Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Few Moments From SXSW 2015


If I made myself one SXSW promise this year, it was to not overdo it.  For once I wanted to make it through the festival without feeling like it would take my body most of the next week to recover.  For the most part that was achieved, as well as seeing some bands worth mentioning.    

On Tuesday night at Empire Control Room the two dudes that comprise South Africa’s Goldfish cranked out an oddball brand of EDM-inspired music, with Dominic Peters on keyboard and electric bass, occasionally sampling bits of Rodriguez (from “Searching for Sugarman”), and David Poole playing a mini-saxophone and the flute.  It was as surprising as it was danceable and the crowd was certainly dancing, as well as making cardboard cut-outs of goldfish swim through the audience.  

Goldfish

Wednesday at Ironwood Hall the already-exploding Twin Shadow played from behind a translucent white gauze that wrapped the stage.  Likely employed to showcase some dramatic lighting design elements, namely what looked like a four-poster bed frame equipped with incredibly bright neon lights, the gauze created a bit of a disconnected feeling between the audience and the stage.  You can say this is no ordinary love George Lewis, in your sexiest Sade-referencing voice, but it still feels like there’s something coming between us.  Specifically gauze.

At the Parish Thursday night London’s The Vaccines gave the crowd what they expected, banging versions of “Post Break-Up Sex,” “Wrecking Bar (Ra Ra Ra),” and “If You Wanna,” as well as a few tunes from their forthcoming album (due at the end of May).

Friday and Saturday saw some wetter weather in Austin, but that didn’t stop folks from trying to crowdsurf to Thee Oh Sees at the Mohawk.  While John Dwyer held his guitar like a machine gun and the two drummers pounded away at their sets, slippery fans tried to climb atop the thin crowd, with little success.

A few hours later at Empire Control room Emmett Miller was much more successful, jumping on top of the crowd while continuing to play guitar toward the end of Diarrhea Planet’s set.  Two years ago at South By everyone was talking about Diarrhea Planet, but admittedly I’d resisted seeing them because, well, that name.

Diarrhea Planet
The energy of the Nashville-based band is undeniable, with a sound driven hard by the four guitarists (the other two members play bass and drums), which under different acoustic circumstances (everything was turned up too high at Empire) can create a generous layered texture to their songs.  The members took turns getting spotlight time, reaching as close as possible to the crowd.

Oh course no one stirred people up more than the UK’s Palma Violets – not strictly because of their music, per se, but more thanks to a dude in the crowd who insisted on bringing people into a dance circle near the front of the stage.  It was unclear what his relationship to the band really was, but no one in the audience was safe from his potential pull.  Danger in the club?  You got it.

Palma Violets





Wednesday, March 18, 2015

10 Years At SXSW

Somehow this will be my tenth year at South By Southwest.

The first year I came, in 2006, I didn’t know anything about the festival.  I came for work, which meant I was doing product demonstrations in the Convention Center from 8am – 5pm.  At night we’d go to showcases.  It was an exhausting and exhilarating 11 days.

At Emo’s I saw Eugene Hutz jump into the crowd during a frenetic Gogol Bordello show.  I watched a tall blonde girl sing along to every word at MF Doom.  My company sponsored a small party that Sleater-Kinney played and we shyly met them after their set.

I had a flip phone that allowed rudimentary texting – you had to hit a button multiple times to select a new letter – but a co-worker sent me a text to show up to Stubb’s for a surprise show.  Pre-Twitter and iPhone and mobile internet access it really was a surprise.  People filed in and we watched the Beastie Boys play “Intergalactic” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.”  I heard people talking about another secret show in a fenced off parking lot near what was once a Spaghetti Warehouse.  Underneath the white tent top the Flaming Lips covered “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the crowd sang loudly and bounced beach balls.  It felt amazing to be in this space with all these people experiencing this.  It didn’t feel like we were attendees at a distance, it felt like we were active participants.   

That first South By became sort of a pivotal moment.  It helped change the way I wanted to experience music.  I wanted it to be up close and personal, I wanted to be right next to it. 
Gogol Bordello at Emo's (2006)
In the years that followed, South By became my annual pilgrimage.  I’d fly from San Francisco or Oakland or San Jose, wherever I could get a flight from.  One year I fell down a flight of stairs on my way to the airport.  I tripped over the strap on my suitcase and toppled onto the concrete outside my apartment.  A man driving by jumped out of his car to see if I was okay, leaving his car running in the middle of the street.  I thanked him and said, “I have to get to the airport.”  I slid myself into my car seat with a throbbing huge bruise on my right hip.  Another year all the San Francisco flights were cancelled so we sped to San Jose and pleaded with them to let us out.  I was a woman obsessed.  I didn't know too many people in Austin, but I knew I wanted to be there.

Two years in a row I stayed at the Town Lake Holiday Inn.  The second time was an accident – another hotel lost my reservation, but I got in a cab and the driver said he’d take me around until I found a place to stay.  The Holiday Inn had one room left.  Rainey Street had yet to be developed, so if I wanted coffee the closest place I’d really stumbled on was the Hideout, near Sixth and Congress.  (Little did I know what that spot would come to mean to me in the years that would follow.)

I started writing more about music, covering shows for 7x7, SPIN, and Ground Control.  South By was my chance to commune with other music writers and talk about who we loved and who we wanted to see.
Vampire Weekend at Stubb's (2008)
Surfer Blood at La Zona Rosa (2011)
At the Parish we saw one of She & Him’s first shows.  At La Zona Rosa we saw Editors and Secret Machines and Cold War Kids.  Band of Horses played Central Presbyterian Church and it was the closest thing to a revival I’ve experienced.  One year I ended up dancing at the Mohawk until 4am to a guy remixing 8-bit Nintendo sounds.  I saw Deer Tick completely channel Nirvana in an all-cover set that ended with them smashing their instruments.

In the last couple of years though, I’ve noticed more bands that seem to be exhausted from playing so many shows in a short span of time and fans that are anxious to move on to the next thing.  There’s always a better party and a better band and something you absolutely shouldn’t be missing somewhere else.  (With the proliferation of free daytime parties sometimes the nighttime showcases can seem a little shortchanged.  On a couple of occasions I’ve noticed that a band might pack a free daytime party, but not have a huge audience at a nighttime show.)

My worry is that folks may now be driven less by the want to see a certain band or to discover something new than by the fear of missing out on seeing something.  Not that this fear didn’t exist before, but it feels more tangible now.  Maybe part of what made those early years so magical for me was that I wasn’t really aware of what I missed out on.  I just knew that in that moment I was with a dozen other people watching the Black Lips start a mosh pit at Beerland.     

So, enjoy the moment – before you know it, 10 years will go by. 

Sunday, November 09, 2014

A brief note about my concert-consumed youth (featuring Ginuwine)


Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of shows – The Roots on the “Phrenology” tour at the Fillmore (2003), Daft Punk in the dance tent at Coachella (2006), the Beastie Boys secret show at Stubb’s at SXSW (2006), Vampire Weekend at Amoeba Records the day their first album came out (2008), Macklemore climbing the rafters at Antone’s (2013), Sarah McLachlan and the Dixie Chicks at the Lilith Fair at Pine Knob (1999) (these are not meant as brags*, but more attempts to justify my hearing loss).

Through all these, there is one show in particular that’s stuck with me.

It was 1996 and my best friend Erica convinced her mom to let us go by ourselves to our, or at least my, first real concert. 

Up to this point (and probably past this point), whenever someone asked me what kind of music I was into, I would try to change the subject.  Kids at our middle school listened to one of two radio stations – the “alternative” station that primarily played Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers (and which, if you turn to it right now, I swear will be playing Metallica or Red Hot Chili Peppers) or the hip-hop station, which primarily played Freak Nasty’s “Da’ Dip.”  

I didn’t feel comfortable pledging allegiance to either of these, but Erica was all about the hip-hop station.  We’d listen late at night and call and make dedications to boyfriends we didn’t have and people who didn’t exist.  We’d listen in the morning and try to win tickets to shows though we weren’t old enough to claim them.  When the station announced their first “Power Jam” concert, Erica decided we had to go.

Her older brother drove us to the ballpark, Cohen Stadium, a venue whose aroma and signage reminded you that Tuesdays were 25-cent hot dog nights.  The stage was set up on the baseball field, and throngs of people surrounded it, all packed in to see the headliners – Keith Sweat and Ginuwine.

When Ginuwine took the stage, he was dressed head to toe in a shiny lime green suit.  He was about to release “Ginuwine…the Bachelor” and as he sang women let out shrieks.  The smooth voice, the more than suggestive dance moves.  The women in the crowd pulled him off the stage, into their muddled mass, and took his lime green top off, so that he re-emerged shirtless and had to fight to pull his jacket back from the groping ladies.  They did not want to let go. 

I thought to myself, these are grown women.  And, Is this what goes on at concerts?  As a 12-year-old seeing her first show, the scene was rather disconcerting, both the engineering of this sexualized performance and the reactions of these crazed women.  (It’s led to some confusing feelings whenever I hear the song “Pony” – on one hand I’m transported back to this weird childhood baseball stadium experience, but on the other hand, it’s a pretty undeniably hot song.)

When it was announced that Ginuwine would be part of this year’s Fun Fun Fun Fest lineup, some perversely nostalgic part of me thought, well, I have to see that.

Dressed in all white, with a belt seemingly designed to draw attention to his crotch, Ginuwine’s set essentially functioned like a DJ’d dance party.  There were curated drops of other people’s songs (DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win,” House Of Pain’s “Jump Around”), continuous blares of an air horn sound, and after thanking God, the crowd, and Michael Jackson (in that order), there was the requisite MJ tribute.  There wasn’t much of an emphasis on Ginuwine’s own music – save for some reminders of his signature lyrics ("Is there any more room for me / in those jeans").

While 18 years ago, he’d had to pry his jacket back from ladies, shedding his shirt’s now a solid part of the act – he teases the crowd that it’s going to happen, it’s mentioned that he’s been working out, and one of his backing singers eventually rips Ginuwine’s white t-shirt and tosses it away.  (I wonder how many rip-able shirts he takes on tour with him?)

It took many years after middle school to realize that my little indie heart beat hardest for bands that would have never been played by the “alternative” station or the hip-hop station.  But, that first show definitely opened up an odd new world.   

On Friday, when Ginuwine went into some suggestive one-legged push ups I did take a look around the crowd – to verify that this was happening, and to guess if it was anybody’s first concert. 


*Who brags about going to the Lilith Fair?


Thursday, April 24, 2014

The National At ACL Live


Finishing a three-night stint at ACL Live, last night The National delivered a nearly two-hour set, backed by a screen that projected pulsing recorded images layered with an oscillating live video feed.  For a band whose sound is often sullen and whose lyrics are often double-edged, a pulsating screen and rotating light show could be seen as an encumbered distraction – but it could also serve as evidence of further evolution.  The band is okay with heightening its production value.

After all, the true focus could not be kept from Matt Berninger, who prowled the stage relentlessly between songs and in pockets of instrumental interludes.

The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio band drew much of their set from their latest, Trouble Will Find Me, and previous, High Violet, with Berninger frequently hitting his microphone against his side or his head or throwing it in a burst against the stage.  Throughout the set he exploded with a sort of bottled rage buried beneath that steadily sonorous and melancholy voice.  The peak came just past three-quarters of the way into the show, with Berninger giving such a high-powered performance on “Graceless” that he’d pushed himself off stage and all the way into the back of the audience on the first floor, causing the techs to scurry to retrieve the microphone cord.

Other audience-interaction attempts were less successful – try as he might, Berninger didn’t quite crowdsurf as much as he did just lay on people.  If you’re a 40-something man in a nice suit with an unmistakable baritone, there’s really no need to crowdsurf.  Give us “Afraid Of Everyone” and “I Should Live In Salt” and let us sing along unplugged to “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” and we’ll be happy.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Best Songs and Albums of 2013



If 2013 boasted some fine albums and some excellent songs, compiling a “best of” list proved to be a challenge.  For every standout and pleasant surprise (Haim’s Days Are Gone, Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time) there were a few releases that one would have had higher hopes for (Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories).  By far the album I found myself routinely returning to was one I’d failed to discover in 2012, Lord Huron’s outstanding Lonesome Dreams.  It’s beautifully orchestrated and full of wistful tender lyrics. 

Best Album picks:

Days Are Gone – Haim
If these SoCal sisters have quickly taken the world by storm, it’s for good reason – their debut is a solid collection of accessibly catchy songs, punctuated by easy harmonizing and powerful choruses.  The album at once feels both familiar and fresh; nostalgic and hopeful for the future.  Do they live up to the hype?  They do.

IV (EP) – The 1975
Sure, this isn’t technically an album, but the five songs on this EP, released four months before their full-length album, hang together well and showcase the spunky simplicity of The 1975.  Much the EP’s charm stems from the jangly guitars and Matthew Healy’s alluring British voice.

The Bones Of What You Believe – Chvrches
The debut disc from this Scottish trio does much to hone a synth-y ‘80s vibe, but the songs really pop thanks to Lauren Mayberry’s hauntingly delicate vocals. 

Night Time, My Time – Sky Ferreira
It’s easy to shy away from this album with its creepily sordid cover art and vague pop promises, but don’t let that deter you.  Songs like “You’re Not The One,” “Boys” and “Heavy Metal Heart” should be more than enough to win you over. 

Modern Vampires Of The City – Vampire Weekend
As tempting as it is to want to dismiss Vampire Weekend, their third album doesn’t disappoint.  Here there’s a sense of evolution, and, if not maturity, certainly themes of getting older.  It suits them, and grooms some great standout tracks, including “Unbelievers” and “Step.”

Trouble Will Find Me – The National
Matt Berninger’s commanding, unmistakable voice can be as comforting as it is unsettling.  The music here stays out of too dark territory; even songs like “Demons” feel like they have an uplifting core.  High Violet may remain a superior album, but Trouble is a nice move.

Muchacho – Phosphorescent
There’s something about the sprawling, “Ring Of Fire”-referencing “Song For Zula” that instantly draws you in to Muchacho.  The song’s swelling melody is accentuated by Matthew Houck’s sometimes creaking voice, which adds a sort of rough texture to the entire alt-country-tinged album.

Heartthrob – Tegan & Sara
Stepping away from the “folk/indie” label, Tegan and Sara may have produced the best pop album of the year.  The oddball Canadian twin sisters pack this album with tight, polished three and a half minute songs about love and relationships.  You know, pop songs.   

AM – Arctic Monkeys
It’s the fifth album from these rollicking Brits and they haven’t lost any of the flamboyant ego from their early  “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” days, but they have chilled out a bit.  It’s a good thing.  There’s a dramatic risky/cool tone to the album, escalated by Alex Turner’s vocals.

Settle – Disclosure
The debut from a pair of English brothers, Settle is an unrelenting electro-dance album with a bit of a bit of a ‘90s throwback feel.  Here the synths feel modern and the lyrical styles feel retro.


Best Songs - Playlist

Do I Wanna Know?” – Arctic Monkeys
“Closer” – Tegan and Sara
“The Mother We Share” – Chvrches
Miracle Mile” – Cold War Kids
“Don’t Save Me” – Haim
“Unbelievers” – Vampire Weekend
Song For Zula” – Phosphorescent
Wings” – Haerts
Here Comes The Night Time” – Arcade Fire
“Graceless” – The National
“Sex” – The 1975
“You’re Not The One” – Sky Ferreira
Take My Hand” – Charli XCX
Happy” – Robert DeLong
“Wanderlust” – The Weeknd
Play By Play” – Autre Ne Veut
“Latch” – Disclosure
“Get Lucky” – Daft Punk
“Blurred Honky Tonk Women” (“Blurred Lines” mash-up) – MadMixMustang

High School Lover” – Cayucas
“Two Fingers” – Jake Bugg
Do What U Want” – Lady Gaga (feat. R. Kelly)
Team” – Lorde
Open” – Rhye

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Weeknd's Kiss Land


A version of this article appears on GroundControlMag.com

Since sidling onto the music scene at the end of 2010, The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye) has steadily garnered praise and critical acclaim for his mixtapes. After attracting the attention of fellow Canadian, rapper Drake, The Weeknd spent 2011 releasing House Of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes Of Silence; three mixtapes that would ultimately be compiled into the 2012 album Trilogy. Now getting his first proper full-length studio release with Kiss Land, the Ontario native’s “debut” doesn't feel much like a freshman album.

While the notions of the sexy, boozy dreamland of House Of Balloons are still alive on Kiss Land, they don’t quite feel as novel or dangerous as they once did. That early mixtape felt mysterious and slightly acidic, but the risks feel more calculated here. This may be treated as The Weeknd’s “first studio album,” but it certainly feels like a second (if not a third) album; like a continuation rather than an announcement or breakthrough. A large part of that stems from the written material. Much of the subject matter of Kiss Land deals with being on the road, and the temptations and disappointments that accompany Tesfaye’s new-found notoriety.

On the album’s title track, Tesfaye sings about his encounters with girls on the road, while a light scream occasionally echoes in the background. It’s a scream of fright rather than one of ecstasy; almost subliminally suggesting that these events might be proving more perilous than pleasurable.  Halfway through, the track dissolves and regenerates as the singer longs to come home, and Tesfaye ends his phrases with a pronounced breathlessness. Before it’s over, the song moves into a final hook (“This ain’t nothing to relate to”) and explores the drunk and drugged haze of getting sucked into the life on the road.

Similarly, “Adaptation” and “The Town” are songs about romantic splits and the pursuit of other options. “Adaptation” pushes a darker, brooding sound, with fuzzy choruses backing refrains like “she might have been the one / I let it go for a little fun.” The tone is one of reflection more than one of remorse.

While critics have lamented that there’s no real “single” on Kiss Land, and certainly nothing as powerful as “High For This” or “Wicked Games,” the album’s strongest song may be the Eighties drenched “Wanderlust.” After a Foreigner-worthy intro, Tesfaye’s vocals occasionally sound like Michael Jackson on “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” with the refrain “precious little diamond” repeating in the background. In general, the songs on Kiss Land don’t follow a conventional song structure, which is made clear from the outset with the six-minute long “Professional,” moving from a synth-y elongated opening to a smoother R&B sound.

What The Weeknd does exceedingly well on Kiss Land is marry R&B and trendy synth-tinged indie pop into what has rather tongue-in-cheek-ily been dubbed PBR&B (Pabst Blue Ribbon R&B). The songs work best when a strong hook accompanies the created mood. When that fails to happen, like on the flatly repetitive “Live For,” featuring Drake, it’s disappointing; in this case especially because the Tesfaye/Drake relationship seems ripe with the potential to produce something as strong as Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” or “Take Care,” but doesn't quite get there. It's unfortunate but, to paraphrase Tesfaye and Drake, this is what they live for; so it certainly won’t be the last we hear of them.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In Review: Blue Jasmine


"Blue Jasmine" commences with a simple device – Jasmine (Cate Blanchette) is relaying her backstory aloud, seemingly to the woman seated next to her on the airplane – though likelier, just to herself.  Jasmine, having recently suffered a breakdown, is prone to bouts of talking to herself.  It’s a clever way to serve the character and allow for efficiency of exposition.  We get a handle on Jasmine – a one-time anthropology student who chose to get involved with a professor rather than finish her degree – and her situation – financially swindled by her professor-turned-husband – before she reaches her destination.

When Jasmine does finally arrive, with multiple pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage in tow, it’s to the eclectic San Francisco apartment of her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).  Both adopted, Jasmine and Ginger are presented as a sort of odd couple.  If Jasmine’s style is Louis Vuitton, Ginger’s is Gucci knock-off, at best.  But Ginger is sweet, and seemingly forgiving, even if her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) is not.

Through flashbacks we learn of the financial, and personal, crimes committed by Jasmine’s husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), including the fraudulent investments he made with Augie and Ginger’s money.  And we learn about the Upper East Side lifestyle which Jasmine continually longs for.  Stuck in Ginger’s noisy apartment with her two kids and greasy boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) Jasmine teeters constantly on the brink of another breakdown – until she fibs her way into the life of Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy Marin county widower.

As far as themes go, it doesn’t get much more classic than the longing for class and status – and that’s definitely near the heart of "Blue Jasmine," much as it was in "Match Point."  While in that previous film writer/director Woody Allen built a sexy thriller, here his story is a drama.  Jasmine may do all the longing she wants, but don’t expect any happy endings.   

It might be the final act that really disguises "Blue Jasmine" from being an Allen film.  There is an off-handed mention of “chance” by Dwight, but ultimately the characters are all held responsible for their own actions.  Serendipity, luck, and other recurring Allen themes are absent here.  If it weren’t for the iconic Windsor font at the film’s opening, it might be hard to recognize it as belonging to Woody Allen.  Not that that’s a bad thing – there’s a narrative voice here, but it seems to belong more to Blanchette.

Playing the title role, Jasmine is really a tour de force for Blanchette, who captures the ability to remain icy while fighting back hot tears.  Clad in chic fitted Chanel dresses, she constantly brings Jasmine to the edge of being too unlikable, and then pulls back, letting charm take over.  Does Jasmine have any sincerity to her?  Is she simply a lost soul?  Is she any better a person than her husband was?  Those are all questions we might not necessarily get the answers to.  For all of Jasmine’s public monologuing, she might not really know herself at all.