Sunday, October 23, 2011

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue / Rubblebucket - Live 2011.10.18 Old Rock House, St. Louis, Missouri

Another recommendation from a bandmate.

Artist: Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
Venue: Old Rock House
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 18 October 2011
Opening Act: Rubblebucket

Going into the performance knowing next to nothing about the opening act or the headliner, I figured it was best to be open-minded. When Rubblebucket climbed on stage, the eight members looked half-stoned, very young, mildly hipster, and surprisingly confident. With two percussionists, three brass players, a bassist, a guitarist, and a keyboardist, they did their best to fill up the venue with sound. They played a sort of dub/funk fusion, more in the line of jazz than rock or pop. Some of the spacier songs, particularly due to the vocals, reminded me of Cocteau Twins or My Bloody Valentine.

The single female member split her time between a saxophone and ethereal singing. Unfortunately, in both cases, her output was drowned in the mix of tones, especially by the other brass players. I believe she was singing lyrics, but it sounded nearly wordless. Only when other musicians offered harmonies could I hear and appreciate her contributions. Most of the other instruments fit together fine, but I couldn't help feeling like the whole thing was overkill. The music was actually fairly good, but it was unfocused. Despite fairly good performances, the songs were scattered and there was no guiding light to offer direction for their motives. The set seemed to drag on endlessly, even though it was just an hour long.

Due to the venue's relatively small size, there is no real backstage, so the stage had to be entirely reconfigured for Trombone Shorty. Furthermore, the band had to wait in their tour bus until show time, at which point they poured through the doors, climbed on stage, and jumped right into a song. Shorty was backed by Orleans Avenue, who consisted of two percussionists, two saxophonists, a bassist, and a guitarist. (Sound familiar?)

Thankfully, Shorty got right to the point. He started strong on his trombone and led the band through a non-stop deluge of songs. Hardly pausing for breath between his intense solos, he also picked up a trumpet and took the mic to sing on a few songs. His own musicianship was matched by his band, particularly the guitarist and bassist. The guitarist had several incredible solos during the show, and while the bassist only took one, he also had the most consistently vibrant riffs of anyone in the band.

After about an hour of intense, high-quality jazz, the mood began to change. The jams and solos kept getting longer, Shorty spent more and more time at the mic than on his instruments, and the music loosened up a bit. The energy didn't fade, but the originality of the first hour began to recede, and the banality of most of Shorty's lyrics started to grate on me. Ultimately, it would seem that the more time he spends with his trombone, the better the quality of the material. Despite his reasonably good voice, his energy is much better spent as an instrumentalist.

Beyond that, the environment of the show just kept amping up. The main floor was packed with unselfconscious dancing, the music was violently loud (my ear plugs saved me from extensive auditory damage), and it became increasingly difficult to focus on the music with the encroaching claustrophobia. After over two hours, the band still did an encore, but I had to take a step back. By that point, the music had taken a turn for the decidedly funky. Not only did the beats get dancier, but the band even did a James Brown cover. At the very end, the musicians traded instruments for a final jam.

Unquestionably, all seven musicians are top tier performers, but at two and a half hours, it was hard to keep my attention in line. The music started out fantastically, but as Trombone began singing more and more, the quality went down and the drive began to waver. Although Shorty and his band were clearly a level above Rubblebucket, both needed to learn their strengths and focus their energy a bit. Nonetheless, I wish I hadn't been so distracted by the invasive environment, because Trombone Shorty's music was high quality, especially in his strong opening stretch.

Rubblebucket: B-
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue: B+

Friday, October 14, 2011

Beirut / Lætitia Sadier - Live 2011.10.09 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

For what it's worth, this is a fairly new band to me. I barely knew anything about them, but my bandmates recommended the show to me and I figured I should go. I'm glad I did.

Artist: Beirut
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 9 October 2011
Opening Act: Lætitia Sadier

Setlist (adapted from
01. Scenic World
02. The Shrew
03. Elephant Gun
04. Vagabond
05. Postcards from Italy
06. The Concubine
07. Santa Fe
08. A Sunday Smile
09. East Harlem
10. Forks and Knives (La Fête)
11. Nantes
12. Port of Call
13. Cherbourg
14. Goshen
15. After the Curtain
16. Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)
17. The Penalty
First Encore:
18. My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille
19. Gulag Orkestar
Second Encore:
20. Serbian Cocek [A Hawk and a Handsaw cover]

I had heard that the opener, Lætitia Sadier, is/was a member of the currently-inactive band Stereolab. I think I'm supposed to like them, so I was curious what she would do. Despite the alternative/post-/experimental rock background of her band, her solo act is really just her and a guitar. I was pleased to see her go Billy Bragg-style and stick to an electric, but after a couple songs I realized that she was never going to alter the tone of her guitar nor her style, and I was left disappointed.

In fact, truth be told, I thought her entire performance was disappointing. Lætitia is a good singer, and she can certainly play guitar, but unfortunately her melodies, rhythms, and structures were decidedly minimalist and predictable. I wanted to like her; she seemed cool, and she seemed like she could be a good person to have in a band, but her solo music just wasn't very good. On two songs, she borrowed some of Beirut's musicians to back her up, and even if they didn't add much, the added complexity made those songs stand out far above the others. But the rest of her set faded into repetition.

Beirut currently functions as a six-piece, grounded in lead singer and ukulele/flügenhorn-player Zach Condon. The band entirely eschewed guitars in lieu of more interesting instruments. Perhaps most important was the presence of an accordionist, who provided the primary framework of the sonic continuum. A bassist (who preferred an electric stand-up over his bass guitar), a drummer, and two additional horn players/vocalists filled out the sound. A piano and a glockenspiel were also occasionally employed. I was impressed by how easily the band made music that one could call "indie rock" without relying on any of the instrumental clichés of the movement.

The music was great. It's been called folk or world music, and there are clear influences from these genres, but the band is really going in a different direction. It sounds like the band wants to make distinctly modern music but with a very keen awareness of the past – a past that goes far beyond just the English-speaking world of the 60s. The choice of instruments makes a genre hard to define, because the combination almost seems to come from every direction at once. However, Some sort of folk tendency does seem to shine through, but the music is too dynamic and complex to truly justify such a plain label.

The point is, Beirut can see what musicians around them are doing, and what musicians have done before, and they take the precise elements they like from each and reconstitute them in a beautiful fashion. They aren't breaking barriers or reinventing sound, but they know how to paint an aural picture that sounds delightfully fresh. For example, their rhythms were consistently unpredictable and quite varied. Despite the presence of a typical rock drumset, I never heard a cliché drumbeat – the percussive rhythms were always something delicately innovative. And to top it off, the whole production was incredibly well mixed. I don't know if it was the band's personnel or the venue's, but the show just sounded great. It fit together fantastically, and no instrument dominated the mix or was buried too deeply. The horn players knew exactly how far from the mics to stand and exactly how to keep a constant pitch. What an incredible performance!

The show was actually just a bit short, clocking in around 75 minutes. Nonetheless, they blasted through their setlist and played some twenty songs, all the while hardly pausing to talk. At the end of the set, everyone but Zach left, and he performed a song alone with his ukulele. After he left, the whole band returned quickly for a standard encore. After that, the audience began to head for the doors, but the house lights did not come on, and sure enough, the band came back for one more song.

For not knowing much about the band, I was thoroughly impressed and quite pleased. Even if the opener disappointed me, the main act was great. I highly recommend seeing this band live.

Lætitia Sadier: D
Beirut: A

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Music Game

I'd like to introduce a new feature of Patti's Music Reviews: the appropriately-titled Music Game. Inspired by the Film Walrus' Movie Game, this is simply an exercise of one's creative ability to think of songs that fit a set of conditions. If you look on the right side of this blog, just below the description, you should see a subsection containing the game's basic interface. [Edit 2014.06.05: It is now located on its own page and linked from the top of the website.]

The rules are simple. Press the button that reads "Draw Cards". You will see three short words, phrases, or statements appear. Each of these items or cards represents a theme, topic, or other element distinguishable in modern music. The idea is simply to name a song that meet the criteria of at least two of the cards.

For example, I just drew "Subject of a documentary", "Reinvention or genre shift", and "City". How about David Bowie's "A New Career in a New Town" from 1977's Low? I don't know if it was ever the subject of a documentary (although Bowie certainly has been), but the instrumental song stands as part of Bowie's shift from glam, funk, and soul into experimental and electronic realms. And if the word "town" in the title isn't close enough to city, then what about the fact that the album is part of the classic Berlin Trilogy?

Anyway, the subject matter runs a wide spectrum, including lyrics, genres, statistics, history, personnel, and technical information. We've tried to keep any one card from being too obscure or difficult, but in knowing that challenging cards can sometimes be the most fun, we struck the balance of including some of these ideas but encouraging the pick-two-of-three concept.

Playing in a group is recommended, either by taking turns or by each throwing out suggestions. As such, there is no "winning" or even really any scorekeeping, although if you really are the competitive type (can you tell that I am not?), you could certainly devise such mechanisms. The key is to be creative and have fun. Liberal interpretation of the cards is welcomed, if not encouraged.

If a particular set of cards seems totally impossible, then try to name an artist or band whose material fits the descriptors. Alternately, if you want an extra challenge, try to name a song that fits every combination of two cards, or try to name a song that fits all three cards. As another example, I just drew "Dissonance", "10+ album band", and "Guitar solo". Almost too easy – how about anything by Sonic Youth? Take "Candle" off of Daydream Nation, as long as you can call that instrumental guitar noise break a "guitar solo", which I will.

Have fun! Feel free to leave comments or suggestions for improvements or alternate gameplay styles.

P.S. I know that the game is somewhat rockist, or at least biased towards certain genres and styles, but that's what the authors know the most about. You can certainly try to apply classical or jazz works to the cards, but it may not be easy. There's no reason not to try if you'd like, though.

P.P.S. I should explain the "we" I've spoken of: most of the credit for the game goes to the Film Walrus and Jim Sabo. Thanks guys!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

They Might Be Giants / Jonathan Coulton - Live 2011.09.24 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

The third in a series of awesome concerts at the Pageant over a four-day period.

Artist: They Might Be Giants
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 24 September 2011
Opening Act: Jonathan Coulton

01. Dead
02. Can't Keep Johnny Down
03. Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas) [Tom Glazer cover]
04. Particle Man
05. Meet James Ensor
06. St. Louis (aka Mississippi Nights) (tease)
07. Hollywood (aka Los Angeles or West Hollywood House of Blues)
08. Turn Around
09. Celebration
10. Don't Let's Start
11. Your Racist Friend
12. Cloisonné
13. Crazy Train (tease) [Ozzy Osbourne cover]
14. "Epic Fail Baloney Sandwich" (performed by the Avatars of They)
15. Spoiler Alert (performed by the Avatars of They)
16. Crazy Train (second tease) [Ozzy Osbourne cover]
17. Older
18. Alphabet of Nations
19. Old Pine Box
20. Ana Ng
21. Judy Is Your Viet Nam
22. We Live in a Dump
23. Birdhouse in Your Soul
24. Withered Hope
25. Clap Your Hands
26. Battle for the Planet of the Apes
27. The Mesopotamians

First Encore:
28. Careful What You Pack
29. Istanbul (Not Constantinople) [The Four Lads cover]

Second Encore:
30. Lie Still, Little Bottle
31. Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes

When I heard that Jonathan Coulton would be opening for They Might Be Giants, I thought that sounded pretty good. After all, this was a musician who'd written the hilarious outro music to the video game Portal and who is known for having an internet-aware sense of humor theoretically comparable to They themselves. Coulton came out alone wearing a strange contraption strapped around him as if it were a guitar. It was in fact a Zendrum, a type of MIDI controller which he uses to sample the parts of his oddball song "Mr. Fancy Pants". The song was mildly humorous and the performance was great, but I probably didn't appreciate it the way some others may have (the individuals near me flew into an ecstatic fit of shouting and hollering, perhaps inspired by a large dose of alcohol).

However, after the one rather unique performance, Coulton put down the Zendrum and picked up a guitar, at which point he was joined by drummer Marty Beller (who also plays with TMBG) and bassist Chris Anderson. The band proceeded to then play five or six songs, mostly of a rather bland punk-pop style. I know Coulton is famed for his wit, but I could hardly understand his lyrics (probably the fault of the mixing and not himself) and the music really didn't do anything for me. He did perform "Still Alive" from the aforementioned Portal game, which was perhaps the only standout song. The live rendition didn't have the same complexity and depth as the recorded version, but it had a bit more energy and spirit, which carried it along fairly well.

They Might Be Giants (nominally just John Linnell and John Flansburgh) were joined by drummer Marty Beller and bassist Danny Weinkauf. Oddly, the usual fifth member (guitarist Dan Miller) was not present. The band hardly seemed to miss him, as they were able to rock quite well on their own. They ripped through several new songs and a few from their last non-children's album, The Else, and somehow managed to play songs from all sorts of corners of their discography. They played an extended version of the strangely funny and impressive "Alphabet of Nations" from their second children's album and "Hollywood" (aka "Los Angeles", or as it was introduced at the show, "The House of Blues") from the Venue Songs album. They even did a tease of their "St. Louis" venue song in honor of the now defunct Mississippi Nights!

Much of their set leaned on the band's classic material from their early years, roughly equating to their first three albums. Signature rockers like "Ana Ng" and "Don't Let's Start" as well as the quirky hits "Particle Man" and "Birdhouse in Your Soul" went over extremely well. The band might get tired of playing their old standby songs at every show, but the audience adores it, and it does seem like the band tries to play around with the material to keep it interesting. They frequently alter lyrics or play the parts differently than expected (Flansburgh sang the spoken parts of "Why Does the Sun Shine" and "Ana Ng"), which may come from boredom or may come from an obsession with experimentation.

In the middle of the set, the stage went dark and the Johns hid behind a raised bass drum on the side of the stage. They turned on a camera hooked up to a projection screen and held up sock puppets known as the Avatars of They. The segment was actually fairly funny. It was introduced by Marty and Danny playing the infamous riff from "Crazy Train". The sock puppets explained that they now had a corporate sponsor, Epic Fail Baloney Sandwiches. They sang the theme song of the establishment ("Putting baloney in your face since 1972 – it's Epic Fail!") and then did "Spoiler Alert" from the new They album. After another tease of "Crazy Train" the band resumed their "normal" state of affairs.

Flansburgh must have had a bit of a sore throat or something, because he kept drinking and talking about "showbiz tea". Even his avatar was drinking it. It was to the point that he would leave stage in the middle of songs and reappear with another cup of "tea". He did seem to disappear only when he wasn't playing parts, but it seemed extreme. He must have had at least five or six cups. Furthermore, it seemed like Linnell sang the vast majority of the songs. Flans certainly sang lead on several songs, but back in the day it used to be an almost 50-50 split in singing, and that was not the case at this show. Perhaps this is simply the state of the band's newer music. Flansburgh also had a ridiculous mustache that I'm hoping was fake. He was in high spirits but seemed in an odd mood or something. (Maybe there was a special ingredient in his showbiz tea – the Johns joked plenty about hazelnut LSD.)

They Might Be Giants are known for their humorous banter and they certainly did not disappoint. They played nearly thirty songs and somehow still had plenty of time to joke around. They played well and had a full sound even with just the four-person line-up. However, I was disappointed by the minimal use of Linnell's accordion and the relatively limited set of instrumentation in general. Linnell's keyboard can certainly emulate a wide variety of tones, but the only other instrument he brought out was a bass clarinet. Flansburgh kept to his guitar almost exclusively. They didn't even bring out the Stick for "Lie Still, Little Bottle". As such, their newer material was a little hard to distinguish and appreciate as it began to fade into regularity.

I certainly appreciated their encores, which included their classic rendition of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" (although without Dan Miller's typical extended acoustic guitar solo) and the delightfully strange "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes". Their setlists are always fairly unpredictable and thus fairly fun. I just wish They had been a bit more willing to experiment around on stage and honestly, I think I'd say the same thing about Coulton.

Jonathan Coulton: C-
They Might Be Giants: B+

Thanks to This Might Be a Wiki for setlist help and other references.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Psychedelic Furs / Tom Tom Club - Live 2011.09.23 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

Two classic 80s bands in one night? Unbelievable!

Artists: Psychedelic Furs and Tom Tom Club
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 23 September 2011

Tom Tom Club's setlist:
01. Who's Feelin' It
02. Punk Lolita [The Heads song]
03. Man with the Four-Way Hips
04. She's Dangerous
05. L'Éléphant
06. On, On, On, On...
07. Don't Say No
08. Genius of Love
09. You Sexy Thing (I Believe in Miracles) [Hot Chocolate cover]
10. Wordy Rappinghood
11. Take Me to the River [Al Green cover]
12. Psycho Killer [Talking Heads song]

Psychedelic Furs' setlist:
01. Like a Stranger
02. Love My Way
03. Danger
04. Alice's House
05. Heaven
06. Highwire Days
07. Only You and I
08. Believe [Love Spit Love song]
09. Pretty in Pink
10. Wrong Train
11. Heartbreak Beat
12. Sleep Comes Down

13. Mr. Jones
14. India

Tom Tom Club are known to most people simply as the side-project of the rhythm section of Talking Heads that wrote a couple frequently-sampled dance hits in the 80s. That may be an accurate description, but it lacks much of the depth of what makes the band interesting. Tom Tom Club, along with David Byrne and Talking Heads, had a long phase of pursuing funky dance music to the core. Few other white bands were interested in those directions or even knew where to start. Byrne and Talking Heads went down all sorts of other paths, but the Club stayed the course down the line of dance music.

It is also no small coincidence that the shared members of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, are married, and that their son also plays turntable and handles samples for the band. Tina's sisters once sang with their early records, but Tina look-alike and sound-alike Victoria Clamp is now handling the additional vocal duties. A solid funk-rock guitarist (Pablo Martine) and a keyboardist/percussionist (Bruce Martin) round out the group. It's exquisitely clear that these musicians get along well together and just have a lot of fun. They dance across the stage, they trade parts, they can jam, and they keep the energy level up.

I can't say I'm intimately familiar with most of the band's material, but they kept the groove going. Pablo had a great tight rhythmic style and Bruce would pull out flashy percussion bits in the breaks. Tina laid down solid riffs while trading the singing with Victoria, and Chris added the occasional vocal part from behind his kit. When the so-often-sampled keyboard part of "Genius of Love" came up, the crowd ate it up. The following Hot Chocolate cover was perhaps even more fantastic; the female vocal lead was seamless and surprisingly smoothly executed.

Tom Tom Club closed their set with two songs from the days of Talking Heads: the Al Green song "Take Me to the River", fully executed with an extended jam, and a faithful take of "Psycho Killer" with Tina singing lead. The performance was perfect, complete with a great guitar jam at the end. After all, Tina and Chris did co-write the song, so it didn't come as too great a surprise to hear Tina sing a third verse that I didn't recognize, possibly from an early incarnation of the song.

Although billed simply as the opening act, Tom Tom Club played for over an hour, which was probably just about as long as the Psychedelic Furs ended up playing. The Furs are another band that had a big name in the 80s but has been infrequent and largely ignored ever since. The two founding brothers (vocalist Richard Butler and bassist Tim Butler) ended up being the only constant members of the band, and after they put the band to rest, they also co-founded another alt-rock band in the 90s, Love Spit Love. The current incarnation of the Furs is sort of an amalgamation of members from throughout the history of the brothers' two bands: Paul Garisto on drums, Amanda Kramer on keyboards, Mars Williams on saxophone, and Rich Good on guitar and backing vocals.

The Psychedelic Furs can still pack a punch. Mars' sax was a true delight; his lines were the strongest of any of the instrumental breaks. The other musicians were able to reproduce the classic material effortlessly, although this also meant that the band hardly strayed from familiar territory. Nearly the entire set was comprised of hits from the band's first four albums. The only surprises were "Believe", originally a Love Spit Love song, and "Wrong Train", a relatively new and unreleased song. For both of those songs, and in fact most of the second half of the show, lead guitarist Richard Fortus (a local St. Louisian who co-founded Love Spit Love and also plays with Guns N' Roses) joined the band. I can't say this his parts added very much to the sound, and the point at which a rock band reaches seven members means that someone is going to get lost in the mix. Fortus can play a decent guitar, but he certainly jumped around the stage enough to seem like he was trying a little too hard.

Richard Butler's vocals have hardly changed from his glory days. He still has his trademark, slightly gravely, somehow melodic, and impressively constant voice at his disposal. He sings without playing an instrument but remains active enough on stage that it doesn't seem odd. Despite these motions and his mid-song fan interactivity, at every song's end he let out a half-chuckled, rather nervous-sounding "Thanks!" while waiting for the band to play the next tune. His lyrics remain strong and valid, but one couldn't help wish for some of his even more explicitly political lyrics, like "President Gas", which still applies just as well today as it did in Reagan's era.

Unlike Tom Tom Club, the Furs were granted the grace of an encore, for which they played two of my favorites: the sardonic "Mr. Jones" (with one of the band's best lines: "Movie stars and ads / And radio define romance / Don't turn it on") and the grandiose "India", the opener from their debut album. "India" was one of their strongest performances; they matched the studio version's beautiful instrumental crescendo and broke out into the thumping beat of the core of the song.

Both bands managed to pack a lot into about 70 minutes. Initially, I had thought the combination may be a bit of a mismatch, but they actually complemented each other rather well. I suspect that Psychedelic Furs might be the better band ultimately (in terms of bequeathing a greater artistic oeuvre), but the Talking Heads would trump that, if such a thing existed anymore. Tom Tom Club certainly have the dance groove down, and in some ways, one would expect that their resulting higher level of energy would be more likely to land them the slot as headliner, but alas, the Furs probably have the bigger name. It's hard to say which put on the better show, but since it's my job to pick, I'd say the Club. They surprised me – they were having a lot of fun and their set was solid and never uninteresting. Even if I've been a fan of the Furs for much, much longer, and I find their music ultimately more meaningful, their set was a bit too static and predictable. And since I'm reviewing the show and not the sum total of these bands' outputs, that's what determines my grades.

Tom Tom Club: A-
Psychedelic Furs: B

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Erasure / Frankmusik - Live 2011.09.21 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

Why do good concerts often come in pairs... or trios? I'm seeing three concerts in four days this week. Here's the first!

Artist: Erasure
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 21 September 2011
Opening Act: Frankmusik

01. Sono Luminus
02. Always
03. When I Start To (Break It All Down)
04. Blue Savannah
05. Fill Us with Fire
06. Drama!
07. You've Got to Save Me Right Now
08. Ship of Fools
09. Chorus
10. Breathe
11. Victim of Love
12. Alien
13. Hideaway
14. Love to Hate You
15. I Lose Myself
16. A Whole Lotta Love Run Riot
17. Breath of Life
18. Chains of Love
19. Sometimes
20. A Little Respect

21. Oh L'amour
22. Stop!

Whenever I hear about an electronic or dance-pop band going on tour, I always wonder how they'll reproduce their music live. It seems that bands more grounded in rock will try to perform as much live on "actual" instruments as possible. (See, for example, The Faint, although they also obviously "cheat" and use samples to augment their sound.) But it would seem that most bands in these genres just through caution to the wind and let samples dominate the show. Although I much prefer seeing the music reproduced on "real" instruments before my eyes, I can't truly blame electronic artists for eschewing that ideal. It's just not really practical to do it all live sometimes.

The opening act, Frankmusik, is really just one person, but he appeared on stage with a drummer and a keyboardist. This led one to the believe that they would try to reproduce their full sound live, but it quickly became apparent that this was not the case: the vocals were clearly processed, multi-tracked, and heavily autotuned. The keyboardist sang as well, but her vocal and instruments parts were minimal and could not account for the full sound, and she left her instrument to sing a duet, exposing the band's heavy reliance on samples. However, the live drummer surprised me. He was probably the best performer in the band, and his set was miked and mixed incredibly well for the style.

More important than arbitrary snobbery about performance style is of course the quality of the music. Frankly, it wasn't good. It was very generic pop without a hint of innovation. I am saddened that the core member of the band is producing Erasure's new album. Frankmusik has no sense of subtlety or depth and I can only hope he keeps his hands out of Erasure's craft as much as possible. I was glad their set was short.

Erasure, normally just a two-piece in the studio, hit the stage with two backup singers, which is apparently fairly standard for their live act. Instrumentalist (and former Depeche Mode and Yazoo co-founder) Vince Clarke and vocalist Andy Bell both appeared in bright, sequined, red jackets. Vince had a matching top hat while Andy donned a large sort of mask. The stage was surrounded by cylindrical cages and large gargoyle statues, which created a somewhat dark mood in contrast with the band's rather uptempo sound. Vince stood behind one of these gargoyles and presumably handled the programming and sampling. One could see a Mac laptop behind the gargoyle, and it appeared during most songs that he was playing keyboard parts live, although it was impossible to see an actual instrument. But while Vince hardly moved, Andy danced around the stage and handled all the talking.

Andy removed his mask after the first song, and after the second, he removed his jacket to reveal a tight shirt laced across the back. Halfway through the set, Andy called Vince over, and he proceeded to cut the laces. Upon completion, Andy put on a Michael Jackson t-shirt. Let it be said that Andy Bell does not hold back. During instrumental breaks, no matter how short, he usually passed the time dancing little routines across the stage. And of course, his voice was in top form. I would not be surprised if he also used an autotuner, but at least he didn't sound like a machine, and he let his backup singers hit the harmonies instead of using samples.

Vince remained thoroughly isolated from the action until he pulled out an acoustic guitar and strummed through a few songs. He repeated this at the end when the band played their extremely popular early singles in series. Most of the concert consisted of the band's biggest singles across their long career, although there were five songs from their upcoming album interspersed. Nothing else on the setlist could be called a surprise, but the chosen material was clearly what the audience wanted. The whole venue was in a jovial mood and by the end nearly everyone was out of their seats and dancing wherever they could. There was an effervescent energy in the air.

The music sounded great. The instrumental work, whether sequenced or live, retained the signature two-part, electronic, uptempo, pop feel, and the vocals were simply superb. The classics sounded great, and they certainly played every one of their songs that I wanted to hear, but I couldn't help wonder where the ABBA covers were – it was once a trademark move of the band. The band's own songs are generally very gender-neutral (for fairly obvious reasons), but the band has covered multiple ABBA songs without changing the pronouns (as if the message wasn't already clear). I was really hoping for "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" in the encore, but I can hardly complain about "Oh L'amour". When Vince used a little soundbox to give Andy the notes of the melody, the crowd went wild. Even if they don't make all their music live, at least their melodies and harmonies stand the test of time. These guys know the craft of pop songwriting well.

Frankmusik: D
Erasure: B

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Everest Ruin - Operationalization (2011)

Artist: The Everest Ruin
Album: Operationalization
Released: 10 July 2011
Label: Self-released (via bandcamp)
Producer: Brad Schumacher (Oo-De-Lally Audio) and Joshua N. King

01. A Tribute to My Independence
02. 8 Minutes to 11:30
03. Show Me How to Dance
04. Missouruh
05. The Good Book
06. When the Cattle Sleep
07. Eric
08. Baby Steps
09. The Fairest Maid
10. Beautiful Brown Eyes
11. Life Emulates Decay Emulates Life
12. There Once Was Love
13. Ticonderoga Wood
14. I Am a Crazy Person (80% About a Cat) [hidden track]
15. Being a Ghost Train
16. Pete's First Drink @ The Place 2 B
17. I Know How You Feel, Dustin Hoffman
18. By(e,) God [live 2008 in Shanghai] [bonus video]

Yes, as stated before in my review of the last time I saw him perform in my area, I know the musician behind The Everest Ruin personally and professionally. That isn't going to stop me from reviewing his new album as long as you trust that I can evaluate the music reasonably objectively. No matter what, though, I usually write about music that already means something to me, so of course I'm inclined to tell a story and try to convince you that you should listen to the music yourself. So if I write a positive review, what's the difference in providing free marketing for an artist I don't know personally versus one I do? In this case, at least I can tell some stories that might not be publicly available elsewhere!

Now that that's out of the way – where should I begin? Perhaps at the beginning. The album opens appropriately with "A Tribute to My Independence". Even if the track itself is not that special, it introduces the scene perfectly. The Everest Ruin is an independent musician, Josh King, working with an independent producer, Brad Schumacher, and using an independent distribution platform. The indie label goes beyond the logistics; this is not a predictable album and for a musician that is ostensibly a singer-songwriter, Josh throws many punches that put himself far outside the realm of your standard solo acoustic guitarist.

This independence is a credit and a risk. However, those labels do not apply in a predictable pattern: for example, for being indie, the production on the album is complex and nuanced. Brad lends his touch all over the album, sometimes delicately and sometimes deliberately. You can feel it in the vast space of songs like "There Once Was Love" and in the vocals of songs such as "I Know How You Feel, Dustin Hoffman". Even without knowing that Brad and Josh have performed and recorded together in past bands, you can immediately detect how smoothly they work together. This fact becomes gradually more obvious as the album progresses. You can hear snippets of Brad's studio banter, and his voice and percussion on "The Place 2 B", and most notably, his noise compositions on "8 Minutes to 11:30" and "Being a Ghost Train". His measured but expansive soundscapes lend those tracks the core of their strength and power.

But this attitude also carries a certain danger. Even if the sonic quality is pristine, the performances are often imperfect. Josh defends this in an extended document released with the album, claiming that this is a more authentic presentation of his work. However, this will certainly be difficult topic for some listeners. For example, the "Shenandoah" solo in "Missourah" will throw some for a loop, and the improvised nature of "Show Me How to Dance" means that it does falter at points.

But in a way, it works. It may be distracting, but it is funny to hear Brad shout "keep going!" after Josh misses a note. And the sloppy rhythm and guitarwork of "The Place 2 B" does, after all, fit the theme of the song. Perhaps there is a master plan, even if part of it is simply grounded in playfulness. Consider the almost obnoxiously ridiculous drum machine and sound effects of "Baby Steps" – it is clear that Josh knows the song is over-the-top, but whether it is in jest or not, some element of it remains valid.

Compare this to the subtle sigh at the start of "Eric", one of the most beautiful and sincere songs on the album, apparently written about an old friend from Josh's hometown. Eric is Josh's friend, not mine, and I don't think I've ever met him, but this song makes me feel like I know him well, and it reminds of people I miss in entirely different contexts. It was someone's decision to leave that sigh in the recording, but it actually fits the tone perfectly.

The playful aspect permeates the album in many places. "The Good Book" and "Ticonderoga Wood" are really stories set to music, and although they might not have the same relistenability as other songs, they are hilarious stories. These works may thrive best in the live setting, but these are good recordings. Similarly, "Life Emulates Decay Emulates Life" is a bleak view of post-collegiate life, but it is also quite funny – to the point that I almost break out laughing every time I hear the tease of "1979" shortly after Josh sings, "half-heartedly regurgitating lines that are over twelve years old". (The W-2 bit is a close second favorite line.)

Then there are the songs that have essentially no trace of humor, irony, or playfulness. Sometimes it feels almost like a different performer. The majestic, dramatic "Being a Ghost Train" is sandwiched between two fairly absurd songs. The melodramatic "When the Cattle Sleeps" is an honest consideration of life after a lost love, and who cares if a couple notes are a touch off. And then there's the seriously impressive solo bass on "Beautiful Brown Eyes".

There are two forces at work on this album. One is a more pure, serious craft of songwriting, complete with strong melodies and careful arrangements. The other is a somewhat loose, jocular style of storytelling, featuring great lengths of absurdism and dramatic gestures. Both are important to Josh, or else he wouldn't alternate between these extremes so quickly – or blend them together, as with "I Know How You Feel, Dustin Hoffman". For fans of one or the other, I'd fear that the other half would get tedious, but despite my first impressions, I have to admit that somehow it works. It's hard to only like one side or the other, and they end up complementing each other far more than imbalancing them. (Except for "I Am a Crazy Person" – that one's really only for the hardcore.)

And this is certainly the first album I've ever bought that includes not just 14 pages of lyrics but also 5 dense pages of what amounts to essays about the background of the music. It's a good read, but far more than most musicians ever care to write!

Score: B+

P.S. There are a hundred little extra things I could say about this album – funny passages, stories I know personally, musical trivia, and so on – but it is probably better for you to find it on your own. A few good listens reveal a lot.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Styx / Yes - Live 2011.07.24 Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, Maryland Heights, Missouri

I've seen some local shows around St. Louis, which I suppose I could be reviewing, but I haven't seen a big-name rock band in quite a while. But when I heard that Styx and Yes were touring – together! – for sixteen dollars! – it was too hard to say no.

Artists: Styx and Yes
Venue: Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
Location: Maryland Heights, Missouri
Date: 24 July 2011

Yes' setlist:
01. Tempus Fugit
02. Yours Is No Disgrace
03. Heart of the Sunrise
04. I've Seen All Good People
05. Fly from Here Pt. 1 – We Can Fly
06. And You and I
07. Owner of a Lonely Heart
08. Starship Trooper

09. Roundabout

Styx' setlist:
01. Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)
02. Grand Illusion
03. One with Everything
04. Too Much Time on My Hands
05. Lady
06. Lorelei
07. Man in the Wilderness
08. Suite Madame Blue
09. Crystal Ball
10. Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
11. Miss America
12. Come Sail Away

13. Renegade

Yes are perhaps *the* prototypical progressive rock band. They've been around for decades and they still haven't stopped making music. Their current line-up features mostly long-standing members of the band. The only recent newcomer to the band is singer Benoît David, filling in for Jon Anderson, who is apparently absent for health reasons. For a group aged mostly in the 60s, it's impressive that the others are still trucking along. Steve Howe may look skeletal, but he can play the guitar like nobody I've seen.

The band were in good form. I couldn't help but notice some faltering harmonies and missed bass notes, but they kept their act together. Although they mostly stayed with songs that are tried and true, and well beloved, they didn't hide their dramatic extended instrumental passages. They allowed their songs to grow and fill the space, so their nine songs lasted well over an hour. A couple songs may have been noticeably simpler and poppier ("Only of a Lonely Heart"), but these were still quality performances, and I was pleased to see a song from their newest album, Fly from Here. It might not have held up quite as strongly as the classic pieces, and I might be a bit surprised that they didn't play more from the album, but I suppose they were out to please their audience.

Styx might have had their progressive moments, but they wouldn't be the first band I would think of to be headlining a "Progressive U.S. Tour", as it was billed. They've always struck me as being more focused on the classic rock and the pop, but maybe I missed the memo. Their performance, however, confirmed my beliefs: they know how to rock, but they are more interested in wild guitar solos and dancing around stage than in constructing an expansive, multilayered soundscape. That's fine, it's just that they didn't really put on a "progressive" performance.

Their show was a lot of fun, but it's almost hard to take seriously. Only one original member (James Young) remains, and although Tommy Shaw may have been around for a long time, the other members had no part in writing most of the songs that were performed. Styx also didn't stray far from comfortable territory; they stayed close to the heart and only played popular singles and classic album cuts (including over half of The Grand Illusion), with the sole exception of 2006's "One with Everything". James and Tommy both had plenty of stage time for their hypermasculine guitar jams, but keyboardist Lawrence Gowan may have taken the cake with his theatrics. He spent more time dancing around stage, jumping on his keyboard stand, and playing his instrument from around his back than he did actually focusing on playing any seriously complicated parts.

The further the set went, the more ridiculous the themes and the backdrop got. "Miss America" may have been written about the dark side of the pageant, but you wouldn't have known it from all the patriotic Americana and the stills of pageant participants. The glories of this nation were extolled many a time, and by the time they closed with "Renegade", the backdrop mostly featured strange cowboy-themed images and shoddy graphics of rotating sheriff's badges. The band certainly has a high level of energy, and if you're willing to join them on their ride, it is hard to stop laughing and enjoying it all.

Fun as it was, there is no doubt which band has the greater artistic sincerity. When I heard about the concert, I assumed that Yes would headline based on their continued presence, the high quality of their output, and their deep impact on modern music. However, I forgot to ask myself which band sold more records. Even if Styx does have more fans, Yes writes better music. The way they weave pieces and parts together, the way they layer instruments and vocals, the less showman-based nature of their solos, and the variety of their total sound output are all unarguably superior. And when they did decide to dance around a bit and start to rock hard, they didn't hold back. When Howe and bassist Chris Squire locked parts together in a powerful jam, suddenly keyboardist Geoff Downes appeared out of nowhere next to them with a keytar! Incredible. That's the way into this writer's heart.

Yes: B+
Styx: B-

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra - Live 2011.03.19 Powell Hall, St. Louis, Missouri

Once again I have been honored with an invitation to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's Blogger's Night. I was a fan the first time I ever set foot in Powell Hall, but my appreciation for the SLSO has only deepened with time. Here's the latest:

Event: St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Carlos Kalmar
Venue: Powell Hall
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 19 March 2011

1. Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke), composed by Franz Liszt, 1856-61
2. Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op. 58, composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, 1804-07, featuring Arnaldo Cohen on piano
3. Atmosphères, composed by György Ligeti, 1961 
4. Also sprach Zarathustra, op. 30, composed by Richard Strauss, 1896

Arriving early enough to the concert to attend the Pre-Concert Perspectives, I was immediately surprised to see not musical director and primary conductor David Robertson, but another man with what I assumed to be a slightly Germanic accent. Somehow I'd failed to notice that the night's performance featured a guest conductor, Carlos Kalmar. Born in Uruguay to Austrian parents and holding a resume that boasts years of work in Germany, my assumption wasn't too far off – and he could pronounce the German names and titles with an obvious fluency. Anyway, he discussed the works to be performed and explained some of the context, which is quite nice: it's not a bad deal to get a bonus half-hour music history lesson before the main event of the night.

And after another half-hour, after the rest of the attendees found their seats and the musicians tuned up, Kalmar returned to the stage and jumped into Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Based on a licentious scene from the Faust legend in which the devil picks up a fiddle and drives Faust and an entire village into a frenzied, orgiastic dance in the woods, the piece blends serene pastorals of village life and innocent dancing with wild, dramatic leaps across the consciousness. The highlight is clearly the increasingly ecstatic uproar as the end approaches. The triangle rang clearer and higher than I knew the instrument capable of, and then everything else became intense, demanding, scattered, and loud. After a great flourish of the harp and a turn for the mysterious and unknown, several sharp jabs heralded the finish. The devil's tune was over; his task was complete.

Beethoven's rather unloved fourth piano concerto followed. Kalmar had indicated a connection between this piece and Liszt, but I failed to observe it: Arnaldo Cohen's piano was the showpiece, the work has no grounding story or text, and the piece is unfocused and overlong (over half an hour compared to the Waltz's ten or eleven minutes). The concerto begins with a brief twirl on the piano before awkwardly transitioning to the full orchestra. Such a start was apparently highly uncommon in the times of Beethoven, and so I applaud the idea of countering expectations, but the fact remains that it was a strange beginning, perhaps ultimately unfavorably constructed.

Cohen's virtuosity is unquestioned; his performance was solid and strong. The orchestra was similarly in step, but I couldn't help feel that this was simply not as strong of a piece as Beethoven was capable of composing. I wanted to like the trading of parts between piano and orchestra, but I kept wishing for them to truly blend and merge, but they kept their distance and refused to move closer. Every time one began to approach a conclusion, the other took over and brought the piece somewhere else. The piano chased the orchestra but could never catch it. This did occasionally work well: near the end of the first part, the piano ran all up and down the keyboard, and just as the orchestra joined the fray, the piano flitted in and out of the other instruments, defiantly standing independent. That interplay was successful – but little in the second or third sections matched it. The piece seemed to try to go everywhere and yet reach nothing.

After the intermission, Kalmar offered us a unique treat: Ligeti's Atmosphères, followed without pause by Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, both known in the public eye primarily for their inclusion in Stanley Kubrick's epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ligeti's work was the only "modern" piece of the night, and also by far the most abstract, unusual, and experimental. Featuring no discernible melody or rhythm, the work is based on tone clusters and pointed directional ideas. Many segments were quite discordant, others were dark and thick and slow, others were spaced out and spooky. I couldn't help but observe the increased predilection of the audience to cough during this work; was this a sign of disapproval? And during a particularly harsh segment in which the instruments reached the maximal height of their scales, I caught a tacit musician on stage plugging her ears with her fingers.

And as things settled and cleared in a low, sparse moment, suddenly I recognized the first warming notes of Also sprach Zarathustra. The timpanist, as excited and engaged as a orchestra percussionist can be, cast resounding, powerful notes to welcome the dramatic excess of the piece. Bass drum and organ encouraged what was perhaps the loudest I've yet heard the SLSO perform. This is what people think of when they think of "classical music": big, grand, epic, sweeping. Two harpists strumming away. Massive percussion. Dramatic gestures.

And then the piece goes in a different direction entirely. It calms and settles and becomes a complete work totally separate from the relatively brief segment known to the general populace. The work grows and returns to powerful drama just slightly reminiscent of the start, and then recedes again into a smaller affair. It is strong, varied, and beautiful. And as it nears the ultimate conclusion, glockenspiel and chimes ring strong and clear, the music ascends and expands, and the weight becomes so much that it eventually must detonate, leaving a softer, slower, lighter finish.

It felt like a long concert. They fit a lot in, and there wasn't much overlap. The Liszt was perfect – loose yet requiring a dedication proficiency from the musicians – while Beethoven's concerto may ultimately fail even if the performance was solid. Ligeti was an experience, a challenge; but I like to be thrust out of my comfort zone sometimes, to be removed from my own context. I enjoyed the work, because it truly brought something new, and the juxtaposition with Strauss' masterpiece was perfect. A pause was unnecessary, since it was abundantly clear to the audience where one work ended and the other began. And Strauss' work – it was beautiful, powerful, and a wonder to behold in its entirety.

This was a fun night.

Score: B+

Thanks to Eddie, Dale, and my parents.