Thursday, March 30, 2006

Wilco - Live Review

The Val Air Ballroom, Des Moines, Iowa

Touring to support no album can be a great thing for fans; a band has no obligations to anyone except themselves and the people that pay money to see/hear them. Combine this with the last show of a tour and you can expect even better things; a band may throw everything at the crowd because, what the fuck, it’s the last show.
Wilco has their road crew pick out the set list for the final show of every tour, and if there’s any consistency among roadies, hopes were high that they’d come up with a rocking set. They did. The set at the Val-Air Ballroom was littered with loads of stuff from “Being There,” “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” “A Ghost Is Born” a new one and a nice surprise (more on that later).
The Val Air Ballroom was a venue that I’d never been to before, but the retro vibe makes me want to check out a few more shows there again. Check out what greeted us as we approached:

How fucking bad ass is that? It’s a ballroom in every sense of the word and I’m sure a few rugs were cut on the hardwood floor during its heyday.
Opening with a stellar “Handshake Drugs,” Tweedy and Co. looked as haggard as ever, sporting the obligatory boycott of the new Gillette razor and a few new faces in the lineup that I didn’t notice when I saw them last (the tour before “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was released).
Whereas that show truly seemed like a band effort, this Wilco seemed like Tweedy’s baby; he’s filled the band with very capable musicians who can appropriate his vision without challenging it. So far, it’s working. “A Ghost Is Born” probably wouldn’t have been made with Jay Bennett, and truth be told, I don’t think I’d like a show filled with Bennett’s request for “easy rockers.”

Jay’s exit has led to guitarist Nels Cline’s arrival. This guy can flat out play, whether its tearing up the Jazzmaster ala Robert Quine or settling back with a lap steel, Cline’s only downfall was making a few accidental noises during a soft take on “The Lonely 1,” a song that typically only features Tweedy with an acoustic. The glitch prompted a smile from Jeff and a few lighthearted laughs from the understanding crowd.
Speaking of: the audience was unlike any I had seen before. It was a mixture of general admission drunks, middle-aged hipsters, and even a few grey-haired boomers who didn’t seem too thrilled with some of the evening’s feedback laden landscapes.
The one song that everyone seemed to agree on was the final selection, a note-perfect rendition of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” Featuring the drum tech on cowbell, the band channeled the facsimile with precision and with the carefree attitude of a group on the last show of a tour and with nothing to really promote.


Handshake Drugs
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Forget the Flowers
At Least That's What You Said
On And On And On (the new one)
Shot in the Arm
Poor Places
The Lonely 1
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Jesus, Etc.
I'm the man who loves you
I'm a Wheel
Encore #1:
Far, Far Away
Magazine Called Sunset
The Late Greats
Encore #2:
Red Eyed & Blue
I Got You
Hoodoo Voodoo
Don't Fear The Reaper

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Ramones-End Of The Century

So a former assistant of Phil Spector files suit against him and I’m reminded to review The Ramones “End Of The Century” album.

By 1979, The Ramones understood that they’d essentially painted themselves into a corner by repeating their “formula” over the course of four albums. It was time for them to either go for broke or forever be linked with the underground minions of rock music. Since the bruthas regularly acknowledged their love for late 50’s/early 60’s AM radio, it was no big stretch of the imagination that they partnered with a legendary icon of this era: producer Phil Spector. At the time, however, the press made the pairing out to be a huge deal; I specifically remember when this album was released that the entire focus was on Spector and The Ramones teaming up. I remember reading that there was some “tension” during the recording of this album, but the whole idea of a Ramones presented in a monophonic wall-of-sound recording is, to this day, a very logical and positive idea.
From the lead-track, “(Do You Remember) Rock ‘N Roll Radio,” the combination works out in a great way. The song perfectly epitomizes the nostalgia of 60’s radio (and early 70’s too, with a sly mention of T-Rex) while eloquently containing the simplistic power of this New York City quartet.

Although not as essential as The Ramones debut, “End Of The Century” remains an important document in their catalog and I’ve found myself repeatedly spinning it lately. The remake of Dee Dee’s “Chinese Rocks” and side one’s closer “Let’s Go” hark back to traditional Ramones territory, but the biggest difference is how Spector puts Joey’s vocals higher in the mix. Curiously, Spector was taken by Joey’s vocal abilities and occasionally confided in him that the rest of the band was simply holding him back. For myself and most fans in general, Joey was always the goofy one up front while the rest of the Ramones managed to forge ahead with some rudimentary chords and energetic tempo. What Spector did is put the spotlight on Joey and force the rest of the band into a recording technique they weren’t accustomed to. Rather than roll tape and record the performance, Phil made the band do take after take of the same song. Since Joey was Spector’s baby, and since this was the first Ramones recording to feature Marky on drums, Dee Dee and Johnny became frustrated with Spector and disenfranchised with the entire project.
Personal dramas aside, the end result is an album that not only marked the first time they attempted to departure from the traditional Ramones sound and “End Of The Century” marked the last truly great Ramones album.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Paul Stanley-People, Let Me Get This Off My Chest

For over a month, an unofficial Paul Stanley disc has been frequenting the cd player. Before you think that this is some musical follow-up to Stanley’s 1978 Kiss-era solo effort, remember that some of Paul Stanley’s best material is when he’s introducing his musical material. “People, Let Me Get This Off My Check” is a 70-track compilation of Paul Stanley stage banter recorded throughout the world in various venues during various tours, both Kiss and solo gigs.
If you’ve ever been to a Kiss concert (my review of a 2000 show), you’ll know that half of the concert is essentially Paul Stanley bullshitting the audience and making them believe that the next song is the second coming of Christ. The funny thing is that 1.) Stanley is Jewish 2.) His shtick repeats with alarming frequency and 3.) the whole notion that a band so devoted to giving a spectacle of a show has to remind everyone in attendance that it’s a spectacle of a show is fairly disingenuous. For some of us, that’s what’s fun about seeing a Kiss show; you get the sense that both you and Stanley understand that the entire spectacle is not really about the music, but in the way you sell it.
And sell it he does. Every. Fucking. Song. This fucker cannot shut up. Seriously. The great thing is that material is hilarious, and hats off to the dude who decided to compile all of this shit. There clearly is a market for people who think Paul Stanley is ten times funnier than Dane Cook.

Having only seen Kiss once in my life, it surprised me that many of the same rants included on this disc were verbatim the ones that I witnessed live. It shouldn’t have surprised me as this was a band that calculated almost every single move from the moment somebody in the band said: “You know what we should all do? Put some whiteface on!”
Paul repeatedly reminds the Army that they’re getting their money’s worth (presumably, it’s the audience that he’s referring to), that the next tune is the first time they’ve played it on tour, that he was talking backstage to someone (The promoter? The beer vendor? The caterer?) about what kind of alcohol that people in the area like to drink, that they’re just getting started, and that he’s got an “uzi of ooze” in his pants.
He continually states the name of the city they’re playing in over and over. He yells out some very unheavy phrases like “Yes indeed” and “Oh, my goodness” and does nothing to curtail the rumors that he is a homosexual by asking “Guys, how many of you liked to get licked? You lick me; I lick you.”
In almost every bit of dialogue, Stanley is practically yelling at the audience for no good reason. Its one thing to give an obligatory “I can’t hear you,” but to repeatedly scream “Can you hear me?!” is criminal. Fuck yes we can hear you dude! With your fucking p.a. they can hear you all the way in Greenland.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Love Is All-Nine Times The Same Song

Sweden rocks. But I’m partial to that country; at my parent’s house, there is a cedar chest that my relatives brought over from Sweden when they immigrated over in the late 19th century. There’s also a Swedish bible, but I haven’t even bothered reading the English translation. If you haven’t guessed, I sold my soul to rock and roll.
So go ahead and throw Ace of Base, Roxette, and even Yngwie Malmsteen at me. I’ll raise you a ton of great bands that demonstrate a consistent stream of innovative rock music.
One of those bands is Love Is All, who released “Nine Times That Same Song” belatedly this year (it was originally scheduled for a 4Q ’05 release) and it’s another example of how Sweden rocks.

You’ll initially notice that Josephine Olausson sounds a lot like Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But Karen O sounds a little like Marion Coutts from Dog Faced Hermans and (sometimes) like Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders. Spin “Nine Times That Same Song” a few more times and you’ll start to notice other things, like how the band fucking rocks. By “rocks” I mean in that late 70’s/early 80’s post-punk kind of way when bringing a trumpet into the mix and throwing in a reggae dub arrangement was considered “punk” enough to even be considered.
That’s a good things, sometimes, particularly when your vision exceeds your actual recording budget. A lot of “Nine Times That Same Song”’s charm actually comes from the low-fi recording technique. You have to struggle to find some of the musicianship that’s deep in the tape hiss, but when you do, you’ll end up like me and spin the thing more times than you wanted to during your initial Yeah Yeah Yeah’s comparison.
The album, perfectly timed under 40 minutes, focuses on one subject matter: love. Specifically, the roller coaster of it all. One moment, Josephine sounds giddy and hard to contain. On others, she’s dark and frustrated. Been there before? Me too. We all sing the same song of love, but most of us have never made an album as clever and captivating as this one. Like Roxette told us: listen to your heart.

Sunday, March 5, 2006

The Arctic Monkeys-Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

Remember when I said how The Strokes were an influential band, particularly across the pond? By “pond” I meant Atlantic ocean and by that I meant England. By “influential” I meant that dozens of British bands took a look at the Strokes blueprint and started dishing out a shitload of smug young rock bands. What’s cool is how many of these bands managed to actually outdo what the Stokes started. So while we’re reeling in the disappointment of the Strokes third release, we’re suddenly enraptured at England’s Arctic Monkeys debut album “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.” How much are we reeling? The album became the fasted selling debut indie album in England’s history and, holy shit, the album sold enough copies here in Amerikkka to debut in the top forty. The Strokes are probably laughing their asses off at how the Monkeys are going to work efficiently while the English music press prepares to dismantle them around the time they begin working on their second album.
You see, every other week, N.M.E. et all seem to “discover” a new flavor and force feed it down our/their throats until we can’t even look at eating it again. It’s the same reason why the SLF can’t eat plain M&Ms. It’s the same reason why another friend can no longer eat Pringles. It’s why I can’t get near cocaine, but that’s another story. What you’ve got to consider in these cases is the source (English music press) and take it with a grain of salt and a few free downloads before you formulate your own opinion. But here’s a case where I would strongly encourage you to avoid listening to the editors of the N.M.E. and, instead, listen to this awesome debut from a very capable rock band from Sheffield, England.

You’ll immediately notice that there’s nothing really new here. You won’t care, either. “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” will hopefully be a mantra that the Arctic Monkeys believe in, because whatever me, you, or the N.M.E. says about them, these guys (for the time being) seem to be having a good time at what they’re doing and they do it quite well. Think back to how good The Stone Roses debut is and then how let down you felt when “Second Coming” came around. You waited for that fucker forever and, because of its limitations, you felt a little silly about getting all hot and bothered over their debut, didn’t you? But before that second record, you couldn’t tell enough people about the Stone Roses. You did the same thing with Oasis. You might have even done it for Blur, didn’t you, you silly little Anglophile? All I’m saying is that the new Arctic Monkeys record will make you feel the same way, and apparently over a 100,000 English kids feel it along with 30,000 “hip” Americans, according to the last SoundScan figures. So you can try and deflate this, if you’d like, but the rest of us will be digging on the record’s solid delivery of 13 well-crafted-and-even-better-execution-of rock songs. It’s the album The Strokes wish they would have made, but they didn’t and now we have to deal with the fact that some British kids did and did it better.
The biggest difference is that that Alex Turner writes way better than Julian Casablancas does and better than most rock lyricists around today, English or otherwise. He’s got a keen eye for observation and a savvy way of putting them down into clever couplets. Check out this line from their “Fake Tales Of San Francisco”:

“And as the microphone squeaks
A young girl's telephone beeps
Yeah she's dashing for the exit
she's running to the streets outside
"Oh you've saved me,"
she screams down the line
"The band were fuckin’ wankin’
And I'm not having a nice time”

An incident like this has happened in any club in America while a local band struggles to find their sound on stage in front of a couldn’t-be-bothered audience. But it took a bloke like Turner to turn it back on us. With a line like that, it’s impressive. What makes it better? The next line. In it, Turner notices the girlfriend of one of the band member. She obediently watches her man on stage, enjoying the sounds of her struggling partner while others talk on their cell phones. “..proof that love’s not only blind, but deaf.”
Something like this may have actually happened during the band’s brief existence and, I’d like to think, prompted them to really focus on their chops and become the shithot outfit that we hear on this record. I’d love to see this band live, but it looks like I’m not the only one: the brief American club tour they’re about to embark on is already sold out and, guaranteed, not one person will be running away from the stage to talk on the phone.

Most of the negative reviews that I’ve read about this album point to the entire “derivative” nature of it. It is derivative. Ain’t that the point of a band that essentially takes the ball from a couple of admittedly derivative bands (Libertines and Strokes) and rocks the shit out of an impressive lyricist’s material? And while the Libertines focused their eye on junkiedom and while the Strokes professed to be bored in a city that never sleeps, Arctic Monkeys seem content and credible to focus on regular blokes. Since when is it a bad thing that a few regular blokes actually demonstrate enough ambition to become proficient at their instruments? The album rocks and those that have it probably know this by now. Those critics that actually are dumb enough to expect an epiphany moment because N.M.E. hipster says so doesn’t deserve the free album copy they were provided.

Saturday, March 4, 2006

FM3-The Buddah Machine

The Buddha Machine” came via USPS yesterday. I’ve messed with it. Had sex with it on. Took a shit with it. And I’m still as confused as you are reading this. From what I understand, an Ambient duo Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian that go by the name of FM3, came up with a very pretentious idea of releasing their work via a hardware device in an age where people typically use software (cds) or programs (mp3s) to listen to music on.

I know nothing about the artists, the above names were gleaned off of the machine itself, and I can tell you nothing about the songs. The majority of the lettering, including the colorful box it came in, is in Chinese. What “it” is requires you to do is to consider a small plastic box, about the size of a small Walkman. The device has a cheap speaker (monophonic), an earpiece jack, a 4.5V jack, a red light, an on/off/volume control, and a switch that moves left or right. That’s it.
With no instructions and no familiarity with the Chinese language, I was forced to put in two double-A batteries (included) and start playing with it. Once on, the shitty speaker produced an ambient loop that continued….indefinitely. Once I switched the side button, a new loop started. This repeated nine times, until I identified the loops that I liked. From there, you just leave it alone. Seriously.
These aren’t “songs” in the traditional sense and you won’t find yourself singing/humming/whistling along to any of them. As a point of reference, one of the loops sounds like the music in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but less irritating. The last song, which has a loop that’s only about a second and a half, is irritating. I don’t listen to that one much; it sounds like a record skipping.
I suppose I could plug in some headphones and listen to it, but why? The cheap speaker provides additional nuances. I can play it softer for calming backgrounds. I can turn it up (it doesn’t get very loud) higher and make the speaker crackle with the loops. The idea is brilliant: music that has no end and will only stop when the power source runs out. The idea isn’t for everyone. The SLF had no other reaction to the Buddha machine other than the obvious questions:
  • What does it do?
  • Why did they do it?

I suppose I could have gotten heavy with a discussion of Buddhist spirituality, minimalist art and the theories of Brian Eno, but that would only add to the pretentiousness of it. Instead, I suggested that we allow it into the room we get frisky in. An acceptable level was agreed upon and it was set aside. We really didn't notice it during the activity, which was and is the point of "The Buddha Machine." I was instructed to turn it off when we retired, but if I had my way, I would have let the thing play all night.

Friday, March 3, 2006

The Strokes-First Impressions Of Earth

I’ve received 318 e-mails asking me for my thoughts on the new Strokes album, “First Impressions of Earth.” Think of this as my first impression of “First Impressions of Earth,” which actually would mean several impressions as I played the thing a few dozen times in the car, which may lead you to believe that I really like the new Strokes album, which wouldn’t be true at all.
It’s not as bad as you might think, and you need to consider the following before continuing:
1.) I bought The Strokes’ debut single when N.M.E. was shitting all over themselves at these spoiled, prep school rock boys.
2.) I spent additional cash to get the naughty cover copy of “Is This It,” an album which, regardless of your own opinion of this band, will continue to be highly regarded and highly influential, particularly across the pond.
3.) I think “Room On Fire” is a great follow-up, one that only suffers from being released immediately after the Strokes backlash began and from sounding too much like, go figure, a sophomoric album.
So what’s a touted rock band to do when poised to release their third album? You expand it. Fill it out. Polish it up.
It starts out great; “You Only Live Once” contains everything great about the band and builds a blueprint of what they needed to do to remain relevant after more print was spent on what The Strokes wear than what they sound like. For sure: when you start reading more about the parties the band attended than a show, a song, a session, it’s not hard to jump on the nuke the Knack bandwagon.
The second song, “Juicebox,” the album’s divisive first single with a Peter Gunn guitar riff underneath a snotty Julian Casablancas delivery, raised a few eyebrows when, by the time of the chorus, he actually sings. And if you recall, boys and girls, Lou Reed never really sang and we tolerated Tom Verlaine’s voice knowing that he was just setting up for an unbelievable guitar solo.

Saint Julian doesn’t play guitar. But guitarist Albert Hammond and Nic Valensi do, and “First Impressions of Earth” is the first Strokes album in which we see how good they’ve become over the past five years. Example: on side one’s closer “Vision of Division” the guitar solo absolutely shreds, and when the racket finally ends, Casablancas mutters “I’m such a success.” Perfect.
When you reach the end of side one, you start to consider that “First Impressions of Earth” is, in fact, a very good album. The problems start creeping up immediately at the beginning of side two. One of the things that was cool about The Strokes was a common complaint lodged by their detractors: they’re boring. Exactly. That’s the point. Boys in their early twenties in New York City that seem positively bored with their surroundings. Huh? Try spending a weeknight in smalltown Iowa, fellas. Now, particularly with “Ask Me Anything,” they seem not only bored with their surroundings, but bored with the notion that they’re supposed to actually deliver a stellar third album. More than ever: this was supposed to be their comeback album, and side two sounds like they’d rather be at a fucking cocktail party instead of being in the studio. Proof? I swear that Julian said something like “Took a shit/It was fine” in the song “15 minutes.” I’m not sure about this. It sure sounds like he said this. The point is, when you start mumbling about bowel movements, maybe it’s time to consider a career change.
Why haven’t they? Julian seems to answer that on the last song “Red Light” with the line “Do it for the people that’d die for your sake/An entire generation that has nothing to say” which may point to why they finally gave up. Why bother striving to release an intentionally excellent album to a fickle Generation Y who’ve already moved on to another next big thing and who will just download your shit for free anyway? The point is, gentlemen, because you’ve got to give us a reason to buy your shit. It seems that everyone but Julian on this album understands that rock music is their fucking job, and while his cynicism is kind of precocious in small doses, over the course of an entire album side, he turns into the guy at work that nobody likes to socialize with because he’s always got a chip on his shoulder. Lighten up, buddy. There’s a lot of us who still dream about fucking models while RCA picks up the bar tab for the entire evening. The frustrating thing is how, if he would have invested just a little more focus on “First Impressions of Earth” the band would have delivered what was expected of them on their third offering.