Friday, December 17, 2010

RIP Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) 1/15/1941 - 12/17/2010

One of my musical heroes has passed today. Pictured above is Don Van Vliet AKA Captain Beefheart's classic album, Trout Mask Replica, which is, in my opinion, one of the greatest albums ever made. The influence of that album cannot be understated. You can hear it in so much music that came out after it, despite no one even quite attempting to replicate the eccentric brilliance of it. Van Vliet quit music in 1982 and had been struggling with MS for many years. Despite it, he continued to paint and became a very renowned artist. He finally lost his battle with it today. It's a sad day indeed. Below is a short film made about Van Vliet in 1994, entitled Some Yoyo Stuff and featuring David Lynch and Van Vliet himself. As you can see, he was already suffering from MS but it's still a fun avant garde short film.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Great Underrated Albums by Famous Artists

[Ed. Note: This is something I wrote a long time ago for use on this blog, but never really finished or ever published. I found it on my computer while organizing some files and decided to put it up here today.]

Temple of the Dog - Temple of the Dog

When this album came out, nobody noticed or cared. Then Soundgarden and Pearl Jam both exploded and suddenly a collaboration between Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and all of Pearl Jam was a profitable prospect. It quickly spawned some radio hits that still get airplay today and it's a pretty well regarded album. So saying it's underrated doesn't really apply at any time since 1992 or thereabouts, but I say it is underrated for this reason: I believe that it is the best thing anybody involved has ever done. I find Soundgarden's work pretty inconsistent. They were good, but I can't really listen to any of their albums the whole way through. For Cornell, the only thing he's ever done that comes close is his first solo album, Euphoria Morning. An argument could be made for that album being better than Temple of the Dog, but I still give the edge to Temple of the Dog because Cornell was in better vocal shape (being eight years younger) and the album just being made up of stronger songs. On the Pearl Jam side, their debut, Ten, is pretty much equal to it as well, but Eddie Vedder isn't quite the singer that Chris Cornell is, meaning Ten doesn't have the same amazing vocal moments, and at no point does the band stretch out like on the epic length track "Reach Down." For those reasons, I'd still give it to Temple of the Dog. Really, I'm just trying to make a point as it's hard to find flaws with Euphoria Morning or Ten. Those albums are basically equals to this one. But the point is, I think Temple of the Dog often falls by the wayside as just something really great that those guys did, few really recognize just how good it was and realize that it is pretty much one of the best things anybody involved ever did.

Black Sabbath - Born Again

Collaboration time again. In the grunge era, Temple of the Dog was a fan's wet dream. In the metal era, this one was too, it just didn't have quite the same commercial viability by 1983 that it would have had in the mid-1970's. On Born Again, Black Sabbath found themselves once again without a singer so they picked up former Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan and put out a sort of bizarre combination of both bands' sounds but really something completely different in a way as well. The production was shit, but given the time period that's almost a comfort, considering the slick 80's hair metal veneer every album following would experience. The dirty rawness of it all is charming in its way, sort of like punk around that time. As for the music itself, it's classic. Gillan is in amazing vocal shape, belting out screams like he never even did in Deep Purple, "Child in Time" notwithstanding. Iommi cuts some of his greatest solos. Butler and Ward are just as great a rhythm section as ever. These days everything with Sabbath's name that doesn't have Ozzy or Dio singing on it is pretty much forgotten, but honestly Born Again stands, to me, as one of the great Sabbath albums, along with the first six Ozzy albums and the first three Dio albums.

David Bowie - Buddha of Suburbia

I know I talk of this album a lot, but it really is one of the greats in Bowie's discography. When it was released it was completely ignored because it was the soundtrack for a shitty TV movie. It took forever for the soundtrack to even make it to the US and it was just quietly forgotten. But among hardcore Bowie fans, we realize that he was really onto some brilliant stuff around this time. It combines the instrumental experimentation of the following album, Outside, that itself harkens back to his experimentation with Brian Eno back in the 70's Berlin trilogy, with the upbeat 90's dance pop of the preceding Black Tie White Noise and ends up being a vastly superior album to either of those. To this day, no one but real Bowie fans really know this exists, which is a true shame. Bowie himself has described it as one of his favorites that he's ever made and there's good reason for that.

GZA/Genius - Legend of the Liquid Sword

When this one hit the scene in 2002, it wasn't really "cool" anymore (at the time) to like Wu-Tang. This was after the disappointment a lot of people felt over The W and Iron Flag and it just wasn't really a good time for the group. But in reality, this was nowhere near as bad as everybody thought. Actually, it's a really good album. GZA is in fine form lyrically and it has some of the better beats of his solo career. Wu members Ghostface, RZA, Inspectah Deck, and frequent Wu collaborator Streetlife show up for strong guest verses and it even features a very early appearance from someone then known as "Santi White" now universally known and famous as Santogold. If the lyrics are to be believed, part of the reason this album was a failure was just the record label dropping the ball (as usual). Sure, it's nowhere near as good as Liquid Swords, but what is? It's still a worthwhile entry in the Wu-Tang legacy and probably the best thing not called Liquid Swords in GZA's own discography.

The Mars Volta - Amputechture

This album was pretty successful, all things considered, but when it came out it was pretty much universally loathed by fans of the band. As At the Drive-In fans felt betrayed when that band broke up and the Mars Volta first appeared, fans of the first two albums the Mars Volta released felt betrayed by the new turn of Amputechture. It's gone so far that Cedric and Omar have even called this their "autistic child." Nowadays, it seems more and more fans are catching up and warming to the album, but it still stands out like a sore thumb in their discography as that one album that left everyone pretty much scratching their head when it came out. Not to mention, the band itself was a mess around that time. They barely toured, the few shows they played were made up of 40 minute free form jams, Cedric had surgery, they went through several drummers, and their follow-up, the Bedlam in Goliath, had some severe birth pains that led to it being labeled a cursed album. With all the negativity surrounding it, Amputechture is a black sheep but actually listen to it and you'll realize that it's easily just as good as the first two Mars Volta albums.

Prince - Come

Come was a casualty of the woes Prince had around the time of its release with Warner Bros. You know, the shit that eventually led to him giving up his name and calling himself an unpronouncable symbol. With all that going on, people were far less interested in Prince's music and more in his personal drama. That meant that despite the success he had in the early 90's with his hip hop experiments, Come was largely ignored when it was released. Prince climbed back on the charts shortly after with the Gold Experience, but what of Come? It's an odd little album, representing a brief transitional period of smooth R&B that was featured in few and far between instances of the preceding and following albums, but it's personally one of my favorites of his. It has a wide range of styles in the context of that R&B, catchy should've-been-hits, and some experimentation that proved Prince wasn't slipping into any sort of rut.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Interview with The Memorials

(Video for "Westcoast")

In October of 2009, drummer Thomas Pridgen exited Grammy Award winning band the Mars Volta. With nowhere else to go, he turned to two friends from his days at Berklee College of Music, guitarist Nick Brewer and vocalist Viveca Hawkins. By December, Thomas had his new band formed, calling themselves the Memorials. I recently got to conduct an interview with them about their upcoming self-titled record, their creative process, side-projects, and future touring plans.

1. Hi, how is everyone doing? I'd like to start off by saying that the songs you have up are great so far and they show a lot of varied influences. I wanted to ask what you've all been listening to lately and how that affects the writing process? Where are you all drawing inspiration from for the Memorials?

Nick - I've recently been listening to some David Bowie (Changes, Ziggy). I just love his writing. It's all very dramatic. I guess I like to write from the same perspective whereas the music is exciting with hills and valleys. I tend to gravitate towards music that sounds like a soundtrack. It enhances my everyday experiences.

Viveca - I listened to a lot of Lamb of God, Marylin Manson, Led Zeppelin, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, Betty Davis, the Foo Fighters, Foxy Shazam, etc. I drew mostly from within. I tried my best to stay as original as possible.

Thomas - I’ve been listening to afro beat music like Fela Kuti, people like the Venetian Snares and Squarepusher, but I also listen to lots of funk stuff and some early prog rock stuff, metal stuff. I kinda listen to anything good anything with live music right now, not much rap in my iPod at this point.

We honestly drew inspiration from all the things that we affect us at the time of making this record. I just parted ways with The Mars Volta, it was totally a fucked up situation. I also had a girl that I was with for three years leave me in the middle of making this record. I was pissed, happy, sad, drunk, excited, confused, crying at times, tired, stressed, bummed about being owed money... I was a wreck. A musician that we all loved also died while making this record so it was a total crazy time for us. I would've lost it if I didn't make this record.

2. What do you suppose each member brings to the creative process and how is it different than working with other bands, specifically for Thomas coming from the sort of dictatorship of The Mars Volta?

Nick - Well I believe each of us brings a totally different influence. Thomas brings a lot of raw energy, heart, and rhythm. Viveca brings soul and a lot of blues to each song, and I bring a chordal balance and visuals to the sound. We work collectively on the music so that the finished product is pretty much all of our influences, feel, and thoughts.

Viveca - Working for someone else is always work. I have worked with a lot of different artists over the years and finally having my own thing makes me feel really free and strong willed at the same time. Thomas is an amazing producer and never having worked with him or Nick before made it like one surprise after another. They made such a beautiful palate for me to paint with. Nick once told me, "I sing the notes he wants to hear." And he absolutely plays the notes I want to hear! Thomas is the only drummer I ever really wanted to play with. He told me he would play for me before Keyshia [Cole] and The Mars Volta... so I waited. I’m so glad I did. I am the voice. I am the face. I am the heart. They are the brains.

Thomas - Well, I was the dictator this time. I totally learned a lot from The Mars Volta. Nick came in open to my wild ideas which was great. He had a ton of stuff that was also super wild that he threw at me. Also we really work in a seamless type of way where we're almost as one in the studio. And Viv, I just enjoyed watching her open up. She's never sung this type of stuff much less over beats that are odd time signatures. I thought it was great seeing her write about things that I threw at her and watching her yell. It was kinda cool. I felt like she threw herself into a sound and a vibe that's totally unique and honest. We're watching each other grow daily.

3. Speaking of the Volta, Thomas, could you elaborate a little bit on your exit from that band? It seems that the full story has never quite come out as to what happened on the actual day you left the band before the show in Raleigh, North Carolina. What happened on that day?

Thomas - My dad's from North Carolina and he was coming to the show. I totally wanted to play that day, my drums were set up and everything. I'm honestly not trying to speak on those dudes, but Omar's cool. I still talk to him, I got a lot of love for that dude, he showed me a lot and he's not responsible for the actions of his partner Cedric. He knows where I'm from and who my homies are. He knows he owes me a shit load of bread so he filed a restraining order on me instead of just paying me and giving me the credits that I deserve. It's fucking sad. I thought The Mars Volta was a family, but I guess when the smoke cleared it was a two member duo... I chalked it up though. I treated that band like money didn't matter so I'm sticking to that and just doing my own thing. They can't stop me at all.

4. Back to the Memorials, the first song to come out was a cover of Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden, followed by a cover of 1979 by the Smashing Pumpkins. Those are somewhat odd choices of songs to cover, but I think you do them very well. When did you decide to do those covers and why those songs specifically?

(Video for "Black Hole Sun")

Nick - I'm a huge Soundgarden fan. I've always wanted to be Kim Thayill so it was natural to me to cover Black Hole Sun. Haven't heard anyone try to do it before, and sonically and lyrically that song captures the excitement I have for music. 1979 was one of the first riffs I learned on the guitar so it was fun to play it with Thomas and Viv.

Viveca - Thomas picked Black Hole Sun. He said it would be cool. I didn’t even know the tune actually... and Nick always wanted to play 1979! He was born that year.

Thomas - We did those because I knew that people really wanted to hear the album and we didn't yet know how we were releasing the record, so those covers were more to hold over the fans and people who knew I was working on something. I've been very meticulous about how I've done things concerning this band. Videos, songs, release dates.

5. Nick and Thomas, you've worked together before on a band called Sabai. Could you both tell me a little bit about that band and what it was like then versus now?

Nick - Sabai was a lot of fun writing and recording. Only thing is we never played a show. The guy who fronted for the band didn't want to play a show. Whatever. I got to write some cool jams with Thomas, and we immediately developed a chemistry writing and hanging out. Which is pretty much the same for The Memorials now, except we murder live!

Thomas - Sabai was an all black metal band Nick and I had with a couple guys, BJ [Edwards] and Rory [Jackson]. We recorded a bunch, but never did a show and after a while I just left Boston, so we never really made anything of it. Now I'm super serious about this, Nick is too. I guess we got older and we know what we have together. I'mma marry you, Nick. (laughing)

6. Thomas, you've done a lot of work with a lot of bands. Could you elaborate on working with them, especially Christian Scott and Elixir On Mute? I'd also like to ask, are you still planning on touring with Elixir On Mute?

Thomas - Yeah, we're trying to plan some stuff. It's real hard because I'm so focused on the Memorials project. Everyone sees it and kinda just lets me do my thing.

Now Christian, that's my boy. We talked about putting together a crazy all-star band so you'll totally see us working together again. I'd still be on the road with him if I could, I totally enjoyed playing with him.

7. Thomas, I also heard a rumor that you are working with Thomas Erak from The Fall of Troy. Any truth to that?

Thomas - Me and Erak are boys. We may do something in the future. He also has a new project, we might just go on tour together as bands. We've totally been talking about it, going out guerilla style.

8. Nick, I really admire the funky, somewhat vintage 1970's but still modern style of guitar you bring to the band. How did you come to develop that sound?

Nick - Thank you. The beginning of my love for music started with the 60's and 70's guitar players. I love Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Physical Graffiti, Electric Lady, and Inner Mounting Flame changed my life. However Dean Deleo, Stef Carpenter, Kim Thayil, Ryan Primack, and Adam Dutkiewicz also destroyed my face. Ha. I also have a huge love of jazz. I pull a lot from theory and harmony. I guess those influences together with a drive to create meaningful art and chaos mixed with a little whiskey, or a lot of whiskey, creates a basis for my sound.

9. Viveca, your voice is a beautiful addition to the band and I think what will hook a lot of people on the Memorials. How do you approach the Memorials vocally? It's a bit of a different sound than lot of bands and it seems like it might be hard to find ways to fit in so perfectly as you do.

Viveca - Thanks, Corey. Vocally it was a bit challenging having come from a mostly R&B/ soul background. I had to really step out. Stretch out mentally and try and forget about my fears of singing too hard. A voice teacher of mine once told me, "think less, sing more." So that was my approach. As far as me fitting into this equation, I feel like it was my destiny. I didn’t have to try really. I just wrote down and sang the songs like I heard them in my head with an occasional push from TP. "Come harder here, be darker with this, etc." Having recorded numerous songs with heavy background vocals in the past, he asked that I keep it to a minimum, but I may have gotten a little carried away at times. (laughing) I love vocal harmony. I love hearing my voice in layers. Thank God, or whoever the nerd is that made pro tools!

10. Finally, since this is for a Houston based website, I have to ask, will the Memorials be making it out to Texas any time soon?

Nick - Houston, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso can't wait to be on the hang with yall! Love the dirty! Thanks Corey.

Viveca - We have high hopes for a trip to Texas in the near future! Hopefully this article will help! Thanks for your time. Bless.

Thomas - Fuck yeah, I love Tejas. If I ever move from the Bay, I'm moving to Austin. Print that! I love the people out there and the bars. (laughing) Houston, Dallas, El Paso, San Antonio, Corpus... I'm trying to hit everywhere this next year so be on the look out.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

My Top "I-Was-There" Moments (Pt. 2)

Ok, I didn't post this "tomorrow" like I said, but here it is. The second part of my collection of my favorite concert moments.

Nine Inch Nails - "Wish" and "I Do Not Want This" (May 12, 2009)

This was the second time I saw Nine Inch Nails and this time it was in Austin on their apparent last tour ever. For this show, they busted out some deep cuts like "The Fragile" and, my personal favorite, "I Do Not Want This," a song that I feel pretty privileged to have experienced live.

Animal Collective - "Fireworks" and "What Would I Want? Sky" (June 4, 2009)

This was in Dallas and I post it mainly for "Fireworks" even though it's only the ending and doesn't capture the part of why I'm posting this. The part in question is unfortunately not on YouTube. "Fireworks" was performed at epic length and in the middle Panda Bear got on drums. Animal Collective then proceeded to perform one of the most mind-blowing jams I've ever had the pleasure to witness. Truly amazing.

The Mars Volta - "Eunuch Provocateur" (September 17, 2009)

For this tour, the Mars Volta dug deep in their catalog and pulled out one of my favorite songs of theirs (and one of the oldest), "Eunuch Provocateur." They also brought back "Inertiatic ESP" for this tour and that was stunning too. A big treat for their biggest fans.

Brand New - "The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows" (October 31, 2009)

Brand New is one of my favorite bands and this was a special show since it was on Halloween. This is my favorite song by them and it was rewarding because I had been waiting for so long to see them.

Say Anything - "Admit It!!!" (November 16, 2009)

I love Say Anything, especially their album ...Is a Real Boy. They closed out their set with the last song off of that album, "Admit It!!!" and they went all out with it.

Cursive - "21st Century Schizoid Man" (November 30, 2009)

Cursive did this badass King Crimson cover when they played Walter's On Washington last year. It was a fantastic set because they were headlining and got to play all of my favorite songs. Yes, I recorded this, apologies for the shitty sound.

Girls - "Lust for Life" (January 31, 2010)

Album by Girls was one of my favorites last year and this was the big hit from it. They had an awesome show here. I ditched my girlfriend to go to it, so essentially I ditched my girlfriend to see Girls, which is amusing to me. I'm so lame.

Ted Leo - "A Bottle of Buckie" (March 31, 2010)

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - "Timorous Me" (March 31, 2010)

On March 31st, I finally got to see Ted Leo after waiting forever. Not only that, but I got to see him twice in one day. First, playing an acoustic set by himself at End of an Ear, a record store in Austin, then second, playing with the Pharmacists at Emo's. Ted is one of my favorite musicians so this was a dream come true for me. I also got to meet him at the record store and got an awesome picture with him. You can also see me in the front row with the plaid shirt in the video at Emo's.

Buxton - "Down in the Valley" (April 17, 2010)

Buxton are personal friends of mine and this was an awesome performance. I took this video and it actually turned out pretty decent.

Alexisonfire - "No Transitory" (May 3, 2010)

Alexisonfire playing my favorite song by them. They did more of their new album than I'd prefer, but they still busted out classics like this.

Converge - "Hanging Moon" and "No Heroes" (May 21, 2010)

"Hanging Moon" is my favorite Converge song, besides "Jane Doe" which they sadly didn't play at this show. Still, it was pretty awesome that they played "Hanging Moon" considering it's not one of their more popular songs.

The Flaming Lips - "The Fear" and "Worm Mountain" (June 5, 2010)

I never thought I would see the day that the Flaming Lips would play in Houston, nor did I ever think I'd meet Wayne Coyne. This was easily one of the highlights of my life. It's the biggest festival I've ever seen held in Houston and the Lips played an amazing set.

Janelle Monae - "Cold War" (June 13, 2010)

I'm a big fan of Janelle Monae but I couldn't afford to see her open up for Erykah Badu. Luckily for me, she held a free instore at the best record store in Houston, Cactus Music. It was a short acoustic set, but it was mind-blowing and it showcased how truly breathtaking her voice is.

The Dillinger Escape Plan - "Panasonic Youth" (July 2, 2010)

This one was fucking crazy. Dillinger is ridiculous live. Greg Puciato is maybe the greatest screamer I've ever seen live.

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Group - "Miel del Ojo"

Pretty much the best thing I've ever done was flying to New York City and seeing Omar's solo group perform. It was the greatest moment of my life. This is one of the pro-shot videos from it, apparently it's going to be on a DVD. You can see me in the front row in certain shots, bobbing my head to the jam.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

My Top "I-Was-There" Moments

One of my favorite things about going to shows is reliving them afterward through bootlegs and YouTube videos. Here are some of my favorite moments from shows where it just baffles me that I was there and saw these moments live and in person.

Motorhead - "The Game" (April 1, 2001)

This is a horrible performance because Lemmy forgets all the lyrics, but it's fucking Motorhead! This was the first time I had ever seen a band perform live. I was nine years old at the time and Motorhead did kick my ass. It was one of the founding moments of my love of live music, strangely enough happening at a wrestling event!

Metallica - "Blackened" (November 16, 2004)

The first time I ever saw a band live at a real concert and what a way to open a show! "Blackened" is a total classic from my favorite Metallica album, ...And Justice for All. Hetfield's voice is trashed here, but it was still amazing for me to experience as my first real concert experience.

Heaven and Hell (May 2, 2007)

Back when this show happened, there were tons of videos from it on YouTube, but they've all since been removed. Thanks, Warner Music Group. Anyway, I mention it anyway because it was a very important show for me. For one thing, Black Sabbath was my first favorite band and I will always love them. Second, it was the reunion of Black Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio, which was a major event. Third, it was the second to last time Dio and Black Sabbath played in Houston before Dio died. So it was a pretty big deal and it disappoints me that I can't see videos of it on YouTube anymore.

Down (November 13, 2007)

Likewise, there's no videos from this one on YouTube anymore. I mention it because it was another important show for me. It was the first time I went to a show at a smaller venue than a stadium. I instantly realized how much more fun it was and I've had a stance against stadium shows ever since, unless the band is just absolutely too big to play anywhere else.

The Mars Volta - "Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus" (April 14, 2008)

This was a big one for me because it was the first time I got to see my favorite band live. I've seen them do better shows than this one, but nothing will match the experience of the first time seeing the Volta. In my opinion, they're the greatest live band on earth and I will follow them anywhere. I post this video because it may be the craziest I've ever seen Cedric and it was pretty significant at the time, being that Cedric flipped out at a guy with a Jon Theodore poster and cussed him out. "IF YOU MISS JON SO MUCH, WHY DON'T YOU GO TO CALIFORNIA AND SUCK HIS FUCKIN' DICK, BRO?"

Roger Waters - "Sheep" (May 4, 2008)

Pink Floyd was a band I loved even before Black Sabbath, even before I knew who Pink Floyd really were. They'll always be one of my favorites and one of the greatest bands of all time. Seeing Roger Waters doing their classics was insane and this was one of the greatest moments: when he busted out the pig. It's covered in pro-Obama, anti-Bush graffiti, which made me even happier to see.

Iron Maiden - "Hallowed Be Thy Name" (May 22, 2008)

This entire concert was crazy, doing all those classics that they never play for this tour only, and I almost posted a more obscure song like "Moonchild" or "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" just because they busted out those awesome deep cuts, but this is one of their greatest songs and the perfect way to close things out.

The Mars Volta - "Goliath" (September 26, 2008)

This was the second time I saw the Volta, after waiting all day at Austin City Limits for it. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest jams they've ever done. I wish there was a real bootleg of it, but I still play this YouTube video all the time.

Morrissey - "How Soon is Now?" (April 11, 2009)

Morrissey is one of my heroes. During this song, he gave a speech about the meaning of the song and essentially warned against being like the person in the song. It really impacted me in a big way and I've lived my life with that in mind ever since.

I'll continue this article tomorrow with concerts throughout the rest of 2009 and in 2010.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

REPRINT SERIES: Ximena Sariñana at the House of Blues (5/27/10)

[Ed. Note: Reprints presented as always without edits.]

Ximena Sariñana is not a name that many know this side of the border, but she's quite famous in Mexico. She started her career at eight years old, acting and singing, and finally released her first album, Mediocre, in 2008. It caught the attention of many, including Rolling Stone, hit #10 on Billboard's Latin Pop Albums chart, got her nominated for two Latin Grammy's (Best New Artist and Best Alternative Song for album highlight "Normal"), and won a Grammy for Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album. In 2009, she caught many ears, including mine, when she started appearing on albums by her significant other, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of the Mars Volta. They've released four critically acclaimed albums together and toured a few times. Now Ximena is making her away around the US on her own. Being a Mars Volta superfan, not to mention a fan of Ximena's record, I had to check out her live show when I found out she was coming through Houston.

Initially, it was a bit of a culture shock as I found myself in the vast minority of the audience at the House of Blues last night, being a young anglo kid from the suburbs. In fact, one woman even asked me who I was there for. When I replied that I was there to see Ximena, she seemed genuinely surprised I knew who she was. But by the time Ximena took the stage, I was quickly united with the rest of the audience in shared mesmerization.

At first I felt a slight pang of disappointment when Ximena walked up to the tiny Bronze Peacock Room stage by herself and stood in front of a simple keyboard set-up. I had gone in expecting a full band set-up as on her album, but what could have been a standard pop rock performance became an intimate singer-songwriter set instead. Ximena started off slow, playing it low and quit, with the excited, screaming audience that filled the Bronze Peacock Room wall-to-wall almost drowning her out, but quickly she escalated and began pouring her all in the music. Soon the audience quieted down, enchanted by Ximena's heart and soul crying out through her music. There were lighter moments, but she truly shined on the ballads.

The easy highlight of the set was a performance of the title track from her album Mediocre. She truly let loose on it, sending her voice soaring on the chorus to a round of applause. Towards the end of the song, she broke off and in the brief silence the audience rapturously congratulated her. Then with a gracious smile, she launched back into the song with full force, finishing it out with a bang.

At the end of almost every song, Ximena spoke a little bit. Though I couldn't understand most of what she said, there was one word I did pick up. "Gracias," which she repeated over and over. A simple, honest gesture as she seemed truly amazed by the turn-out and the love of the crowd. With all the energy we gave, she gave back one hundred percent, going through a set of all the songs on Mediocre and some that I assume will be on the new album she's recording right now. More than anything, I got a feel for her true talent as a songwriter from the stripped-down versions of her songs. Without the addition of a lot of backing instruments, in fact just a laptop, the melodies and heart shone through so much more than on the album.

When the show was over, Ximena humbly took to the merch table to sign autographs and take pictures with everyone that lined up. It was a great way to end the night, with another genuine show of appreciation towards her fans.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

REPRINT SERIES: Hating on Blue October (5/17/10)

[Ed. Note: Yep, it's the infamous Blue October article. Presented without edits, it's a bit less harsh actually. Still, I think Furstenfeld fans will still have plenty to hate me for while reading this.]

When I heard Blue October was playing a hometown show here in Houston at Sam Houston Race Park, I laughed. When 94.5 The Buzz pushed, promoted, and prodded me about the show, I laughed. When my best friend's girlfriend played Blue October in the car, I laughed. When 29-95 sent me an e-mail with the question "who wants to see Blue October?" I laughed. After all, this is the same show that had been something of a running joke among me and my friends. But I am the sort of person that loves the whole meta-ironic hipster bullshit enough to actually jump on an opportunity like that. So of course, in between laughing, I threw my hat in the ring to go to the show. I didn't actually think I'd get to do it, but sure enough come Saturday I was strolling up to the race track to pick up my press pass.

The whole thing was a bit of a crazy experience for me. I've never been a member of the press before, not officially anyway. This was the legit sort of thing I had always heard about but had never been a part of before. When I arrived, my name was on a list and instead of a ticket, they handed me a green cloth sticker to put on my shirt to identify myself. Then, through much asking around, I found out about a secret security tunnel where I was loaded up in a golf cart and driven to the VIP area in front of the stage and told I had access to the holy grail of concert seating: the area between the barricade holding back the front row of fans and the stage itself. The place where the security stands. This was the scene behind me:

It's a bit breath-taking to say the least. I took it in stride of course because you always have to keep your cool when doing something amazingly cool. So I stood around, looking amazingly out of place among the photographers with my old torn skinny jeans, filthy old Chuck Taylors that have been through at least three near-death experiences with me, my ever-present hoodie that I will wear even in humid, awful Houston weather, and my complete lack of a real camera. This even earned me a questioning about whether I should even be allowed in that area since I wasn't actually shooting the show, to which I simply pulled out my trusty iPhone and reassured everyone that I was indeed taking pictures that night.

(picture of the Black and White Years)

So I did take pictures, snapping away right when the opening band hit the stage. The Black and White Years are a band from Austin that could probably more appropriately be called "the Reagan Years" given the music they play. These guys fit right in with the current wave of indie new wave bands resurrecting that 80's danceability the kids all love so much. They're a direct product of false nostalgia by a generation that has no identity of its own and wants the identity of a previous generation. So they're basically your average iPod commercial band these days. Being a bitter, cynical, hipster doofus, I wanted to hate them but they were rather fun. Yeasayer and Phoenix are two favorite recent bands of mine and the Black and White Years are like a less weird, less imaginative, less inventive, even more radio friendly version of those bands' sounds mixed together, so there's something shamefully enjoyable about them like fast food. Actually, to be completely honest, if you were to judge just off the two band bill on Saturday night, you might walk away thinking Austin still has a leg up on Houston for good music, even though that's not true at all. The Black and White Years are a general representation of what Austin's music scene has become nowadays, whereas Houston's hometown heroes are, let us admit it, the worst possible representation anyone could ever judge Houston's music scene by, which I assume is where the New York Times went horribly wrong recently.

Blue October are one of the most shamelessly commercial bullshit bands to ever come out of the entirety of Texas, but they try to maintain a sort of image about themselves, or at least frontman Justin Furstenfeld does. Take, for example, what you can see in this picture of the man. Black eyeliner and black fingernail polish to connect with a sub-section of kids that enjoy getting beaten up in high school. Scuffless, probably brand new Chuck Taylors because that's what punks wear and there's literally nothing more punk than post-grunge radio rock! Of course, I saved the best for last, the mohawk. The mohawk is a hairstyle that could not be any less rebellious today if it tried. The evolution of the mohawk traces back hundreds of years, but is perhaps most relevant in the last fifty years thanks to Travis Bickle and punks of the 1980's. Today, it doesn't so much represent them as it does Green Day fans.

The problem here, of course, is what you can't see. Picking up on the Green Day comparison, at least when they sold out, they did it in a way where it's fun to sing their songs while drunk on karaoke night (I defy you to deny singing along to "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" at some point in your life), whereas Blue October's particular brand is to be as absolutely dark as possible while still connecting emotionally with preteens. Justin Furstenfeld isn't a happy man and he'll be the first to remind you of that by constantly mentioning it at concerts, something also known as the sympathy vote.

What you can't see in the pictures are the band's bizarre attempts at being all things to all people. Their songs range from your typical post-grunge, Papa Roach-biting "curse and yell a lot because it's edgy and man I hate myself and want to die" tactic to some truly baffling dabbling in other genres. Normally I wouldn't be against a band experimenting, but it's sad to watch when a band is so clearly incapable of pulling off their own experiments. Occasionally, Blue October have decided to explore such genres as cash-grab adult contemporary influenced by Peter Gabriel, complete with violin gimmick, which works about as well you would think it would. At other times, Furstenfeld has chosen to start speaking in a British accent, which is very odd considering how insistent he is that Blue October is FROM HERE (also known as the hometown cheap pop). Then there's the "we have a sensitive side too" songs which are like the AC songs except slightly less vapid because they occasionally have a real sentiment behind them.

The nadir of the show was one such experiment where Furstenfeld dedicated the following song to his daughter, Blue. That's sweet and all, but the song was just punishingly awful. With a chorus of "up down, up down, up down, up down, yeah, cause it will get hard, remember, life's like a jump rope" it's the sort of thing you imagine that started as something Furstenfeld sang to his daughter in a tender father-daughter moment that has misguidededly taken on a life of its own as a real Blue October song.

But I could sit here and gripe all day and all night. This clearly isn't for me. I'm not the target demographic for music like this. The target demographic is the audience you saw above. Take a good long look at it. That's just what I could show with the limited capabilities of my iPhone's camera. That's just the front of the VIP section. Sam Houston Race Park was FULL. Filled to capacity. How many people were actually there, I can't say. I can, however, say that it explains why Blue October is a platinum-selling band when nobody even buys albums anymore. Something about them resonates with a great deal of people out there that are not me. So while Blue October is a running joke between me and my friends and I can write paragraph after paragraph about what a truly terrible band they are, they connect with enough people to populate a small country. You can make your arguments about what that says about those people or what it says about Justin Bieber fans or the people that keep the guys that make parody movies in business, but that gets into something entirely more philosophical and misanthropic than the point I'm trying to make. The point is that Blue October is doing something right because people like them for some reason. I don't know what that reason is and it's not for me to know because, like I said, I'm not the person they're trying to connect with. So kudos to them on possessing that certain something that captures the ear of the majority of people. Live and let live, eh?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

REPRINT SERIES: KTRU compilation release show (4/19/10)

[Ed. Note: Continuing in our coverage of the demise of KTRU, here's another reprint, this one from the KTRU Live Vol. 2 CD release at Avant Garden. Presented without edits as always.]

It seems like just last week I was at Rice University, enjoying the KTRU Outdoor Show. Probably because it was just last week. One week later, KTRU held another event, not quite on the scale of the Outdoor Show but eventful all the same. On Friday night, KTRU threw a party at Avant Garden for the release of the second volume of their KTRU Live series, featuring live on-air performances from some of Houston's best local bands. Three of those bands turned out at the release party to play their songs from the album and more.

Not quite Listenlisten, but Ben (vocals and guitar) and Shane (horns and banjo) showed up to play some Listenlisten songs acoustically. It had a slightly more laid back feel to it, but since Listenlisten isn't an upbeat electric band to begin with, only having half the band just gave a different, not a better or worse, look at some of their songs. They covered some of their best material, but it was a very short set so it was missing a lot of favorites. Still good to hear these guys anytime they play.

Now in this smokey coffeehouse environment soundtracked by folk music, it's hard not to be reminded of my dad's stories of the 1960's cafe scene with all those legendary folk singers playing to tiny audiences in much the same surroundings. That's exactly what the Literary Greats brought to mind. When the duo busted out the harmonica, I instantly got flashes of a young Bob Dylan and their harmonies seemed directly inspired by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Maybe it was just the atmosphere, but there was something extremely cool about their entire performance. The only thing missing was the coffee.

That atmosphere sadly faded for the last band of the bill, Doggebi. Throwing out the structured folk music of Listenlisten and the Literary Greats, Doggebi jumped straight into highly experimental improvisational music consisting of a distorted flute and percussion instruments. It was a little bit uncomfortably out there and it went on entirely too long. In fact, it was the longest set of the night. It's music I respect, but there's not much to latch onto. I went through a phase of listening to music like this, but I find myself needing hooks in my music these days. Admittedly though, Doggebi are good at what they do and for the group that's into this sort of thing, it was probably their favorite band all night.

The Secret Prostitutes were supposed to play, but canceled so the night ended a bit early and abruptly. Those KTRU Live CDs were on sale and I of course bought one which has already been proven to be rewarding in itself. As for the show, it was a bit slight but still fun, especially for that long lost folk vibe that fascinates me to this day.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Roky Erickson and Okkervil River - True Love Cast Out All Evil (2010)

True Love Cast Out All Evil is Roky Erickson's first album to get any significant attention in a number of years, primarily because of Erickson's return to touring and the album being a collaboration with indie folk superstars Okkervil River. Unfortunately, it suffers from a lack of thinking outside the box. Erickson is old and respected enough to simply write boring folk music and not to get any flack for it, least of all from his starry-eyed collaborators. Will Sheff is a master of this sort of thing and probably saw that this wasn't turning out to be anything particularly special, but he's also an ardent fan of Erickson and probably wouldn't say it even if he didn't like the music on the album.

Make no mistake, this is a Roky Erickson album, not an Okkervil River album with Erickson singing. Erickson dominates the show and the only touches of Okkervil River you can hear are in the playing. They're clearly the same band that made Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names, but they're playing sidemen to Erickson and they never try to force any of their sound into it. Erickson isn't a bad songwriter mind you, so the many acoustic songs on this album really only suffer for a lack of much to say. Look at the title. "True Love Cast Out All Evil" is such a basic, pedestrian thought and that is where the songs suffer. Erickson doesn't have much of a statement to make. He's making music because it's fun and he knows nothing else. There's nothing inherently wrong about that, but it means the album is far from experimental, revelatory, or even a significant comeback album.

As these sorts of albums go lately, this album skews less towards the direction Gil Scott-Heron took with his acclaimed recent "old guy struggles through life and makes a comeback album" I'm New Here, which was highly experimental and intelligent, and more towards the direction of Daniel Johnston's comeback last year Is and Always Was. It's a statement of simply still being here, making music, rather than any sort of relevance as an artist. It's enjoyable on a few levels though and there are highlights of course.

The opener, "Devotional Number One", and closer, "God is Everywhere", which incidentally owe quite a bit to Johnston's early work, are fantastic and if the whole album had continued in the pained, lo-fi direction of those songs it would've been significantly more interesting. Instead, the rest of the album's songs are overproduced and thereby made generic. The other highlight is rocker "John Lawman" which actually sounds like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.

Overall, it's worth listening to at least once, but it's nothing that will actually count towards the legacy of either Erickson or Okkervil River much in the long run. It's a feel good late career comeback album that is ultimately nice but fairly forgettable. (C+)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Fondest Memories of KTRU Rice Radio

It was announced yesterday that Rice University is selling KTRU and it's going to become a news/classical station. This is horrifying news for serious music listeners in Houston. For your casual listeners, the other big stations might be fine. For people that just want to put on Sunny 99.1 at work and veg out while doing reports or something, it works for them. But for those of us that are into more eclectic music, local music, or just want to hear something different, there's only one radio station and that's KTRU. There's a petition to save it, but this seems to be a done deal. With KTRU gone, there will be no outlet in Houston for "weird" music and that's a sad, sad thing for a city with the music scene and the history that Houston has. So with the apparent passing of KTRU, I would like to share some of my fondest memories of it.

For me, it really has been the only station worth listening to for a long time. I remember years ago putting it on early in the morning. I'm not an early bird, so I was tired and in a bad mood. The first song that came on, which was just ending, was the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds classic "The Mercy Seat," one of my favorite songs of all time. As it ended, I heard something revelatory. The opening drums and acoustic guitar strums of a strange vaguely 80's but still modern sounding pop song. A deep, sighing voice quickly came in, singing lyrics that resonated with me more than most songs ever had before. "Driving in your car, I never, never want to go home, because I haven't got one anymore..." coupled with the upbeat refrain of, "If a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die. And if a ten ton truck kills the both of us, to die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine." That song, of course, was "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" by the Smiths. I had somehow spent my life up to that point never having heard their music. It struck deep. Soon after, I was an obsessive Smiths and Morrissey fan, living and dying by that man's poetry. It was a life changing moment hearing that song for the first time.

Years later, I was going through a rough patch in my life. My dad was in the hospital very ill with a fifty-fifty chance of survival. He pulled through thankfully, but at the time we weren't sure. I was working sixty hours a week, trying to make money, not knowing what was going to happen in my life. I was driving to visit my dad and there was a song on playing on KTRU. It was bizarre, a sort of electronic, hip-hop, indie rock mish-mash, something I had never really heard anything like before. Afterwards, the DJ came on and said that it was a song by Ghost Mountain off their then-new album Siamese Sailboats. Despite being obviously upset at the time, there was something that hit me about that song. It was so happy and uplifting, strangely catchy and appealing. I loved it. In short order, I became a big fan of Ghost Mountain, then I wanted to see them perform. I made my first trek to Mango's on Westheimer, which would lead me down a path of gradually discovering Houston's amazing music scene and eventually writing for this very website, another life changing moment thanks to KTRU.

There were others, of course, other great bands I discovered, other great moments soundtracked by the station, but those are the two biggest that stand out in my mind. KTRU has been on in all sorts of strange, wonderful, depressing, exciting, and bizarre moments in my life. Its presence has been so greatly appreciated and yet taken for granted up until now. Now losing it is like losing an old friend. Apparently it will still broadcast online, but there's nothing else like it to play in the car which was where most of my listening took place, so it's a bit of a disappointing consolation prize. I only wish there was something that could be done to change the minds of those behind the sale, but it looks like this is the death of worthwhile radio in Houston.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

REPRINT SERIES: KTRU Outdoor Show (4/12/10)

[Ed. Note: Posting this one, without edits as always, in remembrance of KTRU, which today it was announced has been sold and will be gutted and turned into a goddamn news/classical station (isn't that what NPR is for?). Go to these websites for more about that.]

For nineteen years now, KTRU Rice radio has held their annual Outdoor Show, a free festival of bands, local and otherwise, food, and free St. Arnold's beer. Given that I will never be smart (or rich) enough to go to Rice University, the Outdoor Show is a perfect opportunity to lounge around campus and pretend like I'm a student while enjoying all of the aforementioned amenities. In other words, I can have my cake and eat it too.

This year it rained so things were running a bit off-schedule. The first band made it to the stage at around 2:00 PM starting a rapid fire succession with a semi-tangible theme running between each band.

The first one, the Homemade Band, led by Rachel Buchman, was apparently for the kids. Playing a sort of classic rock 'n' roll throwback style, Buchman herself reminded me of one of my elementary school teachers and led the children attendees in renditions of mind-numbing kiddie songs. If only there was something on the level of "Bananaphone," recent Apples in Stereo, or, hell, Yo Gabba Gabba, here. Instead, these songs drilled phrases like literally just "cockadoodledoo" over and over again. I'm not sure I would've liked this as a kid.

Next up was the grown up parallel of the Homemade Band I suppose, Office Party. They lived their name, jamming on stage with full suits on like they really just left the office. It reminded me of the old Drew Carey Show episodes where the guys (and Joe Walsh for some reason) formed a bar band after work. They do sound a little bit like that with their classic rock influences, but with a somewhat new wave twist and a singer whose vocal melodies reminded me of Gerard Way. Sound weird? Well there's always the wild card at these sorts of things and that was Office Party, closing out their set with a cover of the classic "Poker Face," yet somehow it was less charming than when Faith No More did it last year.

After that, Wasp and Pear reminded me why I usually don't listen to KTRU non-stop. Much as I love the station, I can't take the droning electronic bands. Wasp and Pear might appeal to some, but I just can't take this sort of thing. Their entire set was one long noise epic which I mostly couldn't handle.

Continuing the experimental tilt of Wasp and Pear, Space City Gamelan did something a little more to my liking. Like their name suggests, they're a gamelan band. But beyond that, they make some very interesting, forward looking music, combining the tradition of the gamelon with beats that I could honestly hear in an electronic/hip-hop song. It's something old that feels new which fascinates me on the level of a musician and as a listener it's just pleasing to the ear.

As if in combination of the electronic and prototypical beats of the last two bands, next up was one of my personal favorites, Ghost Mountain. I actually discovered them through KTRU and that pretty much started everything in my listening to Houston's local scene. A typically awesome show, they ran through songs from the Summer Tapes EP and their full length Siamese Sailboats. They also played a new song that gave some insight into what they've been working on lately. No idea when that will come out, but it seems they're forging a great path ahead.

Ghost Mountain's bizarre form of hip hop infused electronic music gave way to a more traditional form of hip hop when Fat Tony stormed the stage. He performed a short but firey set that for a moment turned a weird music festival into a straight up party.

Finally there was the headliner, Rafter. KTRU has gotten a great deal of criticism over their choice here, but hear me out. Rafter's blend of indie pop isn't anything revolutionary, but it is fun and they actually proved their worth, at least to me. Yes, it's mainstream and the sort of the thing you'd hear in a soundtrack along with the Shins and the Freelance Whales, but I personally have no qualms enjoying that for what it is. It's fluffy, but the choruses are undeniable.

For all the blogger clamor lately, you'd have thought this year's Outdoor Show would be a massive failure, but I say they still pulled it off. While I wasn't a fan of everything and I was initially disappointed there wasn't a more exciting headliner, there were still some great performances by local artists and Rafter, while not quite as great as some of the headliners, was still a solid band with the potential for a bright future. Basically if you didn't have fun at the Outdoor Show this year, you probably weren't doing it right.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

REPRINT SERIES: Shaking off the SXSW jealousy with News on the March (3/22/10)

[Ed. Note: Presented, as always, without edits in the original form I wrote it. Better, worse? You decide.]

Yesterday I woke up and looked at my calendar to see what day it was. March 21st, 2010? Perfect! Having hibernated through SXSW, I was right on schedule to stop being bitter about not being able to get to Austin and meet the return of music to Houston. At Mango's, News on the March was just back from SXSW and what better time to kick off their upcoming tour? But first up were some of their friends (and other projects).

Drummer Ryan Odom's other band, Smoky Mountain started things off with some country infused indie rock, fairly typical of the bands playing that night. They had some good hooks that left me wanting to hear more, but unfortunately I'm not sure they have anything out yet. Still, continuing the current trend toward this sort of Americana indie rock could be a formula for success.

The Candeliers from Milwaukee, WI, took the stage second. With a seven member line-up adding horns and a banjo to the usual band configuration, their sound was that of upbeat jangle pop. The interplay between the guitar, the banjo, and the trombone and trumpet gave me a somewhat unsettling ska country feel that I didn't much appreciate. I did enjoy the male/female duo vocals between their two singers however, something that reminded me (in a positive way) of one of my local favorites, the Wild Moccasins. They also did an excellent cover of "Don't Worry Baby" by the Beach Boys, which not many could do so capably. They did mention that their side-projects, which were also on sale at the merch table, were more psych rock in nature, which I honestly would probably enjoy more, knowing me.

Right in the middle was Buxton, who turned in an awesome set as usual. The recent addition of Austin Sepulvado (from, you guessed it, News on the March) on accordion and guitar sounds really nice over the new songs. I must admit, I'm somewhat disappointed they no longer play anything from A Family Light, but if the new songs they've been playing lately are any indication, they're working on topping that album.

In all the way from Albany, NY, Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned are News on the March's tourmates so they played second to last. Even bigger than the Candeliers, the Hobo Banned really does give you the impression that they're a junkyard band of hobos that picked up every instrument they could get their hands on. Mixing in a full horn section, an accordion, a violin, musical spoons and sawing, a banjo, and two percussionists, they go above and beyond just adding new layers to a typical rock band. Every instrument is fully integrated and completely necessary to complete their sound. That sound being something almost completely unique, the kind of rock you could only imagine being made by a band of drifters really. All those instruments together in one place, played completely straight, not in a gimmicky way at all. Whatever that conglomeration could be, that's what they were. But not just content with that, they also pulled off another trick: every band member seemed to know how to play every instrument and did at some point in their set. It was damn impressive.

News on the March finally came on at about 12:15 and I was pretty tired again by that point. I was determined, however, to see their set. It was worth it. Though they ran through mostly the same set of their classic heartland music last weekend at their Cactus Music instore performance, they seemed to be having a lot more fun last night. Enthusiastic even after a week of Austin shows, they played their hearts out for about forty-five minutes. News on the March, to me, is something like what I had hoped Monsters of Folk would sound like before I heard them. While that project, in my opinion, came off a bit boring and plasticy, the hearts they played out are what set News on the March apart. The feel-good music could even come off as hollow despite the dark lyrics of suicide and death if not for their intense dedication to it, playing on even in the face of a broken bass amp in the middle of their set. I have to hand it to them for that and wish them good luck on their tour. I'm pretty excited also for their upcoming album, even though there is as yet no release date. Just judging by the songs they played last night though, it's gonna be a brawler.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Prince - 20Ten (2010)

Few have had as prolific, as storied, and as inconsistent careers as Prince. The Artist is widely considered a genius for his classic works of pop music, but he's delved into just about everything at some point. Being intensely experimental is something that comes hand in hand with being a genius. The flip side of that, however, is that it leads to many duds that mar a career. While we can look back and say with certainty that Purple Rain and Sign o' the Times will stand up to the test of time, remaining classics over twenty years on, the fate of albums such as The Rainbow Children are less clear. Some would call these duds a late career slump, but in Prince's case it's more a lack of editing.

After the infamous name-change-to-an-unpronouncable-symbol incident and Prince's subsequent freedom from record labels, quality control went out the window. It should come as no surprise that things Prince just wasn't able to do before started appearing on record store shelves and not all those things were up to the standards of what a record label would allow him to put out. It's been a long road since then and Prince has been up and down continually. From his expansive three CD set Emancipation celebrating his hard won freedom to the horrific vault compilation Crystal Ball that screwed his fans royally to the attempt at a commercial comeback with Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic that fell flat on its face critically and commercially to his official commercial comeback Musicology.

Since Musicology, it's been mostly an up period, aside from the odd misstep of last year's LotusFlow3r/MPL_Sound/Elixer set. Priced very fairly but ruined by Prince's excess once again, it ended up being two CDs of sub-par Prince material and one of what amounts to history repeating itself, with Prince writing another album for another girl who probably shouldn't be singing. It's best if we forget Elixer like we forgot the album he wrote for Carmen Electra. Suffice it to say, the whole thing was just bad. It had hints of Prince's usual brilliance, as well as a welcome return to a more retro sound, reflecting Prince of the 1980's more and more, but the songwriting wasn't all there.

Thankfully, 20Ten, Prince's latest work, avoids the problems that album had but keeps all the good aspects. The 80's Prince vibe is still here in full force, with synths and 808's straight out of Sign o' the Times. The length is no longer a problem as it runs a comfortable forty minutes. Most of all though, 20Ten is successful because Prince is in vintage form. LotusFlow3r showed you could strap a guitar on Prince's back and it wouldn't necessarily produce great music, while MPL_Sound proved the same for those keyboards and drum machines. Prince has to be in vintage writing form to match the vintage sound for it to truly be successful. That is the winning formula for 20Ten.

It features a funky dance pop sound recalling a mix of Sign o' the Times and 1999. It breaks no new ground, but no one really wants Prince to break ground anymore. We want him to play the classics and make new songs that sound like the classics. Prince has finally produced the album we've been waiting for. He's finally throwing a bone to us long-suffering fans that still gave him a chance even through abominable jazz fusion experiments like NEWS, while pleasing all those that denied him through these years. It's the sort of Prince album that will appeal to most anyone that enjoys his music. The lyrics aren't all there, at one point Prince declaring "from the heart of Minnesota, here come the purple Yoda," though there's much less focus on his Jehovah's witness bullshit than is usual as of late. It mostly focuses on his favorite subjects: sexuality and sensuality, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The important part is that the songs will fulfill all your funky summer jam needs. Back in the day, songs like "Let's Work," "When You Were Mine," "Play in the Sunshine," etc. would come out every summer and make everyone happy and make them dance. Those days were gone for a long time and seemingly with this album they're back again. Rejoice Prince fans, the artist is taking a backseat to the genius popmeister once again. (A-)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wavves - King of the Beach (2010)

[Ed. Note: I was going to hold off on putting this up until I had enough album reviews for a whole album review post, but in light of my dear friends Pitchfork giving it their "coveted" Best New Music today and an 8.4 rating, I'm putting it up now.]

Wavves - King of the Beach (2010)

Every single time a new Wavves record comes out, I try it. I'm not sure why, I just keep feeling like I'm missing something. I inevitably listen and then I hate everything about what I'm hearing. King of the Beach is a vastly different album from previous Wavves works and shows a lot of musical growth on the part of frontman Nathan Williams. The intrinsic problem of course is that the band still isn't good. The essential difference between this album and the last Wavves album is that apparently at some point Williams got really into Animal Collective. His adaption of that influence into his already bad music doesn't make it much better. It's just different, not better. Occasionally he stumbles upon a good pop hook such as in the absolute highlight of his career to date, "Take On the Word," but generally it's just what the title would lead you to expect. It is the shitty soundtrack to your summer surfing experience. But if you don't surf or smoke weed or live on the beach or wear board shorts or say "brah" or you are not Matthew McConaughey, it's just bad punk flirting with pretentious spaced out intellectualism. (D)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

REPRINT SERIES: sIngs, Somosuno and more (3/12/10)

[Ed. Note: Presented, as always, without edits in the original form I wrote it. Better, worse? You decide.]

On one of the odder days of my life, I somehow ended up at a place colloquially known as "The Ponderosa" seeing some local bands on Friday night. It's a long story of getting lost in Houston that led to me ending up there, I had actually been intending to go to the Fat Tony show at the Tipping Point that night, but I'll spare the details and get on with the bands.

First up to bat was the psychotically punk Somosuno. It was frontman Fernando Alejandro's 21st birthday and he was typically on fire, dancing through the crowd in the tiny, cramped room, crowd surfing, jumping off anything in sight, and shouting/rapping Spanish lyrics at a ridiculous pace that pretty much blew my mind. The rest of the band dutifully backed him up, holding down the rhythm with post-Fugazi riffage and a horn player for texture. Having only seen their name on bills of shows I didn't attend, it was a welcome surprise to find out how good they were.

When I asked when they were going to play, sIngs told me they preferred to go on second, and true to their word they were the middle band of the night. I have actually seen sIngs before, opening for Cursive at Walter's on Washington last year, but they started playing before Walter's would let anybody in the building so I only got to see about half of their set. What I heard then was a tremendous slice of shoegazing noisey post-rock soaked in enough distortion and feedback to destroy your eardrums even with earplugs in. Suffice it to say, I loved it.

They were just as good on Friday night too, covering mostly the same territory as the last time I saw them. I never got to see them when it was just singer/guitarist/drummer/band mastermind Brett Taylor playing on his own, so I can't compare it to that, though I've heard that was amazing as well. With the full band though, Taylor, accompanied by Buxton alumni Jason Willis on guitar and Justin Terrell on drums, as well as David Ibarra on bass, is able to do so much more, including making a lot more noise. There's an odd beauty in the cacophony, which can probably be attributed to the melodic songwriting piercing through the dissonance. I'm anxiously awaiting the release of their album, which they're having a release party for at Mango's on April 17th. Try to make that show if you can, it should be awesome.

Caddywhompus played last. I've had their demos since last summer, which probably marks the longest time for me between hearing a local band's music and seeing them perform. The band is only made up of the duo of scene vet Chris Rehm on guitar/vocals and Sean Hart, yet they're loud enough for a ten-piece band. Like sIngs, they make a great deal of noise, but it's pure lo-fi punk in the vein of bands like No Age. In the live setting their songs lost some of their clarity, as well as the synthesizer parts on the album, but it was just as much of a fun, raucous show as I expected. They're going to have a split 7" release with sIngs coming out soon so be on the lookout for that.

Despite the bizarre way my night started, which included accidentally wandering into DiverseWorks Fotofest 2010 among other things, it was fortunate that I ended up at "The Ponderosa" as it was probably the most fun local show I've been to in a while. All three bands performed like their lives depended on making this show rock and rock they did. I left with my ears ringing and I couldn't have been happier about it.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

How to Destroy Angels - How to Destroy Angels (2010)

In my angst-ridden teenage years, Trent Reznor was my hero. His songs were like totally about me and my relationships and my pain and my depression and blah blah blah. Everybody had that band in those years. Nine Inch Nails was that band for me. I still admire a lot of what Trent did musically too. When you look back on an album like 1999's The Fragile, you can put aside Reznor's angst-ridden lyrics and focus on the music which is actually damned impressive. The melding of industrial metal with hip-hop beats on that album is a stroke of genius. But since Reznor got clean, he's been stagnating. That's an old music industry cliche, but it's pretty much true in his case.

After The Fragile, his masterpiece and defining work in my opinion, NIN put out an incredible live album accompanied with a bonus disc of some impressive stripped down re-recordings of old NIN songs plus some new almost ambient post-rock sounding instrumental songs, which The Fragile had already somewhat hinted at but hadn't brought to fruition like Still (the aforementioned bonus disc) did. Then Reznor went into rehab. When he came out, he went from skinny long-haired gothy heroin addict to cleaned up muscled out shaved head bro. His music became more simplistic than it had been in years and his lyrics became, well, garbage. Even if you didn't like them before, they were honest. On With Teeth, the lyrics were completely hollow, reflecting the pure lack of angst in Reznor's life after getting clean. He could fake it well enough, but this was the weakest Nine Inch Nails release ever.

As if realizing that, Reznor shifted his focus and his sound on the follow-up. Year Zero was preceded by an elaborate game with mysterious websites showing up on the web and USB drives with songs turning up in bathrooms at Nine Inch Nails shows. It was a dramatic comeback, with Reznor's angst instead focusing on a bleak, Orwellian future he made up. It gave him new inspiration and it led to one of the best Nine Inch Nails albums ever. But afterwards, he stagnated again. Bush was almost out of office, the tide was turning, and his fictional future wasn't so much a certain thing anymore.

Stripped of his newfound inspiration, Reznor's music took some strange turns. The first NIN release we heard after Year Zero was a four disc album of instrumentals which followed up on that ambient instrumental sound I mentioned before that he had already explored on The Fragile and Still. However, he did it to much greater effect on those albums. Ghosts ended up being an aimless "look what I can do with these pedals" project and was quickly overlooked. Then came The Slip, a follow-up of sorts to Year Zero lyrically and artistically, but sounding more like a melding of Year Zero and With Teeth and ultimately just being a disappointment. It was a mediocre EP and it was sadly the last thing NIN released before Reznor decided to pull the plug on the floundering project, after a lengthy farewell tour.

That was what happened to Nine Inch Nails in the aughts. But it's 2010 now, a new decade. Where is Reznor now? Where is Nine Inch Nails now? Well, around the demise of Nine inch Nails last year, Reznor got married, and yes, she's a singer. So what happened to Nine Inch Nails? It changed its name and became How to Destroy Angels, featuring Reznor, long-time Nine Inch Nails collaborator Atticus Ross, and, of course, Reznor's new wife Mariqueen Maandig. The result is essentially a repeat of the last Nine Inch Nails EP, The Slip, but with Mariqueen singing instead of Reznor. To call it a disappointment is an understatement.

For a year after Nine Inch Nails was effectively killed, Reznor hyped the various studio projects he was working on. We got teased about a possible soundtrack for a Tetsuo movie (turned out to be one song), we got teased with a possible Gary Numan collaboration, we got teased a follow-up to Ghosts, we even got teased with a new Nine Inch Nails album (because Reznor only really wanted to kill the live entity of Nine Inch Nails). What we got instead was Reznor's Yoko Onoing. So happy and in love is Reznor that he's now writing the same stale music he's been writing for the past few years but now it's designed for his wife to sing on instead. Gag me. She's not a bad singer and Reznor isn't a bad songwriter, but this sound has been done to death in recent years. If not on The Slip, then look back a few albums. The opening of "Fur Lined" is straight out of the minor With Teeth hit "Only" and all the noisy distorted guitars have lined every Reznor work of the last decade. It's not that this is bad music, it's just unoriginal. It sounds like Reznor wrote it in his sleep. Furthermore, there's really nothing that Maandig singing adds to the mix. Reznor could be singing over this and we could call it a new Nine Inch Nails EP. It would be just as disappointing, but it would be less misleading. In fact, you could tell me that Reznor used a computer to make his voice sound like a woman and I would believe it. That is the extent to which Maandig contributes and that is to say that she contributes nothing. This is pure self-indulgence by Reznor.

I'm happy for him that he's happy with his wife, but my advice to him would be to quit pandering to her desire to sing on his music, quit putting out the same album over and over again, and maybe try a little experimentation. It's not going to hurt his career to think outside the box, he's giving all this away for free on the internet and he knows we'd just steal it if he did try to do a conventional release. In general, artists tend to try new things when finally free of record labels but apparently marriage (and pending fatherhood) have stripped Reznor of his experimental desires. Well, it's a new decade and I suppose this is the one where Reznor finally slips into a comfortable sound that he can keep churning out to a dwindling fanbase for the rest of his career. You'll always have your diehards that will eat up anything that sounds like Nine Inch Nails but I personally want a little more than the same old Trent. I know what he can do when he pushes himself and that's what I'm looking for. This is the farthest thing from him pushing himself. (D)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

REPRINT SERIES: Houston Peace Festival 3/6/10

(Ed. Note: Here's the second in our 29-95 reprints series. This one is presented in its unedited form and it's quite different. Better, worse? You decide.)

The fourth annual Houston Peace Festival was held at Live Oak Friends Meeting on Saturday afternoon. A festival of art, activism, dancing, music, and hippie principles like love and harmony. Not a bad concept, though not quit Woodstock or Burning Man in execution. I mostly went for the bands personally and this is an article about my musical discoveries in Houston, so I won't spend a whole lot of time on the rest of the events. However, before I jump into the music, I do want to shout out some of the good causes involved in the whole thing.

Of course there was good old KPFT sponsoring the event, giving out flyers out for their upcoming 40th anniversary bash at McGonigel's Mucky Duck. That's March 14th, from noon to 8:00 PM. There was the Montrose Land Defense Coalition who are fighting to convert an abandoned lot on West Alabama and Dunlavy into a park instead of yet another pointless HEB, a cause I personally support. There were vegans pushing their way of life, though that one's a bit too much for me, I've never been able to give up the meat. The Art of Living who will be hosting a Happy Family Workshop ("a Body/Mind/Wellness workshop for every family") at the Student Center at Rice University April 1st to April 4th. Amnesty International and the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty were there to fight the death penalty, among other things. And those are just the ones I still have flyers from, there were many, many more.

On top of all that, there were stands where they were selling jewelry, vegan food, paintings, and all manner of other oddities. Considering it was all hosted in the Live Oak Friends Meeting's relatively small yard, it was a bit of an accomplishment just fitting all that in there.

Anyhow, since this is about the music, I'll discuss the music. The whole thing got started a little after 1:00 PM but I have to admit that I ended getting around to it a little bit late. I made a stop around that time at Cactus Music to catch Cory Chisel's instore performance. Though I don't know much about him, I did enjoy his work on the recent Louisiana Music Factory Preservation Hall compilation, which also had performances by Andrew Bird, Yim Yames, Tom Waits, Ani DiFranco, Merle Haggard, and more on it. It's good stuff, you should check it out of you haven't already. Cory and his band put on a spirited performance in the intimate setting of the store and really impressed me. Basically, if you like any of the artists I just mentioned on that compilation, you'll probably like Cory too. And I'm not just endorsing him because we share a name! I haven't had a chance to check out any of his albums yet, but I will be in the future.

After catching that, I went up to the Peace Festival. After asking around, I apparently missed the Free Radicals and an unnamed band from Dallas. I was somewhat disappointed I missed the Free Radicals as I've wanted to see them for a while, but I'm sure I'll get the chance eventually. After all, at the Peace Fest alone I was able to catch two bands I had missed time and time again and wanted to see. But I'll get to them in a moment.

The first artist I managed to catch was Zachary Ford, an acoustic guitar singer/songwriter from here in Houston. He mixed up originals with a few interesting covers, the most notable of which to me was the odd choice of an Ozzy Osbourne cover. "Dreamer," from Ozzy's 2001 album Down to Earth (why do I know these things off the top of my head?), does have just the right "let's take care of mother earth and love each other forever and ever" sort of hippie lyrics to fit in with the festival, it was just slightly odd to hear a folkster playing an Ozzy song. It worked pretty well though. His originals were nice as well. Ultimately though, it served more as ambience for the rest of the happenings at the festival, his performance didn't really capture the audience's attention like later artists would.

After Zachary Ford, there were a few speakers, one speaking of the importance of Harry Belafonte and another to inspire us with a pro-health care reform chant of "HEY HO NOBODY OUT EVERYBODY IN" ad nauseum. One woman came to sing a song but it was hard to hear her because her mic was turned off for some reason. Then came Tyagaraja whose name seemed to double as the name of the frontman of the band and as the name of the band itself. Tyagaraja played the first part of the set by himself playing acoustic guitar and singing. Notably, he spent the entire peformance sitting indian-style with the mic angled down towards him. The folksy solo songs gave way to a more upbeat, jazzy, soul sort of sound when the rest of the band joined in with him. That material interested me far more than the purely acoustic stylings, so I'm interested to hear the album when it comes out. According to Tyagaraja himself, they're tracking that in the studio right now. As for the name and the content of the lyrics, it seemed to be related to a spiritual and religious conversion of the part of the sort of Buddhistly dressed Tyagaraja, though he didn't speak on it too much, choosing to tell everyone to come talk to him after the show if they had questions about it. I didn't get a chance to, which I have to admit I somewhat regret because it seems like it would've been an interesting story.

To fill the next gap between bands, the Brazilian Arts Foundation took over to do a performance of capoeira fight-dancing. It was somewhat interesting, some were better than others, but the message of the performance, according to the leader of the group, was to bring everyone into their circle and have everyone join in to dance, regardless of their race, religion, social status, etc. It's a good message to preach. I would sign up myself but I'm sadly not gifted with limberness.

The next musical performance was by Much Love, a bluesy pub rock band from Austin. Their slower songs reminded me of John Mayer's "Waiting On the World to Change," which works for those of us who couldn't afford to see him that night. The more upbeat ones, carried by saxophone, had a sort of Huey Lewis and the News feel to it, though less dated to the 80's. This was their first show in Houston and it was a good showing. I'm sure they picked up some new fans that day. In keeping with the hippie theme of the festival, they performed barefoot. I tried that and promptly managed to cut my toe, quickly throwing up a sign that that was maybe a bad idea in what wasn't exactly soft terrain.

Around that time it started to get chilly as the sun went down anyway, so shoes went back on along with the addition of sweaters and coats. More than chilly, once it got dark, it felt like December again. Bearing the cold, I stuck around to see Spain Colored Orange. A band I've followed for a while but haven't managed to see until now, I was pretty excited. They ran through a good set of their songs, though it stuck to mostly the same type of songs instead of displaying the diversity of their album. Trumpet driven rock isn't normally my thing, but there's something oddly very enjoyable about Spain Colored Orange. The audience was really into the music for basically the first time of the day, finally crowding around stage. Some of the younger people really got down, dancing all around at the foot of the stage. It was something of a sight to behold. The bizarre way they danced along to the heavy parts of the songs vaguely reminded me of slam dancing at metal shows. Not the sort of thing you expect for a band with a trumpet.

By the time listenlisten took the stage, it was pretty much freezing. Everyone was starting to complain about it, but myself and a modest crowd stayed to see listenlisten do their thing. I should note that I'm a pretty big fan of listenlisten, but like Spain Colored Orange, I've never been able to see them live before. I have all their recordings though and Hymns From Rhodesia was easily in my top ten last year. So despite the cold, I had a big smile on my face the entire set. My only disappointment was that due to technical difficulties, their set was a bit short. The performances of their suicidal folk ballads were spot on, but it seemed that inbetween every song they were trying to fix the mixing of their sound and they kept switching instruments too. It seemed like they had barely even started when they said they only had two songs left. I called out to them halfway through switching up their instruments for the last time that they needed roadies for this sort of thing. It was said with a laugh, but it's sort of true. They didn't get in nearly as many songs as any of the other artists, mainly because of that. Regardless, what they did manage to perform was just as good as I had expected it to be.

Now I have to abandon any professionalism here. I've seen Electric Attitude before and I'm not that big a fan of what they do. So apologies to them and to their fans, but with the cold and all, I decided I really wanted to go home. It was around 8:00 PM and I had been there since around 2:30 PM so I was really ready to go anyway. I'm sure I'll have the chance to catch them again, unless something crazy happened that I missed like the stage exploding or the band breaking up right then and there. I'll choose to believe everything went off without a hitch though.

So how would I rate the Houston Peace Festival overall? Well it was a pretty fun way to kill a Saturday afternoon and it gave me the opportunity to finally catch Spain Colored Orange and listenlisten so I can't complain. I'll be on the lookout for Tyagaraja's album when it's out especially because it seems like they're cooking up something good. I was also happy to support some of the activism that went on there. My name on a petition might not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but every little bit helps, just like the whole "one vote..." thing. It was definitely worth making it out there, even if I am probably the squarest hippie in the world.