Saturday, October 30, 2010

Take That, You Damn Volcano - Frightened Rabbit, Plants and Animals, Bad Veins at Club Mayan, Los Angeles 10-13-2010

That pesky Icelandic Volcano.

It blew a massive hole in Coachella 2010's schedule, and of the dozen or so acts that ended up stranded on the other side of the Atlantic, none had I wanted to see more than Frightened Rabbit.

I loved their folksy, slightly U2ish 2008 break-up rant The Midnight Organ Fight, enjoyed their latest release The Winter of Mixed Drinks, and felt a number of the tracks from that album seem like inevitable live barnburners.  But it was not to be.  The band never made it.

So tonight was all about payback.  No volcano would stop me from seeing one of my favorite bands of the moment.

Things got off to a great start.  Before anyone even took the stage, I met a couple of really great guys, David, a sports promoter and huge Rabbits fan on vacation from New York, and Henry, a managing director for an LA media group, who was there with his wife.  Soon we were all wrapped up one of those enthusiastic who-do-you-like-here's-who-I-like music conversations one only experiences between sets at concerts, and the four of us ending up hanging out the entire night.  Great meeting you guys, made the show even more fun.

Ohio's Bad Veins took the stage first, and since it's just a drummer and a guitarist, I assumed we were in for another set of no-fi punk, until I saw the forty-year-old reel to reel recorder on a chair between them. The guitarist/singer hit play, and what transpired was much more Muse/Radiohead styled anthem making than No Age lo-fi muck. 

Now I'm a huge real instruments guy when it comes to live performance, not a big fan of watching DJs or bands that play to track.  But by putting that big old-fashioned reel to reel upfront on stage, tacitly copping to the non-human third band member, the effect was kinda cool, and I came away impressed with the band's music. 

Canada's Plants and Animals was up next, and as stoked as I was for Frightened Rabbit, I was equally pumped to see this band for the first time. 

Their inventive 2008 release Parc Avenue had a number of excellent tracks in a variety of styles, from the straight-up heartland rocker Feedback In The Field, to the moody Good Friend, to the jazzy jam Mercy, as well as a number of other excellent, longer, proggier tracks.

Unfortunately, crowd and band were not to gel on this occassion. 

Anyone familiar with L.A. concert going knows that (no use sugar coating it) L.A. crowds are the worst...everyone at the show thinks they're more important than the band they've come to see and no one ever shuts up.  Bad Veins managed to go on before most of the crowd had arrived, but by the time Plants and Animals got on stage, Frightened Rabbits cadre of younger female fans had arrived, and for an act like Plants and Animals that veers frequently between rocking and quieter material, the background chatter was truly oppressive.

To their discredit, however, Plants and Animals were complete lunkheads about it, making no effort to guage the crowd. 

A shame.  Of all the bands that played that night, it was clearly evident they're collectively the most talented ...strongest chops by a wide margin, able to play a far broader range of styles.  But there's also a cocky, disinterested, Frat Boy vibe to these gents...they seemed perfectly content to just play to each other and ignore the crowd, which was ignoring them right back.  I was screaming for them to whip out Mercy or Feedback, high-energy songs that would have immediately pulled the crowd into the show, but they just kept on chugging with their longer, more difficult numbers to process like Faerie Dance as the Chatty Kathies drowned them out. 

Very disappointing set.  Hopefully, these guys get a clue about reading their audience right quick, because they have the talent to be major players on the indie scene, and are committing career suicide if they don't.

Frightened Rabbit finally came on around 9:45 and immediatley launched into a fine rendition of Nothing Like You from Mixed Drinks. Now a five piece after having recently expanded from a trio, the band sounded great, but make no mistake, unlike Plants and Animals, which is clearly a three-headed democracy, this is lead singer Scott Hutchinson's band start to finish. 

Scruffy, doughy, coarse, affable, and as witty and quick to enter into conversation with the audience as Swell Season/Frames frontman Glenn Hansard (but with a more facile, less hyper-active presence). Following the opening number, he waxed with genuine excitement about having met Tom Hanks the night before, and then it was off into a rollicking version of Organ Fight's Old Old Fashion.

What followed was a lively, thoroughly enjoyable, if only occaissionally spectacular push through most of the material off of their last two albums.  Specifc numbers from each record shined. My Backward's Walk really pulled the crowd in, and a riveting acoustic solo rendition of Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms (pictured at right) was the unquestionable set highlight until the bands final two songs before the encore, a fabulous Living In Colour, and then a beyond ass-kicking take on their most U2ish track, the foul-mouthed but moving epic of romantic craving Keep Yourself Warm.

Encore included an uplugged take on Poke, and the band wrapped things up nicely with a passionate version of Mixed Drinks' The Loneliness and the Scream.

Aside from possibly the members of Plants and Animals, who probably didn't care anyway, a great time was had by all.

Here's rooting they get their live act together, and that that damn volcano does nothing to prevent all three acts from having fabulous showings at Coachella 2011.

Friday, October 29, 2010

HEARTLAND - Owen Pallett (2010)

Canadian violinist Owen Pallett's Heartland, his first release since dropping the performing name Final Fantasy (so as not to create confusion with the video game on a recent Japanese tour), is a bundle of ironic, sometimes even maddening, contradictions:  Undeniably a pop album, yet almost completely devoid of traditional pop/rock instrumentation; a empathetic and amusing Candide-styled narrative about a farmer struggling to reunite with his beloved wife and daughter, brought to you by an openly gay artist; a narratively driven album that nevertheless mixes the vocals infuriatingly, obscurely low.

But when it comes to Pallett's skill with string arrangements, there are no contradictions.  He's just a near genius at it.

In a recent review of Four Tet's There Is Love In You, I commented on how much I loved the way samples built upon samples upon samples to create swirls of stunning yet appealing complexity.  Well, swap all manner of orchestral string instruments for samples, and the effect is pretty much the same here.  Strings swell and add, swell and add as the songs progress into delicious crescendos. The amazing final two minutes of The Great Elsewhere illustrates this best, but examples can be found throughout the record.

I do have a few reservations. The low mix on the vocals is truly aggravating.  I've got no problem with buried vocals in pop music, thousands of artists have used them to great effect, and Pallett's got a fine, gentle croon...but if you're going to tell a story, please, just f*#%ing tell a story.  This isn't artistic license I'm taking exception with here, it's a flat out boneheaded mistake. It's impossible to figure out what's going on lyrically here without referring to the liner notes, and both Pallett and his producer deserve a slap on the wrist for this.  Hopefully they'll go back and remix in a couple of years.

Secondly, listeners need to know this is a very dense album that gives up it's charms very slowly.  I hated it the first three times I heard it, and truth be told, while I now find myself loving it eight or nine listens in, I'm still not sure I've got a true handle on it. 

Simply put, this is a major league grower, commit to it for an extended period of time or else.

Finally, it goes without saying that while I now consider this a near strong recommend, this album isn't for everyone.  If your tastes in music run to the more conventionally hard rocking, or if thoughts of an album that reminds more of scores to animated Disney features from the 40s and 50s than rock n' roll today doesn't float your boat, probably best to steer clear.

For those that can dig something orchestral and original and intricate, though, I highly encourage checking Heartland out.

And for those torn about whether to give this a try, start with Lewis Takes Off His Shirt, it's easily the most accessible track.

Status: Solid Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: The Great Elsewhere, Oh Heartland, Up Yours, Lewis Takes Off His Shirt, Tryst With Mephistopheles.

Component Breakdown:
1. Midnight Directives - 7
2. Keep The Dog Quiet - 8
3. Mount Alpentine - 6
4. Red Sun No. 5 - 7
5. Lewis Takes Action - 7
6. The Great Elsewhere - 9
7. Oh Heartland, Up Yours - 8
8. Lewis Takes Off His Shirt - 9
9. Flare Gun - 6
10. E Is For Estranged - 7
11. Tryst With Mephistopheles - 8
12. What Do You Think Will Happen Now? - 5
Intangibles - Above Average

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Sleight Bells Bring The Noise - October 20, 2010 El Rey Los Angeles

Okay, so my first concert photo is less than awesome, but let's not let that detract from the wall-of-sound blitzkrieg Sleigh Bells threw down for a lively L.A. crowd Wednesday night, October 20th at the El Rey.

Opening with a one-two sledgehammer of Tell 'Em and Infinity Guitars that immediately got the audience going, and then maintaining a ridiculously high energy level throughout a very quick (33 minutes by my count) performance of material from their inventive summer-pop-meets-industrial-noise debut Treats, Sleigh Bells only took their foot off the accelerator once, for their gorgeous pop song Rill Rill.  At that point, having already suffered serious hearing loss, I thought to myself "what a great way to split this set."  Moments later, Alexis Krauss let us know they had only two numbers left.  The next track, Straight As, lasted all of forty-five seconds. 

I wondered if this is what seeing the Ramones in their twenty-songs-in-twenty-minutes heyday had been like.

Sound was an issue throughout the performance, so high was the volume.  A friend I was with actually thought one of the speakers blew.  I couldn't tell because my fingers were in my ears protecting frequency ranges I wanted to keep, but the mix was decidedly muddy throughout. 

In the end, neither sound quality or set length mattered much, so fervent and infectious was the band's energy.  Guitarist Derek Miller attacked his axe as if he was trying to top Pete Townsend with every note, and Krauss was spirited and quite charismatic throughout.

It will be interesting to see how much more Sleigh Bells can milk this unique core approach.  As charismatic as she is, Krauss has her limits as a vocalist, half her repertoire seemingly restricted to breathy come-on grunts, and I just don't see how many more albums of this type of material the band will be able to produce and maintain listener interest without bringing more melody, variety, and traditional craftsmanship into the mix.

But as the lights went up and the satisfied crowd hit the street, I don't think anyone cared. 

For this night at least in Los Angeles, Sleigh Bells brought down the house. 

Sleigh Bells were preceded by young Colorado DJ Picture Plane who had a slightly dub-steppy, Burial-esque vibe, and garage-punk outfit The Sun Dells (sp?).  Enjoyed 'em both, especially the Sun Dells, though neither impressed me enough to think there's bigger things on the horizon for them.  Sorry guys, hope I'm wrong.

For me, though, the other star of the night was the between-set vinyl spinner DJ Anna.  Talk about having your music history down pat. 

From the moment I walked in to the Velvet's Who Loves The Sun, she laid down a back and forth groove of old time classics (Wouldn't It Be Nice, The Stooges I Wanna Be Your Dog, Beefheart's Yellow Brick Road, New Order's Age of Consent, Talking Head's Psycho Killer) and contemporary gems (The XX's Chrystalized, Yeasayer's Madder Red), that felt like a perfectly-constructed and thematically-linked medley of influences on the Sleigh Bells' material to come.

If you're in L.A. and hosting a big party, I highly recommend tracking this girl down.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

GO - Jonsi (2010)

Like the splash of color that brightens it's otherwise drab charcoal cover, so stands the music on Jon Thor Birgisson a.k.a Jonsi's first proper solo effort Go in comparison to his work with his primary band, the beloved indie Icelandic outfit Sigur Ros.

For those unfamiliar with either Sigur Ros or Jonsi, all conversations have to start with his unbelievable voice.  There are good singers, there are great singers, and then every once in a while, there are vocal miracles. That's Jonsi, possessed of an utterly unique male soprano so high and powerful and clean and emotive that if we'd all been living a couple of centuries ago most would suspect childhood castration as the cause.

For near fifteen years now, Jonsi and Sigur Ros have been applying that voice to all manner of lengthy, intimate, sonically stunning, epic ballads, never varying the formula much until traces of a poppier approach began showing up in 2005 release Takk and then even more noticeably with 2008 release Med Sud I Eyrun Vid Spilum Endalaust's opener Gobbledigook.

Go is the sound of Jonsi taking those pop ideas and finally committing to them full bore. 

Like the work of Japanese bedroom popper Shugo Tokumaru (but better), five of Go's nine tracks explode in a kaleidoscopic particulation of upbeat, instrumental color.  Quite literally, on tracks like Go Do, Around Us, and album peak Boy Lilikoi, one feels like one has just been hit dead on by a happy-sound cluster bomb.

Needless to say, despite the sometime unusual arrangements and progressions, this album is easy on the ears.

The remaining four tracks...particularly the fine ballad Tornado and the mere surge of mood Grow Till Tall... hearken back to the more traditional Sigur Ros sound, but it's the poppier numbers that make the strongest impression.

My only criticism with this record, but it's a significant one, is that it's a bit of Chinese sounds great going down, but as soon as it's over, I've almost instantly forgotten it.. 

Despite this complaint, still a solid recommend for the average listener here, with a more enthusiastic recommend for those who are already fans. Though not quite as good as most Sigur Ros records, I think you'll find this a significant step up from Med Sud I Eyrun Vid Spilum Endalaust.  

Status: Solid Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Go Do, Boy Lilikoi, Around Us, Grow Till Tall.

Component Breakdown:
1. Go Do - 8
2. Animal Arithmetic - 7
3. Tornado - 8
4. Boy Lilikoi - 9
5. Sinking Friendships - 7
6. Kolnidur - 7
7. Around Us - 8
8. Grow Till Tall - 8
9. Hengilas - 6
Intangibles - Average to Low

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Daily Listenings 10/26/2010

Pushed through a ton of first full listens the last few days: Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, Foals' Total Life Forever, Future Islands' In Evening Air, Anais Mitchell's Hadestown, Grinderman 2, Gossip's 2009 Music For Men, The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night.

Some down and dirty first impressions, subject to significant change with repeated listens...

While I don't think it will catch The National's High Violet as my favorite release of 2010, Mitchell's Hadestown is fantastic...unless it proves over time to be a bit of a sinker, it's a surefire Highest Recommend.

The Suburbs is also strong, but I was struck by how straightforward and non-anthemic it is compared to the Arcade Fire's first two releases, and I do wonder if it might have been even better if the band had fewer members to constantly incorporate into the mix.  The emotional intimacy of many of these songs seemed to scream out for sparer, more skeletal instrumentation.

Grinderman 2 delivers and I can already tell it will be at worst a solid recommend.  If anything, the band seems more locked in on it's feral identity than the first time out, but song by song, the material doesn't seem quite as strong.

Though flawed, In Evening Air and Total Life Forever might be the two most promising releases of the bunch.  There's a raw intensity to the Future Island's release that sustains it even when performance/songwriting don't quite match, and as for the Foals' effort, there are moments on it that seriously got me wondering if we're witnessing the early evolution of our next of Weird Fishes/Arpeggi from In Rainbows definitely need to check Total Life Forever out.

The Besnard Lakes release felt epic and classic rocky in a potentially good way, but outside of the opening minutes of Albatross, didn't make much of a lasting impression the first time out.

Regardless, is been a great few days of many strong releases this year.

Finally, I know traffic is still relatively small, but if you're a repeat visitor to this blog, or even a first timer, please know comments are encouraged.  Let reader's know your own opinions on the works I've reviewed, your own take on the Best Of lists, how I can improve the site, etc., etc.



GORILLA MANOR - Local Natives (2010)

You would be hard pressed to find a band that did more to elevate their stock on the 2010 mega-festival circuit than Los Angeles-based Local Natives.

Preternaturally confident live performers, mining the same retro three-and-four part Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-styled harmonies that have powered indie-contemporaries Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear (but plying those harmonies in a more uptempo, glossier, far more conventional fashion), they were a smash hit wherever they played. 

On record, however, their impact is much more difficult to assess. 

On the plus side, much of the material on this debut LP is excellent:  Wide Eyes is a fantastic slow build of an opener, Sun Hands an at times dazzling rocker, soaring ballad Who Knows Who Cares is an absolute winner, and several other tracks are a lot of fun. 

On the negative side, a hint of the generic permeates all of this material.  This band has great harmonies, but no discernible idiosyncrasies or personality. If one were to liken the major players in the late Aughts harmony wars to the cast of Broadcast News, if Fleet Foxes are the Albert Brooks reporter, brilliant beyond all the others but limited by self doubt and main stage performance anxiety, and Grizzly Bear the Holly Hunter producer, nearly Brooks intellectual equal, but buoyed by a more assertive personality and unwavering integrity, Local Natives are the William Hurt anchorman shallow, conventional, willing to cut corners to appeal to the masses, but in the end, no matter how hard one tries to knock them down, well-intentioned and an undeniable, instinctive natural.

So again, there's a lot to like here, and for those who gravitate towards harmony-powered folk rock, this is a must. But those who like their music with a lot of edge and personality...tread carefully.  For me, in the end, I cannot deny that this album is a lot of fun, despite my strongly-stated reservations.
Status: Solid Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Wide Eyes, Sun Hands, Camera Talk, Who Knows Who Cares.

Component Breakdown:
1. Wide Eyes - 9
2. Airplanes - 7
3. Sun Hands - 9
4. World News - 8
5. Shape Shifter - 6
6. Camera Talk - 8
7. Cards & Quarters - 6
8. Warning Sign - 3
9. Who Knows Who Cares - 9
10. Cubism Dream - 6
11. Stranger Things - 7
12. Sticky Thread - 6
Intangibles - Average