new material. Sadly it wasn’t as tight as I hoped; the delicious tension of the song comes in large part from Tweedy’s ability to take the core guitar melody and play around with it considerably while still leaving in tantalizingly recognizable bits, but this time around it seemed like he got away from that melody and was kind of aimless. Still, I do love that song, and its Krautrockish foundation has a trancelike effect in concert.

One other thing of note was that Tweedy was, with the exception of “Spiders,” relegated almost exclusively to rhythm guitar, allowing Cline to really take the spotlight and show off his abilities. This certainly added to my enjoyment of the show, as I spend most of my time at Wilco concerts watching him anyway (though the rest of the band are certainly no slouches, this guy is just really entertaining to watch).

The lame Sky Blue Sky songs aside, this was a good concert, and per their norm, they played a long set, including three encores, coming in at somewhere between two and two and a half hours. I have never seen these guys put on anything less than a really good show. The crowd was interesting to me — instead of the slew of hipsters I saw at all the previous shows, this time it seemed like a frat-boy crowd of the sort that would go to see the Dave Matthews Band. Still, they all seemed like big fans and knew all the songs, so I wonder if it was just the difference in venue or location that was the cause. But somehow I don’t think Wilco was much of a frat-boy band until very recently. After all, it was just a few short years (and one Grammy) ago that mainstream music fans at Yale called the show Wilco played there a “disappointing display of musical mediocrity” full of “monotonous melodies.” What a difference four years makes!

Some great obscure jazz added to eMusic

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

Newsflash: hard-to-find Scandinavian jazz comes to eMusic! Two great little labels who have very limited distribution in the U.S., Jazzaway and Smalltown Superjazzz, have recently put up a bunch of stuff for download on the service. The former is home to groups like Crimetime Orchestra (whose Life Is a Beautiful Monster I only found at a reasonable price after a year’s searching on eBay) and The Core, while the latter houses The Thing, various other Mats Gustafsson projects, and more. Great news for those of us who can’t easily get some of this stuff!

Going to my first NEARfest since 2000

Monday, June 18th, 2007

It’s official: I’m going to NEARfest. This will be my first NEARfest since I was blown away by Thinking Plague and DFA in 2000. Thanks to John Reagan for hooking me up with a last-minute ticket. I’m stoked to see Magma, NeBeLNeST, Indukti and Bob Drake, but really there isn’t a single band in the lineup that I think I’ll actively dislike, which is pretty damn good considering run-of-the-mill prog no longer does anything for me.

In other news, the new power supply did wonders for my computer (I can overclock again!) and so we’re back up and running. Should have some more reviews to come this week, so stay tuned.

What’s spinning, June 18 edition

Monday, June 18th, 2007

If you’ve actually been following the widget up there at the top of the blog, you might know some of this, but in any case here is what has been occupying my ears for the past couple weeks.

  • Anekdoten - A Time of Day — Well, it’s better than Gravity, but that’s not exactly high praise. Jury’s still out on this one for me; I could see it being a grower.
  • Cato Salsa Experience & The Thing with Joe McPhee - Two Bands and a Legend — This was on my previous list of this sort, from back in April, and it’s still in heavy rotation. I’ll be reviewing it soon.
  • Do Make Say Think - You, You’re a History in Rust — This one is also a long-lasting pleasure, and will likely end up being one of my favorites of the year. This is post-rock at its most beautiful, yet sacrificing nothing in depth (unlike, say, some of the material by Explosions in the Sky).
  • Dungen - Tio Bitar — My first impressions so far are just that; nothing has really stood out to me. For some reason I get less and less excited about this band as time passes, and I was hoping this album would change that. Hasn’t happened yet.
  • Grails - Burning Off Impurities — This is a really hard band to pigeonhole; they’re somewhere between post-rock and prog and metal and ambient and world music, or something. Previous albums have not really excited me, but this one has some really great moments.
  • Isis - Live.04 — Isis’ latest limited-edition live CD is a mixed bag of cuts mostly from Celestial and Oceanic. Oddly, I like the earlier stuff the best; the band’s raw power really comes through in the live context.
  • King Crimson - Live in Heidelburg 1974 — Highlight of this one is pretty clearly the funky “Heidelburg II” improv, in which Bruford comes through with some of the most agile playing I’ve heard him pull off in a KC improv, and Wetton just levels everything in his path.
  • Joanna Newsom - Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band EP — I’m not really that thrilled by the re-recorded versions of “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” and “Cosmia,” but the new song “Colleen” is up there with anything else Newsom has yet recorded. I cannot wait for her next release, and I’m even more excited for her next tour.
  • Nightwish - End of an Era — There are so many things I don’t really like about this band — the silly bombast, the terrible male vocals, the lyrics — but somehow in the end I’m always won over by their sheer energy and the obvious joy they get from playing their music. This DVD is addictive, and although there are several throwaway pieces, it’s great fun.
  • Pelican - City of Echoes — Not sure what I think about this one yet; I think I like it better than The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, but I could be wrong. It definitely seems more dynamic, although the Pitchfork review is dead-on in picking out the drummer as a factor holding the band back from greater heights.
  • Sleepytime Gorilla Museum - In Glorious Times — Well, duh. This has been dominating my speakers for weeks now. My review basically says all I need to say about it: it’s awesome.
  • The Thing - Live at Blå — Basically two half-hour pieces consisting of “covers” of barely recognizable songs strung together by free improv sections. Definitely not the most accessible place to start with this band, and I find myself thinking it definitely has some dead spots that could have used cutting, but it’s an accurate picture of what they do when they play live.
  • Wilco - Sky Blue Sky — Now this is a huge disappointment. Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche are two premier innovators on their respective instruments (and the rest of the band are hardly slouches), but instead of a worthy followup to the skewed indie-pop of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, we get a middle-of-the-road, mostly boring, totally straightforward album of pop-rock that’s to the band’s earlier output as David Gilmour’s On An Island is to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Some reviewers have been saying “but it’s so well-crafted!” but I disagree with that, too — some of Tweedy’s vocal lines and melodies here are nothing short of cringeworthy.

20 Things You Must Know About Music Online

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

Via HypeBot: a free 96-page book in PDF form, “20 Things You Must Know About Music Online.” This seems to be targeted at musicians trying to figure out how to use the Internet as a distribution mechanism for their art, but many of the concepts could apply to anyone trying to market anything using the latest Web 2.0 fads. Pretty interesting read.

The most interesting piece to me is “The Death of Scarcity.” This is a concept that the conventional music industry definitely doesn’t get:

There may have been a time where you would press a thousand copies of a CD, give away a couple of hundred as promos, and try and sell the other eight hundred. Now, you can press a thousand, give away a million, and still sell the thousand.

The death of scarcity makes a nonsense of the notion of the ‘lost sale’. If someone would never have bought your music in the first place, but acquires the music through some other means (perhaps as a recipient of one of those million promotional copies), you haven’t “lost a sale”, you’ve gained a listener.

More importantly, you’ve gained attention (remember that word — it becomes important).

Nelly Furtado @ the Patriot Center

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

My plan to update the site more regularly has been compromised by the fact that since last Thursday, my home computer has been crapping out on a regular basis. I’ve diagnosed it (hopefully correctly) as a problem with my 4-year-old power supply, and a spiffy new one is on the way. But I’ll likely be without a home PC for the rest of the week (since my 7-year-old laptop also ate it a few months ago). Still, I have some new stuff to post and will hopefully be able to get around to it before then.

In the meantime, I should continue to erode my music-snob credibility, and report back on my second big pop concert of the year (and, er, my life): Nelly Furtado at George Mason University’s Patriot Center. This was nothing near the over-the-top spectacle that was the Christina Aguilera concert I saw in April — which shouldn’t really be surprising, since, Furtado and Aguilera are pretty fundamentally different artists. Furtado gets lumped in with mega-produced booty-pop these days thanks to a couple big hit songs with Timbaland, but her background is more of a singer-songwriter one than anything else. The stage show last Friday reflected that.

The most glaring thing I noticed, in fact, was that Furtado didn’t seem especially comfortable with being a pop star. She often avoided the spotlight, singing in the background while her four dancers exuded the stage presence she lacked. I found myself inadvertently watching the dancers more than I watched Furtado. When the show ended, both after the main set and after the encore, Furtado scampered off stage many seconds before the closing note, leaving her band to play the exit music and bask in the audience applause. Also, she played guitar in two songs, and we all know that real pop stars don’t play instruments!

The music itself was surprising — not just the arrangements, but even the musical content of the songs was frequently significant different from the album versions, such that I was continually pleasantly surprised. In keeping with the not-really-a-pop-star theme, Furtado even let her band have a ton of solos (guitar, keyboards, even drums), the highlight of which was a beautiful, nimble acoustic guitar solo in the middle of “All Good Things (Come to an End).” And speaking of the band, they were pretty talented, and played everything live (even the sequenced beats were played live by two keyboardists), and seemed much more relevant to the music than most bands that back up pop stars.

So I guess I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the music in this concert, and by its presentation. The set included five straight slow songs in the middle section, which a real pop musician would never do, but one effect of Furtado’s roots as a songwriter are that her slow songs are much more engaging than your typical pop ballads (”All Good Things” being the best example). The spectacle was definitely low-key — a giant disco ball lowering to stage level to kick off the show was about as over-the-top as it got. Folks coming for the visuals were probably disappointed, but all things considered I was pretty happy with the music.

Zanussi Five @ Twins Jazz

Friday, June 8th, 2007

You can never have too much Nordic free jazz in your life, so last night I went with a few friends to see Zanussi Five at Twins Jazz: a five-piece consisting of three saxophones, bass and drums. The biggest name of the bunch is probably Kjetil Møster, who played mostly tenor, and whom I am familiar with through his involvement with groups like Crimetime Orchestra. The only one of the five I’d seen before live was altoist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, who played with POING when that ensemble played a show with Maja Ratkje last December.

I couldn’t find much online about this group, but what I did see compared them to The Vandermark 5 and Atomic, which led me to believe that they would play an energetic, relatively accessible form of avant-jazz. The first set they played last night, though, was anything but. What they played was more comparable to a much freer, unstructured brand of jazz that was as much about exploring pure sound and texture than it was about conventional rhythm and melody. Though there were plentiful hints of said rhythms and melodies, they were often just hints, and the result was something way closer to, say, The Electrics than to any Ken Vandermark group. Having invited a couple folks who are not really into the freer stuff so much as I was, I was a little too busy feeling misled about what this group was all about to enjoy their music. Too bad, because with the right expectiations I think I would have had a good time with that first set.

Regardless, though, their second set was much more along the lines of what I originally expected: avant-jazz chock-full of accessible melodies and rhythms, always on the verge of flying off the handle but never quite going there. This set was absolutely great, and I was bummed that two of my friends that I’d come with left after the first set — they would really have enjoyed the second. The band closed their set with a Fela Kuti cover; somehow it never occurred to me that a free-jazz combo boasting three saxes would be a natural fit to cover brass-heavy Afrobeat, but of course it worked and it was awesome. They also did an encore that was some kind of klezmer-polka-something with the rhythm section going nuts on an Eastern European folk dance rhythm… also awesome.

So all in all, Zanussi Five were a fun show, and one that really illustrates the power of expectations and how those expectations can shape experience.

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum live: I finally got it.

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

Well, last night Sleepytime Gorilla Museum put on the best show of the three I’ve seen thus far. Maybe it was just that I’m now familiar with all the songs — with very few exceptions they played stuff from In Glorious Times, as they have been doing for the past two years. But despite a surprisingly small crowd (smaller than in 2005, when they didn’t start until nearly midnight, and much smaller than three months ago, when they barely made it to DC thanks to a nasty ice storm), they were really on, both musically and theatrically.

They opened with “The Companions,” which they’ve been doing since I first saw them in 2005. Actually, technically they opened with a gimmick, parading slowly from the back of the club while playing some kind of brassy fanfare, walking straight into the middle of the crowd, finishing the fanfare, and then taking the stage. It was a highly amusing stunt and set the tone for the rest of the night. It’s amazing how these guys can be so creepy one moment and then completely and genuinely funny the next. After “The Companions” — which I found much more enjoyable after hearing it on the album, and I picked out some subtleties I’d never noticed before, like Carla Kihlstedt’s ghostly wordless backing vocals — they brought down the house with “The Widening Eye,” just as they did last time. I described this song last time (which was the first time I ever heard it) as a more metallic take on “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 2″ — it’s easily my favorite song on the album, and it’s a real crowd-pleaser live.

After playing most of the songs on In Glorious Times, the band surprised me by playing some stuff from Of Natural History — previously I’d only heard them do “Phthisis,” but this time they played “The Freedom Club,” “Hymn to the Morning Star” (Nils’ voice in this song is just astonishing) and “The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity.” All of these songs killed and this reminded me that, as much as I dig the new album, Of Natural History is still easily my favorite of theirs. They did an encore of their new, tripped-out version of “Sleep Is Wrong,” which despite its funkiness I actually don’t like nearly as much as the original version, which is much more lean, mean and heavy.

Theatrically, the whole band was funnier and more animated than I’ve seen them, which is definitely saying something. This is even though the crowd was probably half as big as their last show at the Black Cat, which must have been disappointing.

Openers Stinking Lizaveta I found mildly disappointing; I’ve heard great things about them but aside from a couple songs I thought were great, they mostly played songs consisting of odd-time riff after odd-time riff, and I ended up finding them rather tiresome. Great musicians to be sure, but I just wasn’t a huge fan of the compositions.

New Out Music column at Pitchfork

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

Dominique Leone’s latest Out Music column was published today in Pitchfork, including reviews of the new Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Alamaailman Vasarat albums.

I’m seeing the former band tonight, for the second time already this year (do they ever stop touring?!). After digesting In Glorious Times for a week, I’m very, very excited.