Monday, May 14, 2007

Electro-Clash of the Titans

New Order pioneered it, LCD Soundsystem is taking it to dangerous new levels...sound levels that is. Rock & roll and dance music can co-exist. Their love child is known as "dance-punk," and it appeals to both ends of the music spectrum. To the right of me was the dance raver, to the left of me, the hip, bespectacled indie chick nodding her head, and to the back of me, the rock stoners who kept yelling "play Freebird!" every god damn chance they could. It was a union of varied music tastes that few bands like LCD Soundsystem could only bring together. My ears are shot and I'm tired from elecro-groovin'. Last night's show at Webster Hall was well worth the admission price and so far has been one of the best live shows of the year. "Daft Punk Playing at My House," "Watch the Tapes" and "Movement" were in danger of destroying the venue with LCD's sonic assault causing extreme vibration, and not just the dancing kind. I think I felt everything from the follicles on my head to the nails on my toes vibrate. Even ballads like "Someone Great" which turned up softer on record were performed with a more primal and dissonant execution. "Turn up the bass! I can't hear the bass!" the one rock stoner behind me yelled to his other stoner pal. "What?" the other stoner asked. "I said they need to turn up the bass!" he yelled once more.

Perhaps one the more challenging moments of the night came from the final song for the final show of the tour, according to the band, "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down." Sounding more like a straight up Broadway number than raucous dance-punk, the song reminds any of the band's detractors that their is still songwriting behind LCD's never ending dance party. James Murphy both celebrates New Yorkers and their sense of entitlement as well as mocking it. I must admit I still don't really care for the song too much, but, I understood it better live and within the context of seeing the show in NYC, it worked. After all, LCD Soundsystem brilliantly melds Lower East Side punk and Manhattan underground beats, two NYC homegrown musical movements.

Word of advice, don't insult LCD Soundsystem's opener, Yacht. My friends and I apparently missed the "visionary genius" that was so carefully layered in Yacht's music which is basically one scraggly haired, Alf t-shirt wearing, cardigan donned lad jumping on stage to pre-recorded beats. Meh. Nothing special, and frankly, very annoying by the third song. Many a heckle were heard, especially when Yacht took time to tell everyone in the crowd that he would be taking questions. "Why are you awful?" one inpatient audience member asked. "What's that? Why am I awesome? 'Cause dude, your positive energy reflects onto me" beamed Yacht turning lemons into lemonade. Soon after Yacht's set, apparently someone called the scene police, or as my friend referred to them, the Gestapo, because before we knew it, two tattooed and tight shirted hooligans from Brooklyn confronted us and proceeded to get in the faces of several of my friends. "He's putting himself out there!" scowled the Ralph Macchio look-a-like. His friend, the bearded Grizzly Adams, was far more aggressive and told my friend that they would be having "problems" if he heard one more jeer coming from us. "You're going to fight me over this?" my friend asked confused. Grizzly Adams sneered, "if it comes to it." True, Yacht was doing "his own thing" and you can give credit for that. But, when you're paying good money to go see a show, it's my right to make glib remarks like, "Yacht's set went over like the Titanic!" wacka wacka! Or, "Yacht's all wet!" Hoo ha! Several insults were traded before the situation was diffused from both sides. No one wanted to throw down and miss a good show. Yacht made us foes, LCD soon made us friends. No doubt, a testament to LCD Soundsystem's mass appeal.

"North American Scum"

Friday, May 4, 2007

Scandinavian Showcase: "Young Folks" by Peter Bjorn & John ft. Victoria Bergsman of the Concretes

Think that whistling in a pop song is pretty much dead? Think again. Peter Bjorn and John have made pursing your lips together hip and relevant once more. These Swedish pop smiths are coming after hand claps and "sha-la-la's" next. "Young Folks" is by far one of the prettiest and catchiest singles to have been released within the past few years and it gained further distinction as being the unofficial summer song of 2006, at least in the indie world. "Young Folks" has my vote over "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley any day. That brings me to my next point. There is no reason why "Young Folks" could not be a massive worldwide hit, although it "Young Folks" has already been snatched up by the corporate movers and shakers (it has been featured in commercials for AT&T, Banana Republic, and will be used to help relaunch Napster.) Fine. But, why isn't it being played on the radio? Why do I need "Young Folks" to persuade me to change my phone service? I want it on the radio and I want it now! Their third album, Writer's Block, in fact, has several candidates for international smash singles: the whistle dance groove of "Amsterdam" and ringing guitar heavy "Detects on my Affection," to name a few, with the latter also being featured in a car commercial.

Peter Bjorn and John began life as power popsters but since their last two albums, have now chosen to swap Alex Chilton and Nick Lowe for Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach as a source of divine inspiration. The arrangements on "Young Folks," as well as Writer's Block, result in some of the most impressive usage of Spector's "wall of sound" during the album's louder moments and the tales of heartbroken star crossed lovers balanced with the uplifting portraits of dreamers are worthy of comparison to any Bacharach/David collaboration during the album's quiet moments. Make no mistake, Peter Bjorn and John are no rehashers. They take their influences rooted in 60s baroque pop and 70s power pop and push forward with a modern sound that belongs to today as well as the future. "Young Folks" already proves its timeless factor. The "so-into-you" lovers from the song affirm that they simply don't care about the "young folks talking about the young style." They would also like to add that they "don't care about the old folks talking about the old style too." "All we care about is talking, only me and you" they conclude. These sunny, carefree lines are sung so convincingly by Peter (or is it Bjorn?) and guest vocalist Victoria Bergsman of fellow Swedish band, the Concretes, that I'm ready to make it my summer song for 2007 and the summers yet to come.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Dawn of the Century: It's Still the Ramones

Give them credit. The Ramones gave us 20 years of "Gabba Gabba Hey" without ever really changing a damn thing. First punk band? Yes. Of course. I can hear it now "[H]old on a second! What about the MC5? What about the Stooges, man? No wait, you're forgetting the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls! How can you leave out the Dolls? Jeez!" Did I hear the Sonics thrown in there somewhere? All viable candidates. In fact, without any of those bands the Ramones may have never existed. The New York Dolls, Stooges and MC5 harnessed the raw power of rock and roll and helped create punk before there was even a term for it. Yet, the Ramones took these elements and perfected the template, the blueprint for what would become the textbook definition (if their is such a thing) of punk rock: 3-4 chords, fast speed, silly lyrics, celebration of camp and kitsch, and lots of bratty attitude. You can hear a love of bubblegum pop, girl groups, Phil Spector, and the early days of rock and roll layered within all that simplicity.

"Hey! Ho! Let's Go!" were not just the first words off their 1976 self-titled debut, they were a rallying cry. Them words were fightin' words. The enemy? Bloated 70s rock, dinosaur rock, prog-rock, easy listening feel-so-good singer-songwriters...take your pick. One of my favorite parts in the 2004 documentary, End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, is a video of Keith Emerson stabbing his keyboard like a madman and flinging it against the giant speakers surrounding him. Smoke begins to arise. And as if once was not enough, he attacks the keyboard again. Cut to now Johnny Ramone's head shaking, disapprovingly, "that's not rock and roll." For the sake of this post and the Ramones, I'll agree to that. Rock and roll, at least in the eyes of the Ramones, was supposed to be short, fun and fast. Whatever Keith Emerson was doing, that's not what rock and roll should be. Now, I realize that virtuosos don't have to be the villains these days. Playing your instrument well should be a virtue, ideally. That said, I really fucking hate Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The dividing lines were drawn. On one camp, you had Seventies "Rawk." The yeah, the musical "other" that would be known as punk. This is an oversimplification naturally, but I would like to bet that is how the Ramones viewed it.

Armed now with a vision and all clad in leather, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy (and let's not forget Marky, Ritchie and CJ) set out to "Blitzkrieg Bop" their way out of CBGB's and onto the open road. Along with fellow New York punk rockers like Patti Smith, Richard Hell and Television, the Ramones helped lead the vanguard of the first wave of punk. Often they played to indifferent crowds. Their detractors threw bottles. Their admirers formed bands. Within time, the seeds of punk germinated outside of New York City with bands forming in Los Angeles (Black Flag, X, the Germs,) San Francisco (Dead Kennedys, the Avengers,) Minneapolis (Hüsker Dü, the Replacements,) DC (Bad Brains, Minor Threat) New Jersey (Misfits), and across the pond, London (Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned,) all bands that owed some debt to the Ramones simple power chord formula. When the dust cleared and sonic onslaught was over, the Ramones rose as heroes. They came, they saw, they conquered.

Unfortunately, for most of their career they were unsung heroes, due to indifference of of the mainstream press, radio stations and audiences. They were most unappreciated in the US where often they were reduced to played small clubs. Elsewhere, they could cause mass hysteria among the disenfranchised youth of the world. This is an all too common tale with many revolutionaries. Too make matters worse, like most revolutions, punk devoured itself and became self-parody by 1978. Seems that some in the record companies were listening and thinking up fun ideas on how to capitalize on the new music scene. Enter new wave. Among their own kind, frustrated punks broke ranks and experimented beyond the 3 chord format. Enter post-punk. A second wave of punks burst in the US but they had very little in common with the leather jackets, mohawks, safety pins and bands from the first wave of punk. Their music was much harder, faster and violent verging on pure noise. Enter hardcore. Internal squabbling would hit the Ramones themselves. Tommy would quit playing the drums and decide to focus as a producer. And then there was the whole "KKK took my baby away" thing. Johnny stole Joey's girl or was it that she was never Joey's girl to begin with? Depends on whose side of the story you believed. The thin facade of unity, so present on all of their album covers, cracked. You could swear that they were all the same and related somehow. Not entirely true. Contrast Joey's left-wing feel goodisms with Johnny's right-wing glower power, Dee Dee's lunkhead charm vs. Tommy's calm, collective manner (again, let's not forget Marky, Ritchie and CJ.) What they had in common was that they were social misfits with a similar love of the same music that brought them together in the first place. But, even that had to end. They finally called it quits in 1996 after famously promising to disband if their last album, Adios Amigos, did not become a hit. It was a flop. Although this was not a total surprise, the commercial tidal of wave of grunge and alternative rock of the 90s, also owing a debt to the Ramones, should have allowed them to finally score an official hit album.

Time heals all wounds. In 2002, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame minus Joey (who died a year earlier of lymphoma.) On that stage, the Ramones were briefly reunited, finally validated by the establishment. How very un-punk. Still, it was a very much deserved praise that was long overdue. A couple of months later, Dee Dee died of a drug overdose. Two years after that, Johnny succumbed to cancer. Only Tommy remains from the original line up (once more, let's not forget Marky, Ritchie, and CJ.) The Ramones now show up on all sorts of "greatest" lists in magazines and TV specials concerning rock and punk. "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Beat on the Brat," "Judy is a Punk," "Rockaway Beach," "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," "I Want to be Sedated" have been recently admitted into the great American songbook as classics. I'm a fan of the later singles as well, "The KKK Took My Baby Away," "Rock and Roll High School," the Reagan baiting "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," "Warthog," "Somebody Put Something in My Drink," "Pet Sementary," and the fun Tom Waits cover "I Don't Want to Grow Up." Whatever your favorite, the Ramones influence cannot be denied. I realize I am being very formalist, but within the realm of punk and popular music, this is a truth that must be recognized. After recently viewing End of the Century, I realized how it easy it is and was to take the Ramones for granted. Certainly early heroes of mine, the Ramones disbanded before I could really grasp their influence and see them live. Part of their appeal was their familiarity. There was something very refreshing to know that as music trends came and went, there was always the Ramones. Familiarity was their weapon of choice. Future bands will continue to be influenced or steal from them. This is only fitting considering our own disposable pop culture. After all, the Ramones celebrated that, at least on the surface. The Ramones, however, really aren't disposable. Their music is what we should be sending to the aliens. I'd like to think at some point, as the new century stretches out, the opening strands of "Blitzkrieg Bop" will continue to blast through the infinity of space and along the course, influence anyone or anything out there willing to listen.

Below is a video of the Ramones performing "Rockaway Beach" on MusikLaden, a German music TV show. Marky Ramone is on drums by this point.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Being for the Benefit of Willie Mae

There is a little place I'd like to tell you all about, a slice of hipster heaven known as "the Silent Barn" aka "Raven's Den." The name of the place keeps changing but that doesn't matter. All you have to do is take the L train to Halsey St., take a left on Wykoff until you see a giant gray door next to a Spanish bar/restaurant and there you are. Once inside, you will be treated (or subjected) to some of Brooklyn's unknown musicians as well as non-Brooklyn and non-NYC bands/artists. If you're lucky, you may bump into some of well known faces in indiedom like Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeah's, Greg Norton of Hüsker Dü, members of And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead, and self-proclaimed "party guerrilla" and 8th wonder of the world, Andrew W.K. Mind you, I have not seen any of those hip cats when I've been there but, that is what I've been told. If rubbing elbows with the stars ain't your thing, stay for the music. Well known and hyped bands like Black Lips and most recently, Deerhunter, have chosen this extremely small, former office or residence (your guess is good as mine) to rock and/or roll at.

This past Saturday a friend and I decided to check out the evenings festivities. Apparently we stumbled in on a benefit show. Not exactly Live Aid, the benefit for Willie Mae Rock and Roll Summer Camp for Girls Benefit still radiated some of the same philanthropic zeal at heart. Most of the proceeds for the evening went to help fund the summer camp. I'll get more into the actual camp in a moment. First, the bands (all of these bands can be accessed on myspace.)

Remember the MC/clown your parents hired to entertain you and your friends for your 6th birthday party? Not me. I got a Krang (from TMNT) pinata instead. But, walking into the ultra-positive party dance punk of Totally Michael made me think of what I perhaps missed as a youth. There were dance offs, balloon games (one where the crowd had to pop as many as possible) and cheer leading disses set to original music programmed by this aspiring short shorts clad MC. Naturally, that is the charm of Totally Michael's act. "The best experience I've had is when a crowd of nearly 900 were with me and wholeheartedly participating" Totally Michael told me. "And the worst?" I asked. "Well, I once got ice thrown at me. But, honestly, that wasn't too bad because I was pretty hot and it cooled me off." Way to put a positive spin on everything! And after hearing his synth happy party music, you can't blame him. His genuine good nature and humor saves this dance party from being too ironic, a popular medium these days. I can't help thinking what's next though. A Totally Michael petting zoo? How about a Totally Michael moonwalk? Sky's the limit. Check out "Death Hill Over and Over" on his EP, For You.

Rasa Radiata followed. The post-punk influences were all there, XTC, Orange Juice to name a few, tinged with reggae. At points, however, the energy did not compliment the herky jerkiness of XTC and Orange Juice. Still, I am a sucker for that late 70s/early 80s sound. "Minutes Shine" could have very well been on Zenyatta Mondatta. It's no a swipe. I like the Police and Rasa Radiata have potential.

I was particularly fond of this next band. "No, it's Taigaa! With two "A's" G-Wolf, the singer for the band Taigaa! huffed while correcting my spelling. "It means 'Arctic Forrest' in Russian" added K.O.K.O, the band's multi-instrumentalist (violin & keyboard). Upon hearing their music, my friend and I thought of the eerie music from Castlevania. The composer(s) of the music for the wonderful video game series are the Ennio Morricone (s) of the video game world. Taigaa! mixes Old World sorrow (G-Wolf told me that their music stems from pre-WWII Korean pop music,) and self-described space punk with the goal to connect you to nature and "serenade" you with the past, as they put it. It's not all art-school whimsy. Get out of the way when G-Wolf blazes through the audience shaking her maracas and dancing wildly to Dusty Gold, the band's drummer, thwacking away on the skins.

San Francisco's Boyskout certainly take a cue from Patti Smith. The lead singer even kinda looks like her. Considering she spouts verbose lyrics similar to the punk legend's, it's not that hard to make such a distinction. I'm not alone. Mark Jenkins of the Washington Post agrees with me, only he throws in Blondie into the mix as well. So, do they do anything with these influences? "Spotlight" works well after hearing it on their myspace page. I don't remember them playing it live but they may well have. I did like their little violin ditty that they did but I'll be damned if I can remember the name. On record the guitars sound more angular. Live, some songs were distorted and indebted to grunge. I could be wrong. Major praise for the drummer. Fastest hands in the West.

And finally, High Places. This was the act my friend was waiting for. We all turned our attention from the center stage to left side of the room. Standing there were a duo, a guy and girl, a microphone stand and a turntable concoction. I have no clue exactly what Robert Barber, the guy, was playing except he beat his drum sticks to primitive beats while the singer, the girl, Mary Pearson, sang amidst some deafening loud feedback and a fleeting calypso rhythm that would disappear just as you began to make out the melody. The music High Places is no doubt reveling in all that is tribal and primitive, but they make no cultural absolutes in their lyrics or music. No celebration of the "noble savage" if you will. In fact, I really couldn't tell you exactly Mary Pearson was singing about since her vocals quickly melded with the tribal beats. Just as well. Who needs words when you have sticks?

So, what's the deal with the Willie Mae Rock Camp? That only depends on if you know who Willie Mae is. Question: Who invented Rock and Roll? Answer: "Willie Mae" is what Dusty Gold from Taigaa! told me. "What about Robert Johnson?" I asked. "No. Willie Mae" she insisted. I heard the name before but, I needed to be reminded who the original singer of "Hound Dog" was. Sorry, it wasn't Elvis Presley. Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thorton took the song to # 1 on the R & B charts three years before Elvis's version created a cultural sensation. Robert Johnson pre-dates both Willie Mae and Elvis by twenty something years but, that really isn't the point. The goal of the summer camp is to teach girls ages 8-18 how to rock. It should be noted also that half of the campers come from underprivileged backgrounds. The camp is a non-profit group and its more serious goal is helping young girls attain self-esteem through music as well as challenging gender stereotypes in music. As Mary Pearson, singer from High Places, griped before her set, too often she's heard people comment to her band mate that he made a wise move "hiring a female singer" to perform his songs. Perhaps the question that should have been asked, "How do you feel about the term 'all-girl' band?" Some perhaps would embrace the term and celebrate their so-called musical "otherness" in a traditionally male dominated genre. Other female artists might be indifferent to the term noting why doesn't a four-piece all guy band receive a similar label? And of course, other female artists might show complete disdain towards the term and perhaps even object to me using "female" as an adjective before the word "artist" or "band." They are artists. Simple.

Totally Michael

Rasa Radiata



High Places