Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Reminder: Trapezing Artifacts or Polymorphous Hypocritical Empire of Lust

I was driving to work and slipped Crying Your Knife Away, a GBV bootleg dating from around 1994 (read: between Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes) on the old iPod - was surprised I still had the files on something. What a pick-me-up that thing is. Drunken middle-aged men at their best, featuring choice line such as

"(in an affected British accent) I can't find me setlist"
"I'm fucked up, so if I fuck this up, fuck it."
"(to someone offstage) Hey Bela, man, I saw you get kicked out of the Newport the other day. That SUCKED. That was BULLSHIT."
Plus the album is named after a missung line in "If We Wait" - "Oh, now I've bored you, crying my life away"

The good vibes given off by Pollard & co - who at the time were on top of the (indie) world and just starting to play out more as a powerful, alcohol-fueled five piece rock juggernaut - are infectious, even fourteen years and several beers removed from the original. Pollard's voice gives out well before the encore but it's definitely the strongest live GBV I've heard on record. (Well worth checking out is the reverb-drenched radio set they did with Girls Against Boys) If you like GBV, this set will be talking your language.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Some things never change

I went to see Lou Reed (and Julian Schnabel's) Berlin last Tuesday. It gets a thumbs-up from me. But not for the shitty "in-the-moment" hand-held camerawork. Not for the moody lighting of the stage Reed & co. played on. Not for the inane films of the "Caroline" character interspersed between the songs, half of which didn't even correspond to the music behind them. Not for the 60(,000) musicians and underage choral singers backing up Lou onstage. Not even for Reed's core band, who were quite good (including Fernando Saunders on bass and Steve Hunter on guitar).

No, as usual, despite the massive pretensions that frequently surround Reed and his work, his own performance and songwriting shined through, and carried Berlin far away from being a nostalgia-trip, an exercise in futility, an overblown maudlin nightmare media-extravaganza, etc. and into an emotionally resonant and entertaining film worth watching. Most of the success or failure of a Lou Reed project depends on whether he's bringing his A-game to the table or not. Berlin is one of those where Lou gives 110% . I felt moved, amused, exhilarated, etc, and this is mainly from watching close-ups of him singing. Real tears are in his eyes during "Caroline Says II" and "The Bed." His guitar-faces are inimitable. His joy at performing is unmistakable. Indeed, it's Lou's passion that carries Berlin - which in the first place is a bit of a frustrating mongrel document: "Sad Song" and "Men of Good Fortune" were both VU songs, "Berlin" appeared on Lou Reed, "Caroline Says I" repeats the melody and rhythm of Transformer's "Make Up," and "Caroline Says II" is the VU's "Stephanie Says" with new lyrics. But somehow, with a little love, with unmistakable passion (which is admittedly rare for this artist, who prefers to shield himself in time-hardened cynicism) and with a believable and intelligible enough story line, this is translated into a conceptually cohesive work - a moving one, even. (This is true for the 1973 album, as well, which is also fantastic).

As a side note, I think it might be best if people tried to see the sense of humor in Lou Reed songs sometimes - for instance, I found myself one of the two people in the theater laughing at encore number "Rock Minuet"'s line "The two whores sucked his nipples, then he came on their feet" - sung, typically, in his trademark east coast drawl. Christ, even stoney-faced Lou must have had a little chuckle coming up with that one!

But so it goes - Lou Reed remains the most misinterpreted, misunderstood, internationally-recognized genius songwriter on earth. (Often he is the biggest culprit in this enterprise.) Some things never change.

Indeed, some things never change....

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Elf Power Rant, or, Forgiving the New One, Possibly Liking It

For over half a decade, Elf Power was untouchable. Show me a better run than the one the band experienced from 1996's When the Red King Comes to 2002's Creatures, and, well, I'll show you The Fall (or Pavement), but the point is, I haven't seen another twee indie-pop band, much less another Elephant 6 band, capable of such consistency, grace, and longevity as those four records demonstrate.

But 2004's Walking With the Beggar Boys was the first truly mediocre album the band had ever released: an attempt at down-and-dirty mid-70s T-Rex swagger that found Elf leader Andrew Rieger suddenly rudderless in the songwriting department. I can only name two good songs off the entire affair - "Invisible Men" and the title track, the second of which was only redeemed live. Some albums get a bad rap unfairly in the indie world, but Beggar Boys is one that deserves the criticism. New promo photos around that time saw Rieger and keyboardist Laura Carter with two new members standing in a countryside construction site. Indeed, change was afoot, but not necessarily for the better.

They have never been Elephant 6's flagship band, but rather the collective's best-kept secret, in a way. They've flirted with higher profile, opening for REM, recording 1999's excellent A Dream in Sound with the Flaming Lips' producer Dave Friedmann, and, like most Elephant 6 Bands, have been joined in the studio/on stage by members of every other band in the collective (e.g. Jeff Mangum, Heather McIntosh).

And sadly, the last four years have not seen a career renaissance for Elf Power. Former contemporaries Neutral Milk Hotel have been fucking deified and Olivia Tremor Control received deluxe reissues of their mid 90s records. Apples in Stereo continue their re-acceptance into the mainstream, highlighted by Robert Schneider's appearances on Colbert Report, and Of Montreal, who seem prone to exchanging members with the Power (and whose older records sound like annoyingly hyperactive outtakes from Apples/Elf albums(don't get me wrong, I really like the newer stuff)), have become independent rock superstars.

But Elf Power isn't on national TV or writing music for commercials. They generally don't record on their laptops at home and they don't experiment with electronica. No, they're still doing things the old way. Andrew writes songs on an acoustic guitar with a four-track, the band learns them, and then they record the album, then they tour the album. And it was this by-the-books process yielded the follow up to Beggar Boys, Back to the Web.

Back to the Web did not grab me or anyone I know right off the bat. Which doesn't stop it from being one of Elf Power's absolute best records, perhaps stronger than Creatures. Here, Rieger matures - but not too much - blending his child-like sense of surrealistic imagery and naturalistic setting in sing-song rhyme with an unexpected Middle Eastern vibe, courtesy of his embracing an acoustic-twelve string for much of his guitar work on the album, as well as the whining, burlesque string section that appears on half the songs. The mood of the record is dark, often dour, with several tracks finding the band vamping over minor-key pedals behind Andrew's lyrics, now more down-to-earth than before, yet still fantastical - if the titles of "Peel Back the Moon, Beware!," "Spider and the Fly" and "King of Earth" are any hint. Even the most old-school sounding track on the record, the single "All the World is Waiting" is infused with an onimous pastoral vibe, as if Elf Power has become a naturalist cult promoting themselves on CD. The album is a rarity for a band such as Elf Power - the one the band should be making at that point in their career. It reflected no current trend, but rather, a following of their own star at their own pace. It also helped bury Beggar Boys fairly quickly.

This year saw the release of In a Cave, the kind of package that a record company has to be held back from blurting out "RETURN TO FORM" over. Yes, it does sound more like one would expect Elf Power to sound than say, the previous two records. However - this isn't the same fun-loving, fantastical, zany sound-effects band that we knew in the late 90s.

Start with the title. If Back to the Web sounded like a retreat on the band's part, what do we make of In a Cave? Has Rieger decided to officially wave the white flag on widespread success? Or is the title a reflection on the type of existence the band has always led, isolated even from their Elephant 6 brothers & sisters? It's true - the Elf have never really fit, which could be chalked up to all kinds of factors, including Rieger's voice: while Olivia Tremor Control had adept Beatles-imitators on the mic and Mangum's weary bleating melts hearts after the initial offense, Rieger's voice is twee, high, and consistently vulnerable. He's developed his vocals dramatically through his career; the triple-tracked harmonies on the new album are confident and powerful - but his leads still betray a boyish, wide-eyed tremble that informs much of the music. And it's an acquired taste.

The weariness found in the album's moniker is more evident in its contents. Check on the titles on this one - "A Tired Army," "Paralyzed," "Fried Out." Elf Power's songwriting gets a breath of fresh air with the four tracks ex-Olivia Tremor Control drummer Eric Harris concocted for Rieger to sing over, often with great results, particularly opener "Owl Cut (White Flowers in the Sky)" which sounds like psychedelic analog techno. However, the other three often sound like OTC outtakes that Andrew made a special guest appearance on. Check on the beginning of "A Tired Army" with the overcompressed piano and dragging drumbeat and see if the words Cubist Castle don't immediately spring to mind.

Rieger, as always, is more than capable of coming up with a good tune - problem is, he's written a few of them before. "Spiral Stairs" borrows the refrain from Back to the Web's "Peel Back the Moon, Beware!" for its chorus, while "New Lord" reprises the melody of "All the World is Waiting." And while Cave's predecessor was dark and down-to-earth, this one sounds downright resigned. Check out "Fried Out," where Rieger confronts a drug-casualty acquaintance through his own particular lexicon - "You are never coming back/Forever falling through the cracks/Hope we'll see you once again/We're all moving towards the end" are lyrics so warily cynical I would have never expected to hear them on an Elf Power record.

The album is not without its high points, particularly the jumpy folk-spasm "Paralyzed" and the Stones-y "Quiver and Quake." And despite my reservations, I am encouraged by the Harris/Rieger collaborations, and hoping more experimentation will spill onto the next record - the band needs it. And really, if I hadn't fallen so hard for Back to the Web, Cave would sound far fresher to these ears. Instead, I hear a good band looking to branch out but also retreading some old ideas, too.

I saw the band for the second time this year at Bottom of the Hill. In contrast to my first live Elf Power experience, it fell flat. Guitarist Jimmy Hughes was so fucked up for most of the show that he could barely change chords on time or sing above a whisper. Bassist Derek Almstead seemed like he was in his own world, overplaying through much of the new material high up on the neck of his guitar, but the drummer - was it Harris? - was passable, even inventive with some of the slower numbers. And then there's Andrew, who is nothing if not a pro onstage, very focused and together, and therefore, I suppose, ignorant of the lack of cohesion evident in his band onstage. The lineup desperately needed to be joined by an untraditional sound - their outing at the Rickshaw Stop featured Heather Mcintosh on delay pedal'd cello, to great effect - but instead we had a standard four-piece rock lineup, which really brought the band down a level that night. When Andrew busted out the Stones' "2000 Man" - a great choice of a cover for them - it felt like he was desperately trying to bolster the energy level and salvage the night from the unenthusiastic performances that plagued most of the set.

Rieger is a perennial optimist, as far as I can tell - check out any interview with him in the last few years and you'll always find him gushing about how things are "really good" or "great" in the band, and expanding upon his enthusiasm for touring and recording. And if he's satisfied with the work his band is doing, I say more power to him. I will buy the next Elf Power record and see them when they pass through town again, and you know - I am warming to In a Cave. But I remain confused about the direction the band is going - and I hope it's not further inward.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Last Week (7/7/08)


Fata Morgana (Nico's Last Concert) - Nico

Haven't listened. Was driving all weekend and figured that Germanic harmonium drone music would be the wrong thing to listen to.

Pacific Ocean Blue - Dennis Wilson

Disc 1 is really good, but I haven't fully immersed myself in it. Suffice to say, it blows away most of the Beach Boys records made around that time (with the notable exception of Love You, which was essentially a Brian solo record anyway). And oh so overblown - there must be thirty tracks of vocals on "River Song" next to the horn section and the string section and God's own voice, etc. Disc 2 - eh. Methinks Bambu is no Smile, but some of it does entertain in a certain kitschy, late 70s-early 80s cocaine way.

Third/Sister Lovers - Big Star

Very good. I have termed Big Star as "end-of-the-movie music." Wake up Hollywood! Of course, their "In the Street" has also been ingrained in this generation's brains as the theme song to That 70s Show - performed by Cheap Trick, though. (Fuck you Rick Nielsen. Why does one man need so many fucking guitars? Most of them look worse than your jumpsuits)
So this is supposed to be a gloomier, confessional album, as opposed to the overtly Beatlesque #1 Record/Radio City predecessors. "Holocaust" and "Big Black Car" fit this bill - elsewhere I hear the strange song structures infused with sunny pop throughout. I don't know. Too spread out to give a real verdict on it yet. I like it and will return to it. But the "Femme Fatale" cover - featuring Steve Cropper on lead guitar and a FRENCH TRANSLATION of the chorus - was disappointing.

From Amazon Marketplace:

Bull of the Woods (French remaster) - 13th Floor Elevators

By far the best thing in this round, or the most satisfying. Looked at this at Amoeba several times but never bought it. Downloaded "Never Another" of iTunes and loved it...Well, Bull of The Woods is the weakest Elevators album - despite the fact it has some of the best songs the group ever did. Any song featuring wayward singer Roky Erickson on lead vocals (often with his voice mixed so high and dry it feels as if you're hiding in the basement with him, too) is amazing, featuring a deranged horn section, Stacy Sutherland's echoey guitar and some of the band's most inventive songwriting. Had they completed an entire album this way, Bull would have easily been the band's best. And "May the Circle Remain Unbroken" is so far ahead of its time - is this rock music? ambient? trance? A 2.5 minute sigh of resignation from Roky Erickson.
Elsewhere, Stacy Sutherland handles the songwriting and lead vocals (due to Roky and Tommy Hall skipping town, leaving him to finish the album with the rhythm section) to varying degrees of success. Stacy's voice is far less confident than his guitar playing and without Erickson - whose voice can often liven the most pedestrian songwriting - the songs lag in energy. But some, like "Barnyard Blues," "Til Then" and "Street Song" come through as solid blues-psychedelic-late 60s whatever tracks. Just nothing as earth-shattering as the full band work.
This hasn't stopped me from listening to this all the way through three times.

Acquired through friend of a friend's MacBook:

Both the state albums - Sufjan Stevens

I still don't like this stuff, but I'm bowled over at his recording technique. The one song about the immigrant worker on "Michigan" is good. And the second song on that album. But Illinois is nothing but a bunch of precocious, pretentious....ugh. Yeah. Maybe someday.

Tango in the Night - Fleetwood Mac

Maybe I'll stop talking shit on this band. This stuff seems to bring people great joy, and I enjoyed driving around Berkeley to "Little Lies" and "Everywhere" full-blast. Thank you Nick Weiss.

Unknown Compilation - Moondog

Unexpectedly great driving music. This is what? Latin-baroque-psychedelic what?? I don't believe I passed this stuff up earlier. It really does have to be taken in at once though - much like GBV or Jandek (I do feel comfortable making those comparsions), the fragmentary nature of the material is better swallowed up in one economy-size serving. I have no idea what the name of this album is....
Factoid - James William Guercio, the gentleman who produced Dennis Wilson's album also produced Moondog albums....

To get to from this score:
More Of Montreal albums
Brian Eno ambient

My brother bought:
John Cooper Clarke poetry album
Jay Reatard singles compilation
which will be in my computer shortly.

Also I was at a party in Oakland that was crashed & subverted by King Khan himself, who threw off The Traditional Fools while they were playing a rather good cover of Love's "My Flash on You." Shame on you, Khan.