Sunday, January 28, 2024

Human Highway (1982)

It’s rare that I’m compelled to write a review because I consumed media that is so bad that I feel the urge to warn other people to stay away. (The only other time I can think of was after buying John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges in a fit of naïve, overzealous, completionist fandom.) As a great fan of Neil Young and at least a modest fan of Devo, it’s hard not to be curious about Human Highway, a film financed, cowritten, and codirected by the former and featuring the acting and music of both. Allow me to tell you now not to watch this movie. Wikipedia covers the “plot” and background details well enough, so let me summarize what this film features:
  • Bad acting from everyone involved
  • Bad writing, no character development, and a flimsy excuse for a plot
  • Blatant racism, including both Young and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh (as Booji Boy) dropping a slur
  • Casual sexism
  • Romanticization of car culture despite the vague environmentalist/anti-nuclear theme
  • Nuclear apocalypse
  • A senseless and gross milk bath
  • Less focus on music than you might hope for
  • Only one musical collaboration between Young and Devo
It is this last point that provides any reason to consider preserving any part of this film. The infamous early jam version of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” with Booji Boy on lead vocals (recorded in 1978 before the officially released Crazy Horse version on Rust Never Sleeps (1979)) is bizarre and wonderful. But you can find that online without having to endure the rest. I suppose there’s also Devo’s cover of “It Takes a Worried Man”, but you can find that on their delightful The Complete Truth About Devolution (1993) anyway. The movie also features parts of most of the synthesizer songs from Young’s excellent and idiosyncratic Trans (1982), which might’ve been novel for the very few people who caught the movie before the album was released, but that’s irrelevant today. (And yes, I loved Trans long before I understood myself to be trans!)

Young was clearly fascinated by the phrase “human highway”, as evidenced by recording and performing myriad versions of the song over the years, recording an unfinished album under the same name with CSN in the 70s, and ultimately making this film. Of everything he created that used the phrase, this movie is the worst by a wide margin.

I have some concern that by bringing attention to this movie, I may inspire someone to watch it. Please do not make this mistake. It is not even campy in a so-bad-it’s-good sense. It’s just bad. It makes me think less of Young. He was old enough to know better.

Human Highway: D-
Young and Devo’s “Hey Hey, My My”: A
Trans: A-
The entirely unrelated Neil Young song “Human Highway” from Comes a Time: A
Either of the CSNY versions of “Human Highway” from Archives II (2020), originally recorded in 1973 and 1976: A+

Friday, January 12, 2024

Uwe Schütte (ed.) - The Cambridge Companion to Krautrock (2023)

About nine years ago, I reviewed Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler (1995), and I complained quite a bit about it and suggested finding a different guide. Despite my own recommendation, I never did so myself. I suppose I’d already made the plunge, so reading another book about Krautrock and kosmische Musik felt unnecessary. Nonetheless, I was always curious if the perfect primer would eventually come around. David Stubbs’s Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany (2014) got good reviews, and Ulrich Adelt’s Krautrock: German Music in the Seventies (2016) also looked promising, and maybe someday I’ll try one or the other. But after enjoying the honesty and depth of Uwe Schütte’s Godstar: Die fünf Tode des Genesis P-Orridge (2022), I decided to check out The Cambridge Companion to Krautrock, which he edited and wrote the introduction and Kraftwerk section for.

[The Cambridge Companion to Krautrock.]

Schütte assembled a superb team of writers to fill out the text, including both Stubbs (on Neu!) and Adelt (on “Definitions, Concepts, [and] Context”). That each section is somewhat independent means that there is unfortunately some overlap, but that’s a minor inconvenience. The benefit is a wide variety of perspectives with unique specializations and interests. The book provides a great overview of the social, political, musical, and geographic background that gave rise to the genre (or “discursive formation”, as Adelt prefers to call it, since the movement isn’t really a cohesive unit), thorough deep-dives into some of the primary artists, and a well-considered selection of the subsequent genres and artists that have been influenced by Krautrock.

The tone is academic but approachable, which I preferred quite a bit to Cope’s excited mess, even if I missed some of the passion. The book is in English, despite that several authors (and the music itself) hail from Germany, which occasionally means there are some awkward phrases, like describing music as “spherical”. (In German, “sphärisch” can mean something like “atmospheric”, “celestial”, or “spacey”.) Thankfully, this is rarely distracting. I also appreciated the attention paid to detail and accuracy, again unlike Cope’s wild exaggerations and reliance on oft-repeated rumors. The only mistake I encountered was the claim that Klaus Dinger never appeared on a Kraftwerk album. (He is credited with playing drums on “Vom Himmel hoch” on their debut album.)

The breadth is quite wide and generally quite balanced, with practically none of the idiosyncratic bias of Cope’s tastes. I was initially surprised how little mention the folk, prog, and jazz sides of the genre received, but since those are the factions that were most similar to contemporaneous Anglo-American acts, it’s an understandable choice. (I also tend to be less interested in those bands.) I would’ve loved a section on Agitation Free, but otherwise the choice of highlighted bands is probably the same set that I would’ve picked, both in terms of notoriety and quality. However, my favorite chapter was Jens Balzer’s “The Flip Side of Krautrock”, which was full of pleasant surprises. He openly acknowledges some of the conservative or even counter-revolutionary aspects of the movement, such as the relative lack of women and immigrant voices in the canon, and discusses some notable acts from adjacent genres, like Die Dominas, Inga Rumpf of Frumpy, and Turkish-German bağlama player Ozan Ata Canani.

I also particularly enjoyed the third part on Krautrock’s legacy, which includes chapters on punk and Neue Deutsche Welle, post-punk, and electronic dance music. Several of my favorite artists from the late 70s and 80s are cited in their connection to Krautrock, including Einstürzende Neubauten, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Bauhaus, and of course David Bowie. The discussion and comparison with German punk is quite insightful, particularly in exploring the shared desire to reject oppressive, received, Anglo-American norms. The final chapter on “Krautrock Today” also covers a great selection of younger bands in the kosmische mold, including of course Stereolab.

This is the book I wish I could’ve read ten years ago. We can safely forget about Cope now. (Well, not his music!) It’s telling how far the movement has gone in public perception that it can now grace the prestiged printing presses of Cambridge. It’s no longer just the domain of obscure fanatics. The internet has thrown open the doors, and academia has finally caught up.

Score: A-

P.S.: Two links buried in the footnotes deserve calling out. First is a Detroit TV show clip featuring a bunch of people in 1991 dancing to Kraftwerk’s “Nummern” (“Numbers”). Second is a Facebook post by Adelt in the Krautrock group in which he spawns the most absurd debate about the boundaries of the genre I’ve ever seen, only to be hijacked by The Crack in the Cosmic Egg coauthor (and group moderator) Alan Freeman pressing Amon Düül II vocalist Renate Knaup for Melody Maker scans from the 70s!

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Prague Symphony Orchestra & Prague Chamber Choir - Live 2024.01.02 Berliner Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany

1. Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (1822-24)
2. Carmina Burana, composed by Carl Orff (1935-36)

This double-header of two quite popular works performed by a major orchestra and choir from Prague on tour at one of Berlin’s finest venues seemed like a guaranteed success. The first two movements of Beethoven’s Ninth started off the afternoon well: both the tension of the first and the rhythmic stops and starts of the second were handled with grace. The third movement began to drag (although perhaps I can blame Beethoven for not predicting my modern tastes), but the fourth began to unravel. It’s the most dramatic and well-known part of the whole work, and the only movement featuring the choir, but the many pieces of the puzzle didn’t quite fit together. The powerful melody shone through, and the soloists did their parts justice, but the timing was rough and the sound was chaotic.

Carmina Burana also seemed to start on a high note with the “O Fortuna” movement, but the signs of discoordination were again soon apparent. With even more musicians on stage, and some changing instruments during the performance, there were even more moving parts, and the performers were not able to get it together. In a particularly crucial moment, the first French horn player even missed a note, eliciting a look of horror from his neighbor. I was impressed by the density, power, and complexity of the work, but the sloppy timing was a significant distraction. Not being familiar with the lyrics and not being able to understand the Latin and Middle High German didn’t help with making sense of the movements. The climax of the “O Fortuna” reprise had moments of rapture, but the wheels had come off and the musicians seemed exhausted such that it came off worse than the first movement.

The soloists were on their game, but I can’t say the same for the rest of the performers. Was conductor Martin Pešík to blame for the lack of cohesion? Did some members celebrate the new year a little too heartily? Was it too difficult to get over 80 musicians together for long enough to sufficiently rehearse these two lengthy works? Whatever the case, I expected a higher standard for a performance like this.

Score: C-

P.S. The groups were billed as Tschechische Symphoniker Prag and Coro di Praga, and it is surprisingly difficult to determine canonical English (or German!) names for these groups.
P.P.S. Thanks to Alyssa, Katie, and Cheryl!

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

2023 in Review

Well, it’s been another year without a lot of activity here. Seeing live music and writing about music have continued to be low on my list of priorities. I had to travel quite a bit for medical reasons and then spent a month in the hospital. I saw a few friends’ shows in addition to the two I reviewed here, but the real musical highlight for me was performing with my choir and with my band (Soltero/Anfängerfehler). Both shows were a lot of fun and quite successful, and I’m looking forward to more shows next year. Soltero also put out two new singles, both excellent. I didn’t contribute directly to the studio versions, but I have played the latter live with Tim.

I haven’t quite kept up with new releases as much as I’d like, but I still of course found plenty to enjoy. Here are my favorites of 2023:
  • Big Thief - “Vampire Empire” / “Born for Loving You” - This double single is as good as the best parts of last year’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You. The first song is strong and angry, the second sweet and rolling. Some people were mad that “Vampire Empire” wasn’t as good as the version first heard on Colbert’s Late Show, and while the studio version did cut the line “I’m the fish and she’s my gills”, it flows better, has bigger dynamic range, is much tighter, and stays in tune.
  • boygenius - the record and the rest [EP] - Three talented singer-songwriters team up for a collaborative album and another EP? I’m in. They remind me of case/lang/viers or, yes, obligatorily, CSN. Honestly about half the album drags a bit, but the other half is so good I don’t mind it. The EP appears to be leftovers, but “Afraid of Heights” is one of their best. The harmonies are outstanding, the production good but predictable.
  • The Church - The Hypnogogue - Album #26 is the concept album? Why not. It’s not really as proggy as sole remaining founding member Steve Kilbey claims, but it is as good as his and the band’s mysteriously psychedelic best. It isn’t a pop album like Of Skins and Heart (1981) or Starfish (1988), but nor were any of their albums in the last 15 years or more. The concept is farcical and vaguely sci-fi, yet if you didn’t know what it is, you could easily mistake it for prescient social commentary, which is exactly what Kilbey claims it’s not. I don’t believe him. In any case, it’s great.
  • Cup Collector - assorted releases - This has been Cup Collector’s busiest year so far, and the six releases (totalling 11 tracks at just under two hours) reveal a wide reach of experimental instrumental music. He’s either started using synthesizers or he’s perfected the technique of simulating a synthesizer via guitar effects, layers, and reverb. The Hourglass, “Life Form”, “The Fourth”, and Your Shining Heart are calming, warm, and pleasant. “A Shephard’s Howl” starts off like the extended acoustic improvisations released under his birth name (James David Fitzpatrick), but then switches to his classic electric guitar tones. “‘Love’ Spray Painted on a Tree Trunk” (from The Fourth) is a blend of synth exploration and field recording, which also recalls his “solo” work, albeit more abrasively. The Elder EP is the real surprise, featuring three pieces ranging from (what sounds like) noisy sequencers to melodic layers of arpeggiated guitars.
  • Low Forest - Entrovert and Ambivector - Old friends Josh King and Brad Schumacher (with drummer Halston Rossi) have made a high-concept space rock double-album, in which one album is the rock and the other is the space, and of course they’re synchronized such that they’ve created an interactive listening experience in which you can try mixing the two parts together yourself. Separately, both albums stand on their own, but their combination is spine-tingling. I hear a lot of Hum’s Inlet, creative use of synthesizers, and concern for political, social, and environmental catastrophe.
  • Pale Blue Eyes - This House - This trio have mastered the art of turning grief and sadness into propulsive, upbeat synthpop. There are bits of goth rock and shoegaze in the mix, but the genuine lyrics of working through loss and difficult emotions to embrace community and make the most of what’s available are what seal the deal. It’s even better than last year’s Souvenirs.
  • Perlee - Speaking from Other Rooms - I enjoyed the Slow Creature EP (2020) and they’ve grown considerably since then. Now they really sound like early-era Beach House or even Slowdive at times. They’re not just a derivative of dream pop masters, though; they bring their own folky touch, Saramai Leech has a great voice, and instead of just melancholy, I hear optimism in their belief that love is more powerful than whatever divisions the pandemic created within us. Cormac O’Keeffe’s voice ain’t bad either, and it’s especially lovely when they sing together.
  • Slowdive - Everything Is Alive - We can now celebrate that their reunion was not just a fling with one new album (too bad about Lush) – it’s for real, and this album is just a hair behind 2017’s self-titled album. It seems they’re starting to acknowledge Pygmalion (1995) again in that there are more electronic elements. They shifted the balance more towards atmospherics over crafting pop appeal, and it gels beautifully.
Here are a few honorable mentions:
  • Beach House - Become EP - These five songs are outtakes from last year’s Once Twice Melody, and while I often joke/admit that their songs tend to sound the same, I agree that they didn’t fit the album. They’re all fairly good, but they’re a step back in the direction of Thank Your Lucky Stars (2015). As with Once Twice Melody, though, I really miss the full power of Victoria Legrand’s voice. She can still bring it on stage, but why is it absent from the records?
  • Elk City - Undertow - Some parts feel dry and formal, but on half the songs they cut loose and build up some great jams. The weird synth parts and the bits that remind me of Stereolab (often occuring simultaneously) are the highlights. Is it just me or do I see a lot of commentary on social media in the lyrics?
  • Ian Fisher - Ghost Father - A collection of songs written for a production of Hamlet at the Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck, mostly featuring just electric guitar and voice. The songs are weighty and reflect a suitable obsession with death. The instrumentation is stark, but the vocals are strong and nuanced. This isn’t a standard album, so to speak, and it was only released via Fanklub.
  • Mitski - The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We - An abrupt change of pace wherein Mitski goes orchestral and to Nashville. There’s less power and drama but more directness and emotional clarity.
  • Sufjan Stevens - Javelin - Sufjan has a knack for delivering emotional wrecking balls without hitting you over the head with them. Without context, these songs sound like his typical wistful acoustic-synthetic fare, but the resemblance to Carrie & Lowell (2015) is more than just superficial. On the day of the album release, Sufjan dedicated the album to his partner, Evans Richardson, who died in April. Musically, the album doesn’t cover new ground, but the lyrics are personal and piercing. It’s certainly better than The Ascension (2020), which I didn’t get at all. I wish he would sing again with more dynamics instead of this breathy, hushed voice, but he somehow managed to get Pleasure Activism author adrienne maree brown to sing on most of the album, which certainly adds texture and novelty.
  • The Veldt - Illuminated 1989 - This is their original debut album, produced by Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins. How was this shelved!? It’s not quite as heavy as Afrodisiac (1994), and maybe the guitars are a little too indebted to the Cocteaus, but is that really a complaint? This would’ve been a shoegaze classic, and maybe it will be yet.
And here a few other 2023 releases that I have opinions about:
  • Belle & Sebastian - Late Developers - I know that these songs are supposedly more than just outtakes from A Bit of Previous (2022), but that’s what they sound like. That album was fine, but this album has all the same faults and just about nothing else. Their steady march into clichéd dance-pop is completely boring. Even Murdoch’s lyrics are getting stale.
  • John Cale - Mercy - As weird as ever, but this time with notable collaborators on almost every track. It kind of works, but also sounds really formless and directionless. It’s too similar to his other latter-day work and I’m finding myself less and less excited by his bizarre stylistic mashups.
  • Love & Rockets - My Dark Twin - This double-disc companion piece to Sweet F.A. (1996) is broadly split into three sources: early and alternate versions of album tracks (all inferior and superfluous), extended jams (good vibes but absurdly overlong; I’m amazed that two of them were actually released back in the day on the Glittering Darkness EP (1995)), and actual outtakes (mildly enjoyable). Ash’s outtake songs could’ve easily fit on the album, but J’s are an entirely different style, much more similar to his solo album Urban Urbane (1992). I get why they didn’t make the cut – they don’t fit the mid-90s alternative guitar groove – but I like most of his usual socio-political commentary anyway. And hearing the band jam with Genesis P-Orridge is honestly pretty cool.
  • Wilco - Cousin - Mostly notable for being coproduced by Cate Le Bon. (A woman! Gasp!) She did seem to bring out an exploratory, experimental approach to sound design, but the songs themselves are a bit too drab and plodding, much like the run of albums before last year’s Cruel Country. “Evicted” is the only song with enough of a melody and pop sensibility to stand out above the crowd.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Soltero, Again

Heads up: it's time for a new Soltero show, and this time with drums!

We're playing on August 17th at the 8mm Bar in Prenzlauer Berg. I'll be on bass and will even sing a few words here and there. We've got a full set lined up for you and I'm looking forward to see you there!

For some previews of what we've been up to, check out

[Edit 2023.08.06:] Doors at 7pm, show at 8:30pm. Please be aware that this venue unfortunately allows indoor smoking.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Yo La Tengo - Live 2023.04.25 Huxleys Neue Welt, Berlin, Germany

Yo La Tengo have always on my periphery, but I never took the time to dig deep. I mostly just knew the dream poppy, shoegaze-adjacent albums, which are still my favorites. When a friend suggested joining him for this show, it was an easy choice, despite my relative ignorance.

They’re touring without an opener and just playing two long sets. The first set started loud, but they immediately took it down several notches and played chill and quiet songs. It was almost too quiet, but they managed to command the audience effectively. Some songs were acoustic, and some were more jam-oriented, and a few were both acoustic and jammy. Ira Kaplan’s acoustic guitarwork was right on par with his electric skills, so it was a welcome variation to the vibe.

The second set also started loud, but mostly stayed loud, often very loud. Most songs were exploratory and relatively heavy, which was a slightly more compelling mood. Sometimes the songs meandered a stretch too far, but the subtle strength, energy, and confidence of the trio was captivating. It also helped that they played more songs that I recognized. The last song of the set, “Blue Line Swinger”, was drawn out for what felt like ages, which again was on line of going too far, but the payoff of the buildup was a delight.

The encore was just three covers, with each member singing lead on one. They were all fairly quiet, sparse, and brief, which was pleasant but simple. Of course I loved “Who Loves the Sun”, but the other two were a bit tame. It was something of a reprieve after the louder songs, but not particularly exciting.

With only three members and no backing musicians or guests, there’s a lot of condensed pressure to make the show interesting. I loved how frequently all three traded instruments. James McNew played everything: bass, guitar, keyboards, and drums, and he sang lead and harmony with such a warm, mellow voice. Georgia Hubley, nominally the drummer, played several songs on keyboards and sang several from both behind the kit and in front. Her voice was perhaps just hint too timid and restrained, but so pure and direct. Ira sang more than the other two and was louder, rougher, and rawer. I was surprised at how loose and wild his guitar soloing was. He hit plenty of bum notes, tried some misguided runs, and produced a lot of noise. It kinda worked, though. I find raw emotion more interesting than cold precision, and yet I suppose I expected a higher standard.

While the first set was slow and underexpressed, the second was loud and substantially more intense. The choice of splitting the material in two sections like that made some sense, but it was also a bit wearying to have so much of one approach in series. The individual songs varied enough to keep it interesting, but considering that it was a three-hour show without any real hits, not much pop, and limited melody, I’m not too surprised some members of my party didn’t make it to the end. I was also fairly exhausted, but I found it rewarding. I loved the musicianship, even with my complaints, and the arrangements were consistently compelling. It was an enjoyable show even with its flaws.

Set 1:
01. Sinatra Drive Breakdown
02. Tonight’s Episode
03. Fog Over Frisco
04. Aselestine
05. Until It Happens
06. I’ll Be Around
07. Nowhere Near
08. My Heart’s Reflection
09. Miles Away

Set 2:
10. This Stupid World
11. Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House
12. From a Motel 6
13. Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad [Grateful Dead cover]
14. Stockholm Syndrome
15. Fallout
16. Big Day Coming
17. Artificial Heart
18. Sugarcube
19. Blue Line Swinger

20. Who Loves the Sun [The Velvet Underground cover]
21. This Diamond Ring [Gary Lewis & the Playboys cover]
22. You Can Have It All [George McCrae cover]

Score: B

P.S. Thanks to Tim, Brooke, and Luisa!

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Schorsch Kamerun: Der diskrete Charme der Reduktion - 2023.02.17 Vollgutlager, Berlin, Germany

I went to this “concert installation” on a whim when a friend invited me. It was part of the Schall & Rausch Festival für Brandneues Musiktheater organized by the Komische Oper, but at a different venue while their usual home is undergoing renovation. I had no idea what to expect. I unfortunately knew relatively little about Schorsch Kamerun’s longstanding band Die Goldenen Zitronen, but based on that and the name of the event (“The Discreet Charm of Reduction”), I had a good feeling. I wasn’t let down.

The evening started with the crowd assembled on a roped-off side of a large venue filled with platforms, tables, large yellow balls, and green structures resembling small houses. After a brief introduction, classical singer Ivan Turšić sweetened the air, and we were invited to follow him up a set of stairs to a rampart and then into the rest of the space. Meanwhile, the ropes were taken down and actors, many of whom also sang as part of the Richardchor Neukölln, started scattering across the venue to take up an odd assortment of tasks. Throughout the night, they pushed boxes around the houses laboriously, sat at a table and ate, projected psychedelic patterns with oils on the wall, sang, demonstrated products to each other, analyzed a mess of papers, crawled on the floor, mined clay for some sort of pellets, and at one point became ants that seemed to be preparing for battle. There was a lot going on.

Meanwhile, the primary attention shifted between Turšić, narrator/lead actress Annemaaike Bakker, and Schorsch, who occasionally spoke but mostly sang songs accompanied by keyboardist PC Nackt and a classically-trained ensemble from the Komische Oper. Some of the material was based on previously released songs and some parts were renditions of classical works, but most was newly composed for the performance. The themes, unsurprisingly, were socio-economic critiques of contemporary Western society, particularly capitalism, but also political corruption, war profiteering, globalization, marketing, interpersonal relationships, coping with trauma, and urban versus rural life. I didn’t hear anything that I found disagreeable, but plenty that made me think or laugh. Schorsch didn’t have all the answers to solve our problems, but he did have a few specific suggestions: stop driving private cars and commit to a reduction in productivity to counter the myth of infinitely increasing growth in a closed system.

The experience was immersive and engaging. I’ve never experienced something quite like it. It wasn’t quite interactive, but there were always multiple things going on at the same time, so it was impossible to be bored. The music was diverse and consistently of a high caliber, both in composition and performance. I left in a great mood. It turns out that the venue is part of Schwuz, the longest-standing queer club in Berlin, and at the end, Schorsch welcomed us to have a drink and say hello at the bar. I did, and sure enough, he and some of the performers and crew were to be found on the dancefloor well into the night. I didn’t even have to wait in line to get in, so that was quite an unexpected bonus!

Score: A

P.S. Thanks to Lutz and Anton!

[Update 2023.02.28:] P.P.S. The taz also wrote up a review. Theirs is much more detailed, but it's in German.