Archive for March, 2009

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Asobi Seksu Live at the Rock N Roll Hotel, 3/28/09

March 30, 2009

As I write this, my legs feel like Jell-O. Actually, my brain feels like Jell-O too, mostly because I am extremely tired. I have been a tour guide for three days. I never thought being a tour guide could be so fun or rewarding. I saw Asobi Seksu play at the Rock N Roll Hotel two nights ago. There are big Xs on my hands, still. Faded but still present.

The Rock N Roll hotel is, apparently, way far off from any Metro stations. The closest was the Union Station stop. From there I had to walk East about fifteen blocks on H St., into a seedy neighborhood. Both on the way there and back, the landscape of the damp, foggy streets were almost devoid of any other people, making the walk that much more eerie, and also that much easier for me to be able to stop and take some nice photos.

As it turns out, the Rock N Roll Hotel is a hole in the wall. Granted, it is a pretty cozy hole in the wall, and not an unenjoyable place to see a concert. It is just about the tiniest of clubs. I’m used to there being a division between the audience and the performers at the concerts I go to, but at the Hotel, there was none. It goes from floor to stage immediately. You could probably lean on the amps and no one would stop you. I didn’t have to show up early to end up being ten feet from lead singer Yuki Chikudate, and that was really nice. You get the feeling that you are connected to the artist the closer you are to them. Of course, I never really feel the need to be way up close for concerts, but for some reason, it felt important to me last night that I was able to be close.

The opening acts were good. The first act was local band Detox Retox, and while disco emo just isn’t my thing, they played well, did a pretty faithful version of Transmission by Joy Division (nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeves), and came out into the audience afterward to say hi to everybody and really they were just the nicest guys.

Aw, shucks.

Three-piece Detroit punk band Tyvek are the opening act that is touring with Asobi Seksu. They are Wire sound-alikes, but they are actually pretty great sound-alikes. Their stage presence is odd. The lead singer is frenetic and fast moving, the drummer plays standing up and seems to run through drumsticks every song, and the bass player almost catatonically calm. “Can you drive a Honda like I can drive a Honda?”

Then Asobi Seksu got up on stage to set up their gear, and after some sound issues got resolved, they started to play.

I hesitate to say that it was the loudest show I’ve ever been to, but now, two days later, my ears are still ringing. My ears haven’t rang for this long in a year, the last comparable time being when I attended the Hives’ show in Chicago, during which I and my group of friends allocated ourselves directly in front of the amps in the front row. That is a show we still refer to as “stupid loud.” Our ears rang for about a week after that.

Asobi Seksu may have been louder. It’s hard to tell, because I am pretty sure I got permanent ear damage from the aforementioned show, and therefore my hearing is now different. In any case, Asobi Seksu were really loud, but not “stupid loud.” The impression that I got from the Hives was that an extremely loud concert had to be “stupid loud.” But what really captured me about Asobi Seksu’s volume was how little it got in the way of the sonic detail which Asobi Seksu incorporate into their albums. At one time I thought incredible volume and that detail were mutually exclusive.

But Asobi Seksu are really all about detail. James Hannah and Yuki Chikudate, the core members of the band, make up the majority of the wall of sound that one hears at their show, with guitars and keyboards. It is just as astounding live as on record, specifically their second record, Citrus. When I reviewed the band’s new album, Hush, a couple weeks ago, my biggest complaint was that the presentation of the songs wasn’t quite as strong as on Citrus. The live show brought out the best of the new songs, which are melodically quite strong but didn’t really benefit from the production change on Hush. This might be because a lot of the new songs are slower and more gentle, so the toned down production might make them seem meandering.

The band’s live sound, however, features the bold, sweeping sound quality of Citrus, the true gem of their discography. The band played some of the gentler new songs, such as “In the Sky,” “Transparence,” and “Sing Tomorrow’s Praise” with the vivacity of that shoegaze sound quality, which was surprising because I wouldn’t have expected the fidelity to be that good in such a small, confined venue. They also tore through many of their Citrus-era classics, such as “Strawberries,” “New Years,” and of course “Thursday,” which got a big response from the audience.

Their stage presence was very lively. The amps and mics were adorned with Christmas lights, and in conjunction with the lights in the back, the stage took on a colorful glow (although you can’t really tell that from my pictures). The band weren’t all smiles, but really it would be wrong of me to demand for them to be. However, I found that many times, specifically when the strobelights on the stage started flashing, everyone on the stage was moving around and doing a lot of headbanging. To me, that was important to the show. It is important to see that the band are excited to be making music in order for the audience to be excited about hearing it. Chikudate brought up the front with her breathy vocals, keyboard and xylophone, while James Hannah had some really cool guitar heroics going on on stage right. After the resounding coda of “Strawberries,” Chikudate took her leather jacket off and every straight male in the audience needed to change their shorts.

But the really exciting part, as I expected, came with possibly the band’s greatest sound achievement, the blistering “Red Sea,” off of Citrus. By the time the epic, beautiful noise freakout started, everyone on stage was going crazy. What-seemed-like-eight-foot-tall bassist Billy Pavone was headbanging off the the right as drummer Larry Gorman crawled off of the kit and went somewhere, maybe off to where James Hannah was. But from where I was standing, Hannah was simply gone, perhaps on the ground furiously adding to the cacophony on his guitar. Yuki Chikudate proceeded to take to the drum kit herself, and produced a percussive onslaught that just about tore the place apart. Pretty much one of the most metal things I’ve ever seen. The band left the stage with the sound still resounding at a ludicrous volume which continued on with the strobe lights. The encore was equally as impressive as well as nuanced, with one of my personal favorite Asobi Seksu songs, “Strings,” a perfect song to round off the set.

The set ended up being twelves songs and clocking in at just over an hour, which would be my biggest complaint with the show, that is, that it was too short. The audience was probably about ready to take at least an hour more of the awesome din, and the band definitely have the catalogue of songs to fulfill that wish. I was shocked that they did not play their popular new single, “Me & Mary.” They also didn’t play any obscurities, let alone anything at all from their charming self-titled debut album, which has a lot of great but simple songs that I would imagine would also benefit from their live production. So in the end, the set was all too short, but quite sweet, split half and half between Citrus and Hush, a sensible move, despite the fact that I would have loved to have heard even more from Citrus; they played nothing from the album’s latter half, which is just as strong as the first.

For $15, a full night of entertainment like I got was a steal, and I would definitely pay to see Asobi Seksu any other time they are in my area. I have wanted to see Asobi Seksu for years, and they were just as good as I was hoping they would be. I walked away happy to have ringing ears; as focal to the band’s identity as their nectarous melodies is the vitality of their sound, and it comes out best when you really crank their albums. Their live show sees them at the height of that power, in their own musical nirvana, and is a show not to miss.

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Asobi Seksu – Hush

March 23, 2009
Asobi Seksu - Hush

Asobi Seksu - Hush

Asobi Seksu are a band that has claimed many adjectives. Their self-titled debut was, in a word, charming. It’s 2006 follow-up, Citrus, was, in another word, breathtaking (and I believe an easy pick for best album of 2006). Most bands would be happy to have just those words, but this band has garnered many more: “electric,” “judicious,” “succulent” and “charismatic,” among many others. How many more positive things can one say about a band? It seems to make sense, then, that not as many wonderful things are being said about the band’s new album, Hush. After all, where do you go once you get to the top of the mountain, like Asobi Seksu did with Citrus?

In retrospect, two options seem obvious. Both involve a step downward in quality, because there was no way they were going to trump Citrus, no matter what. Option one involves doing more of the same glittery shoegaze that we love, and getting blasted for not doing anything different. Option two involves dressing down their sound to something more subdued, and that is exactly what core members Yuki Chikudate and James Hanna do on Hush.

What this does is test their songwriting ability by leaving it to be the main attraction of the album. The tunes here are, instead of empowered and youthful like on Citrus, serious and contemplative. Also, the band switch from big room-filling My Bloody Valentine-esque shoegaze to more elegant Cocteau Twins-esque dreampop. The appearance of Chikudate on the cover might match this sound, as it did on the previous albums. More often than not, this new sound works, and we once again get the feeling that these musicians really are quite talented. Some songs, namely “Layers” and “Transparence,” find the band playing more charmingly simple music that works because they know how to match their new icy dreampop sound with simple melodies.

Without their sonic dress-up, Chikudate’s lyrics now reveal themselves as actually being a lot like Hannah’s. When he sang on songs like “Pink Cloud Tracing Paper” on Citrus, Hannah sounded shy, but that sort of shy vocal style that we find kind of cute. We got a taste of that from Chikudate too, but on Hush just about all of the vocals are like this, restrained. We want them to be brave and shout out, but they never seem to. In terms of instrumentation, they make similar conscious refrains. We do get hints of the reverb that we have heard from them in the past, but sometimes we can barely even hear any guitar (“Gliss”). The end product is ultimately very reserved, and we get the feeling that if we accompanied these songs with the self-assured sonic hugeness that the band had claimed previously, we’d get a lot more truly memorable songs.

And in fact, they do this exactly once, on the album’s first single, “Me & Mary.” The song sounds like a Citrus outtake, and it proves that their songwriting ability is still outwardly excellent if it is presented with this vitality. The rest of the album screams out to be fully expressed like “Me & Mary,” particularly on songs like “Familiar Light,” “Gliss,” and “Glacially.” It’s as if they are giving us a taste of what they could really accomplish should they decide to re-introduce the muscular production they once used, but its conscious shedding takes away something really important. The “Exotic Animal Paradise” we heard on Citrus may still be here, but it is deliberately obscured to the point where it is barely cognizable.

The most interesting thing about Hush is that it wears its sound and potential weaknesses on its sleeves. This could be seen as very empowering. We don’t have to search for an all-encompassing adjective here. It is provided for us. “Hush” was the logical next step, but there was more than one option. A very telling fact springs from the title of the album’s only instrumental interlude, “Risky and Pretty.” Asobi Seksu are good at being pretty, and they don’t have to be risky to be successful. The self titled album and Citrus were both accessible, loveable albums, and this one had the potential to be as much. The decision to make a sound change wasn’t necessarily a damning idea, but the risk they decided to take feels more like a calculated business decision. “Risky” would have been to not be afraid to stick with what works. But it should be said that Asobi Seksu make the sound switch fairly intelligently despite its inherent shortcomings, and they also still know how to write catchy tunes. So Hush will please fans, but it isn’t anywhere near the quality of its predecessors. But even if it was a complete disaster, I would have still bought tickets to see Asobi Seksu on March 28th. I haven’t given up on this band’s capability to make excellent albums. They are two for three, after all, so they have earned the benefit of the doubt as well as my encouragement as a fan to try whatever kind of sound they please.

Asobi Seksu

Asobi Seksu

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Dan Deacon – Bromst

March 20, 2009
Dan Deacon - Bromst

Dan Deacon - Bromst

I often find myself reclining somewhere with my headphones on trying to sift through the sound on an experimental electronic album. This has something to be said for it. When you really sit down and concentrate on sound, for a long time, you start to become more aware of its intricacies and the more difficult concepts become palatable. However, sometimes I just want to listen to something easy. I don’t want to have to concentrate on being open minded in order to enjoy an obscure Autechre song, as ultimately rewarding as some of them end up being. Sometimes I just want playful electronic music. And sometimes I just want something I can shake my ass too.

Dan Deacon might find himself categorized as “experimental electronic,” but mostly only because that phrase is a catchall term. What Deacon does on Bromst is actually pretty down to earth and traceable. His arrangements are not polyrhythmic or atonal, like those of many of his “experimental electronic” contemporaries. His rhythms are propulsive and his melodies accessible and catchy. However, his sound palette is what makes Bromst a true electronic work, and songs such as “Snookered” are both glimmering and experimental. If Bromst resembles the work of any other artist, it would surely be that of Baltimore brethren Animal Collective on Merriweather Post Pavilion. It is probably premature to cite Merriweather as an influence, but at this point talking about electronic music in 2009 without mentioning Animal Collective is really only kidding yourself.

The songs we remember most from Merriweather Post Pavilion are the ones with the most energy. If Dan Deacon is a mad scientist, then he really only figured out one simple musical equation. Speed=Energy. In that respect, Deacon starts Bromst off at a sprint and doesn’t slow down, and his energy carries through the record effectively, keeping every song zippy and danceable. However, if the album has it’s weaknesses, they might stem from this. Each song runs the risk of being “the fast one,” and this unshakable energy puts a responsibility on Deacon to make his range of sound distinct with each song to ensure that we don’t get lost in the sound.

With that said, you have to look really hard for indistinct moments throughout Bromst, although it might take a couple listens to be able to parse the set out. It is really shocking how few weak spots the album has. Even the album’s only song that might be considered filler, “Wet Wings,” is fascinating, and proves that every sound here is carefully considered. He opts especially for malleted percussion quite often, and it suits him well, allowing him to be melodic and rhythmic simultaneously. And while every song is energetic, they are all formed in unique ways that are quite memorable: The opening “Build Voice” wavers from nothing into a sweeping and majestic melody, “Red F” conversely spirals outward from a ear crunching drone, and “Of the Mountains” starts with a humble malletted melody.

For those who have accused Deacon of being over-the-top in the past, Bromst will surely please. His whimsical appearance might suggest Play-Do and Rubix Cubes, but Bromst more closely resembles Legos, colorful and but also logical, whimsical yet stimulating. Deacon has not resigned his playful style, but has fully developed it with a restraint and appreciation for simple charms that suits him well. Bromst ends up being a sort of chamber electronic album – one that we love to play at a party but can also appreciate the subtle intricacies of, born of a compromise that very few electronic artists are brave enough to make.

Dan Deacon

Dan Deacon

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Grouper / City Center – Split 7": False Horizon / This is How We See in the Dark

March 13, 2009

Grouper / City Center - Split 7

Grouper / City Center - Split 7"

In 2007, ambient/drone artist Liz Harris, otherwise known as Grouper, released a split LP with fellow West Coast experimental drone artist Eva Saelens, otherwise known as Inca Ore. At the time, the two artists were contemporaries in every way, coming from the same general geographical area as solo artists, both crafting eerie dark ambient music and having had a few albums under their belts. Grouper gave a taste of the succulent melodicism that was to come in full force on her subsequent album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, and Inca Ore provided ambient noise soundscapes that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack of a horror film.

In the end the scales tipped toward Grouper, the reason being that Inca Ore’s material really only catered to fans of noise and the most difficult of dark ambient, and the songs Grouper provided were the most advanced as well as accessible of any other work she had yet done. With that said, the progression of Grouper’s catalogue is very traceable. Starting with the impenetrable dark ambient of her debut album, Way Their Crept, through the slightly more experimental but still drone heavy Wide, then to the subtly melodic Cover The Windows and the Walls, then the aforementioned bittersweet melodies on the Split LP,  and up to the sublimely melodic Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill; Harris’ output has always moved closer and closer to flat out folk music, and her contribution to this split single, “False Horizon,” is finally the pinnacle of that progression.

The song pulses with lightly strummed guitars that are no longer completely submerged but only knee deep in liquidic reverberation. The only melodic tools used here are a single acoustic guitar and several layers of harmonized vocals. It is the barest Harris has ever left herself or any of her music, no longer a claustrophobic cacophony that we heard on Way Their Crept and Wide, as engaging as they were. As usual, the vocals here are only partially intelligible. We can almost be sure that Harris sings “where bodies float down,” at some point, but it is hard to tell, and this sense of mystery has served her well before, but never quite in such an accessible context. In effect, this is Liz Harris relying solely on her songwriting ability, which we can say with great certainty now is excellent. The result is a dark, addictive, intriguing single that is very tangible, what was hinted at on Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, which never quite reached the bare bones nature of “False Horizon.”

The other single here, “This is How We See in the Dark” by newcomers City Center, is also significant. The band, a duo of Brooklyn natives Ryan Howard and Fred Thomas, make experimental folk music in the same way as Grouper, but with a more eclectic sonic palette. This is mostly to their advantage, and many of their songs are sonically standout as well as charmingly melodic, but they don’t have the sticking power that Grouper’s music does. But if they have more songs like “This is How We See in the Dark” in store, then they are a band that we would be best to trace the progress of. The song sounds a bit like a warped carnival song, but with more melancholy than creepiness. In a few instances, the group’s experimental sound encroaches on the body of the song, but not without purpose. The hazy, contorted melody is about as memorable as “False Horizon,” and in the end both songs are good.

Although both sides of this single are quality songs, “False Horizon” really steals the show here, the reason being that Liz Harris commands attention with every release she makes and is by this time a reliable guru of her craft. The quality of her music has increased on an exponential curve, and she shows no sign of slowing down. With all due respect to City Center, this is really Grouper’s triumph. The release’s biggest problem is undoubtedly availability. The single is limited to self-released limited edition appropriately colored “dirty water gray” vinyl only, which is now out of stock, so acquiring these songs means either doing it illegally or hunting down and shelling out a high price for the vinyl, which is frustrating. But until the day when these songs are (hopefully) released on CD or through iTunes like the Inca Ore / Grouper split was, or the possibility that they will be released on forthcoming albums is fruitful, these excellent singles will be heard by few. The Split album with Inca Ore showed promise that Harris was capable of something outstanding. She delivered on that promise with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. We can be hopeful that history will repeat itself and Grouper will release yet another masterpiece.

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Two Country Albums

March 9, 2009

I am fairly uneducated on the subject of country music. That is mostly because I don’t listen to it, because it doesn’t toot my horn, so to say. I’ve had many people tell me, including Chuck Klosterman in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, that being one of those people who seems to like just about everything except country music makes me ignorant, or a tool. To be honest, I don’t see how that works. If country music bores me, it bores me, and I don’t have to answer to anyone about that. Of course, there is that occasional country song that might make a positive impression on me (see my review for Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha’s solo album, which contains a lot of my other attitudes about country music). But for the most part, it is a genre I am generally inclined to dislike, unless, like in James Iha’s case, it is categorized as “folk rock” or “alternative country.”

This week I just so happened to be treated to two new releases that could be categorized as “alternative country.” These albums are Middle Cyclone by Neko Case and the self titled album by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. Both albums are by solo artists and the similarities between the artists and my relationship with them are quite prominent. They are both members of popular bands, Neko Case being a member of The New Pornographers and Jason Isbell being a former member of The Drive-By Truckers. I have no experience with either solo artist whatsoever, and little to no experience with the bands that they are/were a part of. One of these albums pleased and excited me, and one of them did not. I’d like to review both of them and what they did to make me feel a particular way about them.

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Naturally, the first thing that struck me about this album was the cover, and how Tarantino-esque it is. And upon listening to the album, it becomes obvious that the cover is only a bit misleading. Middle Cyclone is an album full of rolling acoustic guitar melodies within short, digestible songs that move fast, and Case is a traveling country samurai. The opening “This Tornado Loves You” is an early highlight, with fast jangly guitars and expressive vocals. The sonic palette she uses is rather expansive, and within the song she pulls several tricks out of her sleeve: airy backing vocals, pizzicato strings, and exciting dynamics. But “Tornado” is only one of the more exciting and upbeat songs on the album, and for the most part, the rest of the songs are outstanding. This is a country album, but not in the form that most people would expect. The most classical country songs here are the two covers, one of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and another of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” As lovely as they are, they are peripheral to Neko Case’s melodies, which are comparatively free form for country music and quite exciting. The singalong “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” the music box simplicity of the title track and the jazzy stomp of “Red Tide” are a few other more memorable pieces. There is another weapon in addition to innovative songcraft that make the album strong; the sword that Case uses to cut through the songs is her vocals, and her delivery is sublime. She sings about many of the typical country topics…hard relationships, acting tough, and the love behind both. But it is the idiosyncratic country melodies and the vitality with which Case sings that keeps our ears glued to our speakers track to track.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit

While a sense of subtle danger and adventure is what makes Middle Cyclone such an engaging country album, it is stagnation that conversely makes Jason Isbell’s second solo album so much of a bore. One of my biggest problems with most contemporary country music is this stagnation, immovability, and the sheer fact that I have heard this music before, so why should I bother listening to it again? It just isn’t enough to humbly comment on the changing seasons, or sing about homely charms and hard liquor. ‘We all live in an Airstream trailer ’bout three hundred yards up the lake,’ Isbell sings on the opening “Seven-Mile Island.” ‘Call the doctor, Mary’s goin’ into labor and you can’t raise a baby on shake.’ This may be reality for many Americans, and there is nothing wrong with a strong dose of reality, and this is probably where Isbell shines the most, on the notable “Soldiers Get Strange” in particular, not so much an opinion either way on an issue so much as a keen observation. But the presentation is where this album really lacks. Isbell may be lyrically grounded, but songs like “Cigarettes and Wine” are flat out boring because they follow the same country progressions and trappings which the kinds of people like me, who find themselves stuck in the middle of Ohio curiously turning the radio dial trying to get an interesting frequency more often than expected, simply want to escape from. In the end, the album is simply derivative and dull. Great albums don’t have to do new or innovative things to be successful, but the stagnant genre that Isbell comes from puts it in a different situation. The burden of proof is now on artists like Neko Case and Jason Isbell to convince me that country music is not a hillbilly novelty. In the end, Case wins out, and I will hang on, but artists like Isbell, to truly be successful, need to make a conscious effort to widen their appeal.

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Love

March 2, 2009
Love

Love