Steve Wilson. On music.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Me, the Black Angels at the Bottleneck, in Back to Rockville, KC Star music blog, thanks to Tim Finn

Review: The Black Angels

Alex Maas of the Black Angels. Photo courtesy of Nate Fors.
Before the Black Angels performance on Saturday night at the Bottleneck in Lawrence they treated an unsuspecting capacity crowd to a rocking history lesson, playing a lengthy set of Bo Diddley sides over the public address system.

Sure, much has been made of the Angels’ Velvet Underground inspirations. They took their name from a track off of the “Velvet Underground and Nico” album, and their logo incorporates an image of Nico. But blasting Diddley was their way of saying that the great drone they so expertly extend predates Lou Reed and company, and where there’s sonic hypnosis, Bo is in the house. 
The Black Angels took the stage to a recording of an address by President John F. Kennedy, speaking before Congress in 1961 and setting forth the goal of placing an American on the moon.

There are many ghosts in the Black Angels music, but none bigger than the decade of the 60s itself. Opening with two tracks from the band‘s debutPassover -- “Bloodhounds on My Trail and “The Sniper at the Gates of Heaven” -- the band established a relentless throb that evoked the Velvets, Doors and the 13th Floor Elevators.

Their third selection, “Sniper” (noted as “new sniper” in their set list), and two more songs from their newest release “Phosphene Dream,” maintained the hypnotic pace while introducing the rich melodic pop vein developed on their third album.  “Haunting at 1300 McKinley" was especially impressive, the band getting on it’s Music Machine/Seeds groove.

The Black Angels swap instruments (guitar, 12-string, bass, various electric keyboards) frequently and with intuitive skill; Nate Ryan’s 12-string work furnished that “All Tomorrow’s Parties” glimmer on certain songs, while Christian Bland’s piercing leads combined Mike Bloomfield blues bite (including some nifty slide work) with Jason Pierce’s (Spaceman 3) searing neo-psychedelia. He drove home the “Lucifer Sam” inspired riff from ”Bad Vibrations” with touch and authority.

Alex Maas, the bearded and capped front man, sang like Roky Erickson wrestling Ozzy to the ground for peeing on the Alamo. His stage presence is commanding without shedding his ‘one of the band’ solidarity. Stephanie Bailey’s drumming drives the band – isolate on her and you can hear how studiously arranged is the band’s menace.

The predominance of songs from “Phosphene Dream,” with their heavier emphasis on pop thrills, provided just the right balance of relief from the dark, two-chord vibe of the band’s early material. “Yellow Elevator” reminded that the Sixties featured sunshine along with apocalypse, that the Doors, no strangers to the dark side, also churned out agreeable ditties like “Take it as it Comes” and “Twentieth Century Fox.”
At the conclusion of the band’s hour-plus set the capacity crowd demanded an encore. The Black Angels obliged with a mini-set, including “Telephone,” perhaps the giddiest number from “Phosphene Dream,” a stone charmer of lysergic dimensions, but jubilantly rooted in jug band music. Throughout the show, Maas and Bland addressed the crowd occasionally, and with a sweetness that humanized their highly stylized dark themes ("Gimme Shelter" on overdrive) the band specializes in.

The Black Angels understand that there’s a balance to be struck between entertainment and what Jim Morrison called “an hour for magic” – an opportunity for both artist and audience to be transported to alternate, even sacred spaces, then brought back drained and satisfied. It’s a neat trick, but one that the Black Angels pull of brilliantly.

Lawrence’s L5 opened the show, showing that plundering the post-Velvet Underground style-book is collegiate sport; referencing VU and “Nuggets” are this generation’s version of the Harry Smith anthology. Evoking the Fall, Orange Juice, and Dream Syndicate (the gamut of post-VU sounds), L5 played with panache; their songs exhibiting real structure and melodic interest.

The Suuns followed them with a set that was long on intros, and short on songs. With singer Brian Shemie sounding like a tune-challenged version of Placebo’s Brian Molko, their Battles-cum-Krautrock ditties mostly demonstrated that “Sister Ray” (oh, those inevitable Velvets references) minus narrative and release is just tension, and that tension without release is dull.

In any event the evening was about the Black Angels. The full house (heavy on dudes) that packed the Bottleneck left buzzing and satisfied.
| Steve Wilson, Special to The Star

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hunx and his Punx - Too Young to Fall in Love (Hardly Art)

At Kief’s in the late Seventies we had this regular customer named Reza who bought tons of dance records – club remixes on twelve-inch, that sort of stuff. We got used to anticipating his visits and would point out new arrivals in the idiom when he came to the store. One day he arrived; there we were all poised to show him the latest cool dance mix. With a dismissive wave of the hand he said “no more disco, new wave.” Thus converted, Reza began buying everything he could get his hands on that screamed 100 Club and CBGB’s.

Perhaps Seth Bogart had such a conversion experience. The shift from Gravy Train’s charged homoerotic electro-anthems to the girl group-punk of Hunx and his Punx seems pronounced. Or is it? The puke-pink cover and the torso shot of some hunk (Hunx?) in Freddie Mercury leather suggest that it’s all just the same party with a new soundtrack, as does the stylized shot of bassist Shannon Shaw on the disc itself – pure John Waters after Andy Warhol. And to be sure, there’s an decided element of classic camp involved with both bands. Still, sonically Bogart’s definitely moved from Le Tigre territory to Black Lips go Shangri-La’s turf.

The responsoria of the Punx are central to the “is (s) he really going out with him?” affect of Too Young to Be in Love (sassy vocal retorts and echoes to Bogart’s declarations); the Punx are in fact Punxettes, if you will, who complete Hunx’s girl-group fantasia. Shaw on bass, Erin Emslie on drums, Michelle Santamaria on lead guitar and Amy Blandstein on guitar and organ blast out the somewhat generic, yet convincing cross between jangle-pop and the Ramones that supports the idiomatic, but charming tunes on Too Young.

Bogart co-writes and sings most of the material. While he gets the songs across, he’s not a pre-possessing vocal talent. His approach will be familiar to fans of the Black Lips or the late Jay Reatard  – nonchalant, pitchy, mock-earnest. There was something in Reatard’s work, though, that suggested a poetic dimension and emotional depth that Bogart simply skirts in favor of fun, fun, fun. It doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of Too Young, but it does diminish the band's potential for what the British press used to call ‘staying power.” The band’s performances are captured nicely by producer Ivan Julian (guitarist with Richard Hell, Matthew Sweet, etc.). His production keeps things focused, simple and direct – basically the record sounds like a polished up version of a live show, which is spot-on for this material.

“Lover’s Lane” sets the tone for Too Young to Be in Love from note one. Basically ‘Last Kiss’ without the narrative specificity, “Lane” establishes Bogart as the new Lance Loud. While victim themes prevail here, “Keep Away From Johnny” is self-assertion set to a surf-Ramones backbeat. The title song proves that camp loves doom, Bogart slipping into recitative mode. “If You’re Not There” offers a change of pace, loping along like something Dave Edmunds might have cooked up. “Tonite Tonite” traffics in the ubiquitous Spector-beat thump, punk style. You’ve heard it all before, I suppose, but it’s fun to hear it again.

If my enthusiasm for Too Young is real, it’s not complete or unqualified. It’s wholly entertaining stuff, and best consumed with a feast of friends and a few tall ones. To matter after the hangover, Bogart is going to have to find some little something, something that makes his delivery and his songs stand out. Too Young to Be in Love is good enough to keep me interested and facile enough to bait my breath.

Reverberating: 7.7

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lloyd Cole - Broken Record (Tapete)

 Born in Derbyshire, Lloyd Cole met the gents who became the Rattlesnakes in his abbreviated stint at Glasgow University. Their self-titled debut in 1984 was a breath of fresh air in the sometimes polluted atmosphere of post-punk and dance-whatever. Cole’s literate lyrics, dotted with pop cultural references (he dropped names like no one since Elliott Murphy), walked the line between sentiment and cynicism in endearing fashion;  his sweet, dry talk-sing borrowed heavily from Lou Reed, and the Rattlesnakes combined new wave energy with a cool classicism. Easy Pieces in 1985 was an impressive follow-up, but after Mainstream in 1987 the band was no more and Cole went solo.

He’s made records for a long list of labels – Geffen, Capitol, Rykodisc, What Are, etc. – some of them, like The Negatives from 2004, served as reminders of his talent, but honestly all but a few fans ceased paying attention. Some time ago he moved from his native Britain to Massachusetts. I caught him playing solo at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan a few years back. He’s not a pre-possessing performer, but between his good humor and smart, wryly observed songs he provides a delightful evening’s entertainment. Sure, he once had videos on MTV in the Eighties and looked poised for commercial success, while today he’s a journeyman.

His last several recording projects have been autonomous affairs, and he’s toured with a suitcase and a guitar for several years. Broken Record is the result of his determination that this batch of songs needed a bit of rocking up. At fifty, Cole is on yet another label, this time Tapete, a German imprint with limited American distribution. They gave the green light to these sessions which were also financed at least in part by a thousand or so fans who coughed up $45.00, mostly as patrons of the art, partly to ensure receiving a deluxe edition of the album upon release. Ah, the vicissitudes at the intersection of art and commerce in 2011. But don’t cry for Lloyd. He must treat his fellow musicians like a gentleman. He called some musician pals, including Fred Maher on drums and Joan (the Policewoman) Wasser on several instruments, and assembled a really fine band. The resulting album Broken Record finds him at (or at least near) the top of his game.

The razor sharp guitars of the Rattlesnakes era are replaced in large part by Americana sounding instrumentation, often featuring banjo, pedal steel and mandolin players, although the guitars get cranked up occasionally (as on the pleasantly twisted solo for “Double Happiness”). As ever with Cole, the arrangements and musicianship are in service to the songs. And the songs are good. “Like a Broken Record” chronicles the denouement of a love affair. Always deft with the wink and nod to his mentors, Cole employs the repetitive “broken” conceit from Dylan’s “Everything is Broken” in the song’s catchy bridge. Self-effacement going hand in hand with craft, Cole begins and ends the tune with the line “not that I have that much dignity left anyway.”

 “Writers Retreat!” humorously addresses the clichéd anxieties and entreaties of the professionally creative. Mark Schwaber’s mandolin part is a gift from Mott the Hoople’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother.” Lloyd must have been listening to the Mott record; for “That’s Alright” (itself a Dylan nod) he takes Mick Ralph verbatim (“loving you is hard enough”) - the song, a kiss-off to a grasping, entitled neurotic, has the gentle sting that Cole specializes in.

More influence spotting? Well, “Why in the World?” not only could have been sonically lifted from Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby, Cole also alludes to the Velvet’s “Beginning to See the Light” (“when did I cease to see the light”), and resonantly refers to the Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” (“maybe I’m not built for these times”).

That’s no slight on Cole, though. He just wears his influences on his sleeve, like a man who knows where he comes from. And he comes from a tradition of songwriting that honors craft in an age of loops and chanting. A creeping autumnal sense is at the heart of many of these songs. Heck, the reference to a broken record on the title cut is reinforced by “The Flip Side” -  first by title, second its “And Then He Kissed Me” intro, and finally  in sensibility; it captures the musings of a literate fellow confronting a post-literate world.“Rhinestones” is enigmatic by Cole standards with references to “dancing on the White House lawn” and an inability to “go back to K Street.”

What if Lou Reed recorded in Nashville? It might sound like “If I Were a Song,” which also skirts Leonard Cohen territory respectably. Both Cole and Cohen know when to switch from earnest poetics to pop “la la las.” Only “Oh, Genevieve,” catchy enough for what it’s worth, sounds like a song written as exercise.

The economics of this business being what they are it’s hard to say whether Cole can take this band on the road. Beyond considerations of expense, many of them have other bands and commitments. But if he could they’d undoubtedly grace these songs, and Cole’s older material (including the classic Rattlesnakes songs ‘Perfect Skin,” “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken” – ever hear Sandie Shaw’s version … awesome, and “Brand New Friend”) with their musicianship and superior song sense. Whatever is down that road, Lloyd Cole fans can celebrate Broken Record, one of the artist’s finest records.

Reverberating: 8.8

Monday, April 11, 2011

La Sera - s/t (Hardly Art)

Katy Goodman played bass with the Vivian Girls.  Her new band La Sera (their debut is self-titled) is a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist and producer Brady Hall, which tones down the VG’s noise-gunk pop and emphasizes melody and more sophisticated arrangement textures. There’ still a patina of distortion, but it is soft focus rather than spread thick. Goodman has some of the same girl group influences that every third band recording today (Dum Dum Girls, Frankie Rose and the Outs, Hunx & His Punx, blah blah blah) seems to have, but in truth many of her inspirations pre and post-date those Sixties sounds.  You can hear the gossamer Fifties pop vocals of the McGuire Sisters and the Chordettes in Goodman’s singing, only processed through successive generations of Jesus and Mary Chain and Enya influences. Go ahead, laugh; Enya was really popular – somebody listened to those sweet, amniotic, singing-with-myself harmonies. Elvis loved Dean Martin. Get over it.

The lyrics are hard to decipher sometimes, given the mixes that predominate on La Sera; dig a little harder and underneath the sweet, soothing singing are songs about heartache and death. They sure are pretty, though, it’s an intriguing form/content mismatch that works. Goodman’s pretty one-woman girl group vocals are the center of this recording, but they certainly profit from Brad Hall’s uncannily appropriate instrumental backings. Supposedly, he heard Goodman’s own guitar and tambourine demos of these songs and decided to trick them out, recording Goodman’s vocals afterward.

Hall’s guitar work ranges from Reid Brothers rough to guitar solos that combine Carl Wilson’s tone with George Harrison’s melodicicsm. Tracks like ‘You’re Going to Cry” and “Under the Tree” are reminiscent of David Roback’s work with Mazzy Star. Hall’s also a terrific bass player; his lines are subtle, melodic and propulsive in the right places, especially on the Paisley Underground tinged “Hold.” The prom balladry of “Dove Into Love” fuses the Smith and the Ramones sonically. “Been Here Before” chugs along like an old Kinks track and features an oh-so Johnny Marr-ish solo from Hall.

Okay, I’m making it sound like Hall’s record. And in some ways it is. But the tunes (and the demos) and the vocals are Goodman’s, and finally it’s her vision. It reflects a generation spanning (from Fifties female pop singers up through the Ramones, Smiths, and Jesus and Mary Chain) sound and an aesthetic of sweet, sometimes doomed, romanticism that represents a lovely Liebestraume for a new century.

Reverberating: 8.2

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Reverberations: Dum Dum Girls - He Gets Me High (Sub Pop)

Reverberations: Dum Dum Girls - He Gets Me High (Sub Pop):

Dum Dum Girls - He Gets Me High (Sub Pop)

Kristin Gundred’s Dum Dum Girls follow up I Will Be (Reverberations No. 21 album of 2010) with an extended play called He Gets Me High, four songs that both re-establish and finesse the sound from the debut album. 

Famed producer Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, Richard Hell, Go-Go’s, etc.) returns as co-producer. Joining he and Gundred (aka Dee Dee) in the booth this time is Sune Rose Wagner from the Raveonettes. Gottehrer produced the Pretty in Black and Chain Gang of Love records for the Danish band, but hasn’t worked with them since 2005. Wagner’s production on Lust Lust Lust (2007) took the Raveonettes as far down the road to distortion wash-out as they cared to go, and he’s been guiding the band back to something more akin to Gottehrer’s mixes on the earlier Ravenonettes recordings. As chief recordist on these tracks Wagner seems to be making the same kind of moves on the Dum Dum Girls that he is on his own band’s new recording Raven on the Grave. The message being: Noise is awesome, but melody is boss.

So, the DDG sound is a bit less distortion heavy this time around, leaving the gnarliest feedback for solos and single note guitar lines; otherwise, the sound of He Gets Me High gravitates toward feedback jangle-pop, still retaining the girl group and punk influences prevalent on I Will Be. Where the latter seemed set on an almost aural-cubist juxtaposition of instrumental elements in the mix; He Gets Me High plays it comparatively straight. Perhaps it has to do with a newfound authority in Gundred’s vocals. On I Will Be her singing was pretty and functional, but not always expressive. She still doubles lead parts and sings certain vocal leads in harmony, but here her singing exudes a new confidence. In fact, on “Take Care of My Baby” she composes and nails a melodic line that would do Chrissie Hynde proud. Gundred’s emergence as a front woman portends the DDG coming out of the noise-girl pack (Vivian Girls, Frankie Rose, etc.), capable of making moves toward the mainstream without compromising their vision. Lyrically the song is a love song to a loser that’s reminiscent of Johnette Napolitano’s (Concrete Blonde) serenades to dissolution, “Joey.”

“Baby” is powerful without employing a full drum sound; throughout HGMH the producers do a great job of getting the most out of incidental percussion parts, especially tambourine. The title song harnesses a Kinks/Romantics syncopation in service to a song who’s lyric is pure T. Rex – ‘electric fate with a cosmic kiss’ will send you to your Bolan-ictionary.  “Wrong Feels Right” opens the ep with some rapid fire Buddy Holly (“I’m Gonna Love You Too” vintage) drumming, and piercingly distorted lead guitar lines – all decorating a lyric that’s “If Loving You is Wrong” goes indie-rock. It’s a self-abasing sentiment that transcends genre; that’s for sure.

HGMH concludes with the Dum Dum’s cover of “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” by the Smiths. Faithful to the original, right down to the “Hitchhike”/”There She Goes Again” turnaround, it diverges from the Smiths’ version primarily by upping the tempo just a tad. Gundred’s vocal channels Morrissey channeling Sandie Shaw, closing the circle of influence gorgeously. I’ve hardly been able to play this once without playing it again; it’s infectious.

An entire album of songs this good, recorded with these production values would be welcome from the Dum Dum Girls. There are no performance credits on the sleeve notes, so it’s likely that Gundred is primarily responsible for the music played here, despite having put together a touring version of the band. Sub Pop does a lovely job with packaging. They’re one of the few labels giving a consistent incentive to buy physical goods. But old-school notes on who plays and sings what would be, you know – helpful. But whether it’s the work of a solo auteur or a real band, He Gets Me High sounds great. And I’m all over the band ethic and mythos, but if Gundred can get the job done on her own this well, more power to her.

Reverberating: 8.7