Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Live: Titus Andronicus

When: 3/27
Where: Market Hotel

I've seen Titus Andronicus twice at Bowery Ballroom, a large venue that's somewhere in the no man's land between the indie and corporate worlds. It's not a bad place, and not huge either, but it's a far cry from a musty basement or abandoned warehouse. So I was glad to finally have a chance to see this neo-hardcore band play in a place that was truly "punk" - the enigmatic loft venue Market Hotel, which throws DIY all-ages shows with some of the best bands around.

I gather that the show was booked by the famous Todd P, and he knows how to get the kids out. The large-ish space was very respectably filled, though not uncomfortably packed. The young punks crowded around the stage, while the slightly older, calmer audience members stood out of the fray. (Those of us over 95 stood in the foyer.)

Now understand that when I call Titus and their fans "punks," I don't mean kids sporting mohawks and safety pins - I don't even mean shaved-head, skull-tattoo hardcore types. Like Titus's music, this crowd has jettisoned all the washed up cliches of punk. Angry, macho metalheads co-opted both the loud-fast music of punk (creating "thrash") and its once-confrontational fashion statements long ago. I even doubt most of the audience would consider themselves "punk" after seeing the term applied to those assholes.

But Titus and their fans really are punk, in the best possible way - their music is aggressive but also intelligent and fun. And like real punks, they have a strong sense of community, are open-minded and respectful and subscribe to the egalitarian DIY ethos that has been punk's underlying current since its inception.

And true to the spirit of punk, the front of the house was an indecipherable tangle of moshing bodies. Though the space wasn't quite crowded enough to support it, a constant stream of stage divers leapt onto a very enthusiastic sea (well, pond) of raised hands, who did their best to keep their charges afloat and out of danger.

Titus was clearly in their element, with frontman Patrick Stickles taking quite a few leaps off the stage himself. The band played their songs faster and louder than I've heard them before, and while it was mostly still tracks off their 2008 album, they threw in a few numbers I hadn't heard before. The new songs seemed to take the band's style (i.e. epic hardcore manifestos) to its extreme. They may have dragged out a little too long, but they showed an even greater honing of the band's use of contrast, bouncing not only between hushed and really fuckin loud, but also between sweet, slow, emotive passages and really fuckin loud. And as a special treat, they played a cover announced as "the greatest rock and roll song of all time" - it was the Modern Lovers' "Road Runner."

Stickles may have grown a little too fond of his own voice, carrying on at length between songs - but he's entertaining and the band's self-deprecating humor sat well with the crowd.

The whole show had a strong feeling of camaraderie - band members would crowd-surf, and even once sent a guitar alone into the audience. No matter what was passed to them, the audience always returned it carefully to the stage after a little trip around the front rows. And after the final song, the moshers rushed the stage, hugging the band and nearly tackling them - like an overgrown puppy who isn't aware of his own strength. In the process, guitarist Andrew Cedermark's glasses were broken, but when he lamented the cost of new ones, the audience rapidly passed up handfuls of cash for to fund a new pair. (Cedermark rejected the donations but Stickles gladly picked them up.)

To this new generation of punks, who love the music and not the bullshit, who are inclusive and who truly make their own fun - thank you! It was a great night with a great band, a show I won't forget anytime soon.


Upcoming Shows: Woods, David Grubbs + more

Tomorrow, Wednesday, April 1

Woods @ Death By Audio | Williamsburg, Brooklyn | $?
Woods run with folks like Wavves, Nodzzz and Blank Dogs, but they do something rather different. Their pop is lo-fi, but in a more quirky way, with vocals delivered in a bizarre falsetto and guitars played cleanly. If their no-fi colleagues' music sounds as if it's buried under layers of gravel or ash, the songs Woods play sound like they're submerged under water. They somehow manage to sound distant and unnatural but still welcoming, even enchanting. And their melodies are simply beautiful. One of my favorite NY bands at one of the best venues in town. Check it out. [MySpace]

Friday, April 3

Weird Owl @ Lit Lounge | E Village, Manhattan | $6
As I noted in live review, Weird Owl plays a psyched-out version of Southern hard rock. Perhaps surprisingly, it's really enjoyable. [MySpace]

Saturday, April 4

David Grubbs @ Issue Project Room | Gowanus, Brooklyn | $8/$10
As I've said before, David Grubbs is a legend. He's a former member of Squirrel Bait, Gastr del Sol, Bastro and even Red Krayola and is one of the true innovators in 90's experimental rock. [MySpace]

Sunday, April 5

My Teenage Stride @ Cake Shop | LES, Manhattan | $8
An indie pop band that I grudgingly like, MTS play their catchy little numbers tightly and with gusto. Check it out. [MySpace]

Monday, March 30, 2009

Live: Soren Well

When: 4/24
Where: Glasslands

It was summer when I last checked in with shoegazers Soren Well, and since that time, the band has gone through a slew of line-up changes and stylistic shifts. Most noticeably, the band is now a four-piece, down one guitarist from last summer. They've also incorporated electronic beats into their songs, doubling the live drums.

The last time I saw Soren Well, frankly, it was a sludgy mess. The songs were indistinguishable from one another and the band had to drag them along like a ball and chain. There were some impressive things - some great guitar work and in particular, a very commanding stage-presence that could almost convince the audience the music wasn't boring. Because of these traits, I thought the band might have potential and decided to check back periodically.

And I'm very glad I did! The band has completely reinvented themselves since that time, keeping only the good - the great guitar sound and the confident performance style. Losing their second guitar, although (rumor has it) not the band's choice, was the best thing that could have happened for them. The heavy sludge and clutter has disappeared, and what remains are rich walls of sound and brilliant riffs. The electronic beats have picked up the band's tempos a bit and have given them a new level of rhythmic intricacy. And singer Jason (I don't know his last name) can finally be heard crafting his amorphous but lovely melodies in a voice that bears no small resemblance to the Verve's Richard Ashcroft.

Overall, Soren Well's new songs are poppier, more tightly constructed and more varied than ever before. The songwriting has vastly improved, though some numbers still wear on a little too long. The songs are also a little too "samey" - but far less so than they once were. I also wish the melodies were yet one more step towards catchy - they drift a little too much - but they're certainly not bad. The band's final three numbers kicked up the tempo even more and brought the set to a truly excellent close.

As Soren Well continues to find their identity as a band and hone their style, it's safe to expect something outstanding.


News: All Points West Line-Up Announced (including MY BLOODY VALENTINE)

Usually, I try to distinguish between my personal tastes and actual quality and respectability in music. But for something like this, all the bands are well-regarded by many, so I decided to just indulge myself and classify them according to my whimsy.

Friday, July 31

Most Awesome: Fleet Foxes, Heartless Bastards, Telepathe

Overrated, terrible bands: Vampire Weekend, Shearwater

Overrated, mediocre bands: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ra Ra Riot

The rest: Beastie Boys, The National, MSTRKRFT, Q-Tip, The Pharcyde, Organized Konfusion, The Knux, Seasick Steve, Flying Lotus, College Humor Live, Arj Barker, Eugene Mirman and Bo Burnham

Saturday, August 1

Most awesome: MY BLOODY VALENTINE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!, Kool Keith, Tokyo Police Club

Overrated, terrible bands: Crystal Castles, Ting Tings

Overrated, mediocre bands: Tool, Chairlift

The rest: Gogol Bordello, Arctic Monkeys, Neko Case, Yelle, St. Vincent, The Cool Kids, Cage the Elephant, White Rabbits, Electric Touch, The Postelles, Black Gold, College Humor Live, Tim & Eric, Judah Friedlander and Jim Jeffries

Sunday, August 2

Most awesome: Echo & the Bunnymen, MGMT, Silversun Pickups, Lykke Li

Overrated, terrible bands: Mogwai

Overrated, mediocre bands: Coldplay, We Are Scientists

The rest: The Black Keys, Elbow, Ghostland Observatory, The Gaslight Anthem, Etienne De Crecy, Akron/Family, Steel Train, Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, College Humor Live, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Showalter and Todd Barry

Friday, March 27, 2009

Live: Harlem Shakes + Suckers

When: 3/26
Where: Music Hall of Williamsburg

I've been waiting a long time for the return of the Harlem Shakes, and apparently, I wasn't the only one - the band played their album release party last night to a sold-out house at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Though the band has played a couple of shows in town this year, this one felt like the true kick-off for the band's return.

The first opening act was Air Waves, but I missed almost all of the set. Next up was Suckers. Honestly, I couldn't quite figure out what this band was trying to accomplish. If they were aiming for dancability, they certainly didn't do too well - only three people in the audience were moving. If they were aiming for pop, they also fell short of the mark - I couldn't remember a single melody after the set ended. And while the grooves were occasionally good, they weren't good enough to carry the music by themselves (even when they didn't feature lame George of the Jungle-style synthesized timpani). I just don't get it. The band was good on stage, but musically, I think they might be a little too true to their name.

Then, after a frustratingly long DJ set, the much-anticipated Harlem Shakes finally took the stage. To be honest, the set started out a little shaky. In the mix, the guitar sounded weak, and the band seemed to stumble a few times during the first few songs. But thanks to their strong musical chemistry, they were able to plow right through without most people even noticing.

The Shakes are better live than recorded. There were a few songs on the album I just didn't care for, but when they played them live, I suddenly found myself loving them (with the exception of "Unhurried Hearts" - I just don't like it). The band was at its best when they adapted their music instead of copying the record note for note. For instance, "Radio Orlando," a relatively mellow track on the album, somehow became a near-wildfire last night.

And the Shakes are remarkable to watch. Drummer Brent Katz plays not only a regular drumset, but also a myriad of additional instruments including djembe, agogo bells, woodblock and an electronic drumpad, all at the same time. Keyboardist Kendrick Strauch is in a similar position, rarely playing fewer than two instruments at once. Meanwhile, guitarist Todd Goldstein and bassist Jose Soegaard often look like they are mid-seizure, knotting themselves over their guitars and shaking compulsively. When they aren't doing that, they are wielding their instruments like weapons in a duel, swinging them at invisible enemies all over the stage. And did I mention all four also sing?

By the time the Shakes got to their poppiest song ever, "Sunlight," they had the audience wrapped around their little finger - you could actually feel the massive anticipation in the air as the band played through the bridge before the song's final chorus. After that, the band wisely did not let their momentum slip for even a minute. When they couldn't jump immediately into the next song, they just jammed until everyone was ready, never letting the sound stop.

The band brought at least a half-dozen guests on stage, including three saxophonists. Surprisingly, there were few moments when the saxophone, my arch-nemesis in the world of musical instruments, really bugged me. The sound was rich and full and rocked harder than the album - especially through some shredding guitar solos that you'll find nowhere on the record. The band also treated the crowd to three favorites from their Burning Birthdays EP, a 2007 release that is less polished but just as good as Technicolor Health.

I was glad to see one of my favorite local bands so warmly welcomed back after a year's hiatus. And I was glad to see the band live up to and surpass the expectations of the hundreds of people who braved the rain to check them out. It was a surprisingly powerful night. Harlem Shakes, welcome home!


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Live: Beluga + Hunters, Oh No! and the Tiger Pit, Trouble & Strife

When: 3/20
Where: Cameo

Hunters - From the first pounding note of their set, Hunters demand attention. A New York-based four-piece, Hunters' music is difficult to classify. It's definitely punk, aggressive and heavy hitting. But it's also got Sonic Youth-influenced artsy experimentation, and to further confuse matters, some crazy rock'n'roll guitar. Like "no wave" bands, they walk the line between overt intellectualism and punk rock nihilism.

All four members are great musicians, particularly Derek Watson on guitar and Odell Nails (also of Mahogany) on drums. The whole band plays a mile a minute of their angular, in-your-face music, and their stamina alone is impressive. The set did seem to slow down a bit as it wore on, growing a little tiresome by the end. Still, I'm definitely eager to see them again.


Oh No! And the Tiger Pit - Oh No! is a classic example of a band of excellent musicians trying a little too hard to be edgy. The band played all kinds of rock'n'roll but all with vocals that sounded alternately just like the Pixies' Charles Thompson and just like Pere Ubu's David Thomas. They topped this off with some ironic girl-group moments and random animal noises.

The band was enjoyable and very talented, but the whole thing had the feel of "let's be in a band that's really weird," not "we're genuinely crazy and are genuinely trying to express ourselves." The music was fun and well-played but it didn't make it to a deeper level than that. Oh No! are fine for a party, but in terms of enduring artistic merit, they are only a pale derivative of the bands they parrot.


Beluga - One of my favorite NYC bands, Beluga rocked the house. Their music is punk, with a slight post-Nirvana grunge tilt to it and wisps of indie pop tucked in here and there. Frontwoman Isabel Ibsen sounds like Courtney Love waaaay back when Courtney Love was still awesome - whether hushed or screaming, her voice has a rare ability to convey absolute rage. She's a great frontwoman too, jumping in the audience, slithering and rolling on the floor, screaming her head off.

The band was obviously having a few technical problems throughout the show, but they still played well. Unfortunately, it wasn't at all a jumping/moshing/dancing/flailing sort of crowd, and under those circumstances, its difficult for a band like this to build up their momentum to its fullest. But they did an admirable job in the face of adversity.

Last time I wrote up Beluga, my complaint was that other than Isabel, the band didn't move at all. Someone named "Jared" commented that he liked the contrast, and I hadn't thought of it, but when put that way it sounded kind of cool. With that in mind, I was able to appreciate the band better, and the band also met me halfway - while still not a very active band, the three women backing Isabel were definitely showing more energy, even if they turned that energy inward towards their guitars. (Drummer Elliot Glass also showed energy, but of course, it's hard not to when you're on the drums.)

It was probably not Beluga's best show ever, but as always, they kicked serious ass.


Trouble & Strife - This hard-rocking band played a punk rock like classic rock - or maybe it was classic rock played like punk rock, I'm not sure which. They were vastly talented, particularly drummer Max (I don't know his last name). The guitars were killer as well. Only one problem - the frontman. Singer S. Sinclair's 1970's rockstar posing was just plain off. It seemed completely staged and hit a particular low when he crushed a beer can with his hand. Playing up the sex appeal by constantly flashing the frayed crotch of his jeans probably kept some of the audience interested, but in the end, he seemed like an impostor. The rest of the band would be better off without him.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dust It Off: Fire Engines - Hungry Beat

Hungry Beat
Album: Hungry Beat
Acute, 2007
Recording date: 1980-1981

This record probably doesn't need to be dusted off because it was released less than two years ago, but the songs it contains are much older, dating from the first years of the post-punk pop revival in Scotland. Around the time of the group's formation in 1980, Scotland was the epicenter of a post-punk movement that sought to use punk's "indie" ideals but not its aggression. (It was this movement, along with the Smiths, that laid the groundwork for indie pop and its later offspring C-86 and "twee.")

However, unlike their fellow Scottish post-punkers like Orange Juice and Josef K, Fire Engines turned this idea inside out. Their music is full of pop hooks, but it's also confrontational and at times, deliberately unpleasant. Moreover, Fire Engines meshed their pseudo-pop with sonic experimentalism to a far greater extent than their peers. With one snarling lead guitar over a funk-influenced bass and drums, Fire Engines sound quite a bit like Gang of Four. They also have a lot in common with New York's "no wave" bands and with arty bands like the Fall and Wire, which were making big waves in the UK punk scene in the late 70's.

But Fire Engines come off as more down to earth than any of these bands. Their attitude is well indicated by their song titles - the album starts off with "Candyskin" and "Meat Whiplash" and ends up on "Lubricate Your Living Room." Like the music, the titles show a seamless merging of pop sensibility with a desire to challenge the audience. The songs themselves are fun and catchy, as long as you can get past the unlovely delivery.

Hungry Beat is a good introduction to the group, whose releases were rather scattered and never included a proper LP. The first half of the album features the "hits" - singles that, in fact, placed as high as #7 on the UK indie charts.

The second half is largely instrumental and is a more difficult listen, but still worthwhile. There are still plenty of hooks and funky beats to hold on to, and at times, it predicts the sound of bands like Sonic Youth. Meanwhile, "Lubricate Your Living Room Part I" sounds like the beginning of a Velvet Underground guitar jam, tinny and sloppy but not yet in total chaos. "Part II" is pleasantly concise, carried by a rollicking bass line.

The Fire Engines aren't nearly as well known as they ought to be, especially considering that bands like the Jesus & Mary Chain, Primal Scream and Franz Ferdinand have named them as a major influence. And that's a strong recommendation - so give 'em a try!

Fire Engines on MySpace

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

News: NYC Popfest Line-Up Announced

The line-up for NYC Popfest has been announced. It seems to be scaled down considerably this year, with most shows taking place at Cake Shop or similarly small venues. They have smaller-name bands as well, so it looks like a low-key year. Here's the schedule:

Thursday May 14th
Venue: Cake Shop

Knight School (NYC)
Soft City (NYC)
Dream Bitches (NYC)
The Metric Mile (NYC)
My Teenage Stride (NYC)

* * * * * * * * * *

Friday May 15th
Venue: Don Hills

Don Lennon (NYC)
The Tartans (CA)
( secret band )
Liechtenstein (SWEDEN)

+ Mondo Indie Dance Party

* * * * * * * * * *

Saturday May 16th (FREE!!)
Venue: Cake Shop

Hidden Ghost Balloon Ship (MI)
The Hat Company (OH)
Strega (NYC)

* * * * * * * * * *

Saturday May 16th
Venue: Bell House

Computer Perfection (MI)
Eux Autres (CA)
The Secret History (NYC)
Pants Yell! (MA)

+ Indiepop Dance Party

* * * * * * * * * *

Sunday May 17th
Venue: Cake Shop

Boy Genius (NYC)
Afternoon Naps (OH)
Very Truly Yours (IL)
The Smittens (VT)
Rose Melberg (CANADA)
The Icicles (MI)
Casper and the Cookies (GA)

The only day I recommend checking out is Saturday, featuring The Secret History, Pants Yell! and (most excitingly) Radio Dept. Thursday night, it might be worth going to see Knight School and My Teenage Stride, but they're both around the city, so it's not going to be your only chance.

Album: Ray Rumours - Le Pont Suspendu

Le Pont Suspendu
Album: Le Pont Suspendu
Stitch-Stitch, 2009
Rating: ******* (7/10)

Once before, I wrote up a release by Ray Rumours, the solo project of London-based Ros Murray. To put it concisely, Murray's music captures all the wussiness of "twee pop" but replaces the pop with folk. One the one hand, the folk leanings makes it even wussier, but on the other, it adds some much-needed maturity to the whole "twee" thing. Sure, as you may know, wussy acoustic music isn't really my thing, but even to my jaded ears, it's an interesting enough combination to warrant a listen.

Le Pont Suspendu is richer in instrumentation than previous Ray Rumour releases, but this is a mixed blessing. The many instruments really flesh out some songs and add variety to the album. However, the instrumentation includes some of my least favorite sounds - most notably horns and accordion. At best ("Chaussures"), the horns sound vaguely Spanish, while at worst ("October"), they remind me of my high school concert band. (I blame Jeff Mangum for the horn trend in indie music. He should have put a sticker reading "Kids, don't try this at home!" on all Neutral Milk Hotel albums.)

Le Pont is not a pop album and it doesn't have a lot of hooks, but every once in a while, it approaches catchiness. The best example is "Meaningless Words," a charming little jaunt near the beginning of the record. Also, don't miss "Berlin to Poznan." The track opens with some pretty weak moralistic lyrics, but suddenly makes a sharp turn towards the personal, launching into a loving story of an encounter with an old friend. "Puddles and Rain" is also a personal favorite, because it actually has drums! Well, ok, it has drum, singular, but hey, it's a beat.

The more low-key songs, like the simple lullaby "Au Bord de la Mer," are also lovely (when they aren't rudely interrupted by a trumpet, anyway). For the most part, the album is upbeat and happy, or at least positive. There's an undertow of melancholy, though, which occasionally comes to the fore, like the heartbreaking "Ghost," a song addressed to a loved one who has recently died. However, the album's prevailing calm prevents a broader emotional spectrum - you won't find anything like anger, bitterness or even true elation here.

There is something, however, that gives the album a darker side. It's full of presumably intentional "wrong" notes, split seconds of dissonance that somehow both add to the album's quaint innocence and yet give it a tiny glimmer of something more ominous - there are a few moments where I swear I can hear the echo of some long-ago pain still ringing behind the music. Maybe it's not personal pain but rather a collective pain inherent in all honest music; in any case, it deepens the album immensely.

True to the press release, the album's satisfying climax is "Looking For You," which despite featuring an accordion and some of the album's weakest lyrics, stands out as one of its best tracks. It starts out subtly, then swells powerfully into an orchestral wave. The wave breaks on the appropriately-titled closer "Nightime on the Beach in Sydney," another introspective lullaby, bringing a gentle album to a peaceful close.

Ray Rumours on MySpace

Monday, March 23, 2009

Album: Harlem Shakes - Technicolor Health

Technicolor Health
Album: Technicolor Health
Gigantic Music
Rating: ******** (8/10)

I've been pretty excited about the new Harlem Shakes album since I got a copy by e-mail on December 26 - I remember the date because it totally cured my post-holiday blues. And it's finally coming out this week, so I can share it with the rest of you!

Pop masters the Harlem Shakes were on the first bands I wrote about on this blog, on my "Five New York Bands You Should Really Know List" and I told you way back then that they would come back from their year-long hibernation, bigger and better than ever. And here they are!

Since their 2007 EP Burning Birthdays, the Harlem Shakes have opened up their sound. Technicolor Health is much less dense than the EP and the sounds are cleaner. But the off-kilter pop hooks and Lexy Benaim's unique voice are still at the fore, and the cleaned up sound, while maybe packing less of a punch, allows the band's characteristic complex arrangements to shine.

The album opens with two great songs, "Nothing But Change Part II" and "Strictly Game." It slows down slightly, then kicks it into high gear with the bright pop anthem "Sunshine." The second half of the album is as strong as the first, too. "Winter Water" and "Radio Orlando" are among the band's best songs.

It's not all good. Some tracks, like "TFO," fly right over "catchy" and land squarely in "annoying." Others, like "Unhurried Hearts," are ruined by cliched, corny or trite lyrics. Harlem Shakes aren't usually remembered for the lyrics anyway, though - and sometimes, they do get it just right. In "Strictly Game," Benaim rattles off killer lines like "I'm sick of dressing like a human / when I'm feeling like a leopard."

All the songs are meticulously arranged, with vocal parts from all five members (and guests) along with a myriad of instruments and effects. The band seamlessly mixes electronic noise with acoustic and their attention to detail keeps the music interesting - delightful little parts pop in and out and unexpected noises add character to each track.

With Technicolor Health, the Shakes may not be at the cutting edge of music, but they have a distinct sound (thanks largely to Benaim's quirky voice) and an innovative style that makes this album interesting as well as damn fun.

The album is out tomorrow! :: Harlem Shakes on MySpace

Upcoming Shows: Wavves, Harlem Shakes + more

Thursday, March 26
Harlem Shakes @ Music Hall of Williamsburg || Williamsburg, Brooklyn || $10/$12
After a year without shows or releases, NYC pop kings the Harlem Shakes are back! This week sees the release of their album Technicolor Health (which I will review shortly) and the Shakes are holding a release party Thursday night. You should go. :: MySpace

Friday, March 27

Titus Andronicus + Real Estate @ Market Hotel || Bushwick, Brooklyn || $?
Titus Andronicus are one of the best hardcore bands around these days, playing music that's at once true to the original punk spirit and entirely modern. I've written plenty about them in the past, including putting their 2008 release at #4 on my Best Albums of 2008 list. I don't know anything about Real Estate except that they are the newest buzz band in the no-fi/Woodsist crowd. :: TA MySpace :: RE MySpace

She Keeps Bees + Naked Hearts @ Cake Shop || LES, Manhattan || $8
She Keeps Bees are a pretty badass duo that play blues like it's indie rock. Their bare-bones music is gritty and smart. The Naked Hearts will open and while I wasn't wild about their last release, their live show is pretty cool - noisy indie rock with poppy melodies and male-female vocals. :: SKB MySpace :: NH MySpace

Saturday, March 28

Wavves @ Market Hotel || Bushwick, Brooklyn || $?
Ultra-lo-fi punk/surf/pop band is coming back to New York for the second time this spring (and the second time ever). I reviewed the latest release last week. You should really check them out on one of the three dates they have in town. :: MySpace

Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers @ Mercury Lounge || LES, Manhattan || $12
I've told you about Shilpa many, many, many times and did a live review in December. :: MySpace

Primal Scream @ Webster Hall || E Village, Manhattan || $36/$40
The crowning achievement of the British acid house/britpop fusion, Primal Scream's classic Screamadelica has been acclaimed as one of the greatest albums of its time. They may not be as good as they were back then (1991) but they're still legendary. :: MySpace

Sunday, March 29

Cro-Mags @ Europa || Greenpoint, Brooklyn || $15
The Cro-Mags were a pivotal band in the NYHC scene, welding hardcore punk and heavy metal influences. They are nothing short of legendary. :: MySpace

Wavves @ Cake Shop || LES, Manhattan || $8
Wavves, again. :: MySpace

Primal Scream @ Music Hall of Williamsburg || Williamsburg, Brooklyn || $36
Primal Scream, again. :: MySpace

Monday, March 30

Wavves + DD/MM/YYYY and Real Estate @ Mercury Lounge || LES, Manhattan || $10
DD/MM/YYYY are actually playing last, but Wavves is the real highlight. And that new hyped band Real Estate are opening so get there early to see what the fuss is about. :: Wavves MySpace :: DD/MM/YYYY MySpace :: RE MySpace

Friday, March 20, 2009

Album: Hot Gossip - You Look Faster When You Are Young

You Look Faster When You Are Young
Hot Gossip
Album: You Look Faster When You Are Young

Ghost Records, 2009
Rating: ******* (7/10)

When I first heard some hype about this rock band from Italy, I was dubious. Mainland Europe might put out some top-notch electro acts and a bit of decent pop, but they rarely know how to rock. But I was curious enough to check it out, and no matter what their origin, Hot Gossip has definitely got it down. The album is guitar-driven, poppy indie rock with some killer hooks to boot.

The album starts out strong with the addictive single "Everybody Else." With their focus on rhythm, their uptempos and the swaths of open space in their sound, Hot Gossip is reminiscent of Spoon or pared down britpop - catchy, almost dancy, but still definitely rock and roll. The album's second single, "What We Are" is almost as good as the first and both of these are matched by the more indulgent compositions like "Fast In the Rain" and the album closer "Father."

Unfortunately, on some other songs, the group seems to have misjudged the line between catchy and boring - their music is highly repetitive and some songs (e.g. "And Again") are simply irritating. Others, like "At Night" are just run-of-the-mill indie rock songs that any bar band could put together.

As the album goes on, it gets stronger, ending on a series of solid tunes. The band's attempts at uber-catchiness are hit-and-miss, but as the album moves away from attempts at radio-ready tracks, it starts to get more interesting. And those songs are still upbeat and catchy too! The one short instrumental track, while not really a great composition, certainly indicates that the band is aiming for something more than just mass appeal, and in that sense, the song rounds out the album very well.

Lyrically, Hot Gossip is surprisingly introspective for such a poppy band. Not every song is a home run, but a number of thoughtful songs centered around family relationships also give the album depth.

You Look Faster isn't a landmark album, by any means, but it's a fun listen and well worth checking out.

Hot Gossip on MySpace

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Venue Review: Death By Audio

<< NYC Venues: Index

Location: Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Address: 49 South 2nd St (between Wythe and Kent)
Size: Small
Directions: L to Bedford, walk south about eight short blocks and west two and half blocks
Website: [MySpace]

Acoustics: A-
Booking: D-
Helpfulness to bands: C
Atmosphere: A

Acoustics - For a venue that's just a room with a PA, the acoustics are surprisingly good. It's not Carnegie Hall, but for a DIY warehouse venue, it's not shabby in the least!

Booking - Death By Audio books almost entirely through independent promoters like Todd P. They are nearly impossible to get in touch with if you aren't BFFs with the guys who run the place. And it's not to easy to get in touch with the promoters either, probably because they are big names and end up bombarded with e-mails all the time. Plus, they usually will come to you, not the other way around. So yeah, if you want to book a show here, good luck, odds are slim.

Helpfulness - Leading up to the show, in my experience, the venue is somewhat hopeless - they are very hard to get in touch with, which generally leads to a bit of confusion when everyone shows up not knowing what the set times are, what order people play in or even what bands are on the bill. There's no backline and very few resources. However, on the day of the show, it's a different story. My experience has been much more positive. They tend to run late, but they do want their shows to go off well and are surprisingly welcoming to and accommodating of bands.

Atmosphere - The place is small and feels very homey and comfortable, but still hip and underground. And all the hassle is worth it for that!

<< NYC Venues: Index

Upcoming Show: Beluga - TOMORROW!

When I said there weren't any good shows coming up this week, I missed one! Sorry guys! Beluga is playing at Cameo this Friday night (that's tomorrow!). A mostly-female punk band (though they probably don't call themselves "punk"), Beluga sounds like indie pop gone wrong, but in the best possible way. Loud and aggressive, yet still audibly melodic, it's some of the best music around NYC these days.

When: 3/20
Where: Cameo

Beluga on MySpace

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dust It Off: Company Flow - Funcrusher Plus

Funcrusher Plus
Album: Funcrusher Plus
Rawkus Records, 1997

Here at RFR, I don't talk a whole lot about rap, but that doesn't mean I'm not listening to it. And for this Wednesday's "Dust If Off," it seems like it's time to once again step outside the boundaries of rock to review one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.

Hailing from our very own New York City, Company Flow represents the hardest line of underground rap. Funcrusher Plus sounds like the music we'll be hearing after the apocalypse - stark, militant and haunted. Unlike many other independent hip-hop artists, Company Flow never went in for electronica, ambiance or indie rock tricks. Their rap is a straightforward, hardcore verbal assault.

Funcrusher is the group's finest achievement and arguably the finest achievement in the history of underground rap. Unlike other 90's hip-hop, it doesn't sound dated, even though it's been more than ten years since its release. This is largely due to the minimalism of the beats, with little other than drums supporting the voice on many tracks.

Funcrusher is a concept album, and while the concept is a bit hard to completely follow, it's undeniably post-apocalyptic - the barren beats imitate futuristic wastelands and the rapping is delivered with an urgency that's unrelentingly ominous. At times, the production borders on avant-garde, without losing its hip-hop cool. For example, "The Fire In Which You Burn" features only a pounding off-beat rhythm and a simple, slowly plucked sitar under the words.

The vocals are dense, with few repeating choruses, so after dozens of listens, you'll still have only caught about half the words. There's a dystopian theme made clear by songs like "Population Control," but this metaphorical setting ties flawlessly in to the album's more concrete subjects - the disturbing cycle of poverty and oppression in inner-city neighborhoods, the corruption of the music industry and the terrifying power huge corporations wield in our lives. I don't usually go in for the political lyrics, but Company Flow makes the politics personal - they aren't talking about ideals as much as trying to survive in a violent and repressive society.

Those put off by gangsta rap's glorification of violence will be relieved by tracks like "Last Good Sleep," a harrowing personal account of the spectre of domestic abuse, and "8 Steps to Perfection," which proclaims "if you murder up in the ghetto, you murder in a temple." It can be slightly preachy, but for the most part, that is counteracted by its absolutely anti-idealistic worldview.

By all counts, this is one of the greatest albums of its time. Its sparseness was a major coup for independent and underground rap, proving you don't need a major label budget to put out something astounding and hardcore. It's a musical triumph as well, pushing rap to its extreme in density and complexity of rhythm - few MCs have ever matched El-P's delivery. Most importantly, the sonic and verbal assault is gripping, with intelligent rage bleeding through on every track.

News: Werewolves, Fun Machine - Tour Dates!

The Werewolves are one of my very favorite NYC bands and finally, I have a chance to share them with some of you who aren't in New York! Their psychedelic music seamlessly merges underground 70's rock and early 90's shoegaze - refined melodies, loud-as-hell guitars, sick pitch shifts and a dose of good ol' fashion grit. ::MySpace

Also on tour are the Werewolves' labelmates Fun Machine, whose live performance is simply mindblowing. Their complex songs are highly experimental, but their sweet pop melodies and hooks will hold your attention over all sorts of craziness. And through complex rhythms, high speeds and out-of-the-blue start and stops, the band never seems to miss a note. ::MySpace

I'm going to list the dates by region, not chronologically.

New England
  • 4/22 @ Cafe Nine - New Haven, CT
  • 4/23 @ Cousin Larry’s - Danbury, CT
  • 4/24 @ All Asia - Cambridge, MA
  • 4/25 @ Ralph’s Diner - Worcester, MA
  • 4/29 @ the Monkey House - Burlington, VT

  • 4/17 @ Danger Danger Gallery - Philadelphia, PA
  • 4/19 @ Asbury Lanes (with Fun Machine) - Asbury Park, NJ

    Fun Machine
  • 4/19 @ Asbury Lanes (with Werewolves) - Asbury Park, NJ

  • 3/20 @ Red House Lounge (SXSW) - Austin, TX
  • 3/21 @ Sauced - Oklahoma City, OK
  • 3/23 @ Atomic Cantina - Albuquerque, NM
  • 3/24 @ Last Exit - Tempe, AZ

    Fun Machine
  • 3/21 @ The West End - Longview, TX
  • 3/22 @ (SXSW) - Austin, TX
  • 3/23 @ TBA
  • 3/24 @ Ruby Room - Phoenix, AZ
  • 3/25 @ Hangart - Tuscon, AZ

  • 3/25 @ Boardners - Los Angeles, CA
  • 3/26 @ Mai’s - Ventura, CA
  • 3/27 @ CIA (with Fun Machine) - Los Angeles, CA

    Fun Machine
  • 3/26 @ The Beauty Bar - San Diego, CA
  • 3/27 @ CIA (with Werewolves) - Los Angeles, CA
  • 3/28 @ Echo Curio - Los Angeles, CA

    If you live in these places, don't miss this!!! These bands probably won't be back for a while.
  • Tuesday, March 17, 2009

    Live: Crystal Stilts, Blank Dogs, Women

    When: 3/14
    Where: Music Hall of Williamsburg

    First of all, what a line-up! Three of the hottest bands to break out in the last year, all one bill, for one ticket - perfect for someone cheap and lazy like myself.

    Naked On The Vague - When I arrived at the venue, the second of two relatively obscure openning acts was on stage. Simply put, it was one of the worst bands I've ever heard. It sounded like they were trying to imitate Sonic Youth's most avant-garde material - particularly due to the female vocalist's clear channelling of Kim Gordon's monotone rasp. But Sonic Youth and other good bands that have delved into noise-rock have control over their sound. I'm a big fan of dissonance when it's used innovatively. There is nothing innovative about hammering on diminished fifths and seconds for half an hour - hundreds of thousands of angsty teenagers have already done the same thing, and if it was ever "art," it's definitely not anymore.

    I actually had to go downstairs after a few songs, where the music was still piped in, but at least was much quieter. :: MySpace

    Women - This seemed an odd pairing with the final two bands of the night - Crystal Stilts and Blank Dogs both have a lo-fi sensibility, while Women seek a much more polished sound. Their music seems a close cousin to early 90's math rock, with ever-changing time signatures and complex, spiky melodic lines from each instrument. But Women infuse this sharp, clean style back into the indie rock from whence it came, corralling it with coherent song structures and topping it off with some vocal melodies you could even sing along with.

    Women (photo by Lindsey Baker)

    Both elements are displayed even better live than on the group's recordings - you can see the care and prowess that goes into their sonic experiments and feel the tension building. I would bet money that at least some members of Women have had significant training in music. That's not a value-judgment one way or the other, but it certainly affects their sound and enables them to make their music unfailingly interesting. :: MySpace

    Blank Dogs - Because Blank Dogs run with the ultra-lo-fi crowd, I was expecting something raw and chaotic. But Blank Dogs aren't that - despite their squealing feedback and distorted vocals, they present themselves like a Real Rock Band. There's nothing wrong with that, but I had been looking forward to more youthful spontenaity and indie-punk spirit, and I admit I was a bit disappointed. Their sound is tight to the point of feeling cramped - these are not kids fresh from rehearsing in their parents' garage, that much is for sure.

    The sound was a bit off balance for the Blank Dogs set, with the synth too loud. This wouldn't have been so troubling if it hadn't served to draw attention to the band's poor arrangements. The synth constantly stepped on the toes of guitar and vocal parts.

    The performance was good but not outstanding. The five members played well and were clearly enjoying themselves and their songs. In an ideal world, the band would step it up visually and pare it down musically, but they've got a lot they're doing right - sweet melodies, roaring distortion and technical prowess. I see why everyone's so excited. :: MySpace

    Crystal Stilts - Allow me, first, to give you a timeline of my relationship with the Crystal Stilts.

    • Some time in 2008 - RFR hears "Converging in the Quiet" and freaks the fuck out because it's the best new music in years and years and years.

    • Shortly thereafter - RFR listens to the entire 7-song Woodsist release and continues to freak out.

    • October 2008 - RFR gets Alight of Night and slowly is forced to admit that it's not that interesting.

    • December 2008 - RFR sees Crystal Stilts open for Love Is All and is underwhelmed by the band's lazy-ass performance (including one member being seated the entire time).

    • Later in December 2008 - RFR listens to Alight of Night some more and realizes all the songs sound the same.

    • February 2009 - RFR hears from Top Secret Sources in Europe that Crystal Stilts were pulling stunts like playing twenty minute sets to sold out venues, then retiring because they were "tired."

    I know this sounds stupid, but I actually felt betrayed as I watched the Stilts plummet from being the most exciting band of their time into apparent apathy. So it was with much cynicism that I attended Saturday night's show.

    Crystal Stilts
    Crystal Stilts (photo by Lauren Bilanko)

    I wish I could say the band either fully redeemed themselves or fully validated my disappointment. But in the end, the show was just middling. They played a nice long set and played it well. They were more energetic than when I saw them last, although keyboardist Kyle Forrester is the only one with any real sense of stage presence.

    All in all, the Stilts weren't bad, but they weren't special either. It was just an indie rock show. I'll keep listening to "Converging in the Quiet" but beyond that, I can't put too much energy into this band. It's just impossible to passionate about music, no matter how good, when your passion isn't even matched the people who made it. Bummer that. :: MySpace

    Monday, March 16, 2009

    Album: Wavves - Wavvves

    Album: Wavvves
    Fat Possum, 2009
    Rating: ********* (9/10)

    In 2008, Wavves, the vehicle of San Diego-based Nathan Williams, put out a self-titled album (only two v's) on the very underground label Woodsist. A raw, ultra-lo-fi burst of punk and surf recorded on a four-track in Williams's bedroom, Wavves won my respect from its first note on. It made #3 on my "Best Albums of 2008" list and has been in heavy rotation on my stereo since I first heard it.

    I wasn't the only person to fall in love with Williams's independent, self-assured sound. Since the release of Wavves, he's shown up on Pitchfork Media, signed to Fat Possum and started touring. It was inevitable that such a rapid and dramatic change would affect Williams's music. But I'm happy to report that so far, all the success has changed Wavves in only the best possible way.

    Wavvves has all the fuzzy lo-fi roar of the first album, with drums, vocals and guitars buried and blended under layers of distortion. However, this time around Williams obviously had more recording resources, or at least more time. The sound is better controlled and crafted, with more layers of guitar, percussion and vocals on many songs.

    Moreover, the songwriting itself has vastly improved from the first album. Though Wavves had a few really great tracks, many others were simply unmemorable. On average, Wavvves has better hooks and melodies, better lyrics and better compositions. "Beach Demon" starts out with a veil of noise that's almost beautiful, giving way eventually to a brilliant reprise of the song from the first album. "Sun Opens My Eyes" opens with a bold, clattering beat and "Summer Goth" even has a slight swing.

    But Wavves is still Wavves, the ultimate disaffected southern California youth. Songs like "So Bored" and lyrics like "I'm getting high / to pass the time" are reminiscent of the suburban angst that gave rise to California's 80's hardcore scene. Sometimes (for example, on the obviously-titled "No Hope Kids") the whole "I'm a slacker from California" thing feels a little like overkill. But for the most part, Wavves manages to be an epitome of youth culture in a way that still sounds fresh. This is everything punk rock should be - stubbornly independent, unabashedly young and hella noisy. Props.

    Upcoming Shows: not much

    There don't seem to be any good shows around town this week, probably because everyone is down in Texas for SXSW. Here's what I've got:

    Thursday, March 19
    Soundpool @ Bell House - Gowanus, Brooklyn - $5
    Soundpool is a frontrunner in the NYC shoegaze/dream-pop scene. They aren't as good as their self-created hype would suggest, but they're definitely worth $5 to check out.

    Saturday, March 21
    DMZ @ Southpaw - Park Slope, Brooklyn - $15
    DMZ is a classic garage rock / proto-punk band from Boston. They were cool in 1978, and they're probably still cool now.

    Sorry, that's all I got! But before the end of March, there are a number of shows for which you may want to grab some tickets in advance:

    • Harlem Shakes @ Music Hall of Williamsburg - 3/26 - $10
    • Friendly Fires and White Lies @ Bowery - 3/26 and 3/27 - ALREADY SOLD OUT
    • Primal Scream @ Webster Hall - 3/28 || Music Hall of Williamsburg - 3/29 - $36
    • Wavves and DD/MM/YYYY @ Merucry Lounge - 3/30 - $10

    Friday, March 13, 2009

    Live + Album: Luise Pop

    One thing about getting out of New York for a few days is that you also get out of the New York music scene for a few days and stumble upon bands like Austrian-natives Luise Pop. They've just released their debut album this week and I was lucky enough to, completely by accident, stumble upon their release show.

    When: 3/12
    Where: Vienna, Austria

    When I walked into the Luise Pop show, hosted by Vienna's one real alternative venue, das Fluc, I had no idea what to expect. I definitely didn't expect a three-person choir dressed in funny nautical costumes at the back of the stage. My first thought was to cry "gimmick!" but I figured, at least it's a gimmick I haven't seen before. And when I gave the band a chance, they showed it was no gimmick at all - the mini-choir fleshed out the music indispensably and added a lot to the show.

    The band, true to its name, plays indie pop, most of it very danceable (though of course, this show was in Austria so the audience staunchly refused to do more than a slight head-bob). Though not particularly cutting edge, the band boasts consistently irresistible melodies and brilliant arrangements. It's in this, the exceptional quality of their songwriting, that the band stands out from the pack.

    Unfortunately, a lot of the parts were pre-recorded, which made the band less fun to watch - of course, a big part of concerts is seeing how a band makes their music, and that was lamentably missing here.

    Photo by Andrea Salzmann (from MySpace.com)
    Luise Pop (photo by Andrea Salzmann)

    Despite that, though, the band was still massively fun to watch! The entire group of them seemed to be a little bewildered and bashful, especially the choir in their odd garb. Frontwoman Lisa Berger seemed a bit shy too, but everyone threw their all into the show. They seemed surprised but very pleased to be on stage in front of a fair-sized crowd and they definitely made the most of the opportunity, striking a lovely balance between humility and confidence. From silly choreographed dance moves from the choir (delivered with not a little self-consciousness) to all-out rock moments from guitarist and co-vocalist Vera Kropf, the show just made me smile.

    The Car The Ship The Train
    Album: The Car The Ship The Train
    Asinella Records, 2009
    Rating: ******* (7/10)

    Of course, at the show, I grabbed a copy of the band's brand new release and debut LP, The Car The Ship The Train. Once again, the band's exceptional gift for writing melodies and arranging songs is clear. Using a broad palette of sounds, the band manages to make each song distinct without making the album seem scattered.

    The indie-rock sincerity of Berger and Kropf's lyrics, driven home with a just-a-tad-shy delivery, is unquestionably endearing - these aren't polished pros, they are just some really nice people singing some songs! This makes some tracks ("Run Away" is a prime example) fall a little flat, but for the most part, it's effectively engaging and unlike many indie pop bands who aim for the same thing, it doesn't seem at all contrived.

    Album highlights include the quietly beautiful "Pirate Isle," anthemic dance-punk "Feminist Terrorists" and "At The Gas Station," which has some the album's most interesting sounds and rhythms. As the record wears on, the songs gradually grow in depth and maturity, slowing down ever so slightly from the exuberant beginning and becoming more introspective. The album title is drawn from the lyrics of "Detour," a short track that brings together the album's theme of youthful transience in one rousing chorus.

    The only really unsatisfying moment of the album is the closing song, which was also the closing song (pre-encore) at the live show. Both live and on the record, I was disappointed when the final 30 seconds of building triumph just abruptly ended instead of taking the step I anticipated - both times, I waited for the band to burst out into an ear-shattering closing chorus, and both times, all I got was a single orchestral hit and silence.

    But missed opportunities aside, the album is ultimately solid and accomplished. It's a great listen, and like the live show, bound to make you crack a smile.

    Luise Pop on MySpace

    Preview and buy the album here. (The tracks are in a different order from on the physical CD.)

    Thursday, March 12, 2009

    Venue Review: Roseland Ballroom

    << NYC Venues: Index

    Location: Midtown, Manhattan
    Address: 239 W 52nd St (between Broadway and 8th)
    Size: Large (cap. 3,000+)
    Directions: 1 to 50th, walk two blocks north and half a block west; or C or E to 50th, walk two blocks north and half a block east; or B, D or E to 7th Ave, walk one block south and a block and a half west
    Website: roselandballroom.com

    Acoustics: D
    Booking: N/A
    Helpfulness to bands: N/A
    Atmosphere: D

    Acoustics - Though miles better than the nearby Terminal 5, Roseland's acoustics are still a huge mess. Roseland wasn't built as a music venue, it was built as, well, a ballroom and later adapted to be a boxing arena. Just because someone hung some huge speakers from the ceiling doesn't make it a concert hall - the sound is miserably muddy and made more so by sheer volume. Of course, sheer volume is part of some music and as such, My Bloody Valentine, who played Roseland in September, sounded better here than most bands who come through the spot. But unless the band you want to see has calculated their use of volume to create distortion and overtones as part of their craft (and that's rare), the blasting speakers will just turn everything to sludge.

    Booking - I've never booked a show this big, so I really don't know anything about it.

    Helpfulness - Again, I haven't a clue.

    Atmosphere - Roseland gives off a creepy corporate vibe, made worse by the knowledge that it's a boxing venue and that it's just up the road from Times Square. The massive crowds are herded through like so many sheep and it's obviously not the kind of venue that cares in the slightest about the artistic merit of the bands who play there. It's about ticket sales and moving people in and out quickly after getting as much money off them as possible. There are lots of venues like this in every city, and sometimes they are the only way to see a band you like, but just be forewarned that the atmosphere is at best generic and at worst, oppressive.

    << NYC Venues: Index

    News: Jack White and Alison Mosshart Have A New Band

    Jack White (White Stripes, Racounters) and Alison Mosshart (the Kills) have announced the formation of a new band called Dead Weather. The group also includes two touring members of the Racounters, Dean Fartita (Queens of the Stone Age) and Jack Lawrence.

    Given how much I love the hip, gritty sound of the Kills, the raw, indie-rock-fuelled blues of the White Stripes and the catchy garage rock of the Racounters, this is very, very good news.

    Source: NME

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009

    Dust It Off: Slint - Spiderland

    Album: Spiderland
    Touch & Go, 1991

    Among indie rock geeks, Spiderland is far from obscure, but I've been surprised a number of times recently by musically literate people who have simply never heard of Slint. Here's what you should know: Slint was the first and best of the "math rock" bands, a genre known for changing time-signatures, angular guitars, dynamic contrast and complex composition. It was also essential in kicking off "post rock," making way for bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Ros and Mogwai.

    Spiderland, Slint's haunting masterpiece, has only six songs, each of them telling a different dark story. Brian McMahon's vocals are mostly spoken or screamed (though at times inadvertently tunefully), allegedly because he was too insecure to sing them. This delivery would be annoying in most contexts, but here, it's extremely powerful - McMahon simply lays the dark corners of his mind bare for his audience, without hiding behind a forced melody or song structure. Spiderland is a window into a deeply damaged psyche and its immediacy is startling and deeply unsettling.

    Unlike many later post rock bands, Slint never used electronics or orchestral noise, instead focusing on traditional rock-band palette of electric guitar, bass and drums. This makes the music heavy-hitting and aggressive, an effect enhanced by the band's technique of dropping everything to a haunting whisper before slamming more out at top volume. Meanwhile, though the structures borrow more from prog rock than pop, they are clearly conceived with great care, each providing a new alien landscape against which McMahon's stories unfold.

    Rumor has it that members of Slint were in and out of mental institutions throughout the recording of Spiderland, and whether or not that's true, Spiderland is one of the most anguished, painful records ever made. "Breadcrumb Trail" tells a story of an innocent romance with a fortune-teller, but the tale is shrouded in ominous details, while "Don, Aman" seems to be a harrowing if enigmatic account of mental illness.

    Most chilling of all is the closer, "Good Morning, Captain." Based loosely on Coleridge's "Rime of an Ancient Mariner," the song tells the story the sole survivor of a shipwreck, an old sailor shunned when he seeks help or even witness on shore. Near the end of the song, however, McMahon seems to break down and instead of finishing the narrative, he just starts screaming "I miss you" over and over at the top of his voice until the album's close.

    It's a staggering work that sounds like nothing before or since. Musically, it is a pivotal experiment in the use of changing time signatures and contrast dynamics. Emotionally, it protrays agony, horror and dispair with unsurpassed intensity. A landmark album in indie rock, Spiderland should be required listening for everyone.

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009

    Single: Grouper - "Rising Height"

    Single: Rising Height
    Soft Abuse, 2009
    Rating: ******** (8/10)

    Enigmatic one-woman band Grouper will be releasing a split single with tourmate Pumice this spring. I've avoided writing about Grouper so far, not because I'm not aware of it and not because I haven't noticed that it's really good, but because I generally don't have the attention-span to concentrate well enough on Liz Harris's slowcore ambiance to write anything intelligent. But I figured I could handle one song, so here goes.

    "Rising Height" features Grouper's usual murky guitar noise, this achieved mostly by using an ungodly amount of reverb. The result is a dense, dark cloud of atmosphere, more reminiscent of the mournful creaking of old boards than an electric guitar and some effects pedals. It's a rhythmless, formless tide of sound that never touches ground.

    Yet under this slow tide, Harris's slow, pristine vocals float mournfully, occasionally surfacing for a momentary major chord before slipping back under the droning. It's a chilling effect, made all the more potent by the massive reverb coating both guitar and vocals - though the effects are no doubt digital, it sounds most like it was recorded in an ancient, empty cathedral. Intentionally or not, the song's minor modal chords and echoey sound evoke the solemn spirituality of Gregorian chants or medieval Christmas hymns. It's powerfully haunting, somber, brooding and beautiful.

    I heard the song on Gorilla vs. Bear and you can too.

    Grouper on MySpace

    Venue Review: The Annex

    << NYC Venues: Index

    Location: LES, Manhattan
    Address: 152 Orchard St. (between Stanton & Rivington)
    Size: Medium-small
    Directions: F/V to 2 Ave, walk one block east and one block south
    Website: theannexnyc.com

    Acoustics: A-
    Booking: A-
    Helpfulness to bands: D+
    Atmosphere: C-

    Acoustics - The interior of the Annex is oddly shaped but it has excellent acoustics anyway. It's probably because of pretty high-quality equipment and the fact that the interior of the space involves a lot of wood and panelling instead of brick, concrete or metal. It can be a touch muffled and murky, depending on the music, but for the most part, things sound good on stage and in the house.

    Booking - The Annex is fairly open-minded and easy to book, especially for a venue that's somewhat "corporate" feeling. The venue seems to have pretty decent taste in bands and puts together logical line-ups too.

    Helpfulness - Once you're booked at the Annex, things become less fun. In my experiences with the venue, they keep a lot of the money from the door charges (which tend to be high in the first place), so pay for bands is pitifully low. They are very strict with their guest lists and the overall feel is that they are eking out every possible penny from the bands, despite the fact that they throw club nights that surely generate enough income to keep the venue afloat. Speaking of the club nights, this is also one of those venues that will shut bands off to avoid conflict with their late-night parties - although at least they are better at starting shows on time than many of the other venues that do this. Still, bands are treated more with tolerance, as are their audiences. It's generally not a great vibe.

    Atmosphere - I've already touched on this - to me, the venue has always come off more as putting up with bands in hopes of making a few extra bucks, and that attitude certainly extends to the audience. It's just not a welcoming place - you'll pay a lot of money for the privilege of buying slightly overpriced drinks and watching your favorite band be hustled on and off stage in half an hour. The acoustics are great and the visibility is great, so it's not an altogether a bad place to see a band - but the pervasive sense that it's a money-grubbing corporation kind of kills the mood.

    << NYC Venues: Index

    Monday, March 9, 2009

    Upcoming Shows: Ringo Deathstarr, Vandelles, Blank Dogs + more

    TOMORROW - Tuesday, March 10

    Autodrone @ The Annex - LES, Manhattan
    Autodrone's dense, dark rock combines hints of shoegaze, grunge, metal and new wave in perfect proportion. They seem to be opening, so get there on the early side. :: MySpace

    Wednesday, March 11

    Vandelles, Ringo Deathstarr and Black Swan Green @ Cake Shop - LES, Manhattan - $8
    The Vandelles take 50's and 60's pop music and put it through an incinerator of psychedelia and screaming feedback. Ringo Deathstarr are, without a doubt, one of the best American shoegaze bands out there. They're just up from Austin, TX for a couple of nights so don't miss your chance to see them! Black Swan Green are a fairly new band on the scene, doing something shoegazy and cool. I haven't heard them, but I've heard a lot of good things about them, so show up early and see what they're all about. :: Vandelles MySpace :: Ringo Deathstarr MySpace :: BSG MySpace

    Thursday, March 12

    The Pogues @ Roseland Ballroom - Midtown, Manhattan
    The Pogues. Celtic folk punks. C'mon, they're classic.

    Friday, March 13

    The Pogues @ Roseland Ballroom - Midtown, Manhattan
    The Pogues. Again.

    Saturday, March 14

    Crystal Stilts, Blank Dogs, Women + more @ Music Hall of Williamsburg - $13
    The Crystal Stilts used to be one of my favorite NYC bands, but they recently broke my heart. I'm going to give them another chance but I'm mostly recommending this show because Blank Dogs and Women are among the opening acts. Blank Dogs run with Wavves, Woods, Nodzzz and the rest of the lo-lo-lo-fi crowd. Women is an experimental band that sounds somewhat like post-rock's forebears - you know, the ones that still knew how to rock. :: CS MySpace :: BD MySpace :: Women MySpace

    Sunday, March 15

    Takka Takka and the Secret Life of Sofia @ Cake Shop - LES, Manhattan - $10
    Takka Takka are your typical experimental indie rock, though far above average. They can be a little odd and perhaps pretentious, but they've earned their reputation. The Secret Life of Sofia plays darkly ambient noise-folk, introspective and melancholy but loud enough to keep your attention. :: TT MySpace :: TSLOS MySpace

    Live: Ponytail + Cold Pumas, Peepholes, Line

    When: 3/7
    Where: Brighton, England

    Since Ponytail lives only a few hours away from me, it makes perfect sense that I should first see them live in England, right? But I had to kick off my little foray across the Atlantic with something awesome, and Ponytail is exactly that. But first, the opening bands...

    Line - I guess that's what the first act was called, judging from the fliers. It appeared to just be a guy with a guitar, a microphone and a bunch of electronics - a formula that is far from new and one that has never (to my knowledge) succeeded. With only one person on stage, and especially with that person having to focus on the details of multiple instruments instead of the audience, it's simply not engaging. The music was good but nondescript and tellingly, most of the audience didn't even seem to be aware that anyone was playing.

    Peepholes - As you might expect at a Ponytail show, the opening acts all involved a lot of noisy, enthusiastic experimentalism, a style that inevitably teeters on the edge of cliche. But of the three opening acts, Peepholes did the best at fighting off redundancy - they aren't really original, of course, but they do stand out from the pack, mostly by means of their compositional talent. While their songs are massively chaotic, they are packed with memorable hooks and it's obvious that they've all been painstakingly arranged. Not to mention painstakingly rehearsed - the duo churned out their primitive rhythms at the pace of an X-15 jet without once falling out of sync.

    On stage, they have too much downtime, but when they play, it's thrilling to watch. Synth player/guitarist/vocalist/drummer Katia Barrett looks like she's being repeatedly electrocuted by the synthesizer, while drummer/vocalist/guitarist Nick Carlisle smacks his drums around with so much zeal you'd think they must have somehow insulted his mother. And though the music is fun, the performance makes clear that it's also genuinely emotive - the anger may be posturing, but the dark urgency is unsettlingly sincere. ::MySpace

    Cold Pumas - As I said, high-speed noise rock is in constant peril of being cliched, and unfortunately, Cold Pumas haven't managed to avoid this pitfall. Their music would have been outstanding if this were 1978, but it's 2009, and at this point, it comes off as sadly superfluous. Unlike Peepholes, Cold Pumas didn't really produce any memorable riffs and moreover, they came off less expressive than the preceding act - there was something impersonal about their approach, as though the band is perhaps not ready to open themselves personally to each other and their audience. All in all, the three Pumas are good at their instruments and it definitely wasn't an unpleasant listen. It's just not worth getting too excited about. ::MySpace

    Ponytail - Ponytail placed in my Top 20 Albums of 2008 list, but I hadn't heard them live until this weekend, when we both left the U.S. East Coast and headed to Brighton, England. (I assume this is because they found out I'd be there and decided to stalk me. Flattering, guys, but kinda creepy as well!)

    What I admire about Ponytail is their fearless independence and willingness to completely embarrass themselves for the sake of art. They play their noise rock like they're wrestling a steer at the state rodeo. The tempos leave even the audience breathless, with two guitars careening over relentlessly hypersonic drumbeats. The vocals, in turn, are almost childlike shrieks and wails.

    But despite the sonic assault, this isn't angry music, it's ecstatic. The band's intense energy seems to come from sheer joy, grabbing their songs by the horns and letting out a cowboy's yeehaw! All four members are non-stop smiles, and while their enthusiasm is surprisingly well-conveyed on their recordings, their live show goes far beyond. The band members jump, bend, stagger and bounce, with "singer" (ok, vocalist) Molly Siegel eventually losing patience and hopping a three-foot barrier into the audience. Few bands could match Ponytail's energy and stamina. Their show is captivating and definitely not an experience to be missed.

    They play New York on April 25. Mark your calendars! ::MySpace

    Friday, March 6, 2009

    Venue Review: Pianos

    << NYC Venues: Index

    Location: LES, Manhattan
    Address: 158 Ludlow St. (at Stanton)
    Size: Medium-small (cap. 200)
    Directions: F/V to 2 Ave, walk two blocks east and one block south
    Website: pianosnyc.com

    Acoustics: A
    Booking: A
    Helpfulness to bands: A
    Atmosphere: B

    Acoustics - The equipment is decent, the sound techs are good and the room is set up well enough. It's no Carnegie Hall, but for a backroom venue, the sound is completely adequate.

    Booking - The people at Pianos I've worked with have been extremely responsive and professional. It's not the easiest venue to book - it's sought-after and they have particular expectations for draw (of course) but they make the process pleasant and are flexible and open-minded. They usually put together logical shows of bands that fit reasonably well together and are very accomodating if you approach them with a line-up in mind.

    Helpfulness - I have never known Pianos to fail in communicating with bands as necessary and on the day of, they have always been accomodating and attentive to bands' needs. Perhaps because Pianos has other rooms that generate most of their income, they seem to be relaxed and friendly in the showroom. They give musicians drink tickets, pay reasonably well and generally make them feel welcome. That's not true of many NYC venues. Everything doesn't always run smoothly, but they always do what they can to make sure everyone has a decent experience.

    The only problem I've encountered is that they don't always coordinate well with DJs, so if you bring a DJ in for your show, they may get kicked out promptly after, when the house's usual DJs arrive. Just be sure to clear your after-show plans beforehand, though, and it shouldn't be a problem.

    Atmosphere - The only failing of Pianos is here. The atmosphere in the showroom is certainly sufficient, but to get there, you have to walk through the bar. It's usually crammed wall-to-wall with a rather obnoxious collegiate crowd who will not get out of your way for love or money. Just plow through!

    << NYC Venues: Index

    Thursday, March 5, 2009

    Live: My Best Fiend

    When: 2/20
    Where: Zebulon

    I completely forgot to run this review until now! Better late than never, though.

    My Best Fiend is a band I ignored for a long time because of their name. But after a while, I realized they've got the respect of folks like A Place To Bury Strangers and might be worth checking out. And they definitely are.

    The Zebulon set, however, wasn't your typical MBF. The small bar is not exclusively acoustic, but it's certainly more of a cafe feel than a rock show. Accordingly, the band turned down and calmed down, sitting and playing a relatively clean, quiet, "unplugged" version of their music.

    While MBF are much better plugged in and turned up, seeing them play without effects allowed their musicianship to come to the fore. All four members, as it would happen, are exceptionally skillful at their instruments and its clear that when the band does use volume and effects, it's not because they need to hide behind anything. Stripped down, the music sounds like the earliest Smashing Pumpkins demos (I know that doesn't mean anything to anyone but me) - jumpy, rhythmic and ringing.

    The only real problem with the set were the vocals. They seemed particularly out of key, though I suppose they are just more palatable with louder, fuzzier accompaniment. There's just enough punk rock in this band that I wouldn't expect a melodic, perfect vocal line, but the first couple of songs were simply high and grating. After that, the band seemed to settle in and the rough vocals approached what they should be - edgy but not painful.

    As performers, the band did an admirable job. Their decision to keep things toned down for the venue was certainly wise. But just because they were seated didn't mean they didn't engage - each poured over his guitar with intense concentration and passion for the music. It was certainly a commendable show.

    I'd highly recommend checking this band out when they aren't holding back. When you do, just remember that the noise isn't a cover-up, they really just are that good.

    MBF on MySpace

    Wednesday, March 4, 2009

    Dust It Off: Walt Mink - El Producto

    El Producto
    Album: El Producto (Walt Mink)
    Atlantic, 1996

    This album's biggest claim to fame is that it is one of fewer than a dozen albums to receive a 10/10 from Pitchfork Media upon its initial release, a rating even the band's own mothers must have known was undeserved. But despite it not being a 10/10 sort of record, it is a great record. And it would have been known as one if it weren't for a serious of crappy twists of fate (mostly caused by the messy internal politics at Atlantic) that kept it under most listeners' radars .

    Walt Mink is quintessentially 90's and quintessentially American indie, equally because of its clear post-Nirvana wussiness and because of its heavy-handed alt-rock production. The band's catchy pop is delivered at lightspeed in ever-changing time signatures and with a healthy sheen of distortion. It sounds like the poppiest of Husker Du or Mudhoney, but about twice as fast.

    Though Walt Mink's line-up changed several times, it always featured John Kimbrough, and only John Kimbrough, on guitar. Backed only by a rhythm section, Kimbrough developed a quick half finger-picking, half strumming technique that allowed him to be both lead and rhythm guitarist, churning out quick riffs while holding down a steady chord with a few fingers. It's not that this approach is revolutionary, but it's surprisingly effective and on El Producto, it's at its best.

    Kimbrough's high-ish voice can be a bit whiny and annoying at times, and his lyrics are often, well, dumb. But that doesn't stop songs like "Stood Up" and "Overgrown" from being some of the rockin'est moments of the 90's. And in what was often a heavy decade for rock music, Walt Mink's lightness - achieved through sheer speed and an unswerving refusal to hit weighty, low-register chords on the guitar - makes it a fresh voice among its contemporaries.

    From punk-inspired underground pop tracks to a handful of sweet acoustic numbers, El Producto shines because of its superb (if simple) songwriting. The complex hooks are irresistible while the veering time signatures hold a more intellectual appeal. This album didn't shake the foundations of rock'n'roll, but it's solid and smart and it doesn't sound like anyone except Walt Mink.

    Tuesday, March 3, 2009

    News: Strangest Supergroup Ever

    Hi kids! My friend known here as "Helga" sent me a news article announcing the formation of a new supergroup featuring James Iha (the Smashing Pumpkins' hippie guitarist), Taylor Hanson (yeah, Hanson, as in "Mmmbop"), Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne, Ivy) and Bun E. Carlos (Cheap Trick's drummer). What can I say? Except: what the fuck???

    The band is called Tinted Windows. Their debut is out in April.

    Source: "Who's Next?" (Yahoo)

    News: Antlers release Hospice

    I know I've been pimping this album pretty hard lately, but trust me - it's worth the excitement. The official release is today so stop reading and go get a copy!

    Here's a few sentences from the review/dissertation I posted last week (in case you don't have the patience to get through the whole thing):

    Hospice is not only an outstanding album, it's one of the most exciting releases since the 90's. On the surface, it's a concept album that intertwines stories of terminal cancer, mental illness and dissolution of a relationship into dysfunction and cruelty. Where these tales intersect is the painful truth that love does not conquer all. Sonically, it's a creeping ambient lo-fi, as if Radiohead had recorded OK Computer in Thom Yorke's basement. It's an imperfect work, of course, but it's still a rare and exciting accomplishment. It's musicians like these who will lead us out of indie rock's dead ends and on a personal level, who will help us mend from life's damages and carry on.

    Monday, March 2, 2009

    Venue Review: Glasslands

    << NYC Venues: Index

    Location: Williamsburg, Brooklyn
    Address: 289 Kent Ave. (between S. 1st and S. 2nd)
    Size: Medium (cap. 275)
    Directions: L to Bedford, walk seven blocks south and four blocks west
    Website: glasslands.com

    Acoustics: A
    Booking: D
    Helpfulness to bands: N/A
    Atmosphere: A-

    Acoustics - Glasslands has pretty great acoustics, especially for a bizarrely shaped room. I don't know how they accomplished it, if it's the surfaces or the sound system or what, but everything sounds pretty distinct.

    Booking - Booking at Glasslands is every kind of impossible. In my experience, they simply don't respond to most e-mails, even to say "no thanks." My experiences with them have mostly been frustrating. When they do communicate, they aren't terribly helpful either.

    Helpfulness - It's a great venue, but booking a show there has never been worth the hassle, so I have no experience with this.

    Atmosphere - Glasslands isn't as quite cool as one might expect for a venue that started out as a loft/DIY. It's a "community art space," and is accordingly cozy and relaxed, a fine atmosphere but not edgy. There's pretty good visibility, though, so you can actually see the band you came to see. The people are fairly chill and decent bands often do their under-the-radar shows here, so it's not a bad place to keep an eye on. That requires some patience, though - Glasslands wins the prize for most poorly organized calendar (it's not a calendar at all, it's a blog), so good luck figuring it out.

    << NYC Venues: Index

    Upcoming Shows: Antlers, Elika, Bellmer Dolls + more

    TONIGHT - Monday, March 2

    Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers @ Santos Party House - Chinatown, Manhattan - $8/$10
    I've told you to go see Shilpa Ray many times. Trust me, she's totally nuts. Here's my live review. :: MySpace

    TOMORROW - Tuesday, March 3

    The Bellmer Dolls @ Lit Lounge - East Village, Manhattan - $6
    Garage goth pioneers and nihilistic nightmare of club owners everywhere, Bellmer Dolls are the Real Deal. Here's my very recent live review. Last time I saw them at Lit they did so much damage I'm pretty shocked they were invited back. They are one of today's most innovative bands and one of the best live shows out there. You'd be a fool to miss this. :: MySpace

    Wednesday, March 4

    Bridges and Powerlines @ Mercury Lounge - LES, Manhattan - $12
    Nothing super amazing is going down Wednesday, but if you're in a show-going mood, check out B&P, one of NYC's most solid up-and-coming indie rock acts. They're an opening band so get there early. :: MySpace

    Thursday, March 5

    The Antlers @ Union Hall - Park Slope, Brooklyn - $10
    The CD release party for the album I spent over 1,000 words raving about last week (scroll down), this show is going to be amazing. Don't miss a chance to send the Antlers off on tour - if the world is just, they won't be playing small shows when they get back. Melancholy lo-fi ambient music at its most interesting. :: MySpace

    Saturday, March 7

    So So Glos @ Market Hotel - Bushwick, Brooklyn
    The So So Glos are hot shit in the New York underground right now. I've never heard them, but everything I've heard about their raw punk makes me think they're worth a gamble. And they're pretty much Market Hotel's house band, so it should be an relaxed, fun show. :: MySpace

    Sunday, March 8

    The Homosexuals @ Mercury Lounge - LES, Manhattan - $8
    British DIY-style post-punks are resurrected. They're no Wire, but they're as close as you're gonna get, especially for only eight bucks. :: MySpace

    Elika @ Union Hall - Park Slope, Brooklyn - FREE
    I gave Elika a rave review for their 2008 album. Their dreamy, shoegazey electro-pop is some of the best out there - they could even give M83 a run for their money. Speaking of money, the show is free. So this is about as good as it gets. :: MySpace