Sunday, August 29, 2010

Random Things Aug. 29, 2010

1. On September 12, a group of young musicians, assembled by veteran singer-songwriter-keyboardist Bonnie Hayes, will open for Michael Franti at the Fillmore. This group includes the entire current lineup of Marin-based Americana-rockers the Heretics, as well as several members of now-defunct teen band America's Bestest, including guitarist Bobby Dorward, drummer Eli Kemp, and vocalist Ellie Cope (the latter two of whom are also members of the Heretics).

2. After 8 years, Oakland alt-rockers Audrye Sessions have broken up. They played their final show August 27, at the New Parish in Oakland. Unfortunately, the promoters were cruel enough to make it 18+.

3. Finish Ticket announced a surprise show on August 29, 1:00 PM on Telegraph in Berkeley. I will not be attending, but this will likely be their last show for a long time, as all the members are going off to college soon.

4. DTD of screamo-disco duo Foolish Ways announced he would be fronting a new group called Cut the Riff Raff with someone named "P-Dub" and somebody else named "???"

5. In festival news, Power to the Peaceful (Michael Franti, Crystal Bowersox, Rebelution) will take place in Golden Gate Park on September 11. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass's 10th anniversary show (Patti Smith, Rosanne Cash, Conor Oberst, MC Hammer, and a cast of countless) will take place October 1 to 3 in the same place. And indie-friendly Treasure Island Festival (Belle & Sebastian, LCD Soundsystem, the National, Broken Social Scene) will take place October 16 and 17... you can guess where.

Friday, August 27, 2010

New Young The Giant (Jakes) Single

“I Got”
* * *

Don’t let the name change fool you. The new single by Young the Giant has every quality that defined the striking singles they cut as the Jakes--the pearly guitars, the psych-pop haze, the male-Nico vocals. Sure, the lyrics are a bit heavy, so it’s best to focus on the music on this one. It’s a fine tropical cocktail of sunshine and quirkiness. Just imagine if the dude who runs that beachside taco stand in Santa Cruz cut a single with those freaky hippie dudes on the far side of the beach and you’ll get an idea.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Antony & the Johnsons: A Break From Bay Area Music

I know it's not Bay Area music, but this is one of my favorite albums of all time (if not my absolute favorite), and I want to share it with everyone. This album, by New York soul/jazz/chamber pop/unclassifiable group Antony & the Johnsons, was released in 2005. I discovered it four years after its release after reading an interview with Antony in Rolling Stone. It is one of the few albums I have ever rated 5 stars, and one of the few I believe truly deserves them.

I Am A Bird Now
* * * * *

It would be difficult for me to start this review without simply stating my opinion that I Am A Bird Now is one of the best albums of the 21st century so far, and even then it would be difficult to list its competitors for the title. Transgender singer/pianist Antony Hegarty (almost always referred to by his first name alone) is a fine songwriter, a great arranger, and one of the most emotionally intense singers in any form of music today. His alien-yet-brutally-human vibrato is delicate but can navigate across any musical terrain it needs to, leaving twin streams of shadow and sunlight in its wake.
On I Am A Bird Now, Antony uses his vocal power and a background that alternates between tough soul and stark piano-strings arrangements to create not only a masterwork of modern music but a rip in the mind where you are pulled into the singer’s purgatory. You feel the pain the singer experiences in his socio-emotional-sexual prison and the elation as he gradually breaks free from its bonds and comes to terms with himself. In other words, this is one of the saddest albums I have ever heard, but there is a sense of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel.
Antony is a singer who hits all the right emotional buttons at all the right times. There’s not much need for him to sound happy on this album. Usually, he’s conveying vulnerability and helplessness, and at times he conveys incredible sadness (“Hope There’s Someone,” a minimal ballad that transforms into a soaring wash of sound). It seems hope and rapturous love are the main positive emotions here--the former displayed on “Today I Am A Boy” and the latter on Antony’s best soul songs, “Fistful of Love” (to an ex-lover) and “You Are My Sister” (to a sibling).
And he’s not a bad songwriter, either. Despite the delicate, angelic quality of his music, Antony does not use his flowery voice for flowery poetry. His lyrics are, in fact, very blunt. “For Today I Am A Boy” could be the greatest transgender anthem ever written, but there are no fancy metaphors. He tells you right off the bat--”One day I’ll grow up and be a beautiful girl, but for today I am a boy.” No rich similes or sprawling analogies. And that just adds to the emotional power of this song. A similar thing is done on the perhaps even more powerful “Spiralling,” on which he sings, “Not a girl...I am some son/I am some bum.” When he whispers those last four words, you can practically feel the boiling brew of emotions within his protagonist’s head. He sounds sad, resigned, but at the same time furious and ready to take revenge against all of existence. Thus is the power of Antony Hegarty, bona fide soulman.
I Am A Bird Now is, essentially, a loose concept album about gender identity. Antony sings of women becoming men (“My Lady Story”), men becoming women (“Today I Am A Boy,”) men who are women (“Spiraling”), and men who have become women (“Free at Last,” “Bird Guhrl.”) The album starts out with songs of uncertainty, the laments of those caught in their gender confines. After “Spiraling,” we hear the brief interlude “Free at Last,” which starts out with a Morse Code message and Antony’s gentle chuckle. We wonder what the message could be, before the eerie and heavily accented voice of hermaphrodite mathematician Dr. Julia Yasuda comes in, accompanied by light strings and piano. S/he is rapturously thanking God for some sort of freedom, and while the references to meeting Jesus suggest death, the implication is freedom from the chains of gender.
“Free at Last” segues into “Bird Guhrl,” which is, in my opinion, the best song on the album and in Antony’s oeuvre. The song starts out with a piano/harp chord that could be the saddest sound ever recorded, not to mention the other three minutes of the song. Then in comes Antony, quietly repeating the phrase “I am bird girl” in a hushed voice that conveys powerful realization, before the song swells and climaxes. We can imagine Antony in an epiphanic state, perhaps curled on the floor and feeling his face with his hands. He knows he is free. He is a bird girl, and bird girls can fly. He has found his wings. He is a bird now. And he climbs to the top of a black steeple, spreads a pair of glowing, angelic wings, and takes flight. As the song fades out, our hero/ine is soaring smoothly over New York, carried by the wind and his own spirit.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

In Other SHE's Related News

* * * 1/2

For all their lo-fi cool and indie cred (opening for Girls and Candy Claws, getting Harlem to perform at a birthday celebration for two band members), the SHE’s have always been a pop band at heart. Nobody ever argued, and on this new slice of cowbell-flavored Rousseau-rock, they set out to make sure nobody does. The muddy production of their self-titled debut EP is gone, replaced with crispness and clarity. But in its place are rich harmonies and hooks that could snag even the grumpiest stonefish in the sea. This song isn’t chocolate, but it isn’t candy either. It’s a bit like one of those little sticky sesame squares--maybe a bit sweet for a lot of people, but still honest, earthy, and natural.

“Kinky Boyz”
* 1/2

“Suck me dry like a desert oasis/And I stick my hand in your private places,” sings JOhN of anonymous electrosmut duo Analoggerhead Turtle Synthesizers on their debut single. That’s about as subtle as the dude gets. Despite their awesome nonsequitir name, there is nothing remarkable about this band except for how unbelievably awful their combination of 8-bit samples, clearly sped-up “rapping,” and GarageBand trance beats proves to be. Imagine the Millionaires as a group of dull swishers out for a night of forced fun and you’ll have an idea of “Kinky Boyz” without even having to listen to it.

The SHE's Conquer The Fillmore

On October 15 at 9:00 PM, the SHE's will open for Girls at the Fillmore. That's right, the Fillmore--the legendary music venue that has been at the heart of the Bay Area music scene for over forty years. I advise everyone to buy tickets fast. (In other SHE's-related news, they have finished recording 3 new songs--"510," "Wonder Band," and "Surfer Boys." They will be available on their upcoming release, and a review of "510" will soon be posted.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Outside Lands, Day 2

The first act I saw in its entirety was neo-indie-funk-soul-punk-hop diva and self-proclaimed "arch-android" Janelle Monae, who arrived 25 minutes late and blazed through a dramatic half-hour set that featured hooded backup dancers, a whole lot of funky dancing, and of course the singer's fabulous hair.

64-year-old Al Green showed he still had the seductive cry he possessed in his youth as he blazed through his old classics, as well as a string of 30-second tributes to songs by other great soul masters. Unfortunately, the set consisted of about 40% singing and about 60% semi-comprehensible stage banter, which was amusing but not for an entire performance.

Peppy Parisian power-pop powerhouses Phoenix played perfectly at a performance that proved popular (say that 10 times fast). As they blazed through their radio hits ("1901," "Lisztomania") and material from throughout their career, singer Thomas Mars made regular ventures into the audience, surfing the crowd and high-fiving ecstatic fans. (He also decided to mount an amp stack.) During the group's set, I was able to get about 20-50 feet from the stage, packed in a tight mass with fellow Bay Area music-scene blogger Gabe Connor (The Subconscious), my Blue Bear buddy Bobby Dorward, Tyler English and Evan Greenwald from Handshake, and Matt Saunders and Ryan Meagher from the Heretics. Considering there were about 200,000 people at the show, it was pretty easy for me to find everyone I knew. Long live the Rebirth.

Capping off the day was Kings of Leon, who offered an hour and a half of moody, Southern-infused alt-rock ballads and barnstormers. The set featured three black-and-white Jumbotrons, what looked like a skyscraper of stage lights, and a firework finale. During massive hits "Sex on Fire" and "Use Somebody," the whole crowd could be heard singing along and jumping in the air like an army of jackrabbits.

In between songs, one could hear Donald Glaude's house beats pumping from the depths of the Inspire dance hut--one wonders just how many people had chosen Glaude over Kings of Leon or alternative headliners Empire of the Sun.

In all, this year's Outside Lands was a significant improvement lineup-wise over last year's, despite a deficit of underground rock groups. The festival was not well-organized, and the lack of more than one box office created miniature clusterf*cks everywhere like black holes. But I had a good time, and the organizers did a good job of keeping everyone entertained.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Outside Lands, Day 1

I arrived in time for the multi-ethnic "gypsy-punk" collective Gogol Bordello, led by the shirtless and raving actor/singer Eugene Hutz. Chip bags flew into the air, the crowd was soaked in wine, and Kings of Leon fans lost their shit over the course of a raucous hour-long set that consisted of tight material but was damaged by poor sound.

While interrupted by synthesizer spasms, microphone blackouts, and a light drizzle of San Francisco fog-rain, My Morning Jacket brought their brand of experimental yet anthemic heartland rock to what frontman Jim James described as "Field of Heaven II" (a reference to a particularly beautiful venue in Japan). Oh yeah, and let's not forget the freaky eyeball-adorned stage.

On my way to Cat Power, I got myself a beef skewer and stopped by Wolfmother briefly. I was surprised by frontman Andrew Stockdale's vocal... um... similarity to Robert Plant.

Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, took the stage just as the weather was about to turn really cold. The Atlanta singer-songwriter cast a spell over the audience with her minimalist balladry, and it appeared at times as if she was bringing on the dusk.

I climbed a haystack with a milkshake to take this photograph of synth-slaying art-rockers Wild Beasts. By this time, the Deadheads had headed off towards the main Polo Field stage and the Strokes fans were just beginning to pour in.

As an alternative headliner to "Furthur" (what's left of the Grateful Dead), post-punk revival heroes the Strokes attracted a sizable crowd and banged through a 70-minute set of concise three-minute songs. There was no pretentious bull in the Strokes' music whatsoever, despite an extravagant light show that featured an onstage history of video games and something that looked a bit like the opening Route 66 sequence of Repo Man, albeit with more triangles.

At the show, I encountered The Heretics' Ryan Meagher (during a brief stop at Bassnectar, not shown), Handshake's Evan Greenwald (manning the Blue Bear School of Music booth), and the SHE's' Sami Perez (during Wild Beasts).

Day 2 coverage coming soon.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Your Greatest Moment, Quiet Game Starting Now, June Breaks Bright, and We Will Have Our Night @ Elmira Cabin, 8/8/10

(T-B: Your Greatest Moment, Quiet Game Starting Now, June Breaks Bright) Yes, even snobby little indie hipster pricks like myself can indulge in a bit of guilty-pleasure fist pumpin' once in a while. I recently went out to the tiny, Stephen King-ish town of Elmira (near Fairfield and Vacaville) to see a group of pop punk, emo, and screamo bands with some crazy lesbian friends of mine. While the music wasn't quite as interesting as the scene or the cute boys, it was still a fun night.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Man In Space debut EP review

Man in Space - EP
* * * *

I’m used to surprises, but when I heard that Dizzy Balloon members Jonny Flannes (guitar), Raphael Peterson (bass), and Louie Diller (drums) were starting a side-project, I wasn’t expecting anything that strayed too far from their main project’s theatrical pop-rock. The single “Home Sweet Home” did little to change this expectation. But after buying their EP and witnessing a set at Bottom of the Hill that made Mr. Bungle look tame, I found out in the most exhilarating way possible that these guys are a different story whatsoever.

It’s clear from the first track on Man In Space’s debut EP that they’re trying to screw with something. All the tracks are, at their roots, fairly conventional funk-influenced power-pop songs (some don’t even try to hide it). On top of it, they add bizarre sequences, particle-collider production spasms, and a bit of Dizzy Balloon’s Broadway-rock drama. The result is a rich soup of progressive lunacy that is never dull, sometimes disturbing, and always hilariously weird.

There are a number of potential flies in the band’s ointment. One is Flannes’ voice--his childlike falsetto almost always sounds goofy, whether it wants to or not. The other is the vestiges of Dizzy Balloon, whose bombastic power-rock often permeates the cosmic excursions on the album. But through a combination of funk swagger and their own weirdness, they surpass all of these and use them to propel their music even further into outer space.

The album starts with “Exposition,” the rare track that feels like an intro but could stand as a great pop song by itself. The tune is a mind-melting blur of squid-rubbery sequencers, menacing Krautrock organs, and drunk-punk-funk THX harmonies. It feels like the soundtrack to a scene in a movie where a drug dealer chases a Teletubby through zero gravity on a giant inflatable dolphin.

“Memoir” is the most unapologetically conventional song on the album. It’s trippy, of course--its sound-collage breakdown and weird lyrics about... I still have no idea..., but it’s essentially a power-pop song, and not a bad one either. “Poison” and “Home Sweet Home” are the singles, and they could not be more different from each other. “Poison” sounds like early Radiohead filtered through a layer of Sopwith Camel and served hot in a saucepan. “Home Sweet Home” is much more Dizzy Balloon-ish, and it works well as a single or an interlude. Its cheery melody is pleasantly kiddie, and I can imagine the band members singing this song to their grandkids forty years from now.

The album’s centerpiece is “Money.” A truly delicious slice of New Wave funk in the Talking Heads/Gang of Four tradition, I truly feel unfulfilled when I am not moving along to this song. I bought this album in the aftermath of a bizarre conflict with a friend of mine over Gorillaz tickets--we wanted to sit together, but the tickets had to be bought together and neither of us had the money for both or to pay each other back in the near future. As a result, I found myself associating well with “Money” and its lyrics about substantiality versus luxury. And let’s not forget the outrageously funky backbeat, with its pounding drums and layers of staccato guitars.

The last song is the six-minute opus “Light in our Eyes,” which starts out as a soaring Americana-folk ballad and somehow manages to segue into an epic outro with a shuffling blues beat, Thin Lizzy guitar harmonies, and cascading church organs. It’s the perfect climax to the album--the synth trips, the insane funkiness, and the gentle lunar-folk harmonies all meet and combine into one in the course of a six minutes that feel like a much shorter period of time. It’s an epic conclusion to an epic album, and despite its sharp contrast to “Money” (or any other song on that album), I can’t imagine the album ending any other way.

With their entirely self-produced, self-managed debut, Man in Space has succeeded in creating a sound with the free-form bizarreness of an indie band and the accessibility of a major-label pop band. Few bands since the Flaming Lips have come this close to creating the perfect balance between accessibility and impenetrability. What’s next for Man In Space is anybody’s guess, but any producers or major-label execs better stay the hell away from them.

Man In Space w/Young the Giant, Finish Ticket, & Fever Charm @ Bottom of the Hill, 8.7.10


In celebration of the release of their self-titled debut EP, East Bay psych-funk quintet Man In Space threw a massive party at Bottom of the Hill. During their baffling set, the group played their EP in its entirety, interrupted occasionally by bizarre covers of songs like Talking Heads' "Once In A Lifetime" and Jeff Beck's version of the Beatles' "A Day In The Life."

Also appearing was SoCal's Young the Giant (formerly the Jakes), who brought their sunny indie rock to the Bay Area.

Finish Ticket brought the house down with their percussive alt-rock stylings, playing their own EP in its entirety while adorned with war-paint and feathers.

The opening act was East Bay funk-pop quartet Fever Charm (with guest bassist Miles Essert of Rikoche), who also played their EP with classic Rebirth energy.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Finish Ticket "Shake A Symphony" review

Shake a Symphony - EP
* * *

Finish Ticket are a quirky bunch. Their studio sessions are notoriously bizarre (if their Facebook page statuses don’t lie). They paint their faces with tribal patterns at shows and often set up face-painting booths on the venue floors. And they possess a remarkable ability to communicate with their audience--at some of their shows, it almost becomes hard to distinguish band members from spectators. Yet for all of this, they are a fairly conventional pop group, and they rarely stray far from the beaten path. And on Shake a Symphony, the Alameda sextet’s second release, only a very tiny portion of their live energy is captured--although they did succeed in creating a decent alt-pop album.

The first song on the EP, “Her Way Out,” is a good intro. It’s dramatic but low-key at the same time, thanks mainly to the production. It soon segues into “We’ll Be Okay,” the album’s highlight and a great cheer-the-hell-up anthem. The soft keyboards and melancholic-yet-funky bass give the song a strange sense of anthemic beauty as triple-octave singer Brendan Hoye unleashes his soaring holler.

The other songs, however, are a different story. The two remaining rockers--the live behemoth “New York” and the arcade-meets-barroom barnstormer “Hyrule”--sound a bit dulled compared to the crowd-catapulting live versions that won me over. “New York” is a good song that inexplicably does not quite pack the punch it was clearly intended to, and while “Hyrule” actually comes close to capturing Hoye’s true vocal power at several points in the song, but those spidery synths complicate things a bit. “Miss Woe, I’m Glad” is a strangely named power ballad--inspired, perhaps, by Kevin Sullivan’s Miss Blue and Miss Water?--with some tough vocals and soulful keyboards but an otherwise tepid vibe. “Rivers” is the best of the four, a melancholy ballad with fine lyrics, pop potential, and sweet, vulnerable vocals from Mr. Hoye--and while it does not have any distinctive characteristics to make it truly remarkable, it’s still a well-crafted rock n’ soul ballad.

While this album may not live up to my expectations, I am no way dismissing the band. They still put on one of the best live shows of any “Rebirth” group, and they have the remarkable ability to create a miniature utopian environment at just about any show they play. While this is a fine offering, I believe the group is truly in their element when they are trying to amp you up. As Finish Ticket’s members head off to places abroad to finish their educations, I can only wonder how college life will affect them and their music. Will they free up a bit under the knowledge they are liberated from the duties of a hardworking college student and can let their pent-up energy out with the dudes in the band? Will they lose touch with the Rebirth (god forbid?) And now for my favorite review-closing phrase: only time will tell.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shows We Are Going To

Bottom of the Hill
August 7
8:00pm - 11:30pm

Comprised mainly of Dizzy Balloon members, Man In Space is far more subtle in style than DB's bombastic arena-rock, preferring quiet songs with traces of '60s San Francisco bands like the Sopwith Camel. The band will be releasing their debut at this show.

One of the Bay Area's best live acts, these peppy, poppy funk-rockers emerged from the ashes of Nuck Fu to take the East Bay and now the City by storm. Rikoche's Miles Essert will be filling in for usual bassist Yianni AP at this show.

This Alameda sextet has matured finely from the slightly cheesy alt-pop ballads of debut EP "Life Underwater" to gritty, rhythm & blues-influenced alternative/indie rock. The band will be releasing their second mini-album, "Shake a Symphony," at this show.

Formerly the Jakes, Young the Giant offers arena anthemizing designed for gritty clubs. The only band here not from the Bay Area, Young the Giant hail from the city of Newport Beach in Orange County.