Thursday, September 13, 2012

New Local Hero, Thee Oh Sees

From Timid To Timbuktu
* * * * 1/2

Local Hero’s debut release, last year’s excellent The Aldgate EP, succeeded by pushing reality to the periphery but never eliminating it entirely in favor of the globe-trotting reveries at the music’s front and center.  From Timid To Timbuktu, the Berkeley quartet's full-length, reverses this paradigm, keeping its feet on the ground even as the distinctions between the mundane and the fantastical blur together.  Alex MacKay’s field of vision on Timbuktu is mainly limited to what’s going on in front of him (and behind his back), and the locales are far more familiar than the Barcelonas and Champs-Elysees of The Aldgate--a theater, a cold rooftop, a few disparate U.S. states, Piedmont, the metropolitan sprawl.  But MacKay’s songwriting is more expansive than ever and is what ultimately makes Timbuktu stand out as the better of the band’s two releases so far.  Whether he’s penning Dan Bejar-worthy couplets (“Black & White,” “Lady Wisconsin”) or ruminating on the human condition (“Piedmont Girls,” “Once More With Feeling,” MacKay imbues everyday life with almost theatrical whimsy, finding depth in the mundanity of his surroundings by filtering it through an artist’s eye.  If The Aldgate felt like a daydream, Timbuktu feels like the inspired moments of consciousness that feed and nurture our fantasies.

Putrifiers II
* * *

It’s been nearly a year since Thee Oh Sees released Carrion Crawler/The Dream, a hiatus of Vashti Bunyan proportions by the standards of a band who once released so many records that finding an entry point was near impossible.  Since then, the band’s reputation has evolved from yet another stereotypically prolific San Francisco garage-rock band to one of the most formidable rock n’ roll bands in America, both live and in the studio.  It’s a shame that Putrifiers II, the follow-up to Carrion Crawler, only intermittently justifies that reputation.  The logic behind this album is understandable--it’s Thee Oh Sees’ most accessible album to date, bordering on straight poppy on songs like “Flood’s New Light” and “Goodbye Baby,” and will likely be the most-recommended Thee Oh Sees album if only for its relative ease on the ears.  But these songs sound uncharacteristically restrained, with bandleader John Dwyer sounding bored through most of it and the band plodding away joylessly.  Gone is the jam-session spontaneity that made Carrion Crawler such a blast, but the band counter-intuitively sounds less tight, almost as if they’re playing the music out of obligation rather than passion.  However, there are enough good songs to mostly redeem this album, including the plodding title track and the warped string ballad “Wicked Park.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

New Mark Nelsen, Solwave

Childish Songs
* * * *

Mark Nelsen is a singer and a songwriter, but he’s hardly a singer-songwriter.  The Electric Shepherd frontman is by no means a bad lyricist, but on his solo debut Childish Songs, he’s still writing rock-band songs, full of crypticisms you don’t have to even remotely understand to dig the music.  His strong suit is as an arranger, and the arrangements on Childish Songs are consistently inspired and vital.  On songs like “Saluka & I” and “Oh! Romance,” Nelsen treates pop history as a hip-hop producer would, adding a dash of Beck here and a dash of Wayne Coyne there but keeping on the better side of the thin line between influence and pastiche.  The result is an album that’s unpretentious without being middle-of-the-road, one that borrows from the past but never once sounds nostalgic or retro.

Out Of The Mayhem EP
* * *

Solwave pride themselves on their inability to be categorized, and while this claim has plenty of truth, it’s primarily due to the band’s willingness to experiment with different sounds and genres rather than their making music that’s actually uncategorizable.  On their second EP, Out Of The Mayhem, the San Francisco quartet maps out a defined space within the pop music spectrum and proceeds to explore every nook and cranny of it.  “Fire It Up” and “Voodoo At High Noon” are sweaty arena rock, with titanic drums and omnipresent Hot Fuss synth buzz; “Ride” is a dance-rock rave-up; “Shuffler” is heart-on-sleeve power pop.  The band stumbles on the former two songs, particularly “Voodoo At High Noon,” which sounds like the ‘70s and the ‘00s put in a blender with the lid off.  But on the latter two tracks, they sound completely in their comfort zone, suggesting that just like their heroes the Killers, they may just be a goofy pop band at heart.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Outside Lands, Day 3

* * * 1/2

I started Sunday a bit late.  There literally wasn’t a single act I knew of or wanted to see until Jack White, so when I arrived I ultimately decided to stay by the main stage and watch Regina Spektor’s set.  Though I can’t profess to be a fan of Spektor’s music, it was certainly interesting to witness her music in a live festival setting.  The setup was minimal--a cellist, a drummer, a synth player, and Spektor on voice and keys.  Yet every note sounded so crystal-clear, every word so effortlessly comprehensible, that it was hard to imagine this was taking place at a festival with over a thousand people in attendance.  On the subject of the crowd, the audience at Spektor’s set was among the most diverse of any I witnessed--within a few feet of me, there were joint-passing hippies, an old woman who must have been eighty, a face-painted raver girl on her boyfriend’s shoulders, and a number of people waving inflatable sharks in the air.

* *

Maybe I just didn’t give Jack White a chance, or maybe everyone had already been to his surprise set in the forest earlier, but nothing about the main-stage set by the man hailed by many as the savior of rock n’ roll stood out to me.  The sound was sharp and tinny, as if the sound people were trying to replicate a garagey Third Man production, and the session musicians played as if they were boogieing for the first time in their lives.  Even “Seven Nation Army,” which can be a behemoth live if the version on the White Stripes’ Under Great White Northern Lights is any indication, sounded flimsy and insubstantial.  It was a set that could have rocked tremendously, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t.

* * * * *

Of all the acts I saw, Stevie Wonder was the only one (aside from Sigur Ros) who thoroughly met my expectations.  I came to Stevie’s set expecting a lively, energetic set featuring some of the greatest pop songs ever written, as played by one of the most technically proficient musicians ever to perform popular music.  As Wonder is one of maybe four or five currently active artists who might play a show fitting the description, it’s safe to say I got exactly what I came for.  All the classics were there, from “Higher Ground” to the earth-moving “Superstition” to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” plus some deep cuts I’d never even heard and a truly moving tribute to Michael Jackson by way of “The Way You Make Me Feel.”  Wonder’s voice, keyboards, and band were every bit as funky (and frequently more so) as on record.  For two glorious hours, Wonder single-handedly made up for the rest of this comparatively sleepy day and every other less-than-satisying experience I had at the festival, from Jack White to a fast-fading romance to some asshole who told me “you’re not as high as you think you are” towards what was luckily only the beginning of Tame Impala's set.