Monday, March 29, 2010

The Psychotherapists & The Fate Of An Outsider Band

The Psychotherapists are part of a small contingent of Bay Area bands that take pride in defying every law of music those big-wigged classical squares wrote down on their musty scraps of parchment. If the five members of the group have any sense of rhythm, melody, or musicianship, they choose to put it all away so they can focus on music that sounds like a bunch of squabbling cats being dumped on a piano. Is this bad? Your average Flyleaf fan would shriek in disgust after hearing a single note of “PB&J Pizza” or “Canabalistic [sic] Monkeys.” Hell, even people like Frank Zappa or Henry Rosenthal might have their doubts about these guys. But how easy is it to break free from the iron fetters imposed on musicians by traditional conventions, especially in an era where a disturbingly large portion of the pre-teen and teenage music-making world spends hours trying to nail every single note to Randy Rhodes’ solo on “Crazy Train?” While many of the Psychotherapists’ recordings were made before any of the members hit puberty, it's clear from even a casual listen that they have balls.
Of course, the vast, vast majority of bands, particularly challenging outsider bands like our dear friends the Psychotherapists, are left to toil in obscurity (and likely break up) while a tiny handful of their contemporaries climb the pop ladder. It seems to me there are three possible things that could happen to these guys. One: their awesome goofiness could reveal itself to be merely a product of their youth, and they would shed their quirks as they burst from their cocoons. Two: they would stay exactly the same and be completely unacknowledged for the entire history of the earth. Three: they will stay the same, and long after whatever demise they might suffer in the future, interest in their music will increase, whether for the sake of novelty or the American outsider tradition. I sincerely hope for the band’s sake their future will be the latter--and nothing would be a worse catastrophe than for them to somehow become popular in the near future. They say it’s better to burn out than to fade away, but sometimes it’s best to stay dim and burst into flames at any odd time. We can only wait and watch time unfold to truly know the fate of this little five-piece from Fogtown.

Monday, March 22, 2010

15 Great Bay Area Rock Groups

1. Please Do Not Fight. Elder statesmen of the Bay Area Rebirth movement, PDNF are notable mainly due to their profound influence on other Fogtown bands as well as mentoring Madders and Cypher Syndicate. Their excellent album Leave It All Behind (2007) could very well be the album that started the much-lauded “rebirth” in the first place.
2. Battlehooch. Like PDNF, Battlehooch are considered part of the first wave of Bay Area rock-scene revivalists, but it’s not easy imagining Zen Zenith growing a Dali moustache and calling people “bromang.” These guys play Beefheart-style experimental fusion weird enough to spice up the whole SF rock brew.
3. Finish Ticket. One of the few truly serious bands to emerge from Alameda, Finish Ticket play a sort of jazzy indie pop that in no way sounds like a grotesque fusion. They’re post-punk rock n’ soul, rarely crazy but always cool.
4. Lou Lou & The Guitarfish. A quartet featuring two offspring of Crime’s Henry Rosenthal (Lou Lou & George), LL&GF exist for the sole purpose of injecting a little punk rock into the indie-pop-dominated Bay Area rock scene. Judging by their success, I’ll assume they’ve succeeded.
5. Handshake. Think Grizzly Bear with banjos and you have a basic idea of what this Novato quartet are like. A concept band, yes, but far from a novelty.
6. Emily’s Army. If punk is truly dead, how can these guys exist?
7. Cypher Syndicate. Spectacular live and not bad in the studio, Cypher Syndicate are in the same vein as bands like Pere Ubu that use straight-ahead pop rock as a template for their crazy experiments. Three out of four members have released solo singles, all of which are worth checking out.
8. The Audiophiles. Featuring bluegrass guitar virtuoso Greg Fleischut, rising neo-folk star Jeremy Lyon, and honorary Guitarfish Nathan Pastor, the Audiophiles are an unwitting supergroup of Bay Area rock n’ rollers. Yet their sound is nothing like you’d expect--witty, catchy alt-pop with a distinctly Bay Area ethos.
9. Fever Charm. Groovy indie quartet emerged from the ashes of Oakland funk-punkers Nuck Fu with a new drummer and a new ethos. They also distinguish themselves from the rest of the pop pack by sporting a great singer in Ari Berl.
10. The Psychotherapists. It’s impossible to tell whether or not the Psychotherapists have any talent, but their utterly baffling brand of Moondog-meets-Stranglers oddball rock is some of the best outsider music since “Rock n’ Roll McDonald’s.”
11. The Piers. While obscure, the Piers possess an emotional intensity few bands twice their age have come even close to matching. None of the members are shredding gods, but they much, much more than make up for it with pure soul--a quality that seems overshadowed by technical wizardry in many bands these days.
12. DFR. This hard rock ensemble has become a local-music-festival “it” band following a performance at SF Pride in 2008 under the name Squeezles. They have absolutely zero studio recordings to their name, but their live shows are that much more killer.
13. Madders. Sam Crocker is a punk who knows his roots, and it reflects in his band’s raw punkaboogie rock. Has appeared on American Songwriter despite having yet to release any music elsewhere besides their MySpace.
14. The SHE’S. Sought by every impresario from Suisun Bay to Davenport, the SHE’s have released a full album but have yet to attract more than a small cult following.
15. Maus Haus. Featuring members of Battlehooch, Maus Haus are electro-rock kings at best and a more-than-competent Black Moth Super Rainbow tribute at worst.

SFS Amnesty Night

It’s the middle of March at San Francisco School’s Amnesty Night, two hours of politics, human rights, and rock n’ roll. The San Francisco School is packed with a horde of ecstatic eighth graders, simultaneously excited about the upcoming event and pleased at the arrival of what the kids call the “big envelopes” from their potential high schools. The band, Seize the Sound, is doing a soundcheck. These kinds of soundchecks scare me--I am always worried they have started their set early for some reason, or perhaps someone had made a typo on the Facebook event page. But after the keyboard player, a thin blond kid in a dark grey shirt, runs through the intro to “Hallelujah” ten times or so, I am reassured.
However, Seize the Sound isn’t coming on for an hour and a half. Many were informed previously that they would bookend the show. I find out from the band’s guitarist, my old Blue Bear campmate James Uejio, that the band isn’t doing such a thing after all. People are confused--the crowd of girls breaks into animated chattering, and a dark boy with a strangely dialating eye gets up from his seat and begins pacing around. But they’re in luck--the keyboardist from earlier, Tano Brock, takes a tribal drum and climbs onstage with his mother. He beats out a simple groove, and his mother grabs a beautifully made fiddle and begins playing an Arabic melody. After the end of the performance, they make a point of noting that their final song is an old folk tune, as beloved in the Middle East as “This Land Is Your Land” is here, that every country from the Indian Ocean to the Bay of Biscay has claimed as its own--fitting for an “international event.”
They walk off stage--now it’s political time. The main Amnesty International representative, a thirty-something guy with gelled-up hair and a blue polo tee, begins speaking about the history of the company. It’s a dramatic story--back in 1961, the age of Ben E. King and President Kennedy, a group of Portuguese were arrested simply for toasting to freedom. A group of people in London wrote letters, the men were freed, etc. It’s a compelling story, and he is able to quickly and eloquently answer the complex questions posed by the audience, but he is no match for the simple inquiries of a young boy sitting behind me. “Who founded Amnesty International?” “How many members are in San Francisco?”
Then comes a 15-minute Amnesty video narrated by Patrick Stewart. While it’s an interesting video, it is plagued by technical difficulties. As the audience intently listens to the story of Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer’s days as a prisoner of conscience in China, the video suddenly skips ahead thirty seconds or so. The young girls running the projector squeal in surprise and frantically struggle to set it in its right position again. There is laughter and murmuring among the audience members, but it’s soon apparent nobody really missed anything.
After the video ended (and one more half-minute skip during the credits), a venerable-looking Sri Lankan woman walks onstage, sari dragging across the smooth wooden floor. She screens a slideshow of pictures of a heavily guarded school camp in her conflicted home country before giving the stage over to the MC, a guy named Shane Bannon. This master of ceremonies, who also happens to sing in the band, is barely out of eighth grade but comes across as thoroughly adult. With his leather jacket, bicolor hair, and slightly flamboyant demeanor, he emits a vibe not unlike my imagining of a junior assistant in one of Malcolm McLaren’s wacky ‘70s punk lingeries. He applauds the woman who had just been on and then brings on the band. Everyone cheers and goes wild, and I get that feeling that within thirty minutes, the entire event will boil down to some sort of utopian celebration.
The band breaks into the sneaky groove to the Arctic Monkeys’ anti-poser anthem “Fake Tales of San Francisco.” It’s clear they have an affinity for the garage-rock revival movement of the early ‘00s, playing fiery covers of not only the Monkeys but also songs by the Strokes and the View in addition to classics like “Superstition” and “Hallelujah” and even oddities like the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and Gabriella Cilmi’s “Sweet About Me.” They also play a few originals, which have that distinctly Strokes-y sound so beloved by Apple’s ad companies. Bannon just leans forward on the microphone stand and surveys the audience coldly like an assassin perched atop a building, watching the tiny pedestrians below with steely indifference as he scans the cityscape for his quarry. All the band members are like this--there isn’t much movement other than rhythmic bobbing, but they’re clearly having fun with the audience.
Well, my gut feeling was right about the utopian thing. As they break into Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” still insanely funky but with an amusing post-punk twist, everyone gets up and starts jumping around like crazy, frantically waving paper plates in the air. Girls cry and couples kiss during Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song which seems impossible to do a bad cover of. Two girls desperately attempt a tango during “Wasteland.” And through the entirety of the last three songs, a third of the crowd is waving cell phones like Zippo lighters. I suddenly have a flashback to that perfect moment at Slim’s in November 2009, when Tyler Stimpson strode onstage with an acoustic guitar and had half the house embracing and crying into each others’ shoulders. This is why rock n’ roll is still beautiful.
They leave the stage; I help clean up a bit. I talk with the sister of one of the Piers, who emphatically denies the rumor that her brother plays his instrument with a drum kit screw. Filled with fresh knowledge about human rights, the power of rock n’ roll, and the dream schools they’re bound for in the autumn, the crowd disappears into the dark Excelsior night, and the air is filled with the sounds of crickets and engines.


In light of the massive amount of reviewing I've been doing of music by super-obscure local bands, I have decided to split my old blog, "10,000 Leagues Under The Radar," in two. The old blog still exists, but this new one has been created exclusively for the new Bay Area scene. I'll have a review of Finish Ticket's debut EP later today.