Friday, October 31, 2008

Five Creepy Songs for Halloween

5. Bela Lugosi's Dead (Bauhaus) - Duh.

4. I Love You But You're Dead (Destroy All Monsters) - This song is about the confusion you feel when you love a person, but they have died and are just a corpse. And how that's kind of a problem in your relationship. Key lyric: "I love you, but you're dead / You make my bed all red!"

3. TIE: Mildred Pierce v. Pacific Coast Highway (Sonic Youth) - Hard to pick the creepier of these Sonic Youth tunes. Mildred Pierce involves a tense, repetitive guitar line followed by shrieking. Pacific Coast Highway features really sweet sounding lyrics (read them first if you can) sung by Kim Gordon in a way that makes them deeply disturbing. I don't think I slept for a week after I heard this one. Sonic Youth runner-up: Dude Ranch Nurse ("Let nurse give you a shot / It's something to do...")

2. Blue Flowers (Dr. Octagon) - The production on this underground rap classic sounds like an old horror film. And it's from an album that chronicles the adventures of a serial killer alien gynecologist. Seriously.

1. Carol (Slint) - This song is completely terrifying.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Upcoming Show: Sat. 11/1 - David Grubbs Plays Cake Shop!!!

KIDS, LISTEN UP! I just found out David Grubbs is playing a FREE show at Cake Shop this Saturday. Grubbs is a legend, member of Squirrel Bait (see below), Gastr del Sol, Bastro and even Red Krayola. I have no idea how he is solo or how he is live, but it's probably worth all $0 dollars to go and find out!

(I'm going to be out of town this weekend and now I want to cry.)

p.s. Since you'll already be at Cake Shop, it's definitely worth sticking around to catch the Chinese Stars downstairs later in the evening.

Five Forgotten Pioneers: Part 1

I've made a list of five rock/pop innovators who I think are too often overlooked, and I'm going to tell you about them. Here's the first three, yay:

The Swell Maps

This band influenced Sonic Youth and Pavement, but no one seems to talk about them on this side of the Atlantic. And frankly, that's a travesty - they were one of the greatest bands of the post-punk era. Their music is difficult to classify, probably because the songs were written collectively or alternately by the band's vastly differing members. There's a lot of punk here, but also a lot of Krautrock, prog and experimental noise rock. Their albums are hodge-podge, but it somehow works, melding pop energy with visionary innovations. Experimental punk isn't unheard of (e.g. Sonic Youth, Pere Ubu) but Swell Maps were among the first and best.

Squirrel Bait

A punk band consisting of four or five high school students from Kentucky, Squirrel Bait achieved almost no recognition during their lifetime and might have been forever forgotten if its members hadn't gone on to form landmark post-rock bands Slint and Gastr del Sol (among others). There's nothing immediately experimental about this band, until you remember that this is pre-Nirvana and pre-grunge - which puts their metal-tinged punk completely ahead of its time. In 1986, no other band's sound as accurately predicted the future of rock music as Squirrel Bait, whose resemblance to Nirvana is at times uncanny.

Not only did Squirrel Bait combine metal influence with punk and melodic pop first, they also are among the best bands to use this sound. They don't top Nirvana, but might reasonably vie for second place. Perhaps because they pre-date Cobain's first releases, Squirrel Bait has a vitality and an inspired quality that's missing from the later sound-alikes. If you like Nirvana's punkier side (or even if you don't), check these guys out!

Lizzy Mercier Descloux / Rosa Yemen

One of music's true innovators, Lizzy Mercier Descloux deserved to be remembered, but today, almost no one knows her name. Descloux's career was two-fold. First, both as a solo artist and as half of duo Rosa Yemen, she was an innovative minimalist in New York City's arty No Wave scene. Her music involves simple guitar lines, complex rhythms and pseudo-melodic shrieks of nonsense in French, Descloux's native language.

The second part of her career is marked by travels throughout the Caribbean, Africa and South America, where she collected new ideas for sound and rhythm and incorporated them into her albums. AllMusic Guide essentially credits her with the invention of "world music" but that's just insulting. Today, "world music" most often refers to cheap and gimmicky "fusion" of two styles that don't belong together but that someone decided to put through a mixer to look more cultured (I'm looking at you, Sting! Not to mention Peter Gabriel and Mickey Hart.). However, in Descloux's music, the style is as it should be - an organic, open-minded melding of influences. Especially in her earlier "world" albums, her work is truly inspired and truly beautiful.

Part two is coming soon...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Live: Blacklist @ Vanishing Point

When: 10/24 (or actually, the wee hours of 10/25)
Where: Vanishing Point

Sorry, folks, it's taken me a while to get this one posted. But after catching the Pains last Friday, I skedaddled over to Bushwick to catch Blacklist at the new DIY venue Vanishing Point.

In the past, Blacklist's music had reminded me of everything that was good about the music of the 1980's. I associate them with dark, goth-tinged new wave, but from a definitively 2008 perspective.

Vanishing Point, however, is an old brick warehouse, and while the space is wide and deep enough to give it decent acoustics, there's still quite a bit of noise. As a result, the band's sound lost its new wave polish and the raw rock underneath shone through. The downside was that much of the detail of the music was lost in the din. It was hard to distinguish one guitar from another or the bass from either one. The upside was that I heard a whole new side to these musicians, something more raw and more powerful than I've heard in the past.

Blacklist is always fun to watch live, but especially with a good smoke machine going, as at this show. The members fan out on stage and while they don't move much, they are obviously engaged. It's a rare band that really plays for its audience, but Blacklist does - they play with the effortless tightness of professionals who are free to focus their attention on perfecting their music for the crowd's ears. Blacklist seems not only to love their music, but also to love playing it for the throng of goths, many their friends, that crowd every show. This is a band that cares about you, and that makes them great every time.

The band plays again on Nov. 21 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Don't miss it!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Live: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

When: Friday, 10/24/08
Where: NY Noise CMJ Showcase at Cake Shop

There's been a lot of hype around the Pains of Being Pure at Heart over the last few months and I've been struggling to form an opinion unbiased by the natural resentment I feel towards anyone who is both cuter and more successful than me (please pick one or the other, people! don't be cruel!).

Recorded, the band plays a sweet tweegaze that they accurately describe as some combination of Black Tambourine and the Pastels. The songs are adorable, with love-filled, cheerful lyrics and sing-song melodies, but underneath is a continuous layer of fuzzed-out guitar. Live, the band does exactly the same thing, only about fifty times louder. And, as it turns out, that's awesome. Not only does the band seem to be having great fun on stage, but they actually do know how to rock out (albeit in a rather wussy way).

So far, the Pains aren't doing anything that wasn't done a hundred times over in the UK 18 years ago, but they are doing it better than anyone else these days. And after hearing the shoegazey power of their live show, I have higher hopes that as their sound matures, they could one day break the mold and really move pop in a new direction. But even if all they ever do is play their noisy twee until the end of time, that will be enough for me!

Five New York Bands You Should Really Know

Hi everyone,

I want to get the blog started with some lists, because I love lists. (I would probably marry lists if I could.) Anyway, here are five New York bands that everyone should know. Probably you've already heard of them, but if not, you really should check them out immediately!

The Bellmer Dolls

One of New York's only original bands these days, Bellmer Dolls play something between garage, punk and goth, but wait - the combination is better than it sounds! Basically it goes down like this: moustache-sporting bassist Anthony Malat lays down pounding, rhythmic riffs over Daniel Sheerin's sparse, sharp drum beats. On top of this, Peter Mavrogeorgis, the band's founding member, plays erratic, impassioned guitar phrases and sings dark but accessible melodies, punctuated by occasional dissonant organ.

The Bellmer Dolls are best heard live, where the emotive power of their music is most evident. Attractive in an off-kilter way, all three Dolls possess the stage in a way few bands can: Sheerin plays staring intensely ahead, cracking the drums with a coldly violent force, Malat spends a large part of every show bent backwards like a demonically-possessed Gumby, and Mavrogeorgis stumbles around, pulling down microphones, knocking over speakers and breaking equipment as he creates carefully calculated bursts of noise.

In the end, the Dolls' music is relentless and tense, bleak and nihilistic, but with an energy that would be the envy of most hardcore punks.

The Werewolves

No one is quite sure how to explain this band, because all anyone knows for sure as that they are so cool you will probably shit your pants when you hear them. You can hear hints of the Stooges, Kevin Shields, Sonic Youth, the Ramones and a host of others in their songs, but it all somehow boils down to a cohesive, badass, genreless rock and roll.

The Harlem Shakes

Probably the best-known band on this list, the Harlem Shakes are pop masters! They are better than most of the other NYC pop bands because they don't sound like anyone else. A lot of that has to do with the unique tone of the vocals, but their melodies aren't nearly as cliched as most pop bands' and they have a nice attention to detail in their arrangements. Recently, the Shakes have been a bit forgotten because they've been locked in a studio for almost a year (or so we think) - but maybe we can coax them out with positive reviews??

The December Sound

Unfortunately, the writing of well-constructed songs and the ability to forge a masterful sound rarely coexist in contemporary "shoegaze" bands, with bands erring towards either electro-poppy banality or exasperatingly boring, unvarying soundscapes. The December Sound are a welcome exception. Dark and dense, their music has heavy, catchy beats, excellent vocal melodies and marvelous sheets of sound. Their live show is consistently killer as well. But as with all good shoegaze - bring earplugs!

Beat Radio

Hailing from Long Island, this indie pop collective is everything an indie pop collective should be. Lo-fi with a touch of electronica, Beat Radio isn't sonically different from a host of other pop bands over the last fifteen years. What sets them apart is their consistently excellent songwriting, centered on frontman Brian Sendrowitz's superb sense of melody. Over the course of the LP and two EPs I've heard, only a small handful of tracks fell short of single quality. Each melody is brightly catchy without being trite or obvious, and the songs are backed with well-conceived arrangements. While I won't deny that this is wussy music, Sendrowitz and his collaborators know how to step on a distortion pedal and rock out from time to time.

Reminiscent of the best from Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Broken Social Scene, this band is definitely worth a listen, or two hundred.

Also, Beat The Devil would totally be in the top five if they hadn't broken up (boo hoo!)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Live: Clairecords Showcase feat. Autodrone, Ifwhen, Brother Kite, Averkiou

As a part of CMJ, the wonderful Clairecords hosted a showcase of some of their finest bands from New York and beyond.

Averkiou - This quintet from Gainsville, FL, plays straight-up poppy shoegaze. They do it well, but it's nothing particularly memorable. My biggest complaint: if you're going to have three guitars, you've got make them all count. To give the band the benefit of the doubt, maybe it was the venue's poor acoustics that masked the details of the guitar arrangements - but the music I heard didn't justify the presence of so many strings, pedals and amplifiers in one place. The one major exception was the second-to-last song in the set (can anyone help me with the name?) which maintained the group's pop sensibility but showed a much higher level of musicianship and composition. If more of the bands songs had such interesting rhythms and three-guitar-worthy arrangements, they would make the leap from the high end of mediocrity to excellence at once.

Ifwhen - This is one of the most pretentious bands I've ever met, but I have to say they've earned it. I was joking recently about creating an uber-pretenious fake genre called "no-gaze," but seeing Ifwhen reminded me that it's already been invented and not as a joke. This band is, as far as I can tell, truly original - which is something I rarely say about any contemporary group. Numerous reviewers have described Ifwhen as sounding like several completely different songs are playing simulateously, and it's true, the music is remniscent of the sound when you accidentally tune into overlapping radio stations - only really fucking loud. I'm extremely dubious of artsy music like this, but there's something genuinely powerful about Ifwhen, and frankly, I am compelled to love them.

Autodrone - These kids are badass in the sweetest possible way - approachable, despite wearing a lot of black and metal and sporting the illest tatoos I've seen in a long while. The band is young and seemed refreshingly nervous to take the stage, but they had no cause for concern. The performance was spot-on, and each member showed remarkable musical prowess throughout. The music was immensely shortchanged by the venue's accoustics, which obscured much of the detailed guitar work by Jeremy Alisauskas and stripped Katherine Kennedy's voice of all the richness you can hear on the band's recordings.

The band made the best of a bad situation, though, and rocked even harder to make up for the acoustic limitations. Their set consisted of their standard shoegaze-inspired alternative rock, with definite hints of progressive influences - I'm pretty sure hear some Mars Volta in there. Their songs are catchy and engaging, but sometimes too long and lose their punchiness by the end. That's small beans though - expect big things from these guys in the near future!

The Brother Kite - Honestly, this band was a disappointment. I've really enjoyed their recorded material, but hearing them live for the first time, I was let down. Like Averkiou, their sound did not justify the presence of three guitars (one of them - for some songs, anyway - being a double-necked 12-string/6-string Epiphone). If you're going to have 30 guitar strings on stage, you've got to show you need them. The sound was less lush than I expected and I don't think the venue's poor acoustics alone are to blame. Though the songs are still well-written, the band's newer material seemed to signify a decline from their earlier efforts. The Brother Kite is still a fun listen, definitely, but at least at this show, the band sadly did not reach its potential.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Live: A Sunny Day In Glasgow + My Teenage Stride

I arrived a little later than planned to the After The Jump CMJ Showcase at the Knitting Factory tap bar, just in time to catch what was probably the second song of the acclaimed My Teenage Stride - and boy, did we get off to a rocky start! The song was called something like "You Always Want to Dance to the Happy Mondays but You Don't Do a Thing When I Put on the Sundays" and true to its name, it was dreadful. Not only were the lyrics obnoxious, but the melodies were mind-numbingly trite. Another hyped up, disappointing band - I was determined to write a scathing review!

But much to my disappointment, I actually liked almost everything that followed. Despite horrendous acoustics in the bar, the band played tightly and looked like they were having a hell of a good time while they did it. The most notable skill of the band is their knack for arrangement and composition which kept otherwise sound-alike songs interesting. The melodies and hooks were also strong (with the exception of that "Happy Mondays" song, which I still think is unforgivable). The band may be nothing to write home about, but they are certainly a fun listen.

Following MTS came the slightly-famous, ambient electro-pop group A Sunny Day In Glasgow. The beginning of their set was marred by technical difficulties. On the first song, band leader Ben Daniels played the key parts on a sampler that was almost inaudible, and probably due to the fact that the band could not hear one another, pitch problems made the song grating. Honestly, the band deserves some credit for not completely falling apart, but I do wish Daniels would turn down his effects a tad, especially in a muddy-sounding space like this one.

In any case, the band steadily improved as the show wore on. The final song was probably the best of the set, largely to do the excellent contributions of the bass player - one of ASDIG's biggest shortcomings is that they give the audience very little to hold on to. So it was a pleasant suprise when a punchy base line grounded the final song.

The band was assaultingly loud, with suprisingly aggressive vocals on a few songs - including at least one all-out scream! This was jarring but welcome from a band I've always thought of as somewhat mellow. Let's hope this hints at a new direction for the group as they head into the studio this winter!