Saturday, March 31, 2007

At the Mercy of the Tall Indie Heads: Menomena/Land of Talk at Johnny Brenda’s

Land of Talk
(Field Music was on the bill, but dropped off)
Johnny Brenda’s
Philadelphia, PA


Brent Knopf – Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards, Glockenspiel, Sampler
Justin Harris – Vocals, Guitar, Bass, Baritone sax, Alto sax
Danny Seim – Vocals, Percussion, Drums

Land of Talk
Elizabeth Powell – Lead Vocal, Guitar
Chris McCarron – Bass
Bucky Wheaton – Drums

It was about 7:45PM when my wife and I arrived on Girard Avenue, backing the car behind a Mercedes and figuring that, if ANYBODY’S car was going to get broken into, it wasn’t going to be mine. A group of double-dutching girls were doing their thing at the corner while we exited the car and started walking the two blocks to Johnny Brenda’s, the venue wherein Menomena and Land of Talk would be playing to a sold-out crowd of backpacks, blazers and horn-rims. The plan was to meet up early with our group for some dinner and drinking. The show wasn’t going to start until 9:30, so the beer, food and conversation continued until then under the oppressive weight of a very strange selection of jukebox output.

Johnny Brenda’s was a nice joint. Walking in, you’ll find a long bar and a decent amount of tables. There was a pool table at the center of the bar, but I can’t imagine it’s easy to play pool on a Friday night, surrounded by beer guzzling hipsters that are seeing three of everything. I can only imagine more than a few prime shots were ruined by the unintentional “’scuse me” bump and I’m sure the low light doesn’t help those situations either.

Upstairs was a small lobby where a very unthreatening ticket taker propped up on a stool stamped our hands with a black star that had little lines circling it, suggesting of course that, despite it being black, it’s luminous. Once our tickets were ripped and our hands were properly “glowing,” we made our way to the stage area that was beyond a corridor tight with human padding.

Leading out to the stage area, the upstairs bar took up a decent amount of space that was already mostly compromised by all the guys and dolls eagerly awaiting Dixie cups full of amber fizz. Full body contact was unavoidable in a lot of instances and I can only imagine that I unconsciously gained intimate knowledge of more than one of the females present. Probably some of the males too, but I was four beers into the night by the time we hit the floor, so I really wasn’t paying too much attention. I was too busy yelling at the top of my lungs about Alice Coltrane with one of my group. My wife at one point presented me with a bottle of water and a beer and asked which one I wanted. Responsible inclinations automatically had me reach for the water, but it turned out that the beer was for me. So, I gripped the transparent Dixie and continued yelling about music.

Land of Talk hit the stage probably around 10 or so. Singer/guitarist, Elizabeth Powell, was anti-fashionably clad in a low-cut V-neck sweater with a tshirt underneath, trucker cap belling her thick hair. Her vocal inflections succeed where Courtney Love’s always failed: managing to sound credibly engaging despite being less than coherent. Even her stage banter was tough to figure out and I couldn’t decide if that was because the mic was too loud or if she was just really into mumbling. Other than that, Land of Talk had a lot of groove; disco groove at points. Powell’s guitar work was interestingly stylish and raw. Drummer, Bucky Wheaton, was all about two stick contact on the hi-hat and bassist, Chris McCarron, was very pronounced. He didn’t get buried under the prominent guitar work at all and, in a lot ways, he made the songs more varied and interesting.

The critic in me was really concentrating on the rhythm section while the “going on five beers” me became more aware that he was surrounded by some very TALL FUCKING PEOPLE. I thought indie heads were weak and malnourished. Granted it’s a very gross generalization but, when I see an individual that screams “indie hipster,” all I can think is that wheat beer and backpacks must really prevent upward propulsion into normal stature and slow the development of muscle tissue. Turns out, that’s not true. I was literally walled off from the stage by 7-footers in tracksuits, women with haystack hair, and dancing chicas whose elbows met me at eye level. It was like I was in middle school again, left untouched by the puberty gods while the girls around me sprouted in many different ways and just grew. Here I am: 30 and still being reminded that I’m short. Unreal.

A half-hour of sound check and “so what did you think?” conversation had crawled by once Menomena took the stage.

From the word “go,” Danny Seim was a fucking madman. Beginning with my favorite track from their latest album, “The Penguin,” he hit his drums with so much conviction, it was tough to know if they had wronged him somewhere down the line. I don’t think he even needed to be miked. One of my group shouted at one point, “He beats those drums like they insulted his mother!” And he was right.

Being relatively new to Menomena and their latest album, Friend And Foe (review pending), I thought that they were a crew of at least six. Instrumentation being as varied and involved as it is on wax, to see three people assume multiple rolls through each song was part of their set’s fascination for me. Central to their set was Justin Harris, thickly bearded and plaid clad. Harris was the band’s juggler: switching instruments after just about every song and assuming the roll of frontman. Brent Knopf, situated behind a laptop, glockenspiel and keyboard, just kept a guitar strapped to himself the whole time, but still served a myriad of functions as each song passed wonderfully. Seim added a couple percussive effects and vocals here and there, but his main function was to beat the shit out of his drum set.

They really kicked ass and I have much more respect for them now as a musical powerhouse. It was nice to see them in such an intimate venue. After the show, Justin Harris came out to the bar where we were standing and graciously accepted our compliments. I also got to compliment Land of Talk’s Chris McCarron while I purchased his band’s CD. It was about 12:40AM when we left Johnny Brenda’s and made our way home through the endless traffic lights along Broad Street. As my wife slept, I enjoyed the buzzing in my ears, knowing the circumstances by which I’d earned it, were more than worthwhile.

Letters From A Tapehead

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pleasures & Treasures: Sic Alps at the end of the rainbow

Sic Alps
Pleasures & Treasures
Animal Disguise Records
Released 10.06

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

A month or so ago on a very cold Saturday morning, I was combing the new releases section at A.K.A. Music, my favorite record-buying spot in Philly. Under my right arm, was already a stack of listening that I was set on buying that day so I was almost ready to pay and take off. But, then I saw Pleasures & Treasures, the full length album from San Francisco’s Sic Alps: the image of a rusting VW van sitting atop a brown and green patch of grass, the name SIC ALPS crudely spray-painted on the van’s scabbed exterior. There had to be something to that cover, so I added the CD to my stack and brought it straight to the horn-rimmed record nerd behind the cash register. While filing through the day’s finds, he pulled out the Sic Alps CD I had and went on a spiel that lasted about 5 seconds but felt like 5 minutes: “Aw, dude…this is great, man. You’re gonna love this!” I was happy to hear that.

At first listen, I wasn’t sure what to make of Sic Alps and this 26-minute ode to dirty jams and reverb, but I just kept listening and it started making sense. Pleasures & Treasures is laced with too much 90s-era alterna-complacency to be a straight-up psychedelic throwback, but its folk influence cements its 60s sensibilities. Sic Alps’ Mike Donovan, Matthew Hartman, Bianca Sparta (no longer with the band) and Adam Stonehouse (also no longer with the band) seem to be rebuilding a spirit that once enlivened the hopefuls who may’ve inhabited that beat up van years ago. It’s not peace and love necessarily, but it’s all about the possibilities out there on those American roads…or in their case, the “Semi-Streets.”

Pleasures & Treasures on the surface sounds as minimal and haphazard as you can get, overwhelmed at points by feedback and effects. The recording is raw, almost too raw. Old school hard-core bands with little or no budget have been able to achieve sounds cleaner than those found here, but it’s probable that Sic Alps had that in mind. Vocalist Mike Donovan is like Lou Reed in slow motion, strumming along with a sleepy dissatisfaction that conjures up brief images of morning dreams between alarm clock bleeps. When the album’s first track, “Battle of Breton Woods,” begins to fill up sound voids with static after the first couple vocals are expelled, it’s more than just a mere hint as to what your ears will be feeding on for the next half hour.

Experimenting with reverb like it was an additional member of the band, Sic Alps play it up on the otherwise folk-based “I Know Where the Madness Goes” and the tom-heavy “I Am Grass,” both songs erupting into aural fields of airwave noise and heightened volume. In “Morning Waltz,” the song gets lost in the noise, making momentary lapses into being and then fading under the weight of static. “Caro” and “The Wanderings of Our Drummer Through Hell” are both exercises in juxtaposing excessive percussion with unorganized sounds. “The Wanderings of Our Drummer Through Hell” reminds me of “ESP,” the opening track on Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love where his guitar feedback sounds like it’s coming and going as if he’s stuck on a merry-go-round. Imagine that with drums.

But, despite the feedback playing a prevalent roll in deconstructing songs or substituting songwriting for the sake of experimentation, the album hits strides. “Down Comes the Perm” and the fascinating “Semi-Streets” both exude the sort of hard rock disillusionment indicative of a generation that wants to break away from the confines of…well, just about everything. There’s an attitude on display here that recalls the proto-punk days of The Velvet Underground and The Stooges, an attitude that somehow managed to make itself relatively scarce during the onset of “garage” bands that were hitting the airwaves only a couple years ago. The lonely strumming of “ERQ” and heavy crawl of “Surgeon and the Slave” don’t necessarily forsake the ‘tude, but seem to revel in sorrow and complacency. “Reconnectionland” experiments a bit with percussion and solos with a feedback whine. Ending the album, “Stories” charges back with a hard rock stride but makes it melt momentarily into high-pitched refrains of the song’s title before trailing off and ending the album, setting the sun on the traveling VW.

Now, this album doesn’t really count as a new release, but I want to give the album some ink. So minimal is their coverage and exposure, I had to write the band to get some information on the album. I can’t even find them on Amazon. And, I find it rather admirable that, despite this lack of promotion and exposure, they deleted their Myspace page because they found fault with the “crappy ads, Madonna videos, and the fine print about them owning your tunes, etc.” That’s balls.

I’m hoping that whoever reads this feels compelled to give Pleasures & Treasures a try. Through its nostalgic and unique take on garage, psychedelia, folk and even grunge to an extent, I think Sic Alps capture a spirit that American music is either missing or avoiding completely. It would be nice to get some of that back.

Letters From A Tapehead

Shopping for records #1...

To Whom It May Interest,

Lately, I’ve been hitting the record stores with a fury, partly because I’ve been offered a couple opportunities, mostly because I’m constantly on the lookout for music to write about here. Since January, I’ve picked up a fairly eclectic selection of CDs and vinyl, a lot of which dates back before 2007, but still may intrigue music fans. Some of these records could be old news to you, or some of them could peak interest. Either way, I thought I would start documenting my record store purchases and share whatever grabs my attention.

A.K.A. Music, Philadelphia, PA:

Various Artists
American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986
12” Blue Vinyl
Released 10.10.06

Once I got this home, I listened to it probably 5 times in the space of an hour and a half. It’s an awesome collection of songs, released as the soundtrack for the documentary of the same name. It includes Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Articles of Faith, D.R.I. and Flipper.

Albert Ayler
E.S.P. Disk
Recorded May 1, 1965
Released May 16, 2002

1 track: 20-something minutes of saxophone power. 1965 is the same year John Coltrane did away with traditional structure and blessed us with Ascension. Apparently, Ayler was on the same page, espousing free form madness with his brother, Donald, in this live recording that apparently both offended and inspired legions of jazz critics and fans alike. Ayler is definitely an acquired taste, but his work drips with a sense of determination so honest it has to be acknowledged.

Amazon Purchase:

Various Artists
No New York
Antilles/Lillith (Russian Import)
Originally released 1978
Released February 16, 2006

Producer/musician Brian Eno assembled this 4 band/16 song collection in 1978, giving exposure to New York’s late-seventies No Wave movement. No Wave was a scathingly biting musical happening wherein artful nerds and post-punkers were painting sullen pictures with garage prowess and sometimes ear-splitting dissonance. This is considered to be THE definitive No Wave record despite being a compilation and, to me, should have a place in every music fan’s library.

A couple years ago, I happened upon a movie called Downtown ‘81. Jean-Michel Basquiat, then an up-and-coming fixture in the NY art scene, spends the movie walking around New York City looking for a way to pay his rent and find an elusive model that he had met during the movie’s opening couple minutes. While en route, the movie shifts into small “tell-all”s featuring these No Wave bands and their performances. Basquiat, himself having been in the band Gray with Vincent Gallo, acts as the perfect tour guide through that vital period in New York’s music and art scene.

Anyway, I only brought up the movie because some of the bands in the No New York compilation are featured. Plus, the movie offered me my first exposure to the No Wave movement. It’s worth checking out. I’d recommend trying to find a copy of the soundtrack as well, but it’s out-of-print and very expensive. It features a couple rare tracks from Gray, who were apparently very under-recorded.

Letters From A Tapehead

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Weakend...

Bloc Party
A Weekend in the City
Released 2.6.07

Rating: 5 out of 10

It’s difficult to know how to take Bloc Party. Yeah, they’re a good band and they know how to pull a song together. But, I have to wonder where they see themselves in the scheme of things when I hear a song like “Uniform,” which is an indictment of the youth of today and the ease at which they clamor onto clichés, namely clothes, complacency and materialism. They use the mall, epitome of commercial influence and excess, as the backdrop for their case:

“There was a sense of disappointment as we left the mall
All the young people looked the same”

Now, I myself have lambasted the legions of teenage “freaks” (especially the “punk rockers”) that think they’re making a statement by going to the mall to “freak” people out and act like they don’t care what anyone thinks of them. But, there’s also an encouraged group of mainstream types that frequent the mall, marching in and out of stores with cell phones growing out of their ears and bags shuffling against their pant legs as they stride. And I have to wonder how many of these young look-alikes are Bloc Party fans. Are they alienating an Abercrombie fan-base? Or, are they doing their damnedest to act like the voice of a generation tired of subversives? Who exactly are they criticizing?

A Weekend in the City, Bloc Party’s latest release, plays like an over-produced ode to ambiguity and anthemic seriousness. Its content being based around its title, Weekend catalogues the attitudes and places, situations and events of an anonymous weekend in the urban jungle, simultaneously knocking it while making it sound like the place to be. If Bloc Party were able to speak with more than one voice, creating a character study on tape, this would work. But, Bloc Party seem so persistent in blowing load after exhaustively forced load from track to track that its difficult to think of Weekend in those terms. Instead, it comes off like a single point-of-view that begs for consideration and relies on grand hooks and slick production to drive them home. It’s like Bloc Party’s Michael Bay album: The Bigger, Badder, Explodier sequel to their previous effort, which felt a little more genuine.

With “Song For Clay (Disappear Here),” Bloc Party quickly establish that you’re better off spending your weekend at the farm by comparing East London to a vampire that feeds off of joy. Urban disillusionment is compounded by “Waiting for the 7.18,” where singer/guitarist Kele Okereke ponders his desires to climb trees and eat blackberries while waiting for a train. The aforementioned “Uniform” and overly impassioned “Where is Home?,” only seem to add to the misery.

Interestingly, there are three love songs sequenced together. “Kruezberg,” the first, Okereke gets laid in East Berlin but not loved. In the very poppy “I Still Remember,” a love that didn’t materialize is happily lamented in a series of would’ve, should’ve, could’ve’s and “Sunday” expresses morning-after-the-bender romance.

The album’s final track, “SXRT,” a little ditty about a suicide, ends it all with high notes (in regards to sound anyway) and choir lungs. By the end, you’re so numbed by the hooks, the grand exits and the serious points it’s difficult to coax more than an indifferent “eh.”

To their credit though, Bloc Party do manage to come up with a couple winners. “Hunting for Witches” opens a critical eye at blind patriotism, likening it to the mob mentality exhibited in past events. In “The Prayer”, a hopeful individual asks the lord for a perfect night at the club, where his feet will dance well and his mouth will speak wonders. “On,” a love song to cocaine, seems to evoke more feeling and genuine passion than any of the love songs where women were involved.

All this being said, I think A Weekend in the City wants to have heart, but it tries too hard to prove it. Instead, Weekend makes Bloc Party sound almost self-important, voices to an anonymous generation that’s against commerce and wants to dance, hates the city but loves cocaine.

Or, maybe I just missed the point. Seriously.

Letters From A Tapehead

The Mon: "Doppelleben"

Acting somewhat contrary to his normal work with the doom metal colossus Ufomammut , vocalist/bassist Urlo performs as The Mon , whose new...