Thursday, September 21, 2006

Iron Composer!

Obviously, I like music (Duh...).

I also like Iron Chef (the original Japanese one... Iron Chef America -- not so much, though I'll watch it if there's nothing else on...).

Put them together, and you have Iron Composer:
Take two musicians from the Seattle music scene. Put them onstage at the famed Crocodile Cafe and give each unsuspecting songster one instrument, a pen and paper, and extremely limited access to a thoroughly uncooperative house band. Toss in a heckling, rambunctious audience. Demand the musicians produce and perform an original song within forty-five minutes or else. Mix thoroughly and start the clock. At regularly spaced intervals, bring in the scheming Chairman Min to unleash a series of “secret ingredient” mandatory song elements supplied by an unidentified audience member. Add a shot of alcohol every nine minutes. Sprinkle with some perverse, potty-mouthed cheerleaders, a “peace” officer charged with checking IDs and immigration papers, and a “Turmoil Ark of Doom,” and you’ve got a recipe for Iron Composer, the latest dish in musical performance art lunacy to hit the Pacific Northwest.

Uh, yeah... I would really like to see this... Somebody in DFW please do this!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Massive Attack 09/17/06

As a Texas-based fan of electronic music in the early to mid 90s, I quickly got used to disappointing tour schedules. My favorite musicians of the time, many British, seemed to think that touring the U.S. in the shape of a capital "N" would hit the significant locations. They would start in New York, go down the east coast a little bit, then shift up to Chicago or Detroit, and then head for either San Francisco or Los Angeles, leaving out our fair metroplex of Dallas/Fort Worth, along with many other notable cities. (I also believe this touring strategy was a major part of the reason why the electronica push of the mid-90s never gained traction -- they were performing to the already electronicized instead of creating new markets, but that's another post.) So that type of touring strategy plays a big part in explaining why this tour was the first time Massive Attack has played Texas, even though they've been well-regarded in the U.S. since at least 1991. The second part of the seeming snub of Texas might be that Massive Attack just doesn't tour that much -- with the exception of Coachella earlier this year, Massive Attack had not played the U.S. in 8 years.

So yeah, you might say I was a tad over-excited about Massive Attack playing Big D. I became a fan not long after Blue Lines came out in 1991, and Protection and Mezzanine are both in my pantheon of greatness (though they don't quite make my ongoing Top 15 list). Here's what I like about Massive Attack: variety. Listening to a Massive Attack album is like listening to a really cool radio show -- there's an overall vibe to it, but the musicians shift for many of the songs. One song will feature some low-key rap, while the next song will feature Elizabeth Fraser (of the Cocteau Twins) or Sinead O'Connor, and then it will shift to some groove-laden reggae-esque tune with Horace Andy on vocals.

When I bought my tickets, that was one of the big questions in my mind: "Which Massive Attack will be there?" Will the evening just be two guys exchanging rap verses, or will they take a guest vocalist on tour with them? Because I'm a sucker for the female guest vocals on the Massive Attack albums... Elizabeth Fraser, Tracey Thorn, Sinead O'Connor, Sara Jay -- those are the voices that really make things shine for me. But heck, they've not been to the States in 8 years and they've never been to Texas, so I plunked down the plastic no matter which Massive Attack was coming to visit.

I started surfing the web last week as Massive Attack was supposed to start the U.S. portion of their tour, mainly because I wanted to see who was coming with them. (Yeah, I'm like the kid snooping around the Christmas presents.) But I was horrified to see that Massive Attack was having difficulty obtaining United States visas! They ended up cancelling shows in Montreal, Detroit, and Chicago, but they got things straightened out in time for ACLFest, and that meant they would be in Dallas before long... Never did find out who was touring with them, so I was pleasantly surprised last night. Consider this a spoiler alert -- If you don't want to know who will be there, stop reading now.

I'm so anal, it's not even funny... If we're going to a movie or concert, I have to get there early. Why? I'm not sure. But if I walk into a movie or concert late, I'm off-kilter for the whole thing. So we got there a little before 7:00, and the ticket had a start time of 7:30. I browsed the t-shirts, which were so-so, and then we went in. Promptly at 7:30, a DJ began mixing a bit at the front of the stage. He had some decent tunes, but the transitions were a little raw. He was up there until 8:30. Massive Attack came on stage at 9:00 in a very nonchalant manner.

The band had two drummers, and a bass, guitar, and keyboard player, and the bass was booming. It was that chest thumping bass that makes you feel like the Alien baby could come bursting out soon. One guy stood at the front of the stage and turned in a rap, but the vocals were too low in the mix to make out much. Turns out that Daddy G's wife just had a baby, so it was on the shoulders of 3D. He did very well, and put in an energetic set. I didn't recognize the song they opened with, and the audience didn't seem to, either. Most stayed in their seats. But then the energy level rose as the band went into "Risingson" from Mezzanine.

The stage lighting reminded me of the LED-looking deal that Nine Inch Nails was using last fall. It looks pretty simple at first, but they can do some pretty complex patterns that still look rather retro and pixelated. In addition, they had some scrolling text signs that were used occasionally to display factoids.

For the third song, 3D introduced "Elizabeth" and I do believe my wife thought I had gone insane. I stood and yelled and hooted while many in the audience were probably wondering what was wrong with me. You see, it was Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins fame, and I LOVE her voice. I've been kicking myself for not seeing the Cocteau Twins when they came through Dallas around '93, so it was wonderful to see her. Elizabeth and the band performed "Black Milk," another Mezzanine track, and it was gorgeous! Yes, I was officially in heaven at that point. Elizabeth left the stage, and 3D introduced Horace Andy, who came out and performed "Man Next Door."

And that's how it went from there. There would be one song that was just Massive Attack and 3D, then Elizabeth would come out, then Horace would come out. Yeah, they switched it up a bit, but it was kind of like watching the Massive Attack Variety Hour, and it felt a lot like the variety of their albums, so that was nice...

The rest of the highlights for me were, well, pretty much any time Elizabeth was on stage. She's amazing, and the absolute pinnacle of the night was "Teardrop." But the band also tore into an sinister version of "Inertia Creeps" where the bass player was throwing in this nasty bass line that kicked it into the next dimension. The encore included "Unifinished Sympathy" featuring Deborah Miller. She ripped it...

One person at ACL Fest, while admittedly unfamiliar with Massive Attack, described it as "something someone would listen to before toking up and masturbating to that anime comic porn," but I ask you, is that so bad? There would be a lot more world peace and a lot fewer problems if more people were doing that... I don't know how they did in the heat at ACL Fest, but Massive Attack were stunning at Nokia. I'm glad they finally visited Texas, and I hope they come back soon...

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Bring on the new revolution already!

Alrighty gang, I turned 39 recently, an age I used to think of as ancient, but now I think, "That's not so old..." So you can view this as "old-crotchety, up on his soap box again" if you want, but I think there are some nuggets here... Oh, and just so ya know, this starts off feeling ranty, but gets a bit of substance there at the end, so it's like a Snickers bar of a post, with a luscious outside and crunchy inside, or something... Bon appetit!

It seems like every quarter, the record industry is moaning about declining sales and piracy (and sorry RIAA, but I think you've pissed off quite a few of your customers with this "sue everything in sight" tactic, including myself). In almost every story I read in the papers or magazines, some industry exec talks about how the release schedule so far has been a little soft, and the big releases are coming later this year.

Maybe I'm getting old and set in my ways, but quite frankly I don't see a lot of music to get excited about right now. There doesn't seem to be anything new or revolutionary on the scene, in any genre. Country sales are outpacing rock, and rap is slowing quite a bit. Country is basically safe pop music sung with southern accents, and the "true" country music is long gone, leaving us with this urban cowboy, all-hat-no-cattle pap that settles for throwing out tired and trite patriotic and family cliches. Rock music is just recycling the same old guitar licks and vocal tricks. Every band is a variation of some band. "Yeah, man, they're Coldplay meets U2 meets Radiohead." And rap has sold out to materialism -- whoever has the most hos, bling, expensive champagne (because Cristal is sooo yesterday), and biggest rims on their pimped-out Escalade wins. We don't need to rap about what's happening in the projects or on the streets because people don't want to hear about problems -- they want to hear about how rich you are... It's all one big pissing match now...

Do I sound like a cranky old bastard? Good. I think pop music in general is in a major rut, and I think that's why sales are suffering. And yes, I do think it's been in a rut for the past several years. Nothing new under the sun right now... ...which is why I'm eagerly waiting on the next big bang of music. It's coming... Let me explain why.

I've been trying to wrap up my damned thesis (I'm like the 5th year senior of the grad student world), and I've come across some interesting stuff...

My favorite book in my research has been Rock Eras by Jim Curtis, and I plan to spend time re-reading it more in-depth later on, because there's a lot of good stuff in there... Rock Eras was published in 1987, so it doesn't cover the later stuff, but it has some interesting ideas.

Curtis writes that each rock era seemed to be fostered by some political scandal/mistrust/horror, where the people's trust in their government has been horribly misplaced. The rock era kicks off not long after, and is followed by five years of intense innovation. After the five-year innovation period, there's a significant death, followed by five years of less-inspired music that just follows the playbook (Curtis calls it assimilation). Curtis starts the first rock era in 1954, following the McCarthy HUAC hearings, when we've got Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis among others, and these guys tore it up. Then in 1959, of course, we've got Buddy Holly's death, combined with Elvis getting tamed by the U.S. Army, Little Richard turning to the ministry, and Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 13-year-old cousin (uh, ick!), causing a nice little scandal on his British tour. And then we spend 5 years waiting for the next boom, with the teen idols, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, and Annette Funnicello. That's not to say that 59-64 didn't have some redeeming qualities -- that's when Motown starting getting its groove on, and Phil Spector was doing some interesting production work, but the popular impact wasn't nearly so broad...

Then, Kennedy's assassination happens, the Beatles hit the U.S., and we're off and running on the next boom. Highway 61 Revisited, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper, boom!
Dylan, the Stones, the Who, Hendrix, the Byrds. Then death: Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Altamont, Beatles break up.

Curtis has a rock era for 74-84 too, and I think that these rock eras keep happening later on, but that we see less of a bang each time. I think the overall impacts are getting smaller. Yeah, I think there was a grunge era, with the innovative period capping with Cobain's death. I don't know enough about it to really comment, but there may have been a certain type of rap era, ending with the deaths of Biggie and Tupac.

But here's what I know for certain: we've got the political crap going down -- Iraq, Israel, Katrina and some pretty shady stuff happening. We're building to something here... Not sure what it's going to be, but we're building to some defining political moment. Here's the other thing, another book I read, (but I'm blanking on the name right now, sorry) noted that declines in record sales always seemed to happen immediately before the booms. We saw record sales slow right before the 1954 and 1964 booms, and we're seeing it now. Times are ripe!

Maybe with such a diversified field of micro-audiences, a major boom isn't possible any longer... The internet, ipods, cell phones and other delivery systems allow everyone to stick their head into these little musical subsystems without having to be aware of the others. Maybe this decentralization of delivery has made a new boom impossible, and we'll all just be stuck listening to whatever genre the musical anthropologists tell is the current cool one -- "I'm listening to Micro-Grime-Step -- it's Malaysian hip-hop performed by homeless kids in London" -- and we'll keep the next boom from happening? I don't know... Perhaps I'm not listening to the right stuff right now, but I'm really ready for the next musical revolution...

Monday, September 11, 2006


So, I'm about to blow's indie-cred right out of the water.

I love the Counting Crows.

But, let's be fair, I have full Pavement and Elliott Smith discographies, but they sit on my shelf right next to the Crows. All the supressed "I shouldn't but I do" love came pouring back when I was tapped to review the band at Smirnoff Music Centre this Saturday.

My love isn't completely unwarranted, however, as the band has a reputation for putting on a kick-ass show. You can have your Muse, Adam Duritz and his schlubby band of San Fransico bottom-feeders just have this unexplainable charisma that just shines in concert that i can't help but enjoy.

In Goodnight Elisabeth, Duritz said, "We couldn't all be cowboys, some of us are clowns," and that is probably the only way that I can really describe their magnetism. Duritz has the appeal of a sad, drunk clown, and for some reason, when he plays live, you believe him. You also get the feeling that he crashed on someone else's couch until about ten minutes before the show. And he borrowed twenty bucks.

Of course, in my detached synopsis, I'm probably selling the band a little short. Duritz actually writes some emotionally compelling lyrics, some of my favorite being in Rain King

Oh, it seems night endlessly begins and ends
After all the dreaming I just wanna come back home again...

So do I!

But it's in concert where the band truly shines. They weave in and out of other songs, covers, new lines, spoken-word recitations of dialogued lyrics. Duritz walks across the monitors like he's walking, you guessed it, on a wire, in a circus.

And this guy looks like a record-store clerk. Full, gray beard, dreadlocks, read-end-hangin'-out-of-his-drawers, and he's still charismatic.

Since the guys won't be touring for awhile, I recommend Live Across A Wire, a two-disc collection of live tracks that really captures the band at their live peak.

As I right this, I can't explain why I love these guys. Sometimes, they're self-important, mopey, whatever, I love 'em.