Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dark and Bubblegum

I found this great early 80's band (ok I'm on a kick) that I'd never heard of called Romeo Void. Judging from their sound, the band seems to have been around at the tail of the postpunk movement. You can hear traces of that style's staccato guitar rhythms (found in bands like Gang of Four and Echo and the Bunnymen) meshing with more orchestrated synth arrangements that were associated with the burgeoning new romantic bands like Duran Duran and Simple Minds. Two songs in particular that struck me were "Never Say Never" and "A Girl in Trouble." Both are carried by the sexy and feminist-leaning vocals of Debora Lyall. "Never Say Never" in particular has a great hook with the line "I might like you better if we slept together." I can see Brett Easton Ellis listening to this while writing on a balcony in the hollywood hills. Interestingly, Lyall did not have a traditional pop look. She was chubby and had some kind of ethnicity (pacific islands?) that would definitely never fly in today's market (which sucks.)

The musicianship was also pretty good in the band (except the sax player, ugh) which is something I always appreciate in pop music. The rhythm section had a tight angular attack poking through the suggestive and soft anger of the vocals. They're quite a find.

One of the best examples of technique and hook-saviness is another band from the same era, Missing Persons, featuring uber-geek drummer Terry Bozzio. That band also had a female singer (Terry's wife, Dale) but their sound was lighter with subtle prog flourishes. The album Spring Session M is AMAZING and should be mandatory for anyone who appreciates well arranged and executed ear candy with some heft to it.

Monday, October 29, 2007


photo by amani willet

So I'm playing with my band, Red Lights to Rio, on Wednesday at Trash in Williamsburg at 8pm. For those of you who know my line-up saga, this will be guitarist #4. But he's a ringer. Adam Caine is an old friend of mine from my early NYC days of playing in a free-jazz-pop-metal band. He's got a real skronk sound that should fit our tunes nicely.

Adam will be flanked by the ever solid fingerings of our Argentinian bassist, Jony. Jony's been a real find after the sad departure of last bassist. He's quickly fit into our musical family, bringing real professionalism, technique and enthusiasm to the music.

And I am still very lucky to be working with the estimable Don McKenzie on drums. The name of this post is actually a phrase he likes to use when waxing poetic on his years in the music business. He's worked with an impressive group of musicians (Veron Reid, Elliot Sharp, Marc Ribot, the infamous P. Diddy) and will sometimes say "I've been in this game a minute" when trying to "school" me on some music knowledge. It's an ongoing battle of wills, but I'm happy to have a foil to make the music the best it can be. And we both enjoy the game.

So come hear how these flammable entities ignite in ROCK AND ROLL FIRE!!!!!

(too much?)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Post Tribute Post

Let's leave the droopy indie kids for a moment...

For those of us who grew up in the 1980's, (I know that era reached saturation 5 years ago, but stick with me on this) television memories include shows like The A-Team,
St. Elsewehere and The Greatest Amerian Hero.

What many of them had in common was television theme composer Mike Post. The melancholy, yet hopeful piano ballad that opens Hill Street Blues was written by Mr. Post. As was the signature guitar riffing over heavy orchestral strokes of Magnum P.I. Post often worked with tv producer Stephen J. Cannell, who created the aforementioned The A-Team, The Greatest Amercian Hero and other 80's pre-pubescent shows like Hardcastle and McCormick, Riptide and Sonny Spoon. Mr. Post’s themes always matched Cannell’s style of combining humor and quirky characters with straight action. In short, Mike Post’s music was the soundtrack to my funny shoot ‘em up boyhood fantasies.

Mr. Post began his work in the 1970s and first gained attention for co-writing the theme to The Rockford Files, for which he eventually won a grammy. That show starred James Garner as aging and irreverent ex-con turned private detective Jim Rockford. The show’s theme is a strange juxtaposition of style – blues harmonica and country twang guitar played against a nasally 70s synthesizer. But somehow it works. Mr. Post makes it easy to picture Garner dragging his bad back up a set of stairs in a back alley as Suzanne Somers giggles in bemusement while wearing a pair of yellow hot pants. Like all of his themes, it struck me how creative yet economical he was in putting together this piece of music. It establishes the whole attitude and style of the show in .58 seconds.

Given how often (but not always) great the music is by Mr. Post and other tv composers (especially from 1970's shows like Maude, Fish, The White Shadow and of course, Barney Miller,) it’s disappointing to think about the decline of this really fun genre. It is due in part to the trend of licensing songs already written by singers or bands, so I shouldn't really complain about that. Nonetheless, there is something lost when the theme is not specifically written for a show. A good tv theme welcomes you into the world that you’ll be visiting for the next 30-60 minutes. And more so than the show itself (whose image details are too specific,) a theme can evoke memories of the particular time in your life when the show was aired. Lastly, a theme can simply work as a catchy and tightly arranged instrumental piece to be enjoyed on it’s own merits. For example, you can still hear the theme to Hill Street Blues on some lite fm stations. But don't hold that against Mr. Post, because he is a master of the form.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Radiohead Review

So let’s get the obvious out of the way – it’s cool that we can pay whatever we want for this record. But that’s where it ends, as a cool idea. Only a wealthy band can afford this as a viable business model. And it certainly places Radiohead back in the zeitgeist, which I thought would be unlikely after the artistic stasis of their last record, “Hail to the Thief.” But that isn’t to say that “In Rainbows” is necessarily a step forward.

There is a consistency to the songs on this album that one has come to expect from Radiohead. Since “The Bends,” the band has demonstrated a high level of sophistication with arrangement and hooks. And since “Kid A,” there has been a regular use of overdubbed guitar effects, synthesizers and programmed drums. All of these are on display with “In Rainbows,” but I do not hear them being used in fresh ways or original songwriting. The one exception is “All I Need,” which is nestled in the middle of the album. It begins with a muted drum beat and is followed by a great synth bassline that reminds me a bit of “Turquise Hexagon Sun,” by Boards of Canada. Thom Yorke’s lead vocals enter next with a counter line to the bass and the layers continue to grow from there. “All I Need” is subtle, catchy and structured with a simplicity that is fattened by sound ideas which develop over the course of the song’s three and a half minutes. I would certainly place “All I Need” in the canon of other great Radiohead songs like “High and Dry,” “Paranoid Android” and “Everything in it’s Right Place.” The one slight drawback is the final drum part, which has crash cymbals washing over the other instruments.

This brings up one of my biggest problems of the album, which is the drumming of Phil Selway. I have always felt that he brings the least amount of creativity to the band. His parts have generally been adequate and tasteful, but rarely inspired. On this record, many of the songs are anchored by his drums, which establish a rhythmic motif for simple guitar lines, vocals and synth textures to play over. In order for this kind of structure to be compelling, the drums have to simultaneously invite head bopping and complement the tone of the song. As usual, Selway gets the tone right but doesn’t put his “ass” into the kit. In other words, he plays very straight. Which is too bad for the songs and for bass player Colin Greenwood, who has a great touch and often writes very interesting, sinewy parts of his own.

(As a related sidenote, I would highly recommend reading Sasha Frere-Jones’s current piece in the New Yorker entitled “A Paler Shade of White.” )

Overall, I was impressed but not particularly excited by “In Rainbows.” The songs cover ground that has been heavily tread by the band already. There is the melancholic piano piece, the melodramatic, minor-key guitar ballad, the mid-tempo britpop and the live/electronic hybrid of syncopated drum patterns. The only real development is the use of more acoustic guitar on a few tracks. It would have been interesting to hear more of that on the record, as a kind of brooding response to the oversaturated and annoyingly quirky freak-folk trend. Or even better, they could have written better songs. An average Radiohead record is still well above the best work of most bands, but why settle?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Late to the buzz party but still ready for a good time

photo courtesy of white denim

goddam pissed jeans rawk!!!

Like the gutter-trash cousins of arab on radar with less amphetamines and more jim beam.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Arcade Fire/LCD Soundsystem/Blonde Redhead Concert

On Saturday night, I walked onto the field of Randall's Island as the delay-laden voice of Kazu Makino (from Blonde Redhead) echoed over a washy drone that complemented the evening's humidity.

Unfortunately, my party arrived late for the concert and we were only able to catch the end of Blonde Redhead’s set. But from what I could tell, the material from “23” is much better live. While I am a huge fan of the shoegazing bands from the early 90’s (Slowdive, Chapterhouse, My Bloody Valentine,) I can also appreciate the general criticism of “23” that it is a somewhat pedestrian take on the genre. However, when the music was complemented by subtle stage lighting and an outdoor venue at dusk, the result was dreamy and alluring.

photo courtesy of babbu

Next up were James Murphy and his studio project, LCD Soundsystem.

Now, I really didn’t want to like this band. Murphy’s label, DFA, was part of the early 2000s co-option and branding of the Lower East Side (and Williamsburg) as a playground for denim-clad, skinny disco/punks looking for a fashion orgy. And the press enjoyed portraying this “scene” as the legacy of the late 1970’s, CBGBs-era New York City. In reality, artists like The Rapture, The Strokes and Ryan McGinley were and (continue to be) simply interested in capturing a style, whereas their elder counterparts like Talking Heads, The Ramones and Nan Goldin were committed to the more valuable pursuit of innovation through style.

That being said, the new LCD Soundsystem record, “Sound of Silver,” was my guilty pleasure of the summer. The deliberate stylistic attention (ESG, Sugarhill Records, Gang of Four) was still there, but it was softened by a genuineness in the vocals and lyrics that added a layer of sincerity. This makes sense since Murphy (37) is just old enough (as he has said in interviews) to have heard a lot of the bands that influence his sound when they were performing in their heyday. Still, I was a bit suspicious of seeing LCD Soundsystem live, since I find embracing "retro" a generally adolescent pursuit.

In concert, this odd mix of intention was amplified and it actually had a wonderful effect. Murphy’s band sounded TIGHT and all the members were clearly schooled in the nuances of early 80’s hip-hop, funk and no wave . So when the disco ball lit up during a propulsive high in the second song,

there was a palatable connection between the stomping crowd and equally stomping band.

Then there’s Murphy’s voice. It is a mid to high pitched yelp that does not have a lot of natural strength (as opposed to unfairly say, Aretha,) but still manages to attain a power by his sheer will. This determination, coupled with Murphy's self-deprecating and humble stage presence, completely won the crowd over. And his stage banter was constantly hilarious. At one point, Murphy interrupted the piano ballad “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” to say, “Hey guys, do you know Tony? He’s sitting in on this song and plays guitar for Arcade Fire. How cool is that?” Then he went right back to singing, without missing the beat (barely.)

LCD Soundsystem set the bar high for the headlining Arcade Fire, who began their set with a montage of evangelical Christian videos. This was a clever allusion to their current album, “Neon Bible.” The band then ran onstage in the shadows of red neon and flashing tv screens. It was a scene that could have been taken out of Blade Runner or a 1980's Prince concert.

photo courtesy of Pablog

I literally couldn't talk for about 2 minutes because it was absolutely stunning to watch. But once I adjusted to the spectacle and started to really listen to the music, a disconnect occured to me. What I was hearing and watching did not fit. The presentation was Andrew Lloyd Webber (as my friend Tavia said,) but the music was quirky and self-consciously heartfelt, with the emotion of each song shifting monotonously from confessional to declaratively heavy-handed. There was no extravagance or even pop bombast. To match the awe of the stage set, the band should have initially knocked out high energy material like "No Cars Go" or "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)." Instead, they opted for a slow burn, which started with the first two tracks from "Neon Bible"(neither of which I like) and continued in a similar, mid-tempo dirge until the show was almost over. At that point, the band finally played two of their largest, lightest tunes: "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" and "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)." But it was too late to get excited.

I enjoy the collision of new wave and old-timey instrumentation that is found in many of Arcade Fire's songs. Unfortunately (like many indie bands at the moment,) they are lately more interested in channeling Bruce Springsteen with an overbearing sense of melodrama. More than half of their set borrowed liberally from the rhythmic feel and melodic phrasing of "I'm on Fire" and "Born to Run." Lead singer Win Butler seemed to be trying on the hats of both a young Bruce and "Joshua Tree"-era Bono, strumming his acoustic guitar and preaching to his rapt audience from a cyber-punk electric church.

But Butler had neither Bono's combination of ego, piety and charisma nor Bruce's everyman persona. Instead, he came off as humorless and pretentious. I think Butler and Arcade Fire took the "Neon Bible" concept too literally and attempted to create an indie-rock revival meeting with Butler serving as the minister. If you're going for the Christ as Rock Star concept, you better have your lyrics profound and your music sublime. Arcade Fire have neither and my interest in them is not for worship. They are simply a very good, perhaps excellent, rock band; and one that has some genuinely novel concepts. I might have enjoyed the brooding simmer of their set list choice had their stage show been toned down in scale. Conversely, I might have bought the indie via broadway aesthetic if they had come out swinging with three or four upbeat and familiar songs at the beginning, instead of at the end.

Conceptual flaws made Arcade Fire neither breathtaking nor emotionally engaging. The showstopper had already played before them.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

MIA Rant

Well, I haven't posted for awhile and I'm waaaaay behind, but I just finished this e-mail response to my friend's enthusiasm for MIA and it seemed appropriate. So here goes:

MIA...hmmm...i think there are many conflicting components to her act. She has genuinely experienced poverty and fringe political elements, but her popularity has largely do to with savvy positioning amongst (past and present) hip urban artists like Peaches, Diplo and Elastica. I suppose one could argue that her "authenticity" is no more important than that of a rapper, but I think her particular breed of pop music is built upon the indie audience's perception of her being a cultural savant. Theoretically, her experiences in different countries have been directly reflected in her music, which use a variety of cultural "field" samples and styles. This is appealing to an indie crowd that has always felt inadequate about their own cultural heritage (hence the influx of country, gypsy and blue-collar bar rock into the indie-rock style lexicon of the last 5 years.) So by that reasoning, her image would also be a reflection of her varied cultural experiences. However, in her video, she chooses to only be crawling around like a savage in the jungle and riding elephants. And apparently her stage show is some faux-rebellion pastiche where back-up dancers wear fatigues and pump their fists over megaphones and sirens. The reality is that she has also spent a lot of time in London art galleries and other haute-couture locales. But those experiences do not help to sell the image of an exotic asian girl who somehow managed to make cool and primitive beats that retain an urban sensibility.

I think MIA has an honest interest in bringing worldly sounds into her songs, but the presentation is just too calculated for me. And given the similar development of incorporating traditional south asian music into beats by bhangra, trip-hop and hip-hop producers like Talvin Singh and Timbaland , I don't think what she's doing is THAT original. She's just hitting in a moment of zeitgeist when south asian culture is becoming more mainstream and America is finally ready for a pop star of that particular ethnicity. In contrast, Missy Elliot (especially in the late 90s) was taking disparate cultural elements and blending them, but in a genre and for an audience that was not predispositioned to "open-mindedness" and "respect for other cultures." She was taking a risk. MIA takes no risks, at least artistically.