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Three DC Concerts: Beach House, A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Gang Gang Dance

April 2, 2010

DC just had its arguably busiest week in concerts of the season. The city had shows from the likes of Beach House, Dum Dum Girls, Real Estate, Deerhunter, Spoon, Gang Gang Dance, The xx, A Sunny Day in Glasgow and jj. I personally hit up three shows in a five day period: Beach House, A Sunny Day in Glasgow and Gang Gang Dance.

Beach House at the Black Cat on Friday might have been the most hyped concert of the week for one of the most hyped bands of the year. They quite easily sold out the Black Cat and packed the Main Stage room full of eager fans. The precious Bachelorette opened, who got a fair bit of audience response, probably due in part to her quiet, cutesy New Zealandic accent. Her set mostly consisted of cleverly looped vocals, guitar strums, and drum machines that made for a well received whole. When Beach House stormed the stage, the crowd couldn’t have been happier, frequently letting loose “we love you Victoria!”s and other such words of praise. The band’s set was decent sized and was delivered as well as received with great enthusiasm. Victoria LeGrand and Alex Scalley actually move around on stage and have more energy than their slow, syrupy music might suggest. They played all but one song from their new album Teen Dream (sadly giving arguably the album’s best song, “Real Love,” the shaft) as well as a couple older numbers, even stretching back to their 2006 self-titled debut for “Master of None.” The encore was just perfect. They first played a crowd favorite from 2008’s sophomore album Devotion, “Astronaut,” and clinched the show with a spirited rendition of “10 Mile Stereo.” Although seeing Beach House live doesn’t differ much from  hearing them on an album, it stands that doing both is a breathtaking emotional experience, and I would say that just about everyone at the Black Cat on Friday had a great time.

Beach House

A Sunny Day in Glasgow played on Sunday at DC9, which might take the cake as DC’s smallest regular concert venue, but it is also one of its most rewarding. Its acoustics are nice and its setup puts the audience just feet away from the performers. We walked in a little late to just catch Phil and the Osophers play an enjoyable, playful pop set that felt similar to the likes of Vampire Weekend. Although it was a fairly innocuous set, I admit to wanting to hear more from the band, and I hope they had a good time at SXSW where they played just last week. When A Sunny Day in Glasgow got started, their set was unstoppable. Their live presence is something to be reckoned with, six band members on stage all doing different things for every song (a favorite moment was when Ben Daniels broke out an electric mandolin). The group focuses their powers around vocalists Annie Fredrickson and Jen Goma, who harmonize the songs’ airy vocals to lovely effect. Most of the songs they played sounded better than the studio versions, which were already superb (recall my naming Ashes Grammar one of the best albums of this past decade). They played through new favorites like “White Witch,” “Failure” and “Passionate Introverts” with lovely vitality. The biggest disappointment of the show was the lack of an encore; they played through a rather short set and could have easily extended it to better please the crowd, but that was about their only shortcoming. They will surely have my ticket sale the next time they come to town.

A Sunny Day in Glasgow

The wait for Gang Gang Dance at the Rock ‘n Roll Hotel on Tuesday was long, and opening act High Life only made it feel longer. His high pitched squeals over noisy effects loops were maybe an appropriate way to ease the audience into Gang Gang Dance’s set, but it was still hardly appreciated except by a select few near the stage. He later made up for the set by acting as Gang Gang Dance’s much needed bass player, who gave the main band’s music the strong under-melody it needed. This was particularly important because Gang Gang Dance played so loud that it was sometimes difficult to hear what one was hearing, and a strong sense of melody as well as rhythm was needed to make sense of the raucous din. This situation could have been disastrous if the acoustics were different and the sound was too noisy, but Gang Gang narrowly hit a bullseye mark that got most of the audience nodding and bobbing in a narcotic haze. All of the songs they played were new, some melodic and most all featuring beats and melodies that sound like they come straight from Saudi Arabia or India. The only tune I recognized was the shimmering “Crystals,” which featured steel drum sound effects and twinkling synthesizers. We can hope that this song, as well as the others we heard that night, will make it onto Gang Gang’s next proper studio LP. Overall I’d say the venue housed a great amount of satisfied customers, considering the band surprisingly almost packed the house. But we need to remember that Gang Gang are a noise band, and though their noise is beautiful, it is still willfully cacophonous, and should be judged appropriately.

Gang Gang Dance

Overall, I had a really awesome time at all of these shows. Conclusion: DC has a lot of great shows, some of which are highly attended and some that aren’t, and if you pick and choose well enough, you can get more than your money’s worth for a night, or week, of fun.

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Country Lights

March 25, 2010

Red dots
in the distance
shine brightly through
the dark night
then fade

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Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

March 12, 2010

Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

Back in 2001, I experienced the first Gorillaz album in the way that all parties involved may have found ideal: with absolutely no context. I was eleven, and I hadn’t heard of Damon Albarn, Dan the Automator or Del tha Funkee Homosapien. Just about the only thing I knew about Gorillaz was that they weren’t real, but I still struggled to put animated faces to voices, sounds to instruments and some kind of method to the madness. The album was to me the most alien thing I had ever heard, an amalgamation of rock, pop, punk, hip hop, electronic, dub and world music. Nothing could have prepared me for it.

Once again, I was eleven, and mostly used to listening to pop radio, whatever that might have been at the time. Everything changed for me after Gorillaz. “Re-Hash” became my Summer anthem and “Que Pasa Contigo” melted the winter freeze. I stared at my crappy stereo in confusion and wonder during “Sound Check (Gravity),” I daydreamed to “Man Research,” and I nearly shit my pants when I first heard “Left Hand Suzuki Method” (For an idea of exactly how naive I was, I thought the bong hit sample at the beginning was the opening of a can of soda). It’s even still a bit unsettling for me to hear the album now, if only because of my history with it. In a world of its own and on its own terms, it pushed its own boundaries incredibly far, and I’ll always love it.

Gorillaz

By the time I was fourteen, I was in high school and had begun to branch out a bit. I listened to Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, and my Led Zeppelin t-shirts were starting to develop pit stains. I anticipated the release of Demon Days for months, and when it finally came out I bought it in Best Buy (what seems even for now to be a relatively dated practice). A dark, brooding pop album, it frustrated me as much as it entertained. There were familiar elements, but mostly it was new and uncomfortable, for me an early exploration into dirty, dark hip hop and experimental pop music and a collection of ideas and styles just as diverse as those on the self titled album. Even more strange names were credited in the liner notes, most of which I had not heard of, but I came to associate Danger Mouse with this kind of an edgy, diverse sound. He did Demon Days well, and I wondered for years how it could be followed.

Demon Days

And now, with the release of Gorillaz’s third studio LP, Plastic Beach, I can reasonably expect not just an album of music, but an experience. Of course, the band has relaunched their website and the first of no doubt many music videos. Various release versions of Plastic Beach contain storyboards, videos and other exclusive content, and a story is being slowly spun to outline the virtual band’s current state. In short: All of the world’s trash and pieces of its history have floated to the middle of the Indian Ocean to form a massive artificial island known as The Plastic Beach. Gorillaz, consisting of singer 2D, bassist Murdoc, guitarist Noodle and drummer Russel, have now made it their home and production studio, where they have crafted a new concept album that deals with, among other issues, pirates, consumerism and modern living. It is a big production to keep track of, but it is important to zone in on what is really the vital event here, the release of a new Gorillaz album.

I concede that I was expecting something much different than what I got from Plastic Beach, perhaps something much more sinister, in the vein of the demented Demon Days, but in fact Plastic Beach is far more accessible than either of Gorillaz’s previous studio LPs, smash hits included. Damon Albarn has even said it is the poppiest thing he has ever been involved with; this may be a stretch, but it is easy to see where he is coming from. The album is bejeweled with orchestral strings, melodious pop hooks and whimsical electronic textures. The majority of the victory achieved in Plastic Beach can be attributed to Albarn himself and his penchant for pop songcraft. Many of the album’s best songs are ones that feature him exclusively, and he handles the vast majority of the production work on the album, choosing not to collaborate with a guest producer such as Dan the Automator or Danger Mouse.

But the Gorillaz camp still features an ever revolving cast of guest collaborators, even if it’s most distinguishable feature is its now well established groundwork. De La Soul once again provides playful rhyming and Mos Def makes two appearances: The freestyle massacre “Sweepstakes” and the lead single “Stylo.” “Stylo” doesn’t quite get off the ground and flying like prior Gorillaz hits, but it’s probably much more compelling, featuring a mysterious melody, great work from Mos Def to coincide with his recent comeback and a soaring vocal part from the great jack-of-all-trades Bobby Womack.

Stylo

But the more obscure guest spots are perhaps even more effective. Grime rappers Bashy and Kano kill it on the dual-spirited “White Flag,” the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music provides melodic strings on the same track and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano sings wonderfully on two of the album’s best songs, “Empire Ants” and “To Binge.” The album seems to hit nirvana on the former, which morphs from gentle seaside guitar strumming into rhythmic ambient techno bliss, while the latter provides a longing, romantic melody, and is the most real this unreal band has ever been. Some of the album’s other guest artists, particularly Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed, seem like novelty inclusions, but they play their parts well and only further highlight the fact that since the beginning, the Gorillaz project has been a whole hell of a lot of fun.

And so we ask, if Damon Albarn wants his projects to feature prominent alt-rappers alongside indie heroes, why not? Behind an animated facade, he can do just about anything without it seeming awkward, and we give his and Jamie Hewlett’s characters the benefit of the doubt, perhaps more than he himself. This accounts for how many curveballs Plastic Beach throws, and how often they hit the mark. From front to back, just about every track here features unexpected elements. The professional orchestrations on “White Flag” and “Cloud of Unknowing” are idiosyncratic but genuinely charming, Mark E. Smith and Lou Reed get silly, and the closing “Pirate Jet” is about the most understated ending imaginable for such a big-thinking album. We trust all these elements because they earn our respect legitimately and are all around pleasures on their own terms.

Which isn’t to say that Plastic Beach as a whole doesn’t deal with some pretty poignant issues, most prominently undercurrents involving consumer culture. This is nothing terribly new for Gorillaz, who have always had the idea of commercialism at their hearts. By the time Plastic Beach is done with its chart assault, Gorillaz will almost certainly have sold over twenty million albums. It’s hard to delegitimize that kind of success, especially now when being a Gorillaz alumni yields much greater profit than simple street cred; it results in incredible rewards and songs that a lot of people like myself hold dear for years and years. Certainly this will be the case with Plastic Beach as well, though it reaches that ends by a much different means. It’s worth exploring why, and we might end up doing that until the next Gorillaz LP, but for now this album is already well on its way to building another legacy.

Gorillaz

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Carl Sandburg – Chicago

March 11, 2010

Chicago

by Carl Sandburg

via carl-sandburg.com

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Bareheaded,
Shoveling,
Wrecking,
Planning,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

Tomorrow I will get on a plane, fly six hundred miles and land at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, which I have considered to be my second home for nearly two decades.

I could have probably gotten away with spending my Spring Break in Florida, or California, or Nashville, or somewhere else just a little warmer and more picturesque. I wouldn’t have gone to any of those places if someone payed me. I love Chicago and I love flying in from over it, looking at the lights that seem to extend on forever in one direction and cut off at Lake Michigan in another.

I think there is a lot of truth in this poem. Chicago is definitely wicked, crooked, brutal. It is often an ugly city; deteriorating structures, regular murders, corruption, pungent smells rising from the sewers. It is a flawed, extreme environment. But I think all that is part of what makes it truly alive, and in a way humanistic. I don’t think there is more of a realistic amalgamation of what life in the world is really about, with its beautiful sights, ugly blemishes and all.

I will stay for a night in the city proper, go to an Irish punk show on St. Patrick’s Day, and go to the Art Institute of Chicago to look at Monets and Renoirs the next day. I couldn’t be more excited.

This post will be cross-posted on my American Literature class’s blog, You Made Me Theorize.

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This Burns

March 9, 2010

This, This burns.

Ashes falling, embers licking

searching for fuel

This burns

and then it does not burn.

That, that is the difference.

Staring at city lights

little faraway people in windows

breathing

This punctuates cold, sterile air.

And they pass, some

Some ask for directions

others will go silently into the night

lovers holding hands

travelers with calloused feet

workers on the way back from

building tall towers

And This burns

for where those legs take them

And at This, I laugh

just a little bit

because it is so familiar

They tell me

This, too, shall pass

and I’m starting to wonder

if that’s true.

And This burns

bends, twists through air

Lightheaded

And when This burns out

it doesn’t really burn out

and when I climb the stairwell

and turn out the light

This still burns.

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Black and White Photography: GWU, Snowpocalypse and Beyond

March 6, 2010

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The Return of Youtube Corner: Gang Gang Dance – Crystals

March 4, 2010

Gang Gang are coming to the Rock n Roll Hotel in DC on March 30th and hopefully I’ll be seeing them. Last time they rocked and I have high hopes for this time too. For those of you who haven’t been following them, they recently signed to 4AD, and we can logically assume that new material is in the works. This is a classic Gang jam, ambient/dreampop clouds of sound and ethnic rhythms, topped with entrancing electronics. If their new material includes or is anything like Crystals, the new Gang Gang Dance album is definitely something to watch out for. And remember, Saint Dymphna was one of the best albums of not just 2008 but the whole damn decade, so their standards are already high. Enjoy and keep an eye out.

Gang Gang Dance

ATB