Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Beck plays every style of music imaginable during night two at Ryman


The first night of Beck's two night stand at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium was championed by the subdued, acoustic guitar based folk of his standout 2002 album Sea Change and his most recent work, Morning Phase, released in February. For night two, he had something altogether different in mind.

The bright flashing lights and buzzsaw guitar riffs of set opener "Devil's Haircut" loudly blared to any of last night's holdovers that they weren't in Kansas anymore. Beck's indelible swagger and sing along delivery instantly made a deep impact upon everyone in the room, as he sidled up beside bandmembers and cut a rug all over the stage.

Beck got the ball rolling right off the bat and didn't let up, pummeling the room with crowd pleasing cuts early and often. He broke out the delectable deep cut "The New Pollution" from his defining 1996 album Odelay, tantalizingly merged "I Think I'm In Love" into Donna Summer's disco banger "I Feel Love," and also spun out the smooth, seductive alt/hip hop of "Black Tambourine." It was more than enough to keep all of our tambourines shaking.

He did pepper in a mellower mood periodically throughout the set. The mournful, contemplative mood of "Lost Cause" proved to be the sole Sea Change cut of the evening, while eerie electronics and deep cello swirled through the rafters during "Wave." Beck explained that he had begun work on Morning Phase in Nashville with the idea that he wanted to make a country based record before ultimately finishing up elsewhere. But he played a string of songs that developed from those Nashville sessions, including "Heart is a Drum," "Say Goodbye," and "Waking Light," all of which provided vast aesthetic differences from his early set material but were every bit as sing alongable.

It wasn't just Beck lighting it up; even his band brought raw intensity.

Yet in a testament to the eclecticism of Beck, it wasn't long before the swelling emotional ocean of "Waking Light" gave way to the Gameboy bleeps and bloops that heralded "Girl," one of the singer's most prominent chart smashes after from "Loser." And speaking of "Loser," he got it out of the way early but holy balls did it turn the building upside down. He complemented it with other fun, quirky hip hop cuts "Que Onda Guero" and "Hell Yes."

After closing the main set with the caffeine high of hard rocker E-Pro, Beck's bandmates began mock bumping into each other and eventually collapsed into a gigantic heap on the floor, prompting Beck to roll out yellow police crime scene tape across the front of the stage. Then he put all his chips down for the encore.

After exploring the underbelly of freak funk with the darkly futuristic "Get Real Paid," he broke out two other cuts from Midnite Vultures for his encore. The dramatic bang of "Sexx Laws" led into the inevitable and indomitable strains "Debra," a falsetto soul love song to a girl working at a department store. He illustrated some of the song's scenes in spoken word, sweet talking Debra and then inviting her to take a ride in his Hyundai.

Beck tries to hide all evidence of his crimes.

He could have called it a night right there, but Beck would not be vanquished without a fight. After briefly vanishing, he returned and broke into "Where It's At," before transitioning into the old gospel country stomper "One Foot in the Grave," complete with Beck going nuts on harmonica. He then segued that into a rendition of The Rolling Stone's "Miss You" before finishing it out with the final chorus of "Where It's At."

Those bigger on Beck's mellow side no doubt would have enjoyed the first night more, but speaking as someone who doesn't consider Morning Phase to be the man's best work, the setlist couldn't have been better. Save for the off kilter mellowness of Mutations, virtually every conceivable side of Beck was on display. And personally speaking, three Midnite Vultures cuts was nothing short of astounding. Apologies to those who consider his many deviations mere distractions, but this set represents the Beck you have got to see.

Indie pop violinist Kishi Bashi's live set has you bopping off the walls

Kishi Bashi is one of those silly, zany artists who you can't help but break out in a big goofy smile for, and I got to catch him Friday night at Mercy Lounge. Otherwise known as Kaoru Ishibashi, he's been a touring member with Of Montreal and also in Regina Spektor's band, but it seems he's doing pretty well on his own.

Clad in his pink tuxedo and bowtie, he wowed the crowd by incorporating his vividly realized violin skill into whimsical, dream coated indie pop songs. His new album, Lighght, more heavily favors synthesizers and Phoenix style dance beats.

He was able to touch the ceiling with his soaring upper register, which gave him room to maneuver on cuts like "Bright Whites," which sounds like a gleeful take on The Beatles' White Album era, and played "Neon Genesis for Him and Her," about how the world was created through two people's love for one another.

Kishi Bashi and banjo player Mike Savino, play well off one another.

But the night's most gorgeous moment came from the final song in the main set. The quiet, beautiful magnificence of "Manchester," drifted through the performance chamber as he croons, "My favorite part is when I die/ in your arms like a movie/ tragic, but now the story has its proper end." It gently builds to a powerful final cascade of violin work.

His encore was the standout event of the evening, however. He had us all bouncing around and dancing during "The Ballad of Mr. Steak," a silly synthesizer driven cut about a steak who just wants to spend his life dancing before he is eaten. Then he did a cover of "Live and Let Die," before closing with "It All Began With a Burst," in which he let us sing the zany high pitched parts.

He relied heavily on tape loops, looping the violin parts. He had a banjo player, Mike Savino, but it didn't sound like typical country banjo playing. When I could hear it, it sounded more like Calypso inspired playing. He had flashing red and green Christmas lights inside his banjo that lit up while he played. Bashi would stop to do some random improv here and there between songs. At one point, he and Savino were playing off one another and were totally feeding off each other's energy.

When it comes to songs that rely more heavily on studio effects, however, its clear that he's still working on figuring out how to translate it to live stage. The lack of acoustic guitar in the band clearly effected the timbre of certain cuts, and not for the better. "Q&A" felt much emptier without it, while "Philosophize In It! Chemacilze In It!" required a near re-write for the second half of the song.

This was one of my favorite songs from him, with one of my favorite aspects of it being the acoustic guitar breakdown near the end. But instead of that he broke into a very brief jam session, and then delivered the final lines with a whimper.

That stuck out as the biggest weakness of his set was that certain songs didn't translate as well without guitar. The banjo player was talented and was a great showman, but the instrument itself didn't seem to add much to the performance. It tended to get swallowed up by the rest of the mix.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Totally Unauthorized 2014 Mid Year Recap: Top 25 First Half Albums

The 2014 musical year started off slowly, but has gradually been shaping up into what may be another excellent year. It hasn't been as good as the past two years, although 2013 was a banner year and may not be topped by decade's end. That said, 2014 has still seen some great releases. Here are my favorites from the first half:

25. Mogwai - Rave Tapes

24. Beck - Morning Phase

23. Little Dragon - Nabuma Rubberband

22. Anathema - Distant Satellites

21. Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots

20. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Pinata

19. Mastodon - Once More Round the Sun

18. Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence

17. Animals as Leaders - The Joy of Motion

16. Future Islands - Singles

15. Real Estate - Atlas

14. Lykke Li - I Never Learn

13. War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream

12. The Roots - ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin

11. Badbadnotgood - III

10. Jack White - Lazaretto

At this point, Jack White is who he is. You know what to expect from one of his records. The best thing about Lazaretto is that it doesn't waste the audience's time; it gets right down to business by focusing on his greatest strength - rocking hard. White tosses in flourishes of folk and country to supplement his infectious brand of blues rock, weaves in interpersonal lyrics, and mixes it with some of his best guitar playing to date.

9. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra - Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything

This is a fantastic album to crawl inside of and get lost within. Efrim Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emperor brews up post-rock in the vein of his flagship band, but this mix boasts more of a hard edged, punk rock vibe that is sometimes whimsical and sometimes ominous. Add a sense of child-like wonder and a theme loosely based on the band's home of Montreal, and you have one of the year's most unique and inspiring albums.




8. Tune Yards - Nikki Nack

This is the biggest and boldest sound Merrill Garbus has had yet. Her patchwork pastiche of world music and electronic influences, coupled with her dizzying drum work merge together to create a mix both intoxicating and impossible to ignore. After two fantastic albums I was hoping she'd knock it out of the park here. It ultimately doesn't live up to its predecessor, w h o k i l l, but for your buck, you won't find an album with a louder sense of style than this.




7. Sun Kil Moon - Benji

This may be the most unique entry on the list in the sense that this is more like reading a short story as opposed to a musical experience. Benji takes a look into who Mark Kozalek is, recounted over various ruminations about his family, losing loved ones, and youthful loves. There are also more specific events including discussing the Newtown shootings in an exchange of letters with a fan, or feeling out of touch while seeing his friend Ben Gibbard of The Postal Service in concert. The level of detail Kozalek recalls is stunning, and he complements it with gorgeous finger picking.

6. Kishi Bashi - Lighght

This is simply a splendid, joyous record. The product of Japanese violinist K. Ishi Bashi, known for his work in Athens psychedelic indie rock band of Montreal. He has long stood out with his signature style of guitar playing, and whimsical, feel good songwriting approach, but now he's expanded his sound by giving keyboards a much more prominent place in the mix. With Lighght, he puts forth an album that is like Wonderland in musical form, and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.


5. First Aid Kit - Stay Gold

Easily the girls' best effort yet. The harmonies are wondrous enough alone to merit this a spot on the list, but there's also an alluring vintage feel to much of this album. Sometimes they sound pensive, at others they sound like they were born to play the Ryman, but mostly their music moves along with a determined grit and heads held high. Their last effort, The Lion's Roar, suffered from consistency issues, but this time there's not a weak track to be found.




4. Swans - To Be Kind

Swans are tough as nails and impenetrable, but they make no apologies about who they are. That said, there is still some great dark art rock here, alongside some of the year's most sweat soaked riffing. Michael Gira's haunting cadence rings out from the shadows. It's oppressive yet fascinating simultaneously. At times there are more straight ahead numbers at and at times it's really esoteric, but it's equally difficult not to find yourself sucked in by swans' sinister vortex.


3. Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else

If you're looking for a torrent of pure adrenaline, this album's for you. The Ohio indie rockers barrel full speed ahead with a harder hitting sound than ever before, tempered with catchy, effective song writing and strong hooks. And every now and then they show off their ability to launch into an extended post punk rage. For his part, frontman Dylan Baldi alternates between jagged edged screams and passionate clean singing in what is surely one of the most explosive albums of the year.

2. St. Vincent - s/t

This is the album that's been on everyone's list this year, and for good reason. Her rose tinted art pop might color her as a little weird and off kilter, but Annie Clark's fourth album is perhaps her boldest yet. She's wistful and provocative with an intoxicating sense of confidence, and at the end of the day she's irresistible because she's a knockout songsmith crafting a dizzying collection of fragrant rock and roll.




1. Rodrigo y Gabriela - 9 Dead Alive

This has been my go to jam this year. I was initially drawn into the band thanks to their white hot single "Hanuman," which led to me exploring their previous album, 11:11. This one is much more relaxed and low key, but no less breathtaking in terms of aesthetic or technicality. I like this record whenever I'm upset, or agitated or anxious about something; it helps mellow me out. But I also love it for the sheer splendid beauty of its arrangements. I am surprised that no one is paying attention to this one after the success that their previous two albums had. It must not be the type of sound media outlets are looking for, which is a shame. Because to me, it sounds better than any record released this year.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Post punkers Swans bulldoze the building and bury you under rubble

They rose from the grime and grit of the early 80s New York art scene, but now Swans have finally arrived and they're here to kick your ass.  Frontman Michael Gira has led his noise/no wave project on a hell of a resurgence lately. They shocked the world with their 2012 album The Seer, a confrontational album that at times baffles the senses and creates a sense of pure dread, but at no time permits you to look away. Their current tour showcases material from their latest effort, To Be Kind, a two hour opus which follows The Seer's lead but manages to shock and amaze in entirely new ways.

Michael Gira serves as the demented conductor for Swans.

On stage, their sound is based almost purely upon repetition and hypnotism. Gira, along with guitarist Norman Westburg, channels a pummeling, punishing attack which frequently consists o strumming the same chord again, repeatedly, over and over again in an effort to pound you into submission.

The set opened strongly with non album track "Frankie M."  Some of their cuts tend to get pretty murky, but "Frankie M" thankfully contains enough structure and melody to qualify as a quality dark art rock song.  That led into "A Little God in My Hands," the lead single from To Be Kind,  which is the closest they have to a legitimate 6-7 pop/rock single. Unfortunately, the flow was broken up during the early part of their set due to problems they kept having with their amp which forced them to stop after the first song and then again after the second.

The set got more esoteric as it went on, but Gira was a great frontman.  During one part, he would jump into the air and swing the neck of his guitar toward the ground, then he would walk to the other side of the stage, then turn around and leap into the air again as he was walking back toward the other side of the stage. He did this four or five times, then just started leaping repeatedly in one place several times while playing that one riff.

Michale Gira and Norman Westburg conjure up an eerie drone.

The greatest moment was the pummeling two note riff that opens "Bring the Sun." There are few riffs that distill the band's essence better than that, and it signified a genuine catharsis.  "Black Hole Man" was a great way to close the set, as he proclaimed himself a black hole man in a voice that sounded like a demented circus ringmaster.

There is also a strong art house vibe to their live show. After the second song, Gira started doing some weird dancing, shaking his wrists all around. It looked like his take on Native American spirit dancing. From time to time he would just spit some gobbledygook into the microphone. At one point he even briefly licked the mic, rolling his tongue all around it. 

This band was loud. They were dangerously loud. I took out my ear plugs a few times throughout the show just to get a feel for their volume. I can't imagine having seen them without ear plugs.

It was a good show and I liked it, but not among the best I've seen. There's a little too much repetition, and monotony can set in after awhile.

Xiu Xiu opened and it was the worst fucking thing I have ever witnessed. It was nothing but 30 minutes of piercing speaker feedback with occasional racecar sounds and rolling thunderclaps thrown in. Their website described it as Merzbow influenced death drone. It was such an abysmal experience.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Bonnaroo 2014: Thursday had a couple of cool moments but ehh

I thought the Thursday lineup was weak compared to previous years. Last year we had Haim, Alt-J and Father John Misty, and Thursdays past have had Vampire Weekend, Kendrick Lamar, and Zac Brown Band (all before they became big). I'm not sure we'll be seeing that much out of anyone this year. I didn't have much interest in anyone playing during the early part of the day so I just wandered around seeing if anything would stick.

The Preatures stood out more than anyone else. They weave a compelling blend of Britishy pop/rock, but lean more on the pop side than rock. It's fun, sunny, feel good music. Jonathan Wilson had some great guitar solos, but I didn't care for him much beyond that. He had a mellowed out, hippie vibe and looked like a homeless person. All La Lahs presented 60s beach rock. I sat on the grass for a song or two and then went elsewhere. It wasn't until after that that I caught my first full set of the weekend.


Caveman


They were okay, but nothing special. It's like really chilled out guitar rock, is the best way to describe it I guess. The singer said they were all drunk, and then asked someone to toss one of the beach volleyballs onto the stage that people had been batting around. He smacked it with a pair of drumsticks and knocked it out of the park like a baseball. This was the best part of the show.

MS MR


I only saw Caveman though to get a good spot for this band, who were one of my favorite post-lineup discoveries. If you know me you know I love my synth pop bands, so the moment I found out that's what they were I had to check 'em out. They're more about vocals/hooks as opposed to electronics/production, which has its pros and cons. On stage though, the band is far too infectious to deny.

Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow ripped their way through most of the cuts from their debut, Secondhand Rapture, and tossed in covers of the Arctic Monkeys' "Do I Wanna Know" and LCD Soundsystem's "Dance Yrself Clean" for good measure. This was the first band of the weekend I saw people seriously getting hype over, and it looked like the band themselves were blown away by the reception they were getting. They were eating out of our hand as much as we were eating out of theirs.


Cloud Nothings


As much as I was digging MS MR, this was the band I truly wanted to rage to so I bolted for This Tent as quickly as possible. That one two punch was one of the greatest of the weekend.

The departure of guitarist Joe Boyer didn't seem to slow them in the slightest. This set was a pure unleashing of energy and emotion. It was great getting to catch these guys in such an intense environment, being one of the more recent appointments to the ranks of my favorite bands. There were many cathartic moments: the shrieking of "Psychic Trauma," the colossal build up and release of "Wasted Days", straight up to the eerie parting drone of "No Future No Past." Apparently it was too much for some of the crowd, as people were leaving the show in droves, 

Omar Souleyman


Getting to see him was cool. He's a dance music artist from Syria who weaves in traditional sounds of the Middle East into modern dance music. He doesn't play stateside much and when he does he's pretty much exclusively a festival act. That said, I wasn't really feeling this set for whatever reason. I was already tired and felt bad, so I was just sort of there for this set. But it was the first show I caught with my entire crew so that was cool.

After that I decided to book it back to camp. In retrospect, I wish I had gone to Ty Segall's set. Having seen him once before, I'm sure I would have loved it. It might have picked up my mood and provided a nice capper to my night but I decided it would be better to pace myself and conserve energy for the weekend.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Alt-J emerges from its coccoon with moodier, electronic slow jam

All the hipsters and NPR people went nuts over An Awesome Wave, the debut album from downtempo British indie rockers Alt-J. Meanwhile, I was just chilling out over here in a corner not really understanding what the big deal was about. I respect their uniqueness but not even attending a packed to the rafters Bonnaroo set of theirs last year was able to totally sway me.

Now we have "Hunger of the Pine," the lead single from their sophomore LP This is All Yours, due Sept. 22. The electronics here are definitely thicker and it's more sample based, containing a Miley Cyrus sample (which sounds awful, but it works well in the context of the song). It has a Radiohead/Atoms for Peace type vibe going on, while still capturing the chilled out nature of their earlier work. I like it, and will give the upcoming album a chance for sure.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Rise Against doesn't want to be here anymore. It totally sounds like it.

The last couple of albums from Rise Against may not have been their best but in spite of that the Chicago punk rockers have remained on my watch list. Their new single "I Don't Want to Be Here Anymore" isn't a bad song necessarily; it just doesn't do anything to convince me they're righting the ship. It is a bland and unspectacular lead single that sounds like the same warmed over affair they've been pumping out for years. This includes literally everything, from the intro riffs and melody to the vague spirit of rebellion, and all the way down to inevitable slower part that comes right before the oh so passe final fist pumping chorus. We'll see if the guys have anything better in store when The Black Market drops in full next month.