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Ground and Sky » 2007 » November
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for November, 2007.
Regular readers of my ramblings here (I wonder how many of you are out there) know that I don’t do end-of-year lists, at least not until a year after the fact. It takes me about that much time to catch up on a lot of the best stuff that gets released during the year. However, there are unavoidable “best of 2007″ threads starting up on message boards and I can’t help but participate in them.
My early conclusion so far is that 2007 has been a pretty freakin special year. In terms of the past nine or ten years (the period in which I’ve been paying close attention to new music), 2004 has been the “year to beat,” with a ton of albums that are lasting favorites. Last year I was only really psyched about one album (if you didn’t already know it’s Ys then you don’t read my musings very often); this year that number is closer to seven or eight. Time will tell if this is just a knee-jerk, latest-is-greatest kind of thing — which is precisely why I wait a full year to do an actual list. But my first impression is very good indeed.
With all that said, my best of 2006 list will be coming sometime next week. Bet you can guess what album will be #1…
I haven’t taken a camera to a concert in years, mostly because I realized that whenever I did, I paid more attention to photography than I did to the music. That wasn’t a trade-off I was willing to make. Also, bringing an expensive digital SLR into a packed, dingy club (usually in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood) isn’t my idea of a relaxing time. So I haven’t mixed my passion for photography with my passion for music since, oh, maybe 2001 or so.
For whatever reason I decided to change things up a bit last night, and I brought my trusty Nikon D70 to Orion Sound Studios for the Radio Massacre International show. An electronic music group doesn’t exactly make for the most exciting of concert photography, but on the other hand at least they’re somewhat easier to shoot because they’re relatively static. The studio was dim enough that I had to shoot wide open (f/2.8) at a high ISO (800-1250) to get any reasonably fast shutter speeds, so if they’d been moving around very much I wouldn’t have gotten anything sharp.
The results of my efforts are up at Flickr; I’m reasonably happy with them considering I haven’t tried anything like this in years (most of my photography is either nature or, more rarely, sports photography). I do wish the D70 performed better at high ISOs, but there isn’t really anything I can do about that. In any case, the predictable thing happened, and indeed, I didn’t pay as much attention to the music as I would have liked.
That said, I did enjoy the show quite a bit, especially the first set. RMI played about an hour of their “traditional” Berlin-school electronic music for the first set, although there were times where they burst into more rock-oriented material, which I found a little off-putting at first. This stuff was great for the most part, really evocative and slow-moving. I’m only familiar with three of the band’s albums — (Emissaries, Septentrional and Rain Falls in Grey — of which Emissaries, whose music is closest to the style of this first set, is my favorite. So it makes sense that I dug this set a lot.
The second set was Rain Falls in Grey performed in its entirety, with the core trio augmented by Cyndee Lee Rule on violin and Premik Russell Tubbs on saxophones. I haven’t quite made up my mind about this album yet; parts of it are great (the track “Emissaries” in particular), whereas other parts seem to wander without really going anywhere in particular. The live performance didn’t change my mind; the parts I already liked were even better live, but the meandering parts still meandered. Also, I couldn’t really tell what Rule added to the band, she didn’t seem to play all that much and when she did I sometimes thought she muddied up the sound. That might have just been my earplugs cutting out some the high end of the mix, though.
In any case, a good show, and the big news is that Radio Massacre International got announced for next year’s NEARfest. Hopefully I can make it next year, as I will welcome the chance to see these guys again and really put my full attention to the music.
I got the new Zs album, Arms, recently, and my only thought so far is: fuck yeah, this stuff is great.
I think this is one of the most vital bands in the avant-rock scene these days. I’m kind of tiring of avant-rock a bit, at least in the RIO/avant-prog form, but Zs push all the right buttons for me, even if it’s really hard to explain why they appeal to me so much. “Uh, well, see, they play these repetitive semi-melodies, like, really fast, in unison, sometimes in crazy time signatures, yeah. And it’s all really UGLY and would annoy the shit out of 99% of the world’s population. And it rocks!” Good thing I’m not the one writing their promotional copy.
At first, I thought the pairing of post-rockers Grails with stoner-metal gurus Om was a weird concert double-bill, but as soon as I showed up at Rock & Roll Hotel on Tuesday night and the former began their set, it became clear that this was in fact quite an inspired pairing. Both of these bands take a fundamentally rock style and add to it distinct Eastern influences — in Grails, it’s the acoustic guitar scales; in Om, the overwhelming Eastern mysticism that dominates their lyrics and overall approach.
I’ve never been blown away by Grails — with every one of their albums, including the new Burning Off Impurities, I feel like there are some really great moments, but they are separated by long stretches where nothing is really going on. Seeing them live only reinforced this impression, although the great moments were pretty freakin’ great. Unfortunately, the acoustic guitar parts kind of got drowned out in the louder sections, especially with their drummer pounding madly away (too loud). One of the band members was wearing an Ash Ra Tempel t-shirt, and I felt at their best this band evoked a kind of meditative mood that reminded me of classic Krautrocky ambience.
Om’s live performance also reinforced my impression of them based on their recordings. This band’s albums are meditative, heavily repetitive, stripped-down stoner metal, just bass, drums and vocals that are chanted more than they are sung. Somehow they manage to be mystical in a neo-hippie kind of way while simultaneously being heavy as fuck. Live, they pulled off this unlikely marriage of stylistic elements impeccably. Bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros is one intense-looking dude, staring into space the entire show as if he was being chased by demons no one else could see; and drummer Chris Hakius was all over the place, the driving force of the duo much of the time, weaving and bobbing his entire body even during the passages where his playing was mostly minimal.
They played four songs, I think, which lasted for over an hour. The clear highlight was an absolutely transcendent rendition of “At Giza,” my favorite piece of theirs, from Conference of the Birds (a brief excerpt of this song is on their Myspace page). The majority of this song is quiet and meditative, although in concert Cisneros’ bass was crushingly loud even in the softer sections. When the climax hits, Cisneros kicks in the distortion and Hakius starts bashing, the effect is unbelievable. The closing to this rendition of the song was just as awesome: the volume dwindled gradually, and Hakius ended the song by slowly reducing the volume of his drumming, tapping his cymbals delicately long after Cisneros had stopped playing, as the entire crowd listened in total, enraptured silence. When it ended I felt compelling to jump up and down screaming my brains out. That doesn’t happen very often.
They ended with “Bhima’s Theme” off the new Pilgrimage, but sadly this was ruined by excessive volume levels. On record, the middle section of this song is incredibly slow and quiet, just Cisneros’ bass playing quietly as he chants his mystic lyrics without accompaniment. Live, the bass was way too loud, killing the near-stillness that the quiet section evokes on record. Still, when the loud section kicked back in — distortion cranked and Hakius beating out a killer rhythm — the effect was awesome. I can only imagine how powerful this would have been if the quiet section had been properly quiet.
I was pleasantly surprised at how many folks showed up for this show. The crowd was pretty thin for Grails, but it seemed like the club, which fits 400 people in a pinch, was almost full for Om. Who knew that stoner metal had such an audience in DC?
Once upon a time, I owned more Pink Floyd CDs than CDs by any other artist — combined. I was depressed because I thought I’d never find a band whose music was as transcendently amazing or that affected me in such an emotional way. I put up posters at my school celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dark Side of the Moon. I bought or downloaded “RoIOs” (seems like only Pink Floyd fans use this term instead of “bootleg”) and became familiar with tens of different performances of the same few songs. When I was a junior in high school, I once told a class that the one thing I wanted to do before I died was to see Pink Floyd live.
Needless to say, I’ve since set my life goals slightly higher, and Pink Floyd has slipped considerably in my list of favorite bands. Still, when I found out that The Australian Pink Floyd Show (hereafter “Aussie Floyd”) were going to play in the DC area, it was with only mild hesitation that I ponied up fifty bucks for a ticket. And I somewhat guiltily slipped out of work an hour or so early — it was a late night tonight as a bill we’ve been working to kill for over years now is going to a vote tomorrow — to make it to the show.
When I got to the theater, 45 minutes late, the band was just wrapping up what sounded like a killer version of “Us and Them” and seguing into the finale of Dark Side of the Moon. It looked like the first set was that album in its entirety; despite my poster shenanigans in high school, Dark Side has never been one of my favorite Floyd albums and so I wasn’t overly bummed about missing out on most of the set. However, to my surprise I did nearly get chills listening to “Brain Damage/Eclipse,” so things were looking good.
After a brief intermission, the second set kicked off with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” much to my delight (Wish You Were Here remains my favorite Floyd album). I won’t list out the whole setlist, but suffice it to say that it drew from a wide variety of albums, although the only pre-Dark Side songs were “One Of These Days” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” The latter was godly. The live rendition was trancelike at the beginning and ending, but unlike the original, added in an absolutely crushing middle section, with a pair of white-hot solos courtesy of the guitarist and saxophonist. Easily the highlight of the show for me. The pro-shot YouTube video below is good, but doesn’t do the performance I saw justice.
Elsewhere were some totally unsurprising selections like “Wish You Were Here,” “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2″ (with a nifty guitar solo section), “Comfortably Numb,” etc. If I had a complaint it would be that there were too many songs from The Wall. The vocalists in Aussie Floyd did a decent job with Gilmour’s rich vocal parts, but couldn’t pull of Waters’ reedy, tortured-soul vocals nearly as convincingly. In fact, overall their vocal performances, while technically sound, were emotionally a little flat. Some of the songs from The Wall (in addition to not being my favorites in the first place) suffered as a result.
An odd highlight for me was “Learning to Fly” off of A Momentary Lapse of Reason, which was played in a form closer to the funkier Delicate Sound of Thunder version. Momentary Lapse is not an album that most Floyd fans would ever call one of their best, but I have a bit of a soft spot for it. It was the first Floyd album I ever heard; I stayed up all night on a long bus ride from North Carolina to the Florida Keys on a seventh-grade school trip, listening to this album over and over again. When Aussie Floyd played “Learning to Fly” — my favorite song on the album then and now — I closed my eyes and I was 12 years old again, watching the nighttime landscape zoom past under the light of the moon as a whole world of music was opened up to me thanks to an old cassette tape in a borrowed Sony Walkman.
I’m watching the Patriots-Colts NFL game this afternoon, and I swear I just heard CBS use a Within Temptation song. It was just a quick instrumental part, chugging guitars fading out just as some characteristically symphonic-metal keyboards started to play. That was weird. Couldn’t quite identify the exact song right off the bat, but I’m holding the melody in my head until I can figure it out.
Got a little lull in concertgoing (there are a couple shows of interest at An Die Musik this weekend, but I’m going to take a break), so it’s time to catch up a bit on the backlog. Last week, Yo La Tengo played at the Birchmere, kind of a weird venue for an indie-rock trio known for making a shitload of delicious guitar feedback noise on top of a steady, almost Krautish pulse. The reason they were playing at this venue — an intimate dinner club whose more usual fare are singer-songwriters, country musicians and aging rockers — was the nature of this tour, dubbed “The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo.” The concept was basically that they would play “semi-acoustically,” kicking off with a couple songs and then opening up the rest of the concert to questions and requests.
There aren’t too many bands out there that can pull this off. Ideally, it requires a large and diverse repertoire of songs, the ability to play them acoustically, the ability to play any one of them on cue, a devoted and knowledgeable fan base, and the charisma to be able to sit on stage and answer questions without boring your audience stiff. I’m having a hard time thinking of any other bands that could actually do this, but Yo La Tengo managed to do it and be entertaining throughout. It helps that they’re one of the most endearing bands around, consisting of a married couple (he on guitars, she on drums) and a third-wheel bassist, all of whom have been playing music together for multiple decades (okay, the bassist is the relative “new guy,” having only been in the band for 15 years or so). The vibe these guys give off is one of relaxed confidence, like they’ve been together for so long they can handle pretty much anything the audience throws at them. In particular, guitarist Ira Kaplan was comfortably engaging and funny onstage, appropriate as it’s his guitar pyrotechnics that — for this listener at least — really propel the band to their most exhilirating musical heights.
I waited too long to pen this writeup, as I no longer remember much about the questions that were asked, but the band encouraged people to ask about anything, not just music. Nevertheless, for the most part the questions (mercifully in my opinion) stuck to Yo La Tengo’s music; the most off-topic it got was, “what’s your favorite Simpsons episode and why?” — and even that one became YLT-related since the answer was “well, the one that we did the music for, obviously.”
Musically, Yo La Tengo has a long and impressively diverse discography. I had expected them to stick mostly to the quieter stuff, or at least the poppier stuff. For the first half of the show or so, this was the case; they played a lot of their contemplative, slow-paced material, of which I generally find about half to be beautiful and half forgettable. But they did end up playing some louder stuff. It turned out that by “semi-acoustic,” what they really meant was “electric, but without distortion.” To my surprise and delight, they even played “The Story of Yo La Tango,” which is a 12-minute epic of guitar feedback and distortion over an insistent motorik beat. Kaplan did crank up a tiny bit of distortion on this one, but far less than usual, and the effect was fascinating, more spacious if not quite as compelling as the original.
For the first bit of the show I was kind of wishing the band would stop talking so much and just play more music. But it didn’t take long for me to warm up to them, and it ended up being a really neat experience punctuated by some great music. They didn’t blow my mind like they did last year (when Kaplan beat up on his guitar the way Cecil Taylor beats the shit out of pianos), but it was a pleasant evening and a rare look into the workings of one of the most long-lived bands in the turbulent world of indie-rock.
A couple days ago I finally downloaded the new Radiohead album, In Rainbows. I still haven’t quite figured out what I think about their distribution method (if you’ve been living in a cave somewhere, they are offering the album as a download and allowing fans to pay whatever they want for it; a CD release isn’t coming until next year). I decided to pay… nothing. I feel okay about that for a couple reasons: point one, these are 160kbps MP3s we’re talking about here, not lossless files or even VBR MP3s; and that ties into point two, that if I like this I’ll probably go ahead and pay for the CD when it comes out. Also, these guys make a shitload of money anyway and since I have the option, I’d rather invest my music budget into bands that lose money with every record and play in shitty holes in the wall for 5 fans at a time.
Kick over any given virtual rock on the Internet and you’ll find a debate about this innovation in music distribution, so I won’t get into that here. Regarding the music itself, well, it’s okay. I probably like it more than anything they’ve done since Kid A, so that’s great, but I’m not exactly blown away. As a tangent, I find it really amusing the way that Pitchfork likes to verbally fellate this band to a ridiculous extent, giving the album a 9.3 (I honestly thought they were going to give it a 10.0 even before they ever heard it) and running like five or six news articles and full-length features about the album, in addition to the review. Sometimes that website is just absurd. In any case, In Rainbows is definitely a solid effort, if a surprisingly chilled-out one, and I’m looking forward to listening to it some more. I don’t think it’ll ever rate the equivalent of a 9.3 on my scale, though. That’s what, a Gnosis 14? No, I expect this one’s more like a strong 10.
Maybe the most fun thing about this sucker is that there’s no cover art provided, so fans have taken it upon themselves to make their own. Here’s a place with a ton of covers, some of which are really, really great. But my choice for easily the best of the bunch is this one:
Tonight I saw the “Final Cut” version of Blade Runner, which is set to (finally) come out on DVD this December, but which has seen extremely limited public screenings — at a few film festivals, plus a couple theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and, very very oddly, a one-screen theater in Washington DC that’s a 15-minute walk from my house. Bizarre. The changes were subtle between this cut and the previously released “Director’s Cut” — the most obvious stuff was that this version is definitely a little more graphically violent. See this website for tons more info on this if you’re an SF film buff.
I’m writing about it here because I’ve been obsessively listening to Sunset Mission by Bohren und der Club of Gore for the past few days, and it strikes me that if Blade Runner had been made in the 90s instead of the 80s, this album would have made a perfect soundtrack to some of the quiet cityscape scenes in the film. Of course, Vangelis‘ soundtrack is very good (but not beyond reproach — I find it a little too intrusive at times and the “Love Theme” makes me cringe), but Sunset Mission seems perfectly tailored for this kind of thing. Despite the band name, these guys play a slow, smoky kind of cinematic music, with touches of jazz in the saxophone and Rhodes but also touches of metal in the mood and oppressiveness. The cover art of this album is a photo of a wet cityscape at dusk, and the music evokes that kind of dark urban noir perfectly. Thanks to some of the folks at ProgressiveEars for mentioning these guys offhand and making them sound so interesting that I immediately went and found this OOP album on eBay. Of course, I thought I was getting Sunn O)))-style drone metal with saxophone, but I’m pretty happy with this despite my foiled expectations.