Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Performance Review: Familiarity (Breeds Contempt)

The Walkmen played Mercy Lounge this past Sunday. I was there.

They’re one of those bands that I know of, that people I know really like, but I’ve never heard them enough to form an opinion one way or the other. But whatever, Bill, Paul, Chris and I got our hands stamped and got a really great show.

This is the thing about seeing a reportedly good band that you’re not familiar with...you’re allowed to have neutral expectations. Bill had given me a copy of 2008’s You & Me, I enjoyed it quite a bit and was interested to see how they’d pull that off, but wasn’t familiar enough to wish for any preferred cuts. After the show, Paul and I were talking about how when you go see a band you’ve liked for several years/albums, you often find yourself getting bored with the newer stuff 'cos there's a bunch of older “classics” you're waiting to hear. In many ways this was the case when we saw Depeche Mode in Atlanta earlier in the month. I love the new DM album and they played several key tracks from it, but since that was my first (and last) time to see them, I really wanted to hear those classics that I've loved for 20 years now. Which is sort of a shame, ‘cos a band with a new album should be allowed to showcase their latest efforts without polite, derivative applause after those numbers and then a deafening roar whenever the opening notes of Wicked Game, Brown Sugar or The Final Countdown hit the scene. But we’re all guilty of that, even me -- your judge, jury and executioner.

And that’s what made the Walkmen’s performance refreshing, 'cos I appreciated the two or three songs I recognized from You & Me, and didn’t find myself bored with any certain song and anticipating what would be next in the set. You’re just cheating yourself when you do that, not getting the full enjoyment of the tunes the band has handpicked for your optimum listening pleasure. Or maybe they’re just indulging themselves with whatever they want to play at your expense (Billy Corgan).

But regardless, the Walkmen did put on a great show. Their retro-vampy-southwestern style put through the indie blender the way the kids are doing it these days was both relaxing and energizing. They were able to bring it all with just the five basic instruments of rock n roll and a little implementation from a three trumpet horn section on various selections.

I’d been told that their drummer was sensational and, from what I heard, he certainly was. I wish I could have seen him, but the Mercy Lounge has no drum riser, so I could only glimpse the blurred fury of his arms through momentary parts in the crowd from time to time. But for me, the real secret weapon of the Walkmen is guitarist Paul Maroon. The sounds he was able to coax from his hollow body were one part Chet Atkins, two parts Andy Gill and at all times awe-inspiring.

The boys were there to rock, or in some cases just roll easily along, and there was very little banter between songs. New songs were identified as such (thanks, but they were mostly all new to me) and I found I enjoyed them the most of the set, which makes me think I might be interested in picking up their next album whenever it comes along…which is why you’re supposed to showcase your new songs, so that people will buy your new album.

Honestly, there isn’t a negative thing I can mention about their set. Part of me does wish that I’d been more familiar with their catalog so that I would have maybe enjoyed it more, and yet for the reasons mentioned above, I’m not entirely sure I would have. Back in the days before Internet’s quick and ready access to music (it was called “The 90s”), we often went to see bands on word of mouth, zine write-ups and maybe the odd seven-inch or song played on local college radio. And as often as not, I had some of the best live experiences of my life and discovered several bands that have stayed with me throughout the years. I can’t promise the same thing will happen with the Walkmen, but it was nice to appreciate a band’s songs based on the way they delivered them raw and ready more than bringing my expectations tainted by album familiarity (breeds contempt).

Here are a few live vids…

New Song

I Lost You

The Rat

Friday, September 25, 2009

Random Release: "Diminished" Sound

I have a love-terrified relationship with PJ Harvey. I love (most of) her albums, her unique (yet oddly familiar) approach to songwriting and her unorthodox ability to deconstruct what is deemed “pop” music and still keep it (usually) accessible. (There are a lot of parenthetical blurbs in that sentence, for which I apologize.) And yet her persona and lyrical imagery frankly scare the bejeezus out of me.

As with most of her albums, there is often one instrument that seems to be the focal point/driving force for the majority of the songs. More often than not its guitar (Dry, Stories from the City…), which showcased her grunge-like routes as well as her indie pop sensibilities, though at times she has leaned heavily on organ (To Bring You My Love, Is this Desire?) for a dark, heavy dredging through the mire of human desperation. With 2007's White Chalk its piano. And in a word: Yikes.

Minimal instrumentation is commonplace on many PJ Harvey records, and she can be a formidable weapon with simply her voice and a guitar. In most instances, White Chalk is little more than piano with some other non-intrusive instrument(s) to accompany, plus that ever-mesmerizing voice. In this instance, she mostly sings in a register much higher than the earthy, she-baritone-to-banshee-wail that we’re all in love with. Polly is exposed, emotive, often tender and in every way human. What makes White Chalk so moving is not that it’s so emotionally open (Polly is often that to an uncomfortable degree), but that it’s so very fragile. Every song sounds as if it could break with a breath or a hostile glare, but this doesn’t mean they’re weak, only available, allowing the listener to let down their guard and enter a world that is not of the cut and paste mundane.

Not that you’ll feel safe, even for a moment.

Polly’s music often listens like the soundtrack of a rollicking decent into hell…or at least madness. And if this is the case, White Chalk is easily that objective achieved. Pervading the entire album is an undercurrent both eerie and ominous. Let’s face it, when the first song is called The Devil and the second Dear Darkness, you know you’re someplace where the sun don’t shine too often. However, there’s no apprehension of approaching doom and no screaming portent of dread to come. The danger isn’t even at present, but already past. This is the aftermath of the tidal wave, the earthquake, the finger of some deity come down to wreak havoc and now gone. The scant, brittle survivors are these eleven songs. Polly moans, screeches and howls, conjuring up all sorts of horrifying scenarios (death, isolation, abortion), and yet there is a precise beauty in all this despair. The darkness she brings down is simply an inverted canvas, where colors are all painted in negatives and the brush the tip of her reaching fingers.

If you track her releases, it’s interesting how in general Polly has “diminished” in her sound. The thick, heady drive of Dry peeling away little by little over the years, never losing texture or depth, but using less to achieve fullness. White Chalk is the next logical step after 2004’s Uh-Huh Her, and for me the golden moment of 2007. It’s an album to set a dark ambience, but there are layers to be delved into which beg a closer listen. So don’t let the quietness fool you, there’s plenty of power, plenty of angst and plenty to be afraid of.

Go, Polly, go!

Three Key Tracks: The Devil, White Chalk, The Mountain

Live video of her performing the title track.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

One Hit Wonders: Letting His Hair Down

Sting: The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985) – Some of you are probably asking yourselves, “Sting only has one good album?” or possibly (probably…JT), “Sting was associated with any good albums?” And I will respond, “Yes.” Though he did produce four (and only four) stellar albums with the Police, in those instances he was part of a band, and even though he was the main focus and songwriter (singles-wise anyway…album tracks were another matter), he needed the sizeable chops of Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland to make his simple pop songs about love and socio-political awareness become not only visceral, but interesting -- and therefore timeless.

The Dream of the Blue Turtles, his post-Police solo debut, is proof that he could still carry some songwriting weight…though again he had a dream-come-true band of contemporary jazz greats filling in the gaps. This album captures Sting before his pretention overshadowed his ambition (though there’s plenty of both) and finds him in several moods ranging from playful to pensive. He covers a lot of ground in a short time; everything from lamenting the young British lives lost during the First World War in comparison with those lost to drug addiction (Children’s Crusade), to Anne Rice inspired vampires in New Orleans (Moon Over Bourbon Street), and of course touches on love and the politics of the time. The latter especially dates the album, most obviously on the brooding, plaintive ballad, Russians. But overall these ten songs of contemporary jazz pop have stood up well over the years, and many sound as fresh today as they did when Reagan was still king. Part of this freshness is due to a loose, almost freeform flavor throughout the album. But also, Sting is more vulnerable, less confident -- not only in his songwriting, but in his playing, by stepping out from behind the comfort of his familiar bass and taking up the guitar, with which he is competent but not adept. Furthermore, this is a situation where the album tracks, for the most part, outshine the singles (with a huge exception being Fortress Around Your Heart), and his backing band enables him to stretch in musical directions that may have sounded out of place with the Police. But perhaps most importantly, and despite the gravity underlying many of these tracks, the fact that Sting allows himself to let his hair down, especially on the reworking of early Police staple Shadows in the Rain, gives this album an immediateness that makes it not only good but also enjoyable.

Of course after The Dream of the Blue Turtles, Sting went on to ridiculous heights commercially, but for my money he only penned one other decent tune (An Englishman in New York from …Nothing Like the Sun), and after another ten or so years, his pretentiousness was finally outweighed by the copious amounts of cheese spewing from his egomaniacal mouth. Still, The Dream of the Blue Turtles is proof of what he once was…as well as what he would eventually become.

***For those who enjoy rockumentaries, the companion film Bring On the Night, about the making of the album and the subsequent tour, is truly fantastic.***

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Performance Review: Why Did You Let Me Down (Again)?

On Tuesday, September 1, Depeche Mode played in Atlanta. I was there.

My affair with Depeche Mode is a long and winding road, and one that I won’t back down at this time. Suffice it to say, per the subject reference, we’ve had our ups and downs, our accords and disagreements, our richer and poorer (basically them becoming the former while I become the latter spending copious amounts of money on their releases).

In the twentyish years I’ve been a passing to rabid D-Mode fan, I’ve never had the opportunity to see them live, and definitely never in their performance “heyday,” roughly between 1987 and 1994. All of that changed this year with their thirteenth release, Sounds of the Universe (see my previous post on that album here), and the subsequent Tour of the Universe in support of the album.

To digress slightly…JT and I have had many, many conversations about the “classic alternative” bands of the 80s who made it big sometime around the end of that decade (other notables including The Cure, REM, U2, etc). Of all those bands, we’ve concluded that Depeche Mode has been the one to not only continue delivering the same level of quality music as they did in their critical and popular prime, but in some instances (like 2005’s Playing the Angel) may have even surpassed those stellar heights.

However, when the opportunity arose to see them on this tour, I wasn’t initially interested. And a lot of that had to do with being older and a new father, but also, I’ve become more jaded overall to the “live experience.” Audiences, and I may be talking about you, are just rude these days. Not only are they discourteous to the artists bringing them the goods, they’re doubly so to the true fans (because a true fan wouldn’t take a phone call during the quietest moment of the quietest song of the set) who have spent, let’s face it, WAY TO MUCH MONEY to see whomever perform. My tolerance lately is way, way low for such nonsense. But JT pointed out that this would likely be our only chance to see the great Depeche – so the die was cast (or rather a large hunk o’ change).

The story of this road trip to Atlanta, especially the harrowing 20ish minutes before getting to the show, is somewhat interesting/humorous in and of itself, but I’ll leave that alone. Needless, we made it to the Lakewood Amphitheater (having mercifully missed the opening act Peter, Bjorn and John) where Josh and I wandered our way to Section 206, Row PP, Seats 33 and 34 (which were just a few rows up and a few clicks stage right from where we’d seen the Cure back in September of 1996). The rest of our party – Karla, Amber and Ryan – sat on the grass…suckers.

You have to keep in mind that, obviously, JT and I are music geeks. Months ago when this tour started we’d already looked up the basic set list so we would know what to expect. Naturally since this was the Tour of the Universe supporting Sounds of the Universe, the set was heavy with tracks from that album, but also pulled generously from various hits and singles going all the way back to 1984’s Some Great Reward, with extra emphasis on their two biggest albums, Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion (the latter for me being one of the alluded to “let downs” of the past).

Also, this tour was fraught with peril for lead vocalist Dave Gahan, with everything from a stomach tumor, to a torn ACL, to vocal strain cancelling several dates all around the world. In the days and weeks leading up to the show, we wondered if he’d still be alive, much less able to perform.

Once in our seats, however, anticipation was pretty high and we checked out the people around us, who were mainly average looking thirty-somethings like us, with a few “modded out” folks here and there – keeping the true spirit of the 80s alive.

When the lights went down, we screamed. Or I did. I’m not sure what JT was all about. As expected, once the band sauntered out (the now three-piece since 1997 of Gahan, Martin L. Gore and Andy Fletcher is accented onstage by two long time session men), they went immediately into album opener In Chains. All things were on their way to Rockville…until Dave opened his mouth for the first line, “The way you move…,” and most assuredly my heart did not. His voice was a drowned rat.

Thanks for nothing, Dave!

Still, there was hope. Monitor issues, mix problems, possible jitters…all of these things can make the first song or two sketchy, so give it some time and they’ll work it out. And sorta they did, but not really. The problem throughout was our boy Dave. He still moved like the showman of the 80s and 90s I’d seen on countless videos, but even when his vocals were on, which was often, he just as often turned the mic to the crowd in that oh-so-cocky rock star way for us to sing not with him, but for him. This included every chorus for songs such as Fly on the Windscreen, A Question of Time and their worldwide signature hit, Enjoy the Silence. It seriously got to the point where I was expecting/dreading it so much that I couldn’t really get into the show.

Clearly he was trying to save his voice. But really, if it’s that bad, just cancel the show. I mean I was gonna sing along anyway, but I didn’t think I was part of a mass audition to take his place. And while Martin’s voice was as emotive and fantastic as in stories of old, and the rest of the band synth-grooved with the best of the best, Gahan with his rock boy antics, cheesy smiles and “mic turning” just basically ruined the experience for us.

And it was worse for JT than it was for me. While I definitely had a fan of my caliber on my side, she kept here singing and dancing and clapping as respectfully in her area as possible. Meanwhile, JT had one of those over the top gushers who screamed and swooned at every note and gesture, but confirmed to JT (in tones loud enough for the band to hear) that Enjoy the Silence was their best song ever. Biatch, please. Add the fact that this gal and her boy and two other couples on our row were constantly in and out on beer, smoke and bathroom runs, it was hard for us to get into any kind of zone for very long, even if Dave had been giving us all we ever wanted or needed.

Hey, Martin, thanks again!

There were, however, moments of absolute magic. Martin L. Gore’s solo bits – including, among others, a piano only rendition of Home and the high-school-crush-mix-tape staple Somebody – had us both remembering why this band has been so great for nearly thirty years. And a few golden moments with Gahan at the helm were to be had as well; especially It’s No Good (which really got the crowd to thumpin’), the gorgeous Precious, a wang-danged kick about of both Sweetest Perfection and Personal Jesus and show closer, Waiting for Night. (Post show I rechecked the standard set list and they’d cut out a good ten songs. Bogus.)

Overall it was a bit of a massive let down. And really, the problem was Gahan’s lack of vocal presence. I’m not saying I wish I hadn’t gone. This was an experience worth having, and many times I found myself in the groove, bopping and clapping and singing along with the enthusiasm of a little 15 year old (are you people even getting these references?). I just wish that it had lived up to half my expectations, which were seriously generous considering the age of these guys, the rampant drug abuse of Gahan in particular 15 years ago and the aptitude for outdoor venues to really have a rotten sound.

But this doesn’t mean that Depeche Mode is a bad band or have fallen even a notch in my respectability. Sounds of the Universe is still a fantastic album and the legacy of their live prowess still something to be remembered with fondness. But if Dave Gahan can’t step up to the mic, I think it’s time to put their touring days behind them.

So, I’ve decided to provide ample proof that these boys were once a class act on stage. Make fun of synth pop all you want (Bill), but it’s not always easy for mere mortals to keep up when you rely on sequencers and drum machines (they did have a live drummer at this show btw), and you have to nail down your timing and rhythm with spikes. To me it was especially impressive back in the early, early days. See it for yourself…

Photographic 1981

See You 1982

Everything Counts 1984

Shake the Disease 1986

Never Let Me Down Again 1988

Enjoy the Silence 1990

Everything Counts 1993

It’s No Good 1997

Dream On 2001

John the Revelator 2005

Friday, September 4, 2009

Breaking News: Theft of Love in the Modern Times Through Our Life

Bill sent me the link to this blog entry with The Cinch Review where the issue of Dynamic Range Compression is discussed with specific concerns to Bob Dylan's 21st Century albums, but really, all new and worthwhile music in general.

My response to Bill and this article is... How absolutely upsetting! This seems to be what I couldn't put my finger on with Dylan's Modern Times, when I realized that the songs were good, the performances were stellar, but the album was a dud, just a flatline. I partly blamed it on the sameness of the songs, and that might be a bit of a concern, but this Dynamic Range Compression deal would certainly wash out any nuances making the album more diverse and interesting. Furthermore, when I was relistening to Love & Theft for my post a couple of months back, I noticed that I was not as enthused with it as I initially had been, that it sounded very cold and unappealing in some ways...something which it's predeceor, Time Out of Mind, does not. And I attributed that to Lanois' production, myself assuming that Jack Frost aka Dylan did not need to be producing his own material. And while Lanois' production is naturally fantastic, it would have likely fallen victim to this (as the above blog calls it) ongoing scandal within the music industry had this technique been available/more widespread in 1997. In comparison to it's 21st Century companions, Time Out of Mind is extremely warm and organic and gets so quiet sometimes that you can hardly hear it...something so absolutely lost within Modern Times, it's enough to make me sick. And, if this is the case, definitely angry.

What this means is that I will still not be picking up Together Through Life -- though now with a different "because" behind my reason -- while this is an issue. And I assume the new Christmas album will suffer the same fate...

Honestly, even if you're not a fan of Dylan, you should read this guy's blog entry, 'cos it really does seem to be a legitimate complaint, and one that has damaged the integrity of some potentially great music. Who are the other victims (well, besides us the listener)? I dunno, but if this issue becomes as big a deal as The Cinch Review believes it will, we'll all know soon enough.