Thursday, January 31, 2008

Interlude: NW

This review appears in Wireless Bollinger.

Terminal 5 is not for the faint of heart. Formerly known as the notorious nightclub Exit, the 3000 person capacity and triple-floor structure make for a venue that’s as imposing as it is uncomfortable. But in the oft-fragmented mosaic that is New York, it’s now a hub for bands that are less of the up-and-coming sort and more geared to those that have arrived. Native band Blonde Redhead fit the bill, having released their seventh album, 23, and toured throughout the last year in support of it, with this gig perhaps the culmination of the current cycle. Last May, the group packed the Apple store in SoHo, leaving the spillover crowd waiting outside in a block long sprawl. They proceeded to sell out spacious Webster Hall, returning in August to McCarren Pool in Brooklyn, and subsequently filled Terminal 5 to capacity.

The School of Seven Bells

Openers School of Seven Bells joined Blonde Redhead on their September trek, which took them everywhere along the East Coast excluding New York. The quartet is Benjamin Curtis, formerly of Secret Machines, Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, formerly of On!Air!Library! and James Elliott, who has recorded under the pseudonym Ateleia. The result was a spacey mixture of each member’s expertise. Curtis’ psychedelic-flecked band provided a template for pseudo-pop songs while Elliott’s electronic leanings were physically pronounced as he perched over a synthesizer. Meanwhile, the sisters’ haunting vocals dueled, and though their words were obscured, the strong melodies and pop sensibilities overcame any lyrical uncertainties.

MySpace: School of Seven Bells

The Raveonettes

In an inspired transition, the house soundsystem played Autechre’s "Dael" to kick off the intermission, the song’s mechanical snarl a natural follow-up to the avant-garde quartet. But the minimalism didn’t last, as the sweeping fuzz of the Raveonettes overcame any thoughts of laptops. Bassist Sharin Foo and guitarist Sune Rose Wagner’s entwined voices created an immersive wall of sound, both monotonous and euphoric. A compact three-piece kit was deftly handled by the duo’s tour drummer, while the guitars wailed. Towards the end of the set, the band focused on material from their most recent album, Lust, Lust, Lust; single ‘Dead Sound’ defying its title, bringing a lively groove and almost pretty vocals. Closer "Aly, Walk with Me" was a noisier, but equally effective outburst, with the house lights blazing alongside the instruments.

The Raveonettes play at the Bowery Ballroom on March 26th. Here's a remix and original of "Dead Sound," as well as their Black Session, recorded on August 28th, 2003. If you'd like the whole set, please use the Mediafire link below.

MP3: The Raveonettes - Dead Sound
MP3: The Raveonettes - Dead Sound (Peter Holmstrom and Jeremy Sherrer Remix)

1. Intro
2. Attack of the Ghost Riders
3. Evil LA Girls
4. Veronica Fever
5. Let's Rave On
6. Noisy Summer
7. Chain Gang of Love
8. That Great Love Sound
9. My Tornado
10. Wanna Dance
11. Do You Believe Her
12. Untamed Girls
13. Heartbreak Stroll
14. Cops On Our Tail
15. NY Was Great
16. Beat City

Entire Set: Mediafire
MySpace: The Raveonettes
Official Site: The Raveonettes

Blonde Redhead

When Blonde Redhead’s solemn, prerecorded introduction came on, the usual expectant cheer rose up from the crowd. What was more impressive was how the trio mesmerized the crowd for the next hour-and-a-half. Kazu Makino began the set far stage right, seated at a keyboard, with drummer Simone Pace in the center and his twin brother and guitarist Amedeo on the other side. The size of the stage meant each member was an island, but there was willful detachment. Over the course of the first few songs, none of them spoke a word, preferring quite wisely not to dilute their distinct aesthetic. A quiet, piano-driven piece began the set, with Makino’s high-pitched vocals the clear centerpiece of the song, and arguably of the band. Amedeo Pace assumed singing duties on the next song, while Makino switched over to guitar, the juggling of instruments continuing throughout the night.

With guitar squalls, the band justified those early Sonic Youth comparisons, but they were far more distinct. Makino’s chilling keen cut through all of the noise, and she played while seemingly oblivious to her surroundings, utterly consumed by the music. The one early exception was when she and Pace would unite towards the center of the stage, trading guitar lines and, in a particularly memorable moment, she grasped his arm.

When the band finally acknowledged the crowd, it seemed almost by accident. Amedeo’s earpiece had gone askew, and as the room waited for the technical issue to be resolved, Makino leaned exclaimed, “He looks so helpless!” Makino would later elaborate on the origin of the cryptic track "SW," saying that the letters stood for Stevie Wonder, whom the song reminded them of even if “no one else thinks so.” These were somewhat unexpected revelations, but they spurred on an already adoring crowd.

The undeniable highlight of the performance was "23," its electronic shoegaze texture transformed into a more aggressive live incarnation. Prior to the song, Makino would invite a guitarist onstage, first joking, “I don’t know who that is,” and later introducing him as Paul – as in Paul Banks from fellow New York band Interpol. Despite the two guitar assault, Makino’s ethereal voice rose above the mix, a spectacular combination. With such a momentous conclusion to the main set, the encore was more of a formality, although the appearance of "Dr. Strangeluv" echoed the grandeur of "23." A few more experimental pieces followed, and the night came to a satisfying end.

MP3: Blonde Redhead - 23
MySpace: Blonde Redhead
Official Site: Blonde Redhead

Monday, January 28, 2008

Interlude: Back In Time

Things are a bit garbled as far as chronology now, but I'll try to resolve that. Eleven days ago, following what was almost a two month hiatus, I finally made it back out to a show. I had seen Au Revoir Simone a couple times before, and they seemed a fine way to ease myself back into the groove, particularly at the always great Bowery Ballroom. Thankfully, I was unfamiliar with the openers, which always makes it a little more exciting. Many thanks to Jen Appel from Press Here Publicity for making it possible.


Russian-born Olga Bell opened the night to a packed floor. The late start time (9:30 on a Friday night) didn't hurt, but I was pleasantly surprised by the large turnout. While her recorded music is much in the singer-songwriter vein, quiet piano with the addition of some electronic elements, her live set was far more impressive. The wise addition of a bassist, guitar player and drummer turned those bedroom songs into louder, more ambitious compositions. While Bell would describe one part as a "snore song," even that developed into something more. The most memorable part was, inevitably, her two-headed cover of "Videotape" and "The Eraser," by Radiohead and Thom Yorke respectively. I thought the second half was more interesting, with the clanking percussion, Bell's "Doing me in" buildup, and the stuttering piano. With a "debut EP in the cooker" according to her MySpace, hopefully we'll hear more from her in the future. Bell plays at Cake Shop with Takka Takka on February 1st.

MP3: Bell - Videotape / The Eraser (Live)
MySpace: Bell

April March

This I was not expecting. When a decent looking quartet stepped out (all of them wearing pink on one part of their person), I prepared myself for fun, head-nodding indie rock. When they were joined by a singer, who then proceeded to sing in French, I was stunned. Surely an up-and-coming group would hesitate to sing in a foreign language? Turns out April March (née Elinor Blake) was most active in the 90's, and this was her first show in New York in four years. She was definitely not your typical Bowery resident, but the backup band played with an enthusiasm that made them seem right at home. But I thought her vocals were a bit stiff, and while they aren't really comparable to anything around these days, I'm more inclined towards an Emilie Simon or Stereolab. April March said she had a new album finished, and she's looking for a label to release it on.

MySpace: April March
Official Site: April March

Au Revoir Simone

During the intermission, one of my neighbors observed that there were "many dudes here." Au Revoir Simone would seem to appeal to the gentler sex, but perhaps the guys were hoping for a dance party, which unfortunately never quite materialized. The trio is always impeccable when it comes to harmonies and interestingly little keyboard sounds, but there comes a point where you want a little more at a concert. When the "dance" portion of their set finally came around, it was capped at two songs. As with their South Street Seaport appearance, I was left wanting more. Thankfully, they did play "Night Majestic" this time around, but "Stars," remained absent. While quite good on record, they need to do more live if they want to get people more excited. At least the show ended on a high note, when the trio was joined by members of the openers, which makes me wonder if it would hurt to add a live drummer or guitarist to the mix.

MP3: Au Revoir Simone - Through The Backyards
MP3: Au Revoir Simone - Fallen Snow
Official Site: Au Revoir Simone

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sustain, Release: Chris Walla's Field Manual

This review appears in this week's Wireless Bollinger.

Chris Walla’s Field Manual has had a long gestation. The album was originally set for release a year ago, but Walla’s production of Tegan and Sara’s The Con pushed it back a whole 12 months. Then, United States Customs confiscated Walla’s hard drive at the Canadian border, further complicating the process. The scenario is especially bizarre considering the context of Walla’s role as guitarist in the generally benign Death Cab for Cutie and, for the most part, Field Manual is not much of a departure from Walla’s main project. Two of its tracks are even reportedly castoffs from Plans, the band’s last album and major label debut.

The album’s original title, It’s Unsustainable, suggested that, despite the obvious Death Cab pedigree, Walla’s solo affair would be more than just love songs. However, the album only partially delivers on such promise; opener "Two Fifty" alluding to the current state of world affairs: “All hail an imminent collapse,” the rest of the album returning to more familiar, romantic territory. And when the former title track rolls around, it’s toothless. “It’s not unsustainable,” Walla breathes, softly killing any hopes for political content – it’s decidedly unclear why border agents would detain something so devoid of controversy.

While uniformly pleasant, Field Manual isn’t compelling. The album sways from delicate dream pop to more a raucous, guitar-driven style within the first two tracks, but despite the eclecticism, it still feels like a retread and as such Walla’s back catalogue is an obstacle that he never really clears. The woozy parts of the album immediately bring to mind the warmer parts of Plans, while the louder moments recall old, cathartic Death Cab. A comparison between Ben Gibbard and Walla’s vocals seems lazy, but is inevitable when both style and subject matter are so similar. "Geometry & C" has an opening guitar riff that could be a doppelganger for Death Cab single "Crooked Teeth," while the “Da dee dum” refrain is suspiciously akin to Gibbard’s vocalizations of choice.

Likeness aside, Walla demonstrates his gift for production, and the album has a generous share of hooks. His earnest songwriting is a good fit for the music, which is subsequently easy on the ears; "Sing Again" repeats the title until it approaches an anthem, demonstrating a pop sensibility that simply works – while not revolutionary, it is well constructed. But compared to the idiosyncrasies of, say, the Decemberists, whom Walla has also produced, it’s a tame record as a whole – the remarkable lack of tension making the experience soothing and frustrating at the same time.

The solo project is ideally a bold step, in which a musician breaks the confines of his day job and embarks on a journey of individualism. Unfortunately, this wasn’t what Chris Walla has achieved and even as this record gathers momentum, many ears anticipate the looming May arrival of Death Cab’s next album. While Field Manual should sate those fans’ desires for the next few months, the less enthusiastic recipients will probably wish for a bigger leap elsewhere.


MP3: Chris Walla - Sing Again
MySpace: Chris Walla
Official Site: Chris Walla / Hall of Justice

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Foundations: Kate Nash at London Calling

I spent Friday afternoon finally giving Kate Nash's much buzzed about Made of Bricks a fair listen. Too often, initial lazy comparisons will distort my conception of an artist. When Kate was dismissed as a Joanna Newsom knock-off in some forgotten comment form (perhaps I confused her with Kate Bush), I backed off. The more common Lily Allen or Regina Spektor tags gave me a reason to investigate, and you'll probably find something to like in Made of Bricks if you're a fan of either. But these comparisons are useful only to a certain degree. Generally, my enjoyment of music is based on a solely on immediate content, instead of ranking it with similar voices. With that in mind, the album's breakout single is "Foundations," and I love it. The catchy chorus is one big reason, and it's refreshing how she approaches the same old love song lyrically. There may or may not be a full review treatment coming up, but suffice to say it's recommended.

Here's Kate at the London Calling Festival at the Paradiso, Amsterdam, recorded on March 30th, 2007. There's also a profile of her in the New York Times. Enjoy.

1. The Sh*t Song
2. Stiching Leggings
3. Caroline's a Victim
4. Birds
5. We Get On
6. Merry Happy
7. The Nicest Thing
8. Foundations

Entire set: Mediafire
MySpace: Kate Nash
Official Site: Kate Nash

Monday, January 21, 2008

Swear To Blog

I don't get out to many movies. The usual nocturnal experience is less of the sit-down, popcorn devouring type and more the stand-up, ear-shredding type. But last week, I was fortunate enough to experience both. The film was Juno, and it was great. Granted, my decision to see it was built off the uniformly positive reviews and numerous recommendations from friends, but the gushing isn't unfounded. It's well-written, charming flick, with excellent characters, first and foremost the title character, played by Ellen Page. The dialogue is a constant stream of one-liners, more wholesome but no less hilarious than last theater outing I had, Superbad. Michael Cera also appears, with his role as the well-intentioned Paulie Bleeker, Juno's love interest and perfect foil.

Go see it (again).

Juno's soundtrack is another excellent fit. Indie-approved Sonic Youth, Cat Power and Belle and Sebastian are nice additions, but the heart of the album is Kimya Dawson's peculiar, but wholly appropriate singing. It's not really aligned with my usual fare, but it's hard to think of a more perfect complement to what takes place on screen. Kimya plays another free (but undoubtedly packed) in-store tonight at Soundfix, and the Village Voice offered their entertaining take last week. Ellen Page also spoke with Pitchfork a while back.

MP3: Michael Cera & Ellen Page - Anyone Else But You
Official Site: Juno

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Interview: Xiu Xiu

This feature appears in this week's Wireless Bollinger.

The 1998 film, Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, details the gloomy story of its title character, a fifteen year old girl who struggles in the wake of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The film’s intense plot is a fitting match for its nominal successor Xiu Xiu, a band that’s endured its share of difficulties since its inception in 2000. On January 29th, Xiu Xiu releases its sixth studio album, Women as Lovers, the latest stop in a decade long journey for frontman and founding member Jamie Stewart.

On the latest album Stewart is joined by cousin Caralee McElroy, who has been in the band since 2004, and drummer Ches Smith, who toured with the group in support of their last full length, The Air Force. Although Stewart described the recording process as “pretty similar to what we’ve always done,” again set in his home studio, it has been the addition of Smith that has bolstered and diversified the project. While Stewart remains the primary source of lyrics, his bandmates have a greater input and as a result Xiu Xiu resembles more of a traditional band rather than just Stewart’s project.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Stewart’s childhood had a strong impact on his eventual career. His father, Mike Stewart, was involved in music business, as was his uncle. “I think initially it was a family thing,” says Stewart, but like most teenagers the appeal set in: “I was too freaked out to do drugs.” He credits his dad for improving his perception of music, allowing him to distinguish between good and poor quality. This trait would prove especially useful for Stewart who found himself caught in the epicenter of a regrettable musical genre in the 1980s.

“The worst hair metal was the most popular, but I never got interested in it,” says Stewart, who describes his tastes as “Muddy Waters and David Byrne instead of Poison and Def Leopard.” Stewart also cites Otis Redding, Prince and Duran Duran as influences, his current tastes being equally eclectic, ranging from free jazz to techno. Bauhaus was also influential, although Stewart admits, “They really freaked me out, but set me on the path into art-rock.”

However, the impact wasn’t immediate, as Stewart became a preschool teacher after his 19th birthday, later working as a social worker and eventually finding a place at a record store. After Stewart collaborated with Cory McCullock in previous bands, the two would form Xiu Xiu, later adding Lauren Andrews and Yvonne Chen to the tour lineup. Meanwhile, Stewart remained in his day job, taking breaks to tour when needed.

“I’d tell huge lies to my bosses why I needed a month off,” says Stewart.

In 2002, Xiu Xiu began touring continuously, albeit no longer with Chen and McCullock – however the latter would assume production duties for subsequent albums. Despite the losses, Stewart realized that he was financially able to rely on touring, finally becoming a musician full time. And while fatigue from the tour grind was unavoidable, he continues to make the most of it.

“I actually really like touring in the United States, the scenery gets to be a drag, but the place is set up for traveling,” says Stewart. The longevity of Xiu Xiu has also allowed the band to tour throughout the world, and while not all countries have miles of asphalt efficiency, Stewart says, “The good food in Italy is always worth the perilous drive.” While he admits that he still prefers recording at home, it’s clear that touring is an essential part of the project.

The constant traveling also brought about a unique artistic opportunity. Tour manager David Horvitz, an accomplished photographer, documented the journey with film that fans submitted in self-addressed envelopes, which were later returned. Stewart describes the experiment as something that grew exponentially, from 30 to 60 to 400 hundred applicants, and the band released a book commemorating the Polaroid Project in November 2007.

Although Xiu Xiu’s fanbase is clearly dedicated, the thorny issue of illegal filesharing is something the band has to endure. “I feel really mixed about it. Downloading something for free is stealing from a store or a merch table. It’s inherently disrespectful,” says Stewart. On the other hand, the accessibility of the internet has created fans of Xiu Xiu in areas of the world where albums wouldn’t necessarily be available in physical form. “We played at Guadalajara and Serbia, which wouldn’t have happened unless someone had ripped us off,” says Stewart.

A more benign type of sharing occurred on the extended play Tu Mi Piaci (Italian for “I like you”), which included Xiu Xiu covers of the aforementioned Bauhaus, as well everyone from This Mortal Coil to the Pussycat Dolls. The record Remixes & Covered returned the favor by compiling tracks of other artists interpreting Xiu Xiu songs.

With so much going on, it’s understandable that Stewart is reluctant to attempt to categorize Xiu Xiu’s music. “I think it is a bad idea to be analytical,” he says, preferring to wait until the band goes on a “five year hiatus” to be retrospective. With the new album about to be released and a spring tour planned shortly thereafter, such a break seems unlikely. And with such a diverse batch of musical styles and subject matter, such an effort would probably be inconclusive at best.


MP3: Xiu Xiu - I Do What I Want, When I Want
MySpace: Xiu Xiu
Official Site: Xiu Xiu

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Paris Four Hundred: St. Vincent's Marry Me

This review appears in this week's Wireless Bollinger.

St. Vincent is Annie Clark, a singer-songwriter who has played on stage as part of the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoisemakers. Such connections make a solo album seem almost inevitable in a side-project saturated scene, but Clark’s Marry Me is an album that’s distinctly hers.

Opener "Now, Now" glides smoothly with Clark’s assured delivery, but eventually approaches a cacophony. Guitar squalls combine with a backup chorus that insists, “You don’t mean that/Say you’re sorry.” "Jesus Saves, I Spend" continues these contributions, with the voices offering a steady “Bom bom bom” backbone. Clarke offsets the repetition by intoning such eloquent lines as, “I’m sitting and sculpting/Menageries of saints.”

"Your Lips Are Red" is a more intense track, with more frantic guitar lines and Clark’s dreamy delivery wavering towards something a bit sharper. Meanwhile, the album’s title track is elegantly simple, with Clark singing, “Marry me John/I’ll be so good to you,” amidst handclaps. "Paris Is Burning" uses an imagined tragedy for a more personal crisis, as Clark sings of slipping “poison in your ear.” While the second half doesn’t quite match the first in distinctness, taken as a whole, this is a very impressive album.

Marry Me is dramatic in the best way, using enough theatrical elements to keep the listener interested, while still keeping the spotlight on Clark. The instrumentation is varied, as are the moods. The tension between straightforward, almost naïve romanticism and more insidious, occasionally alarming, sentiments is fascinating. Clark’s songwriting is as unique as it is versatile, as she’s equally comfortable describing fanciful scenes or deeply personal moments. The result is far more complex than many of Clark’s fellow singers.

Despite the complexity of its songs, Marry Me is never unwieldy. Those that enjoy the work purely as a collection of appealing, if unconventional, pop songs can’t go wrong. Clark’s voice is deft, shifting from an airy swoon to a darker whisper, sometimes within the same song. While the music ranges from mechanized percussion to orchestral embellishments, her vocals bind the eclectic elements into a mesmerizing experience.

Success in today’s industry can seem incredibly arbitrary. Even the most tenuous connections can elevate an unknown into prominence through vague name recognition. Clark’s association with relatively successful groups was clearly beneficial to her own career, but upon hearing the album it’s apparent that her past experiences have served as a foundation of a sound that’s been meticulously developed. The Polyphonic Spree’s inflated membership comes to mind when one considers how much stuff is going on throughout Marry Me. And Sufjan Stevens’ ability to meld his own life with the events of disparate places has also clearly been passed on to Clark.

Although such comparisons are inevitable at this stage of her career, if Clark maintains the high quality of Marry Me on future work, it’s just as likely that she’ll be the benchmark for up-and-coming artists. Until then, her debut album will be a template for how to branch out, while still staying attached to your roots.
MySpace: St. Vincent
Official Site: St. Vincent

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The New Year

Happy New Year! The hibernation is finally over. A proper look back at 2007, while a bit belated, is coming up. For now, enjoy some tunes that are, if nothing else, timely.

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