Sunday, January 1, 2023

2022 in Review

Yet another strange year. For one, I shared some news about why live music and this blog haven’t exactly been my priority lately. I definitely saw more shows than either of the last two years, but with mixed results. Apparently, I’m not the only person who’s noticed that live concerts are kind of weird right now. I doubt that I will be much more active next year, but I may surprise myself yet.

Well, at least I bought music in greater quantities again, both old and new. It seems the wave of pandemic albums might be finally over. That’s not to imply the pandemic is over, just that the unique circumstances of altered recording and performances habits seem to have faded back into something we pretend is normal, and the music itself reflects that. Anyway, here are my favorite releases of 2022:
  • Anfängerfehler - s/t EP - Obviously my bias as a member of the live band is hard to ignore, but I really love the work that Tim (and Matt Johnson – no, not the one from The The) did with the production. It sounds lovely. You should probably listen to it.
  • Beach House - Once Twice Melody - Beach House continue to effortlessly create the best vibes, but I wish there were just a bit more drama. Victoria Legrand’s voice is soft and hushed throughout, never reaching its past transcendent peaks. The double album is an impressive achievement: there isn’t a bad song, although it does feel a touch overlong. I love the returning shoegaze vibes seen in full on 7 (2018), but I also love the “experimentation” with acoustic guitar. It leaves me feeling a bit sad for Victoria, though, who seems to have had profoundly rough times with online dating. She’s probably not alone in that.
  • Big Thief - Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You - Another expansive double album. Big Thief have been on the periphery of my awarness for a while but this one finally won me over. “Red Moon” is infectious, “Wake Me Up to Drive” is charmingly lofi, “Change” is plaintively poignant, and “Sparrow” is an excellent study of gender dynamics. The country affectations work fine for me, and I love the subtly psychedelic and occasionally outright bizarre lyrics.
  • Andrew Bird - Inside Problems - Sonically, this is something of a retread of My Finest Work Yet (2019), which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I’m not complaining. I always admire Bird’s carefully constructed folk-pop and his understatedly virtuosic touches. The lyrics are less overtly political, but several are easy to read as socio-political commentary despite his claims in interviews that these songs were intended to be more personal and internal affairs. Bird also recently released “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” with Phoebe Bridgers, a well-crafted adaptation of a delightful Emily Dickinson poem.
  • Kikagaku Moyo - Kumoyo Island - I’m so sad that this is their last album before breaking up. It’s wildly creative, beautifully psychedelic, and playfully hard to pin down. It’s all over the place, yet always pleasurable.
  • Mogwai - “Boltfor” - Pretty par for the course for them, but since not everything they touch turns to gold, it’s still notable when they can drop such an uplifting and ebullient single.
  • The Smile - A Light for Attracting Attention - The exact midpoint between a Thom Yorke solo album and a full Radiohead album. It’s Yorke’s best non-Radiohead album, and if it were marketed as a Radiohead album, I might not even notice the difference. It’s not as good as A Moon Shaped Pool but it lives in that space perhaps more than anything else Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have done. I don’t know anything about Tom Skinner but his drumming is good. I can’t tell if the two dreamy older songs (“Skirting on the Surface” was even played by Radiohead once upon a time!) are simply just great songs, or if I’m biased because I’ve been listening to bootleg versions for ten years.
  • Stereolab - Pulse of the Early Brain: Switched On Volume 5 - I’m clearly just a sucker for this band. Be that as at may, this compilation does include the 1992 EP Low Fi, which is one of their finest releases and the first appearance of Mary Hansen and Andy Ramsay. It’s been out of print since the early 90s as far as I know, and the licensing is still complicated enough that it doesn’t appear on digital versions of the compilation. Intriguingly, two of the tracks appear to be previously unreleased extended versions, despite not being labeled as such. Much like the rest of the Switched On series, it features a wide mix of songs, but this set covers material that was too experimental or obscure even for those. Despite the name, four songs come from the sessions from their last album during their original career, Chemical Chords (2008), and those aren’t the only ones that I wouldn’t say came from their “early brain”. One wonders why they didn’t swap those for the incongruously early-era tracks on Electrically Possessed, or why they still left a couple songs to the sands of time, like the version of “Cadriopo” from the split single with Fugu or the demo of “The Eclipse” from the same split single that produced “Yes Sir! I Can Moogie!”. Admittedly, this is reaching quite close to the bottom of the barrel, so some of the tracks here are second-rate. Still, the gems still make it worth it.
  • The Subtanks - Prime Numbers EP - Okay, again we’ve got to talk about bias, but old friends Josh King of Joshua and the Ruins and Asher Mendel have finally reunited for a “proper” album, and it rocks. (I haven’t forgotten about Riff City Demons (2010), but this is a wide step ahead in terms of production and composition. I mean, just compare the versions of “Ambitions Renewed”!) The EP lives up to the bold claims of their own description. It keeps turning and changing, and there’s all sorts of sounds, ideas, and references in it. It never gets boring, not for a second.
  • The Veldt - Entropy Is the Mainline to God - The first new full album in 15 years since White Music for Black People (credited to Apollo Heights) is thick and a bit noisy, and the lyrics are frequently indecipherable, just as you’d expect from classic shoegazers. What I can discern is frequently quite explicitly political, which isn’t difficult for them to channel their energy and anger into. They also released the Electric Revolution (Rhythm and Drone) EP earlier in the year, but it only has two unique tracks, and neither is as good as anything on the album or the 2017 EPs.
  • Wilco - Cruel Country - I almost skipped this album after the last three were such mixed bags. This is their most compelling album since A Ghost Is Born (2004), and the most satisfyingly cohesive since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001). The country affections are almost entirely tasteful and well-integrated into their sound. I was worried it’d be a caricature, but it isn’t just a genre exercise. Jeff Tweedy’s voice is occasionally shaky, and there are (very) minor imperfections in the performances, but the project is an opportunity for Tweedy to wield some of his best lyrics, and the arrangements are generally quite good. It is maybe a bit overlong, and it can feel a bit tedious by the time you get to side four, but the sum total is impressive.
  • Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Super Deluxe Reissue] - Okay, an eight-disc version of any album is probably too much even for a masterpiece, but still, I can’t resist this sort of thing sometimes. The radio session interview is a bit cringe, but the live versions with weird intermediate lineups of the band with Tweedy on lead guitar are somewhat special. The real treasure, though, is all the alternate studio versions, even if there isn’t a single one that bests the originally released versions. It’s also great to have these in such high fidelity instead of the incomplete, glitchy mess that has long circulated on bootlegs. But much to my surprise, not even everything from the bootlegs is on this release! Then again, I don’t know if anyone really needs a seventh version of “Kamera”. I saw another review criticize the duplicated transition from “Ashes of American Flags” to “Heavy Metal Drummer” on the Unified Theory of Everything disc, as if that exact moment wasn’t the subject of one of the most pivotal scenes from the I Am Trying to Break Your Heart film (2002). Obviously this is only relevant for superfans, and I think I’ve just given away where I stand.
Actually, there was a lot of good music this year. So here are some extra honorable mentions:
  • Belle & Sebastian - A Bit of Previous - This album has moments that feel like conscious throwbacks to their glory days, but most of it continues the threads of their last few albums, which is to say the music is a bit too precious and overproduced. Nonetheless, their blend of maturity and ageless playfulness is as rewarding as ever. There are few standout moments and some well-intentioned but awkward political statements (what’s the deal with “Do It for Your Country”?), but I appreciate that they are trying to push themselves and expand their horizons.
  • Cremant Ding Dong - assorted singles - They’re still going, although they haven’t really shown any signs of changing the formula. Well, Eva (the cute cat) sadly passed, but Rosa (the new cat, also cute) looks uncannily similar. Somehow every song is still a banger.
  • Cup Collector - The Interior Key - Is this an EP? A maxi-single? A mini-album? It doesn’t matter, of course. This is almost like a best-of compilation of CC’s styles. Each track is a different method of reaching a similar vibe: warm, cozy guitar drones. These songs make me feel settled in and at peace. Jim also released a track under his full name (James David Fitzpatrick) that’s in a somewhat related vibe, but more spontaneous: it’s just him freestyling on an acoustic guitar with the windows open. The heavy reverb suits it well.
  • The Cure - Wish [Deluxe Reissue] - The Cure’s reissue series continues it’s lackadaisical pace and half-hearted repackaging. The much-hyped remaster (or is it a remix? Some fans are really missing the slap sound from “High”, and honestly it is weird that it was removed, especially since it’s still in the 12" mix!) is not really much different than the original, and the only bonus tracks of note are the lovely instrumentals from the fan club-only Lost Wishes EP (1994) and one extra instrumental outtake (“A Wendy Band”). The rest are forgettable remixes and another slew of at best marginally interesting demos. And seriously, what is the point of the Partscheckruf Mix of “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea”? And why is the mastering of the 12" mix of “Doing the Unstuck” so much obviously worse than what was already released on Join the Dots (2004) 18 years ago? At least this time I don’t think there are any re-recorded vocals on this one.
  • Ian Fisher - Burnt Tongue - This album is a bit softer than what came before, probably in large part due to the influence of producer Jonas David. It works for the more sentimental songs like “A Mother’s Love” and “I’ll Be There”, but the darker and moodier songs like “I’m Burning” and “How Far” are missing a bit of heft. The lyrics and performances are still great, though. Ian also released the pseudo-album Marcella & Peggy Go Driving via Fanklub. It’s just sparse arrangements of his favorite country tunes, many of which he’s been playing for years on stage. There are no real surprises, but it’s nice to have recordings of his mellifluous melancholy voice on these songs.
  • Lutzilla - First We Tape Manhattan - Punkier than I was expecting, meaning that I hear some traces of Fehlfarben. The lyrics are as incisive as ever, particularly the critiques of consumer culture and social media. Uli’s bass steals the show, and Carola’s drumming gives these songs the solid rhythm they deserve. “Was bleibt!?”, rerecorded from Lutz’s solo 2019 album Selbstportraits, is a marked improvement with the help of his compatriots.
  • Mitski - Laurel Hell - I didn’t like Be the Cowboy (2018) as much as everyone else, so I told myself I should keep my expectations low, but this album is a step up again. Mitski tries on a load of retro sounds and commands them with ease. Her lyrics grappling with fame and career choices feel strangely relatable; certainly “Working for the Knife” applies to more than just indie rock stardom. The glide guitar touches are great, too.
  • Sharon van Etten - We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong - Great album title, great music, incredible voice, and good themes, but I still don’t actually connect with the lyrics much.
  • Vieux Farka Touré & Khruangbin - Ali - The Malian guitarist teamed up with everyone’s favorite vibe-setting Texans to cover the former’s father’s songs. The result is a good blend of both artists’ strengths, and yet it has a way of blending together a bit too much.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Uwe Schütte - Godstar: Die fünf Tode des Genesis P-Orridge (2022)

Earlier this year, I received a curious email inquiring about using a photo in one of my reviews for a book. Naturally, I was happy to share it. As I traded emails with Uwe Schütte, I realized that I had seen and photographed the last performance of Psychic TV and Genesis P-Orridge. Of course I had known that P-Orridge died in 2020 just as the pandemic was unfolding, but it hadn’t occurred to me to reexamine their performance history and compare notes.

So, as a result, my picture now graces Godstar: Die fünf Tode des Genesis P-Orridge, released this year via Verlag Andreas Reiffer. I received a complementary copy and it immediately jumped to the front of my reading queue. Schütte had told me that the book is really more of an essay than a biography, and the parenthetical subtitle only found on the inside cover page, which translates to “something of a secret history in pop culture”, alludes to this as well. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant in practice, but it did make me curious.

[Godstar: The Five Deaths of Genesis P-Orridge.]

Indeed, the book is a wide-ranging and wandering essay about a broad range of topics, most notably esoteric magic and Brian Jones, the subject of the song “Godstar”. There’s a lot about Aleister Crowley and Satanism, as well as a few sections about the artist Marina Abramović, presumably because of her similar style of shock-tactic performance art. The Pandrogyny Project comes up, as do the antics of COUM Transmissions, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, and even Coil, Cosey & Carter, and Marc Almond. I could’ve gladly taken even more gender discourse, more about the music itself, and maybe more about what the TOPY really was about, but regardless, few of Schütte’s sidetracks weren’t worth the diversion. They kind of work together to build a picture of Genesis’ environment and interests. There’s plenty of political and general pop-cultural commentary, most of which is sharp. On occasion Schütte might be a little too critical of what doesn’t suit his tastes, but rarely did he fail to make a strong case.

I’m also glad that Schütte didn’t shy away from P-Orridge’s dark sides. He writes plainly of their abusive relationship with Cosey Fanni Tutti and others (and Jones’ and Crowley’s similar behavior), their domineering authoritarianism in their bands and other projects, and their repulsive actions in the name of art. P-Orridge is a complicated person, which makes for excellent material for pop-cultural discourse, but it requires stomaching a lot of rather triggering information.

The legacy of P-Orridge’s “Godstar” project is another one of those things were the truth is hard to find. Schütte presents the book as a sort of continuation of a legacy that Genesis started with a pop song in 1985, continually reworked, and never quite finished. Supposedly they intended to produce a film about the life of Brian Jones, but they never managed due to money troubles. In reality, I suspect that such a film was just such a huge project that they never quite had the focus and perseverance to see it through, and instead they were easily distracted by new ideas and other projects. The closest they ever came to really producing something towards that goal was Godstar: Thee Director’s Cut, a double-disc compilation of songs and remixes mostly originally released in the 1980s on the excellent The Magickal Mystery D Tour EP (1986), the fairly good Allegory and Self (1988), and assorted contemporaneous singles. In truth, it feels more like another instance of “reissue, repackage / re-evaluate the songs / double-pack with a photograph” than any sort of truly newly assembled masterpiece. “Godstar” and a handful of other tracks remain classics, and the rest remains forgettable.

[Godstar: Thee Director’s Cut.]

The book ends up being a great alternative reading of pop culture through the lens of subversive, radical art and anti-establishment religious practice. In fact, I learned far more about esotericism than I ever expected to, and I came away feeling like I finally understand a part of society that I regularly run into but never could quite make sense of. It’s probably still not for me, but the concepts of seeking your true self, making your own forms to suit your individual needs, and living outside of the bounds arbitrarily placed upon us by uncaring institutions all resonate strongly with me. I’ve been literally searching for the same things my whole life.

[The only other picture I took at the fateful concert. See the original review for the picture used in the book.]

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Gabe Bullard on what makes a band

I'd like to point you over to a great article over at Number One with a Bullard about what defines a band, and specifically whether a band with none of the original members is still the same band. This is a question I've concerned myself with many times over the years. Inspired by one of those conversations with Gabe, I literally asked the same question about The Smashing Pumpkins and Zwan when I saw the act billed as the former in 2012. It came up again when I saw Tangerine Dream a few years ago, and in that case it did not at all negatively affect my enjoyment of the performance.

Anyway, Gabe's been writing on all sorts of topics in media and culture relevant to my interests, asking and answering plenty of questions that have rolled around in my head as well. Go check it out. There's a written version and a podcast version (at least for the newer posts), and they're usually very similar but sometimes have slight differences. It's all worth it.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Synästhesie 2022 Day 2

Venue: Kulturbrauerei
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 19 November 2022

Unlike the first day, on Saturday I came right on time. I wanted to catch The Asteroid #4, who were announced as a surprise guest shortly before the festival. They’d just played a show at Urban Spree four days before that I skipped due to my already-busy concert schedule, so I was happy to get a second chance. I was a big fan of their 2020 album Northern Songs and their latest, Tones of the Sparrow (2022), is just about as good. The Kesselhaus stage wasn’t quite ready on time, and the band ended up starting a half-hour late for unclear reasons, but the wait was worth it. Their set was energetic and a warm mesh of psychedelic guitar effects. I was entranced by the drummer, who had more complicated rhythms than I expected. The vocals were mixed too low, but I could still hear the lovely harmonies.

I then tried to see Avishag Cohen Rodrigues at the Local Stage, which turned out to be a rather cramped bar, PANDA platforma, accessible via an inner courtyard. It was full and they were monitoring capacity, so I had to wait in the snow to get in, but thankfully not for long. I couldn’t see anything on the stage, but it sounded like the sort of bedroom electro-industrial music that Merchandise used to make. I was just beginning to make sense of it all when they left the stage.

I returned to the Kesselhaus to see Tess Parks. Her dusky voice and the haunted grooves of her band reminded me of Low and Mazzy Star. I again struggled to understand the vocals and I wasn’t quite able to get into the mood, but I enjoyed it anyway. The music was just a bit too languid and mellow. Normally I’d expect that to work for me, but I found it hard to find a good spot in the crowd and I ended up fairly distracted.

After her set, I tried to go up to the Maschinenhaus to see The Vacant Lots, but I literally could not get in the door. Apparently, no one was monitoring capacity at that time, but they had been at other times and should’ve been then. It was unbelievably packed. Once I realized I couldn’t get in, I tried to turn around, but got stuck against the rest of the crowd still trying to squeeze in. That was deeply uncomfortable. I eventually made it out and again settled in the Kesselhaus to wait for Tempers. I’ve enjoyed the darkwave synthpop of their recordings, but they couldn’t replicate the same energy on stage. They appeared as just a vocalist and a guitarist playing over multiple layers of backing tracks. For a moment I thought they might go in a more early Beach House direction, but they had none of the grace or melody, and they relied too much on their tapes. The sound was good, but they had no energy on stage and didn’t really engage with the audience.

I eventually admitted to myself that I was disappointed and bored, so I left and attempted to see Roomer at the Local Stage. It was again full, and there was a large crowd that wasn’t exactly forming a neat queue, so I didn’t stick around. Instead I went to the Maschinenhaus to see Roller Derby. They played a rather straightforward form of new wave pop. Compared to their recordings, the synth seemed downplayed while the two guitars came to the fore and set the mood. The lyrics and music were a bit too light and soft for my tastes, but they sounded good and they were generally upbeat, which helped me feel better after the series of frustrations I’d been running into.

Then there was Slowdive. Finally! They opened with “Slowdive” from their debut release, the Slowdive EP, and followed with “Avalyn”, the second (and third) track from the same EP. I wondered if this was going to be a gimmick, but they branched out from there. (I wouldn’t’ve minded if they’d played their early EPs straight through!) Their setlists haven’t seemed to vary too much since they reunited in 2014; they didn’t play a single song they hadn’t played when I last saw them in 2017, and there’s quite a bit of overlap with the strange show I saw at Levitation in 2016. But as before, I can’t really complain. Every single one of the songs was great, and the sound was huge and enveloping. The interplay of the shimmering guitars was beautiful, even if it’s quite a challenge to distinguish which performer was actually producing which sound. But that doesn’t bother me: it’s the sum total that matters, and when they reached full swing in “Souvlaki Space Station” and “When the Sun Hits”, it was pure bliss. “Catch the Breeze” was once again far superior on stage than the originally recorded version, and “Golden Hair” was extended as usual into a massive, soaring jam. I had my strongest earbuds in and it was right on the line of being uncomfortably loud, which made for a pleasant full-body experience, but I pitied anyone without hearing protection. The only weak links were again a few times when the drums seemed to stumble and the fact that the vocals, especially Rachel Goswell’s, were too low. I’m aware that that’s rather standard for a shoegaze band, but it does lessen the experience.

Slowdive’s setlist:
01. Slowdive
02. Avalyn
03. Catch the Breeze
04. Crazy for You
05. Souvlaki Space Station
06. Star Roving
07. Blue Skied an’ Clear
08. Sugar for the Pill
09. Alison
10. When the Sun Hits
11. 40 Days
12. Golden Hair [Syd Barrett/James Joyce cover]

Final Thoughts: I’m glad Synästhesie survived the pandemic, that they’re still going strong, and that they pull in a good mix of psychedelic bands from across the spectrum. I think it’s great to stretch their bounds and bring in a somewhat wider range of artists. That said, it’s hard for me to compare my experience this year with the loaded lineup I saw in 2019. There were also four stages that year compared to three this year. Of course personal taste and prioritization make a difference, but even that year, I complained that the second day didn’t live up to the first. This year I had more problems around overcrowding and simply not being able to get into the smaller stages. I might simply be more sensitive than I was three years ago, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. Even taking all that into consideration, I was less impressed than I wish I was. I was bored by too many bands relying too much on backing tracks and not really using the stage to its full effect. And again, the mixing could’ve been better, especially with the vocals. That’s a common complaint for me, especially at festivals, but it really makes a difference for me. I had a good time, but it really could’ve been better for the money.

Scores:
Asteroid #4: A-
Tess Parks: B-
Tempers: C-
Roller Derby: B
Slowdive: A

P.S. Thanks to Luisa!

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Synästhesie 2022 Day 1

Venue: Kulturbrauerei
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 18 November 2022

Synästhesie was the first (and so far, only) large-scale music festival I’ve attended in Germany, and despite the flaws, I had a great time and intended to return. It didn’t happen in 2020, and I ended up returning my ticket in 2021 (due to covid anxiety, not a refusal to get vaccinated!). This time, despite some continued but milder covid anxiety as well as social anxiety and stress, I decided to push myself and give it a try.

I showed up a bit later than intended and found a long line waiting to get their wristbands. Lesson learned: always show up early on the first day when there’s a one-time check-in. And then I had to contend with the coat check being by the Maschinenhaus and Kesselhaus, but half the bands I wanted to see being in Frannz. All the venues are in the Kulturbrauerei complex, but it’s about a five-minute walk between the two main areas, and in temperatures below zero, that was not a fun journey to make four times, especially with the roving hordes of drunken revelers taking advantage of the half-prepared booths for the impending Christmas market that takes place in the same space.

I missed the first act I wanted to see, Emerson Snowe, by a longshot, but was still able to catch Gloria de Oliveira at Frannz. She sang, played keyboards, and triggered the samples, while her rather timid-seeming band played steady bass, minimalist drums, and ethereal guitar. I was reminded of the softer, lighter moments of The Cocteau Twins, particularly in Oliveira’s strong and idiosyncratic voice. I was enjoying the set until they played a couple songs that were so slow and sparse that the crowd got bored and started talking over the music. Admittedly, they were losing my attention as well. They seemed to leave the stage early after apparently misunderstanding the festival staff telling them to play their last song.

I trekked back to the main venue and tried to find a spot in the Kesselhaus to see Tricky. He took his time getting on stage and was accompanied by a highly rhythmic guitarist, a very funky and active drummer, and a vocalist that he let take more parts than he sang himself. In fact, it might’ve been a full ten minutes before he sang or said anything. I loved their grooves but found the set confusing. When Tricky sang, I could barely make out a single word, and he spent so much time simply moving around without apparently doing anything that I felt like I was missing something. On top of that, he seemed not to be having the best night. He cut one song off after just about a minute, and not long later demanded the stage lights to be turned off, leaving him and the band to play in near darkness. It was a weird vibe. I’ve never quite been able to get into Massive Attack or any other trip-hop band, and this didn’t help me get any closer.

I left early and went back to Frannz to see Sonic Boom, AKA Peter Kember, onetime member of Spacemen 3. Despite having just released an album with Panda Bear of Animal Collective, he said he would be playing his 2020 album All Things Being Equal straight through with no encore. I thought he might be joking, but as he started into the third song, I realized he wasn’t. He appeared with just his electronics and a laser light show, so there wasn’t exactly much happening, and I hadn’t found the album particularly captivating, anyway. It was rather crowded and I was bored, so I bailed.

I took a chance and went up to the Maschinenhaus to see Suns of Thyme. It was also quite crowded, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the music. The band have been on hiatus for six years and this was their first show back together. By no means would that have been apparent from the performance: they were tight and full of energy. They played psychedelic hard rock with great driving grooves. Each of the instrumentalists played solidly and the balance among them was good. I was impressed.

When they finished, I came back downstairs to the Kesselhaus to see Die Nerven. I’d expected them to already be well into their set, but they were at least 20 minutes late. They eventually appeared while Beethoven’s “Ode an die Freude” played over the PA. They launched into “Europa” from their recent self-titled album, and appeared to be playing the album straight through. They were loud, forceful, and taut, which I intially found intimidating. I found myself enjoying the instrumental work more than I’d expected, and the heavy and dark energy about them made more sense when I realized their lyrics were all piercing socio-political critiques. The songs rocked hard and I let myself get into it. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a noise punk band like that!

The band cajoled the audience for being tame and sleepy, but I quickly realized that I was also quite tired, perhaps in part from seeing Stereolab the night before. The intensity took a toll on me, too. So I left early.

Scores:
Gloria de Oliveira: B-
Tricky: C
Suns of Thyme: A-
Die Nerven: B+

Friday, November 18, 2022

Stereolab / Julien Gasc - Live 2022.11.17 Huxleys Neue Welt, Berlin, Germany

On the same night I saw Michael Rother at Synästhesie in 2019, I also saw Stereolab. Around that time, they’d reissued most of their back catalog. Since then, they still haven’t made any new music, but they’ve released two new double-disc editions of the Switched On series – Electrically Possessed last year, mostly covering latter-day obscurities (which I thoroughly enjoyed), and Pulse of the Early Brain this year, which is more of a mixed bag, but still quite good.

I couldn’t figure out if there was an opener, but unfortunately, there was. Now, I’ve seen some great opening bands in my time (I mean, Chicks on Speed opening for Rother just last month was awesome!), so I usually like to take the chance if I haven’t done my research. But just in case, I usually do a bit of research so I can skip things I’m reasonably confident I won’t enjoy (e.g. The Smashing Pumpkins’ 2012 tour opener, whose name I don’t recall and I didn’t even mention in the review!). And in this case, I think the less I say about Julien Gasc, the better. He appeared alone, without even an instrument, and sang lounge pop songs without much movement. I guess he had a decent voice. That’s probably the only positive thing I can say, so I’ll stop there.

Thankfully Stereolab was another matter. They started with the bouncy but somewhat unexciting “Neon Beanbag”, but then picked things up with “Low Fi” from the 1992 EP of the same name, recently reissued (finally!) on the aforementioned Switched On Volume 5: Pulse of the Early Brain. The rendition was relatively tame, but had the classic cozy groove and familiar needling guitar and crunchy keyboard sounds. This set the mold for the night: intermittent album cuts interspersed among a wealth of relative obscurities, most of which can be found on the various Switched On releases. It’s almost like they were trying to do the opposite of their 2019 tour, where their choices formed a bell curve over their discography and mostly focused on the core albums. This time, they overwhelmingly picked from the first few and last few years of their original career. Given the recent releases, that makes sense, although they still haven’t reissued their last few albums. And since every single one of the early tracks that they played was a jam, I’m certainly not gonna complain.

That said, some songs worked better than others. “Harmonium” was already a strong, upbeat rocker, and then Tim Gane tapped a pedal that activated a loud, swirling overdrive that shook the building, reaching levels of intensity that weren’t even present on the recorded version. But while I liked the idea of trying to bring the looping vocal layers of “I Feel the Air (of Another Planet)” to the stage, it didn’t quite fulfill the vision. Bassist Xavier Muñoz Guimera and keyboardist Joe Watson each added vocal parts, but neither of their voices hits the same way Mary Hansen’s did, and both were just a bit too low and dull in the mix. (The mix overall, including the backing vocals, was quite a bit better than the 2019 Synästhesie show, but still not perfect.) Performing the full four-part suite of “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse” was another bold choice, and while I like the twists and turns in the recording, on stage it felt a bit jarring and even tiring by the end. But “U.H.F. - MFP” and “Mountain” were both great rockers in their early style, and “Super-Electric” was another absolute peak performance. The perfect, locked-in groove of all the instruments was a delight to bathe in while Lætitia Sadier charmingly sang about nuclear apocalypse. They extended the song into an improvised jam, then brought it down to almost nothing before tearing into another round of the chorus.

The encore was also well-chosen: the strangely sweet b-side “Allures”, followed by another raucous rocker extolling anarchism (“French Disko”), and then an extended space jam. Ironically, “Simple Headphone Mind” was originally Nurse with Wound’s cut-up reworking of “The Long Hair of Death”. But they didn’t play “Long Hair”. They played “Simple Headphone Mind”, including the slightly disturbing, time-stretched vocal samples repeating the title. It started as a kosmische jam based around Watson’s synth noodling and guitar riffing from Gane and Sadier, but increasingly got wilder and weirder, eventually culminating in a heavy, driving version of the final section of “Excursions into ‘Oh, A-Oh’”. That was an excellent way to end the show!

I wouldn’t could call Stereolab’s performance incredible, but it was impressive and a lot of fun to watch them dance through the many sides of their career, even if I wish they’d’ve played literally anything from Mars Audiac Quintet (1994), still my favorite of their albums. The musicianship was great, and the balance of styles was well-managed. They gave time to their more formalistic and precise pop experimentation as well as their rawer bursts of energy and protest, although I wish they’d been a bit noisier and less shy with the distortion pedals. I imagine that a casual fan might have been a bit confused by the scattershot approach to their discography and sound, but for a dedicated listener, this was quite a treat.

Setlist:
01. Neon Beanbag
02. Low Fi
03. Eye of the Volcano
04. Refractions in the Plastic Pulse
05. U.H.F. - MFP
06. Miss Modular
07. Mountain
08. Delugeoisie
09. Harmonium
10. I Feel the Air (of Another Planet)
11. Pack Yr Romantic Mind
12. Super-Electric

Encore:
13. Allures
14. French Disko
15. Simple Headphone Mind → Excursions into “Oh, A-Oh” [second half]

Scores:
Stereolab: B+
Julien Gasc: F

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa and Uwe!

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Michael Rother / Chicks on Speed - Live 2022.10.26 Betonhalle, Silent Green, Berlin, Germany

I saw Michael Rother shortly before the pandemic at Synästhesie and thoroughly enjoyed his set, so I didn’t hesitate to buy a ticket to this show, especially since it was billed as “Michael Rother & Friends Celebrate 50 Years Of NEU!”, and it took place in a relatively new venue I’d been curious about since it opened. Silent Green is a cultural space in a former crematorium, one of the first to be opened in former Prussia. Well, it turns out the show was actually in the Betonhalle, which is a new construction next to the crematorium. Still, for being a concrete hall (that’s the translation, and it’s literal), the space was fairly cool.

I’d been busy and hadn’t paid close attention to who the guests might be until the day of the show. I only really knew Stephen Morris (of Joy Division and New Order) but I was intrigued by the rest and looking forward to some interesting collaborations. Well, my first surprise was that Chicks on Speed appeared as the opening act. Well, actually, the real first surprise was that they had a member of their entourage, Jeremiah Day, come out and instruct the audience on some qigong and contact improvisation to help us rid ourselves of anxieties. He said normally he did these exercises with the band to get them in the right mood, but they asked him to do it for the crowd. That was actually kind of fun.

And then Chicks on Speed came out. These days they are nominally Melissa Logan and Alex Murray-Leslie, but another person I read as a woman stood behind a laptop and some other gadgets, and Jeremiah also came out to add vocals on one song. Melissa and Alex sang and spoke their way through several songs in fairly fast succession, and the breaks weren’t always so clear. Their music seemed almost entirely pre-recorded, although it was unclear to me what the third person may have contributed. At first I found their vibe chaotic and bizarre. Then I suddenly found myself entranced by their politics, wit, and unconventional grooves. They were loose, but they were incredibly fun to behold. They played two then-unreleased songs, including one titled “Two Songs” to support to release of Julian Assange from prison, which was released two days after the show. I thoroughly enjoyed their a capella version of Delta 5’s classic “Mind Your Own Business”, with words humorously adapted for the contemporary era. Their final number was a version of their biggest “hit”, “We Don’t Play Guitars”, which included Alex playing a high heel shoe outfitted with guitar strings to create a mess of noise.

[Chicks on Speed. Note the high-heel “guitar” by the amp on the left.]

Michael Rother got right down to business and had little to say, preferring as usual to let the music convey his messages. He was again accompanied by Franz Bargmann on rhythm guitar and Hans Lampe on drums, and they kicked off a setlist that seemed rather familiar to what I’d seen three years ago. The mix was a bit muddy, though, and the crowd got very pushy. Nonetheless, the music was stellar. Rother’s signature shimmering guitar blaze and the insistent motorik beats kept me floating. The first real highlight was Yann Tiersen coming out to play synth on “Sonderangebot” and “Weissensee”, which were medleyed just like on Neu! (1972). Tiersen’s contributions were great; he added tasteful touches that added flavor and detail but didn’t obscure the core vibe. I was disappointed to see him leave.

The next surprise was Vittoria Maccabruni coming out to sing on “Negativland”, a song that I’ve only ever heard performed in instrumental arrangements. Unfortunately, she was practically inaudible. I liked the idea, and it sounded like it would’ve worked, but I just could not hear her! I caught just a few words here and there and that was it. I could barely even catch the melody. She stayed out after that and switched the synthesizer for three songs, but again, I could barely hear her contributions! I don’t know what the deal was, especially since Tierson hadn’t had any problems. I could just barely make out some bits of her synth, but they were incoherent. The songs in question were a bit too monotonous and static, so without her parts, I found myself mildly bored and increasingly distracted by the pushy crowd. I wondered if they would play something from their collaborative album, As Long as the Light (2022), but it didn't seem that they did. Besides, most of the album is minimal downbeat techno, with Rother’s parts relegated to texture and soundscape rather than showcasing his signature sound like the live set did.

And that was about it. I never actually saw Stephen Morris until I checked the website again and saw he was listed as a DJ! Sure enough, he was still over at the turntables. Admittedly I had been enjoying the house music more than I usually do, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that he wouldn’t be performing with Rother on stage. I also found it odd that Chicks on Speed had vocally expressed a desire to perform with Rother, but they did not come back out. That would’ve been awesome, although I have no idea what they would’ve done together.

I came away feeling rather disappointed. I’d enjoyed most of Rother’s set, and yet my expectations had been set high, both by the last show I saw and by the marketing as a Neu! tribute. He did a slightly higher concentration of Neu! songs than last time, but it was overall quite similar, and he again didn’t play any of the songs that more obviously bear the mark of his erstwhile bandmate Klaus Dinger. I mean, he recently appeared on stage with Iggy Pop to do a truly inspired take on “Hero”, and I would’ve loved to see something like that. Alas. I’m surprised to report that I think I enjoyed the Chicks on Speed set more than Rother’s. I think my experience was all about expectations: I was hyped up by the marketing, and I don’t think I quite got what I was sold. Meanwhile, I didn’t even know Chicks on Speed would be performing, and their set was entrancing and jubilant.

[Michael Rother with Vittoria Maccabruni.]

Michael Rother’s setlist (approximate):
01. Neuschnee
02. Isi
03. Seeland
04. Veteranissimo [Harmonia song]
05. Deluxe (Immer wieder) [Harmonia song]
06. Sonderangebot → Weissensee [with Yann Tiersen on synth]
07. Zyklodrom
08. Hallogallo
09. Negativland [with Vittoria Maccabruni on vocals]
10. Groove 139 [with Vittoria on synth]
11. Dino [Harmonia song, with Vittoria on synth]
12. E-Musik [with Vittoria on synth]
13. Im Glück

Note that I might’ve mixed up a few things, and the trio near the end with Vittoria on synth kind of blurred together, so I might’ve gotten them wrong. I also didn’t label the Neu! songs since most of them were!

Chicks on Speed’s setlist (incomplete):
1. Shooting from the Hip
2. Two Songs
3. Mind Your Own Business [Delta 5 cover]
4. Utopia
5. We Don’t Play Guitars

Scores:
Michael Rother: B-
Chicks on Speed: A-