Saturday, December 12, 2015

Einstürzende Neubauten - Lament (2014)

Artist: Einstürzende Neubauten
Album: Lament
Release Date: 7 November 2014
Label: Mute (BMG)
Producer: Boris Wilsdorf and Einstürzende Neubauten

01. Kriegsmaschinerie
02. Hymnen [adaptation of various national anthems]
03. The Willy-Nicky Telegrams [adapted from telegraphs between Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II]
04. In de Loopgraf [Paul van den Broeck adaptation]
05. Der 1. Weltkrieg (Percussion Version)
06. On Patrol in No Man's Land [James Reese Europe cover]
07. Achterland [Paul van den Broeck adaptation]
08. Lament: Lament
09. Lament: Abwärtsspirale
10. Lament: Pater Peccavi [Clemens non Papa adaptation]
11. How Did I Die?
12. Sag mir wo die Blumen sind [Pete Seeger/Max Colpet cover]
13. Der Beginn des Weltkrieges 1914 (dargestellt unter Zuhilfenahme eines Tierstimmenimitators) [Joseph Plaut adaptation]
14. All of No Man's Land Is Ours [James Reese Europe cover]

Einstürzende Neubauten are a fascinating and long-lasting band, and one of a relatively small number of German bands that both regularly sing in German and manage to have a following in English-speaking countries. While they have consistently embraced experimentation, philosophical songwriting, and custom-built instrumentation, they have changed quite a bit through the years. From their earliest days as a percussive, punk-inspired noise band, they evolved through the 80s into something of an avant-garde industrial band. The height of their English-speaking popularity probably came in the 90s, when frontperson Blixa Bargeld started occasionally writing in English, their music began fitting into existing structures and patterns, and they even sometimes embraced melody. They were early adopters of not just a multimedia and internet-enabled experience, which seems to have kept them active and productive when they otherwise may have broken apart, but also the idea of self-releasing music instead of depending solely on mainstream distribution.

However, even being the longtime fan that I was, I started to get somewhat skeptical of the band in the late 00s. Their supporter's projects sounded cool, but they were too expensive for me at the time. Besides, the most of the songs on the first supporter's album ended up (albeit in alternate forms) on the public-release Perpetuum Mobile, which was clearly the better album anyway. The second supporter's album, Grundstück, wasn't very good, and the third, Jewels, wasn't either, and it even got a public release, despite earlier claims that it would not. The next major release, Alles wieder offen, had some great songs but on the whole seemed like a step down from their earlier albums. During this period, they also had released a series of eight highly experimental albums that I had no interest in whatsoever. The last blow was when they were forced to cancel their planned USA tour in 2010 due to visa problems. At that point, the band seemed to enter a period of less activity.

It wasn't until 2014 that they released another album, Lament, and it still remains unreleased outside of Europe (and Hong Kong!?). Disappointed by recent albums and discouraged by the rather high cost of importing the album, I abstained from acquiring it until a friend remarked that the album was "absolutely astounding" in terms of "packaging, production, fidelity, performance, composition, and theme". That was plenty enough to convince me to give it a try!

I was not disappointed. Lament is not at all like previous Neubauten records, although it is decidedly an album by the same band. The hallmark of self-made instrumentation is abundant in spades, and Bargeld's precise, dramatic vocal delivery immediately identifies this as the work of Neubauten. But where previous albums were focused on matters of theory and concept, this album is firmly grounded in a very real and specific historical event: the assault on Diksmuide, Belgium by the German army at the outbreak of World War I. The town commissioned the band to commemorate the hundred years' anniversary with a performance work, which was also "recreated" in the studio.

The album starts off deceptively quiet, but the gradually increasing clattering of "Kriegsmaschinerie" is meant to be read along with a text that describes the slow buildup that leads to war. This first track already proves that this is an album that requires more than just listening: the accompanying liner notes of the physical editions are essential. (The additional descriptions found on the band's website are also quite helpful.) Many other songs greatly benefit from the additional contextual information.

Almost every song has a unique story. "Hymnen" is a mashup of several national hymns, proving that they really are fairly meaningless and interchangeable. "The Willy-Nicky Telegrams" is a surprisingly successful vocoder duet, with Blixa as Kaiser Wilhelm II (left channel) and Alexander Hacke as Tsar Nicholas II (right channel). The two were cousins through marriage and exchanged friendly telegraphs even as they were mobilizing their armies. "Der 1. Weltkrieg" is a statistical composition, representing the individual nations at war with individual percussion instruments played for the duration of their participation. Two songs are minimalist, eerie adaptations of obscure Flemish poems about the mundanity of the soldier's life, and another two are basically covers of marching band tunes from the Harlem Hellfighter's military band. ("On Patrol in No Man's Land" even features lead vocals from Hacke!)

The centerpiece is a trilogy under the title of "Lament". It starts with an almost ambient piece of multi-layered vocals that builds up to the phrase, "die Mächtigen lieben den Krieg" ("the powerful love war"). This is followed by a downward spiral and then an adaptation of a Renaissance motet written by a composer that lived in Diksmuide. The latter is accompanied by the voices of various prisoners of war who were recorded by German linguists to document the wide variety of dialects and languages throughout Europe. It's a tricky matter to handle, but Neubauten treat it with the respect it deserves.

The last part of the album changes track a bit. "How Did I Die?" is an original composition that fits into the Neubauten canon well enough that it could have appeared on past albums without seeming out of place. "Sag mir wo die Blumen sind" ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone?") is a Pete Seeger song from the 1950s, translated into German and performed widely by Marlene Dietrich. The band's version is a rather minimal arrangement, but it's great to hear them take on the folk standard so successfully. "Der Beginn der Weltkrieges 1914" is a dramatic reading of a short story from 1926 telling of the onset of World War I from the perspective of various animals. It's a rather long track, and perhaps the one with the least relistening value, but it is particularly notable for ending with the appearance of Hitler!

While Neubauten have worked in theatre and have composed soundtracks before, this album is special for being a unique production with its own narrative and structure, but incorporating a wide variety of other sources. While an album so full of adaptations and covers is certainly an unusual step for the band, it seems to have rejuvenated the band and restored them to their creative best. The fact that it comes off so well in terms of content and sound makes it a resounding success. Considering how wonderful some of Neubauten's older cover versions are (Lee Hazelwood's "Sand" and Bonnie Dobson's "Morning Dew"), I wonder if Neubauten have an underappreciated talent for rearrangement and recontextualization.

Score: A

P.S. The one flaw of the album is that several sections of the liner notes are plagiarized straight from Wikipedia without credit. For example, the bit on the Harlem Hellfighters is copied from here, and the section on "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" is copied from here. The description of Joseph Plaut is clearly translated directly from his German article. Considering that the band supposedly hired two historians to help with their research, and Hartmut Fischer is credited with "literary research and text compilation", I would've expected someone to have treated that matter correctly.

P.P.S. Also, on "Achterland", Hacke is credited with performing "amplified crotches". This is clearly a typo and should read "amplified crutches", but I was slightly disgusted and humorously confused until I realized the error.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

On Losslessness

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of audio file formats and online distribution thereof. There seems to be a growing camp of people demanding lossless digital download options, but also a camp that claims that decent lossy compression is good enough for most people. Although I'm decidedly in the former camp, I would like to more thoroughly explore what the actual differences are between lossless and lossy compression.

Plenty of people have tried to determine if the differences are easy to hear. Generally, these analyses fall into two camps. The more populist surveys usually barely show a favorable outcome for the ability of an average listener to correctly identify a lossless file versus a lossy version. (See, for example, here.) The more specialized, audiophile studies fare somewhat better, although the specifics vary widely. Some people claim to be able to discern the difference with no difficulty, but these people tend to have high-end hardware and trained ears. (See, for example, here or here.) Most people can barely hear the difference, and it would seem even that requires more concentration and effort than is usually afforded during casual listening.

However easy it may or may not be to hear the difference, I am nonetheless interested in what exactly that difference is. The effectiveness of flac (the Free Lossless Audio Codec) in reducing file sizes to about half or two-thirds of uncompressed wav files should prove that some amount of lossless compression is possible simply by eliminating redundant data. Lossy compression also removes redundancies, but by definition also removes actual audio content to further reduce file size. The most obvious elimination is any frequency over 16 kHz, since many people cannot hear frequencies above that point, or cannot hear them well. Even I top out somewhere between 17 and 18 kHz.

After that, though, exactly what gets cut is not necessarily easy to describe. Fundamentally, information that is considered inessential is removed by the algorithm. However, some of this information may be detectable in its absence by careful inspection. To this end, I did some internet searching and found a few articles and discussions that address some common trends. Here are some of the conclusions I've come across:

1. Transients (e.g. snare hits) suffer. They get blurred, lose their sharpness, and may even acquire pre-echo. All forms of percussion can lose some of their natural punch. Such quick bursts of information are often too short for the codec's processing frame size and they get blurred across the frame.
2. Vocals lose focus and clarity. Our ears are particularly sensitive to the human voice and can detect seemingly subtle changes.
3. Cymbals and applause get distorted and rough. This is because high-entropy (i.e. "random" or rapidly changing) information changes too fast for the codec. This can sometimes also materialize as ringing or warbling.
4. Bass instruments get muddier. Lower frequencies have longer wavelengths, which can be longer than the codec's processing frame size, and thus do not get represented accurately.
5. Stereo separation and phase become distorted. Some of this is due to M/S (mid/sides) stereo mode, which instead of storing left and right, tries to reduce information redundancy by only storing the center (shared) and side (differences).
6. Dynamic loss and EQ loss is somewhat inevitable. Some sounds may get attenuated more than others, and the others may thus seem louder.
7. Noise (general murkiness, an underwater feeling, hiss, etc.) sometimes creeps in where previously there was desirable content.
8. Lossy compression can simply make things sound different, even if not necessarily worse. However, any deviation from the intentions of the artists and producers can reasonably be considered undesirable.
9. Lower-fidelity source material may actually suffer even worse, as whatever noise and other flaws exist in the uncompressed original may become exaggerated.
10. Genre, style, and the nature of the audio in question matter. Some types of music seem to compress better than others. Any reasonable audio comparison test should use a variety of types of music or audio.

There are, of course, a couple other factors to consider, such as the differences in acquiring and storing lossless and lossy audio. Hard drives are constantly getting cheaper and bigger, so the cost of storing lossless audio is a fairly marginal issue anymore. Acquiring the audio is another matter, although the difference there is also no longer as vast as it once was. New CDs are still only slightly more expensive than most mp3 stores, and used CDs are almost always cheaper. (The rip-and-resell approach has detractors but has been thus far legally unquestioned, at least in the USA.) Lossless online retailers are generally just about as expensive as mp3 stores, or at worst slightly more expensive than mp3s but still less than CDs. Hence, cost of acquisition is hardly a dealbreaker.

The real problem in acquisition is still that of availability. Lossless online retailers, while ever increasing in number and in content, still do not represent anything near all of the world's available music. It can be a pain to track this stuff down if it doesn't have the right type of following or industry support. There are a few significant websites (such as Bandcamp) and many individual indie labels (Sub Pop, Merge, etc.) and bands (speaking from experience: Ride, The Church, Wilco, and others) that offer lossless downloads, but many artists are still hard to track down.

This is also confused by the proliferation of HD retailers, which offer even higher sample rates and bitrates, despite that most people do not have the equipment to take advantage of the additional audio content. This wouldn't be a problem except that HD files are several factors larger and usually more expensive than any other digital format. (Only vinyl competes at that price range, and that's yet another story for another time.)

For me, lossless is the answer. While the quality advantage of lossless music may not be vast, the matters of file size and cost are less significant to me. The difficulty of acquiring lossless audio can still be a challenge, but it seems to be getting easier with time, and I am not opposed to CDs. In fact, if there is one issue that still gets me about most digital music downloads, it's the lack of album art. This is a big deal to me, and in fact was one of the first things I ever wrote about on this blog. Sometimes this can be found on discogs or other sites, but finding it in decent resolution is usually tough. If that hurdle can be crossed, then lossless digital downloads should clearly be considered the standard.


P.S. For the purposes of this discussion, I consider "lossless" to mean redbook audio CD quality, i.e. 16-bit, 44.1 kHz. HD audio is entirely other discussion with its own contentions, such as whether most listeners actually benefit from it, whether listeners can distinguish it, and whether the online retail options are any good. I do not have solid opinions of my own on these matters (yet).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

FFF Fest 2015, Day 2: Late Night Show at the Sidewinder

Event: Fun Fun Fun Fest, Day 2, Late Night Show
Venue: The Sidewinder
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 7 November 2015

Introduction: I still marvel at FFFFest for putting together all the late night shows in addition to the main festival at Auditorium Shores. It's hard to believe that they manage to get fairly big acts (relatively speaking) to play such small local venues, but it makes for an experience that is hard to match. The much-touted "intimacy" of smaller venues is a real thing, although I would argue it's only worth it if the sound system is up to par. Anyway, I left the main festival a bit early to make sure I could get in to my venue of choice. I did the same thing two years ago only to realize I was way too early, but I had the suspicion this time would be different, especially since my venue of choice was lined up to host three or four big names in indie rock. I did make it in, but I must have been one of the last ones to make it back to the outside stage before the venue had to restrict entry and enforce a one-out, out-in policy.

My reason for being outside was to see Moving Panoramas, a self-described "all-gal dream gaze trio from Austin". They certainly fit their own bill, and while there were no standout moments, they were consistently solid. The frontwoman stole the show, as her guitar and vocals were the dominant elements that made the music compelling. The drummer seemed to be struggling, but the bassist was decent if not exceptional. Their music had a tendency to fade into a hazy background, but it occupied a space that I find particularly enjoyable. They have some promise in them yet.

[Moving Panoramas.]

Unfortunately, I was a bit distracted during the set by the constant flow of people pushing hard against me in search of alcohol and toilets. I was already planning on moving inside at that point, but it was an easy choice to make in terms of personal space. Since I'd recently seen Alvvays and I only had a modest interest in Future Islands, hopefully someone who was more interested than me in those bands managed to get in.

I got inside in time to see the very end of Carl Sagan's Skate Shoes' set. It was hardcore thrasher stuff and it did nothing for me. The second band inside was Future Death. For some reason I had reasonably high hopes for them, but they delivered the same kind of hardcore punky stuff that had been failing me all day. I'd heard them described as "noise pop", but I sure didn't see any pop under all the noise. The drumming was great and the rhythms were wild, but I just couldn't get into the energy of it.

[Future Death.]

The last band inside was the band formerly known as Viet Cong. (They recently made the laudable decision to find a better name for themselves, and while they haven't announced a new name, they tellingly introduced themselves only with the band members' given names. [Edit 2017.03.21: They finally settled on Preoccupations last year.]) I missed my chance to see them at SXSW earlier this year, and I was looking forward to seeing them in such a small venue. During their soundcheck, I caught bits of Can's "Vitamin C" and Siouxsie & the Banshees' "Arabian Knights", so they had gotten me quite excited. However, when they finally started playing in earnest, I was a bit disappointed by their cacophonous sonic surge. Instead of a post-punk sense of space and exploration, it seemed like they were struggling with punk's raw energy. There were parts I could grab on to, like the solid drumming and the occasionally astral guitar work, but a lot of it was just a noisy mess. I think they and the preceding bands on the inside stage suffered from mediocre mixing, and thus while I was not particularly impressed by their set, I get the impression that they are capable of more.

[The band formerly known as Viet Cong.]

Moving Panoramas: B
Future Death: C-
The band formerly known as Viet Cong: C+

Final Thoughts: I can't help but wonder what the rest of the evening sounded like on the outside stage – and the other late night venues around town. It would seem that Sidewinder's outside stage has superior sound to the inside, at least judging by this night, and I'm curious if Future Islands would have impressed me in the right environment. I may have gotten the intimate experience I wanted, but maybe it was a little too intimate. It seems like the late night shows are a bit of a crapshoot, and I might not have gotten the best experience, but I don't regret giving it a try.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Fun Fun Fun Fest 2015, Day 2

Event: Fun Fun Fun Fest, Day 2
Venue: Auditorium Shores
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 7 November 2015

Introduction: I wasn't motivated to make it to Fun Fun Fun Fest last year, but I got excited again this year and picked the day that looked most promising to me. (I had previously attended one day and one night in 2013.) The weather the was cold and windy, and due to storming, the festival was actually about an hour late in opening its doors. It would seem that the first scheduled acts were simply dropped, and the next round were about 15 minutes late.

I arrived just in time for the doors to open (so I had to walk to the end of the line and then walk all the way back to the entrance) and I got in just as Joanna Gruesome were starting. Although the band's name might be a gimmick (not that I particularly care for Joanna Newsom) and their original frontwoman recently left the band, they performed better than I would've expected. I liked the mix of punk energy and post-punk, My Bloody Valentine-style guitar work and melody. I'm led to believe that their words are worth hearing, but sadly, despite many audience requests to boost the vocal levels, I couldn't understand a word.

[Joanna Gruesome.]

Out of curiosity, I then went to the yellow tent stage to hear Dr. Scott Bolton, a NASA scientist often involved in education and outreach. Unsurprisingly, he was a bit out of place at the festival, but he maintained a consistent crowd (even if most were there to escape the drizzle or hear whoever came next) and he did manage to get a few laughs. His presentation was somewhat disorganized, as if he had a lot of ideas to share but hadn't apportioned his allotted time appropriately. His main focus was the necessity of interaction between the arts and sciences, in that such cross-field engagement is the root of innovation. (I certainly wouldn't disagree.) He encouraged us to make and maintain friendships with a variety of people with different interests and careers. He also talked some about the mission he primarily works on (the Juno spacecraft en route to Jupiter) and the physics of skateboarding.

I caught just the last couple songs of both Shamir and Speedy Ortiz but not really enough of either to get a good impression. Shamir seemed interesting, and I liked his keyboardist, even if the programmed parts were a little annoying. Speedy Ortiz struck me as decent indie guitar rock but that's about all I can say.

With some reservation, I trekked over to the black stage to see the Toronto hardcore band Fucked Up. I must be missing something, because for all the acclaim I hear about this band, I couldn't figure them out. There were three guitarists for apparently no reason. Supposedly their lyrics are good and politically progressive, but I wouldn't know, since every single word was screamed and indecipherable. This was accompanied by a lot of stage diving and the singer running through the crowd for most of the set. On the other hand, this was the first hardcore band I've seen live with a woman member. I eventually got bored and bailed to go catch the latter half of the Charlatans' set. Their rather generic Britpop sound wasn't much of an improvement, but at least it wasn't as abrasive and I was able to find a dry place to sit. I appreciated an occasional hint of funk and the final song's progressive edge.

I stuck around the orange stage for a while at this point. I had a passing interest in Fuzz, and they lived up to expectation as a riff-heavy rock band. They played wildly, a little unhinged, with non-stop energy. They clearly have a lot of fun while maintaining good vibes, even if there isn't much depth to it and the lyrics are throwaway. As expected, the guitar and bass were very fuzzy, but contrary to expectation, the vast majority of the crowd surfing was by women. I don't know if I can take Ty Segall and his gang seriously, but at least they did their best to be entertaining.


Immediately after Fuzz's set, I witnessed something that perhaps has to be seen to be believed. I'd heard of the taco cannon, but did not realize it was a real thing. Sure enough, the festival organizers have some sort of propulsive mechanism for rapid-firing (sealed) tacos into the audience. They didn't shoot any into the area I was standing in, but I'm betting they weren't vegan, anyway.

[The taco cannon in action.]

Next up was American Football, one of those 90s Midwestern indie guitar rock bands that disappeared before anyone hardly knew they existed, yet managed to capture a far bit of adoration in the meantime. They played several songs from their lone, self-titled album from 1999 (setlist borrowed from here):

1. Stay Home
2. Honestly?
3. For Sure
4. I'll See You When We're Both Not So Emotional
5. The Summer Ends
6. Never Meant
7. The 7's

Their music was very chill and low-key, but yet consistently fascinating. The guitar parts were great; they were constantly weaving around each other and finding new spaces to grow. The parts were extremely well written and carefully performed, such that you wouldn't even notice the morass of unusual time signatures if you weren't looking for them. The drummer was on point, too, and in several songs he picked up a trumpet for an instrumental section. The only weak part of the performance was the vocals: I guess I just find Mike Kinsella's style to be a bit off-key or in need of some tunefulness. Excepting that, I thought they did an excellent job, and I was fondly reminded of Hum and Falsetto Boy.

[American Football.]

The following act was the real reason I was there: Ride. While I haven't been a fan for long, their first two albums and early EPs have become some of my recent favorites, and I was thrilled at the notion of seeing their reformed live show. Perhaps fully aware of the relative mediocrity of their latter two albums, their set focused almost entirely on the beloved earlier material:

01. Leave Them All Behind
02. Like a Daydream
03. Polar Bear
04. Seagull
05. Kaleidoscope
06. Cool Your Boots
07. Dreams Burn Down
08. Black Nite Crash
09. Taste
10. Vapour Trail
11. Drive Blind

I was thoroughly impressed with their ability to bring the songs alive on stage. The signature two-part vocals harmonies were spot-on throughout the set, and the amazing guitar parts were there in full. I also noticed far more of Steve Queralt's bass and Laurence Colbert's drumming than I ever had from their recordings. Put all together, it was an intense performance and I was easily lost in the beautiful noise they created. I could fault them for predictability or for not introducing many variations in the material they recorded over twenty years ago, but it was of such high quality that even those criticisms seem unwarranted. The one dramatic departure was a long, noisy, experimental jam between the second and third verses of "Drive Blind". I was reminded of the extended "holocaust" section found in My Bloody Valentine's live performances of "You Made Me Realise". As far as I can tell, they've been doing this since their early days, but I was unaware until now.


As Ride walked off stage, I rushed to the blue stage to see as much of Grimes' set as possible. However, the crowd was dense and mostly engaging in spaced-out dancing, talking, or lighting up various substances, so I was unable to get anywhere near the stage and my ability to pay close attention was substantially impeded. From what I could see, she just danced around stage while occasionally pausing to interact with various electronics. All I could hear were diffuse drum beats, scattered synth parts, and Grimes' passable vocals. My impressions of Grimes has always been very good in the past, but this live performance made me feel like I was missing something. I could hardly tell what the audience was holding on to. It was a strange experience; it was as if everyone else was hearing or seeing something I couldn't.

When it came time to pick a headliner to see, I wasn't feeling particularly enthused about any of my choices, but I ended up sticking around the orange stage for Jane's Addiction. They commenced playing their Ritual de lo habitual album in full, and during the first song, three scantily-clad women came out and began suggestively dancing. I was surprised at such a tasteless affair, and I left in search of tofu tacos. When I returned, the dancers were gone. In fact, I was lucky to return when I did, as I came back just in time for them to start playing a very distinctive riff that I immediately recognized as "Burning from the Inside" by Bauhaus. Instead of the normal lyrics, it appeared that Perry Farrell was singing parts of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone". Truly, this was something bizarre and fascinating. It still hardly makes sense to me, since it certainly never appeared on Ritual de lo habitual, which they were still in the middle of, but apparently they used to play this weird medley back in the day. It was even given a special name: "Bobhaus".

[Jane's Addiction.]

That odd diversion was probably the highlight for me, as soon afterwards the dancers returned to remind us that the five men musicians on stage apparently only have use of women as visual props. At least the band didn't solely rely on their sexist display to entertain their audience; musically, I thought they had some great performances. Certainly some songs were standard macho rock, but many others had a great sense of atmosphere and texture. At the least, Dave Navarro proved himself as an extremely proficient guitarist. The setlist can be found here.

I left early in order to get to the late night show at The Sidewinder, which I will review in my next post.

Joanna Gruesome: B+
Fucked Up: D
The Charlatans (UK): C
Fuzz: B
American Football: A-
Ride: A+
Grimes: C
Jane's Addiction: B-

Final Thoughts: I didn't catch enough attention of Shamir or Speedy Oritz to be able to score them effectively. Similarly, Dr. Scott Bolton was far enough outside the usual spectrum that I don't think it would be fair for me to try to score him. Of the acts I did score, it seemed like there was a sharp divide between the acts that I simply couldn't make sense of and those that fell into some sort of rock spectrum that I could appreciate. I fear that my biases are showing through here, but I did my best to try to branch out a bit, and it is entirely plausible that I chose the wrongs moments for doing so.

I had also originally intended to see Desaparecidos, but they unfortunately recently canceled their tour under vague health concerns. I was also very curious about Gogol Bordello, but their time slot competed with Ride and I knew what I had to do. I do wonder if I should have given the blue and black stages more attention, though.

One last sidenote: I think I will perhaps always have an unfair resentment of The Charlatans for forever getting my hopes up when searching for Chameleons records. Their bins were always next to each other, both are usually marketed in the USA with an appended "UK" tag, and both have lead singers with the surname Burgess. Naturally, The Chameleons are far superior, but most record stores seemed to have more used Charlatans albums in their stock.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Jonathan Richman with Tommy Larkins - Live 2015.10.21 Mohawk, Austin, Texas

Artist: Jonathan Richman with Tommy Larkins
Venue: Mohawk (outside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 21 October 2015

Setlist (with some help from here):
01. Take Me to the Plaza
02. You Can Have a Cell Phone That's OK But Not Me
03. No One Was Like Vermeer
04. That Summer Feeling
05. [Spanish song about making mistakes]
06. Old World [originally performed with the Modern Lovers]
07. I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar
08. My Baby Love Love Loves Me
09. Wait Wait
10. Let Her Go Into the Darkness →
11. Sex Drive →
12. You Must Ask the Heart
13. These Bodies That Came to Cavort
14. Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow
15. Let Me Do This Right
16. Volare [Domenico Modugno cover]

17. O Sun

Jonathan Richman is an idiosyncratic person, so it should be no surprise that he doesn't play with a band anymore. Nonetheless, he is lucky to have found a drummer willing to follow his unusual track through music for twenty years. It would seem that his unusual style of performance and songwriting contributed to dissolution of several different varieties of his original group, The Modern Lovers, as well as their difficulties in recording and releasing their work. But ever since he let go of that moniker, he's managed to release occasional albums according to his own spirit. Those expecting the driving rock 'n' roll rhythm of "Roadrunner" might be let down, but those willing to give this guy a chance are in for something special.

It's not like Richman has given up on rock music. He seems to just find most of it too loud and distracting for his ability to express himself. I suspect he thinks it is limiting or full of expectations he doesn't see the point of. He welcomes Latin rhythms and hasn't forgotten the sound of music before the 60s, even if his lyrics bear little resemblance to early rock 'n' roll. His performance is like hearing him tell stories, but he plays guitar for most of it, dances for part of it, and manages to sing on key throughout. It's hard to tell how well rehearsed his songs are, as he frequently sets down his guitar to talk about the themes of his songs, dance, pick up a percussion instrument, or translate the lyrics of Spanish-language songs. Usually, Larkins wouldn't miss a beat and would follow Richman like he knew exactly where he was going, but there were a few times that I could tell the former mispredicted the latter's direction – but only for a single beat.

Richman also has no use for the artificial distinction between performer and audience, nor the pretension of hawking himself as a celebrity. As if the free-flowing nature of the songs and narratives wasn't enough, he frequently would just dance to Larkin's beat as if everyone should be doing it. It was completely unselfconscious. He was just having a good time and trying to make sure we were, too. If someone started clapping in time, he would joyfully call out to them to give him a beat. He ran around the stage at will, as if he had simply forgotten that his guitar wasn't plugged in and he had to sing into a mic to be amplified.

Jonathan's casual and semi-continuous narrative style meant that it was difficult to determine when one song had ended and another had begun. If the themes were related and the rhythms weren't too dissimilar, the songs would just blend together, often only explicitly discernible by a change in key. Some songs seemed at least partially improvised, and most of the songs seemed to feature lyrical variations from recorded versions. In particular, the one song he played from the Modern Lovers album, "Old World", bore very little resemblance to the original version. He recorded a new interpretation for Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild in 2008, but this rendition was different from even that. While acknowledging that the old world may have a certain elegance, and it is easy to think of it as a better time, he reminded us of the brutality of earlier times as well as the fact that women couldn't vote in the 19th century.

Richman's humor and earnest attitude to the world around him made the show highly entertaining. I found myself unexpectedly laughing while admiring his simple wisdom. His charm is immediate: when explaining that he doesn't like using "typewriters with screens" and prefers just going "to the plaza" to find out what's going on in town, he made sure to specify that he doesn't mind at all if we do. It's just not what he's interested in; he just wants to talk with people. Apparently, this is no exaggeration. He supposedly does not own a computer, nor use the internet, but he admitted he will sometimes humor people by letting them show him things on their pocket-sized screens.

This simple and straightforward technological approach also meant that this was the first show I'd been to in a very long time for which I did not require the use of my earplugs. This was a welcome change for me, even if perhaps to be expected from an acoustic guitarist accompanied by a drummer that only used three mics. Unfortunately, when another band started playing loud rock music on the inside stage of the venue, they were audible from the outside and sometimes even overpowered Richman and Larkins.

After an hour or so, Richman indicated that he was at the end of the set, but he didn't want to leave. He started up a brief song in which he would sing a line and have the audience repeat the phrase "let me do this right" to a particular melody. After that, he still seemed hesitant, and started singing parts of the Italian song "Nel blu dipinto di blu", popularized by Dean Martin under the name "Volare". He explained that the bland English lyrics were totally different than the original, superior Italian lyrics. After giving that a whirl, he finally walked off stage. Eventually, he returned for one more, but he seemed surprised to be playing an encore, like he didn't take it for granted that he should come back out.

Despite no opener and a relatively short performance, I felt like Richman did a great job filling up the time he shared with us. Near the end, some songs started to drag and feel a bit samey (even with his legitimately skilled acoustic guitar soloing, there's only so much two instrumentalists can do), but he was so effortlessly endearing that it's hard for me to want to focus on the duller moments. There were so many hilarious and personable parts that the cheap price of admission was well worth it.

Score: A

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Austin City Limits Festival 2015, Weekend 2, Day 1

Event: Austin City Limits Festival 2015, Weekend 2, Day 1
Venue: Zilker Park
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 9 October 2015

Introduction: Yet again, I couldn't resist going to ACL even though I was entirely unexcited by all the headliners. In fact, this time, there weren't even many second- or third-tier acts that I was interested in. Still, after the good time I had last year, I figured it would be worth picking one day and making the most if it. Of course, the day I decided upon was Friday, which is annoying in that I had to take off work to go. Nonetheless, I went for it.

I am unashamed to admit that the main draw for me was Tame Impala, even though I just saw them earlier this year at Levitation. I was also excited to see Songhoy Blues again, whom I had caught earlier this year at SXSW. However, a few weeks before the event, I noticed that they were no longer on the schedule. I can't find any information about their disappearance except for this similarly disappointed Reddit thread.

I started my day off with The London Souls. On record, this guitar-and-drums duo sounded like straight classic rock throwbacks with a giant debt owed to Led Zeppelin and maybe The Beatles. On stage, they came off much rawer and even tighter. They were unexpectedly almost punky, but they held their act together far better than most could. Both musicians are incredibly expressive with their instruments. They just kept throwing in little surprises and clever riffs, so the music was always groovy yet captivating in its detail. All the extra touches really held my attention, but one could also opt to just lean back and enjoy the instruments in lock step. The downside is that their lyrics are completely devoid of originality. These are great players, and they both have good voices, but the main draw is the rock, not the words.

[The London Souls.]

Next up was Wolf Alice, an exclusive to Weekend 2. I was attracted by a slight psychedelic edge to their music, which manifested live as fitting in somewhere between dream pop and The Sisters of Mercy, but seemingly without the deliberate campiness. The heavy reverb and delayed space guitars worked in their favor, but a tendency for bland songwriting and awkward vocals did not. They occasionally attained great moments but mostly settled for a standard issue poppy metal/heavy rock vibe. There were some good riffs and sounds, but something was missing to take it to the next level. It didn't help that Cherub's crappy electronic beats wafted over from the Miller Light stage to distract from the experience. The setlist is available here.

[Wolf Alice.]

I was then caught at a crossroads between two bands I was interested in, so I split the difference and saw some of both. First I saw most of Billy Idol's set. The full setlist has been posted online:

01. Postcards from the Past
02. Dancing with Myself [originally performed with Generation X]
03. Can't Break Me Down
04. Flesh for Fantasy
05. Eyes Without a Face
06. Ready Steady Go [originally performed with Generation X]
07. Blue Highway
08. Rebel Yell
09. White Wedding
10. Mony Mony [Tommy James & the Shondells cover]

I've never been a great Idol fan; I find his music catchy and likable but not especially meaningful or especially attractive. I do, however, appreciate that his music has a touch of deliberately over-the-top excess. His performance is absurd and yet the audience is complicit. He's something of a punk, but he makes few excuses about his music really being just good time rock 'n' roll, only slightly heavier, dirtier, and weirder. (This of course is discounting his awful but visionary
Cyberpunk album from 1993.) On stage he just played to expectations. Guitarist Steve Stevens was less of a showboat than some, but the band did everything else they could to live up to a rock 'n' roll fantasy. I almost started cracking up when Idol took his shirt off.

I trekked across the entire park grounds to get to the other side to see the last few songs from Leon Bridges. Hailing from Fort Worth, this guy seemed to come out of nowhere and instantly start rising. He is very rooted in old school traditions of soul, R&B, and gospel. His strong voice is well suited to his retro style. The band's performance was tight, consistent, groovy, and solid, but his lyrics were fairly basic. It was easy to forgive, but it would help if he played a bit less by the numbers.

While enjoying some amazing Korean BBQ Tofu Tacos from Chi'lantro, I caught a few songs from Moon Taxi on the nearby Austin Ventures stage, but it was so generic that I can't remember anything of note from what I saw and heard. It was some type of indie or emo thing, but it didn't do anything for me.

I then camped out for Tame Impala, holding my spot despite unceasing surges and rushes of the crowd. I've never seen so many people try to squeeze in where there was obviously no room for them. This was also the only time during the day that I saw people smoking despite the ban. Anyway, here's the setlist:

01. Intro Jam
02. Let It Happen
03. Mind Mischief
04. Why Won't They Talk to Me?
05. The Moment
06. Elephant
07. The Less I Know the Better
08. 'Cause I'm a Man
09. Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind?
10. Unknown Jam
11. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
12. Apocalypse Dreams

I thought Tame Impala's 80-minute headlining, show-closing set at Levitation earlier this year was incredible. I gave it a rare A+. It was everything I could have wanted and more: it rocked, it was psychedelic, they jammed all over the place, they threw in curveballs and surprises, the visuals were good, and they debuted a fairly good new song. I wished it had gone on longer, but that's just the nature of festival appearances.

This time around, they didn't even play a full hour, and there were no surprises at all. The only curious part was a brief jam near the end. In fact, excluding the songs from the new album, Currents, every other song was also played at Levitation in the same order! Sure, these are great songs that I've come to love over the past couple years, but it just seemed like they weren't really trying. The new songs were a mixed bag; "Let It Happen" is fairly good, and the bassline to "The Less I Know the Better" is enough to sell me on the song right there, but "The Moment" didn't quite work, and "'Cause I'm a Man" fared even worse. The only reason I can tolerate that song at all is the subtle lyrical shift near the end to "I'm a human", but a subtlety like that was entirely lost in the shuffle of the live performance.

The keyboards and bass were right on the mark, but the guitars, apart from being more subdued in general considering the material, were not up to par, and nor were Kevin's vocals. The psychedelia was mostly absent in favor of a more lightweight electronic dance vibe. It was still good, but not magical. It felt short, like I was waiting for the big moment, but it never came. It didn't help that the crowd was pushy and rowdy and that someone was drunkenly singing along off-key whenever they could half-remember the words.

[Tame Impala.]

After that slight disappointment, I went to see George Ezra, a singer-songwriter somewhere between soul, folk, and light blues. He has an incredible voice with a theatrical level of expression. His music was pleasant but unsophisticated. It was clean cut and smoothed of any uneven edges. It came off just a bit fragile and lifeless, which was only exacerbated by the awful electronic beats coming from Flosstradmus' set at the nearby Miller Light stage. I knew it was my cue to leave when he started into "Girl from the North Country". He sounded quite a bit more straight pop than I had been expecting.

I bailed and headed over to catch most of Gary Clark Jr.'s set. His setlist has been posted online:

01. When My Train Pulls In
02. Bright Lights
03. Stay
04. Hold On
05. Cold Blooded
06. Our Love
07. Grinder
08. Ain't Messin' 'Round
09. Travis County
10. Church
11. The Healing

Clark plays a bluesy rock with a bit of groove and funk. His lyrics were unimaginative,
but the vocals were clearly secondary to his guitar, anyway. I know he's from Austin and I'm supposed to like him, but I just didn't find his performance very special. Most of his set featured Hard Proof, or at least their horns players (including my former landlord!), which was definitely a highlight. During "Travis County", Clark handed his guitar to a friend to finish out the closing guitar solo, and he brought out his sisters to sing along for "Church", although they unfortunately didn't add much. Clark was a good performer and played decent tunes, but the set just didn't take off like I might have hoped.

[Gary Clark Jr. with members of Hard Proof.]

The closing headliners of the night were Foo Fighters and Disclosure, neither of which held any appeal for me. I sat around for a few songs by Foo Fighters – enough to see Dave Grohl in his bizarre throne – but I just couldn't get interested. The setlist is available here. On my way out, I caught a few minutes of Disclosure's uninspired electronic beats. I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to like in their performance and so I left early.

The London Souls: B+
Wolf Alice: B-
Billy Idol: C
Leon Bridges: B
Moon Taxi: D
Tame Impala: B-
George Ezra: C-
Gary Clark Jr.: C+

Final Thoughts: This was probably the most middling festival experience I've had yet. The band I was most excited about didn't deliver like I was hoping, the band I was second-most excited about was canceled, and no other band was truly exceptional. I saw several acts that put on a good performance, but left little under the surface. The one actual blast from the past, Billy Idol, was fine, but not really up my alley. I had a good enough time, but now I'm wondering if I had picked the wrong day solely because I was drawn so strongly by Tame Impala.

Another issue was sound bleeding over from one stage to another. Twice when I saw bands at the Austin Ventures stage (Wolf Alice and Goerge Ezra), it seemed like the volume was lower than whatever electronic garbage was coming from the nearby Miller Light stage. In both cases, their lower-key moments and nuances were lost to the incessant synthetic bass drum. It overpowered their sound and their spirit. I know that volume levels at major events on public grounds in Austin have recently come under new ordinances, but it seemed like there was still some work to do about managing and balancing the levels between stages.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Wilco / William Tyler - Live 2015.09.29 Stubb's, Austin, Texas

Wilco came back at Stubb's, almost exactly two years since they played here last. (They also played at the Austin City Limits Festival, which was the first time I saw them.) This was the first of two sold-out nights at the venue on this tour, and they also played an afternoon set at Waterloo Records (announced only the day before!).

Artist: Wilco
Venue: Stubb's (outside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 29 September 2015
Opening Act: William Tyler

01. More...
02. Random Name Generator
03. The Joke Explained
04. You Satellite
05. Taste the Ceiling
06. Pickled Ginger
07. Where Do I Begin
08. Cold Slope →
09. King of You
10. Magnetized
11. At Least That's What You Said
12. Camera (Heavy Version)
13. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
14. Art of Almost
15. You Are My Face
16. Hummingbird
17. Box Full of Letters
18. Heavy Metal Drummer
19. I'm the Man Who Loves You
20. Dawned on Me
21. Impossible Germany
22. Red-Eyed and Blue
23. I Got You (At the End of the Century)
24. Outtasite (Outta Mind)

Encore 1:
25. Spiders (Kidsmoke)

Encore 2 (acoustic):
26. Misunderstood
27. I'm Always in Love
28. It's Just That Simple
29. Casino Queen
30. California Stars
31. A Shot in the Arm

William Tyler opened the evening on his own; he played solo electric guitar in a mesmerizing, mostly fingerpicked style. All of his songs were instrumental, and he only used a few modest effects and loops to augment them. He really just focused on his technique and his skill at writing great chiming guitar passages. He had a unique sound that came across very pretty and very serene. He made half an hour go by before I'd realized any time had passed at all. His only mistake was a misguided attempt to play with feedback at the end of his set; it just came across as textureless, harsh noise.

Wilco came on stage to a tape of "EKG", a brief noisy instrumental that opens their new album, Star Wars. (If you missed the news, it was surprise-released as a free digital download, but it was a limited offer that has since expired. It is now commercially available on CD and soon on vinyl.) They proceeded to play the entire album straight through, so I'm going to end up reviewing the album as well whether I want to or not. (For the record, the last time I saw a band do this was The Smashing Pumpkins in 2012, and I wasn't particularly impressed.)

I rather like "EKG", even if it is a throwaway, and I was originally harboring hope that they'd play it live. Nonetheless, Star Wars starts off in earnest quite strong: "More..." and "Random Name Generator" are both great songs, instant singalongs, and just generally solid jams. Nels Cline was already tearing wildly into the latter. "The Joke Explained" is almost as good, and "You Satellite" takes things in a different direction, trading the rock 'n' roll swagger for a wide, slow build. The instruments give each other more space to breathe and grow, and by the end Cline was again soloing in his joyful, chaotic fashion. "Taste the Ceiling" is another song of the classic mold with a steady beat with a slight country touch.

But this is where things begin to break down on the album, and by extension, on stage. The back half of the album features a bunch of songs that seem like a bit of an afterthought. They're all fairly short, they all sound like Wilco-by-the-numbers, most of the titles don't make sense, and the lyrics are a mixed bag. Two of them even feature the exact same beat and tempo, making the transition from one to the next difficult to discern. Even on stage, it was easy to miss. Since neither has many particularly distinctive qualities, this seems like a deliberately poor concept. At least the album closer, "Magnetized", is a bit better. It's still far from revolutionary or bold, but it's got good hooks and a decent sound. I like it.

Played live, I realized partway through that I couldn't hear any keyboards in most of the songs ("Magnetized" being the main exception). This struck me as odd for a band so noted for their elaborate keyboard arrangements ever since Jay Bennett joined the band. Mikael Jorgensen was playing on every song, but he simply wasn't audible. Later in the show, he was much more present in the mix, but it seemed he was deliberately obscured for the album set. Similarly, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone stuck solely to his guitar for these songs, although those parts were also oddly hard to discern. I was struck that the new album has a simplicity uncommon for the band, although there are of course exceptions, such as "You Satellite". This approach seems decidedly detrimental in some songs, although it perhaps works well for others.

At any rate, after finishing the run-through of the album, Jeff Tweedy finally addressed the audience and thanked us for listening. There was only a brief pause before they began the brooding "At Least That's What You Said", where Tweedy finally brought out his lead guitar skills. When Cline joined in as well, it made for quite a sight. Sansone finally took the keyboard for this one, and Mikael was at last audible as well. This was followed by "Camera", played in a heavy style as found on the More Like the Moon EP. This was an unexpected highlight for me, as I think it's a great song in any version, and the heavier take is much rarer. By the time they got to the always-awesome "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart", I was ready to forgive them for playing the entire weaker half of Star Wars.

Wilco kept up the energy and kept the great songs coming one after another. There was hardly a dull moment for the rest of the night, and the band played in top form. Cline's guitar and noise work was always particularly thrilling, but his solos on "Art of Almost" and "Dawned on Me" were especially remarkable. I was pleased to see Tweedy throwing in some solid solos, too, as in "I'm the Man Who Loves You". "Impossible Germany" was another highlight if for no other reason than that Cline, Tweedy, and Sansone all got to play lead guitar simultaneously. The instrumental passages may have gone on quite long, but when they are written and performed as well as this was, one simply cannot complain.

I don't want to overlook John Stiratt or Glenn Kotche, either. Stiratt's bass has always been one of my favorite parts of the Wilco sound, and his basslines are particularly strong on the better half of Star Wars. His backing vocals are perhaps under-appreciated, but on stage it is obvious that his harmonies are an essential element of the band as well. While his voice has a countrified inflection that might otherwise annoy me, in tandem with Tweedy they balance and strengthen each other. Kotche's moments to shine were of course "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and "Heavy Metal Drummer", but there were plenty of songs where his drums drove the song.

The band hardly paused between songs, often barely even letting one finish before the guitarists were exchanging instruments and preparing to dive right into the next one. This careful strategizing allows them to pack as many songs in their setlist as they can. They played 24 songs in 100 minutes before finally walking offstage. Of course, they came right back, but only for one song: the long, droning "Spiders (Kidsmoke)". I was worried this could be the end, but in the dark I could see the stagehands rearranging the stage.

When the band returned for the second time, they settled down at the front of the stage with acoustic guitars and a minimalist drumset for Kotche. The entire final set was done solely with acoustic instruments, similar to their recent performance on KEXP. I liked the change of pace; it was a nice way to do something different but still have space to shine. Some of the songs worked better than others in this setting; "Casino Queen" has never been their strongest song, but "I'm Always in Love" and "A Shot in the Arm" both worked quite well. Jorgensen switched to melodica and Sansone to banjo or xylophone for most of the songs, and while they were sometimes hard to hear in the mix, the arrangements were great. Cline's slide guitar was still the primary instrument, but the dirtier, earthier tones actually reminded me somehow of Blixa Bargeld's trademark guitar sound from his days with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

"It's Just That Simple", the only Wilco song written by Stiratt and featuring his lead vocals, bears a certain charm that fit right in with the set. I find it endearing enough that I rather wish Stiratt would write and sing more often. "California Stars", however, is an undisputed three-chord masterpiece, and the band made the most of it by trading solos between the verses. I only wish they had played more songs from the Mermaid Avenue albums.

31 songs in less than two and a half hours is fairly impressive, especially when many of the songs are not at all brief affairs. Wilco have a tendency to play and replay about half of their back catalog while consistently ignoring the other half, which makes their setlists always slightly different but never wildly unusual. This is a blessing and a curse: they know what their best songs are, and you'll usually hear most of them at any given concert, but you also rarely get surprises. However, while it could be pure coincidence, it does seem like they tailor their setlists for each city to maximize the variation over time for a given audience. At any rate, their high level of energy and musicianship combined with a very good setlist made for an excellent evening. The full album performance of Star Wars might be imperfect, but the night only got better after the weaker half of the album was over.

William Tyler: B+
Wilco: A-
Star Wars: B-

P.S. The setlist for the second night can be found here. It actually is quite different than the first night, perhaps leaning a little more towards the obscure. I wish I'd seen "A Magazine Called Sunset", though!