December 1, 2013
The man known as White Fence normally works the lo-fi playbook. Prolifically, actually, and with great success. His records, some made with a few collaborators, have a thin, barely held together aesthetic, all pop and mist and very little gloss. But live, when he plays with a full band, everything gets huge. The group captured here, playing at Amnesia on Valencia street in SF, comes through like a herd of wild animals running across the stage and through the audience. The songs aren't just sonically heavier, but more emotionally substantial, more catchy. There are some raging moments that stretch for five or six minutes before exploding into feedback and cooling off. Everyone takes a deep breath for a few seconds, then the fireworks start all over again. And so it goes, an hour-long recitation of bedroom songs played in the big church. This is a great live album.
November 24, 2013
How refreshing that Wooden Shjips have pointed their collective bow toward uncharted waters. The SF band (now based all over — California, Colorado, Oregon) has been chugging away at the throbbing, trance-flavored psych rock for years, and they've drilled that mine to the point where they definitely have "a sound." But that level of instant recognition can threaten one's virility. What good is the talent if it ceases to surprise? Here, on Back to Land, the band delivers what smells and tastes definitively like "Wooden Shjips music," but it's got a new confidence. Some washes of harder-edged electronic stuff, some happier moments and some darker moments. Miles of guitar solos, of course, and motorik bass and drums. But the mix is heavier and more varied from tune to tune. You'll hear them pushing the edges out, loosening the ties. The result is a record that's more sonically rich than anything that's come before — really digging all the acoustic guitar, for one thing — and also more accessible. It's not like the Wooden Shjips were ever threatening to become a parody of themselves, but they were sticking a little too close to their guns. There's no worse way to go out than with a dulled point, fading to gray. Here they are, back on top, in glorious technicolor. Drink it up. Also, bonus points for the bitchin' packaging. A gatefold wrapped in every manner of pop-art psychedelia and colorful kitsch (mushrooms and peace signs and lightning bolts and third eyes) that slots into a white sleeve punctuated with small die-cut circles that let the pops of pop-art color poke through at random. Like Zeppelin III but more whimsical. And blue-green vinyl at the creamy center!
November 17, 2013
Juana is from Argentina. I usually drop this bit of information whenever I’m recommending her music, and it’s polarizing. The person either warms up and wants to hear her, or they politely turn their nose. If they grow cold, it’s probably due to bad memories of Putumayo CDs in college, or the too-safe stuff they play on the NPR world music hour. Maybe they don’t speak Spanish and they just like music they can sing along to. But even the people who are into the idea are often greeted by something completely unexpected. Juana — while admittedly the NPR darling of late — makes truly transcendent music. Her sound is exotic, but not as some flavor of cumbia or tango or tropicalia. Yeah, she sings in Spanish, but the exoticism comes from somewhere else, from a corner of the subconscious. This stuff is beautifully bizarre. Largely electronic at the base, then embellished with acoustic guitar, gongs and mallet percussion, electric bass, more keyboards, and her breathy, supple voice on top, it’s a psychedelic stew of discovery. If you’re familiar with the records Juana’s been pumping out for the last ten years, Wed 21 shows her changing gears a bit. It’s her first record in five years, and she’s obviously spent her downtime refining her approach. There’s less acoustic guitar on this record, and she spends less time fiddling with her loop pedals. But the beats are riper. The layers are thicker, not in number but in content. Overall, it’s a darker and heavier listen than the gentle stuff that defined the early part of her career. Also, every song has a pulse. It’s dance music. Maybe more braindance for some, but everybody’s got something up there that needs shaking.
November 3, 2013
Hey. Do you like guitars? Yeah? What about guitar solos? When you hear some primo shredding, do you sense the instruments are talking to each other, telling a story as all the notes weave together? Do you like freaky-alien tightness? Are you down with raging instrumental jams? Like, 15 or 20 minute workouts of wordless riffage that take up entire sides of double-slab vinyl records? Do you like gatefold artwork drawn by Alan Forbes showing a bunch of three-eyed elephants marching out of a space cave and across a stone bridge to greet a giant, intergalactic cyclops owl deity? Are you into invigorating fruits and vegetables? Does the smell of your own neurons sizzling remind you of home cookin'? Earthless, man.
October 27, 2013
My first encounter with Lou Reed wasn't the Velvets, or any of his '70s stuff. It was New York, which came out in 1989 when I was 14. I was at the mall, in the Sam Goody, and had just started the part of my education that involved wandering away from the Pink Floyd and Rush and Led Zeppelin cards in the bins. Going on adventures, I suppose. I saw New York on an end cap, and seeing the cover photo on the tiny little cassette insert is what sold me. The eyeless stare. The power stance. The black shirt with the sleeves cut off, arms crossed. And he's over here, too, in a black trenchcoat smoking a cigarette! What a total badass! Something about the grittiness of that cover told me that I shouldn't pop it into the player while my mom was driving me home. There was something very adult going on. It was as dark and alluring as a poster for an R-rated movie. Would you want to watch an R-rated movie with your mom, especially one where you didn't know what the content was? I opened the tape case to look over the lyrics in the car, but I waited until I got home to the safety of my headphones. And boy, is it a headphones record. The notes on the card have this line: "I'm on the left and the other guitarist, Mike Rathke is on the right." I was just getting into guitar at the time and learning the basics by playing along to my favorite tapes, so this was valuable intel. I could study one guitarist, then the other. Study I did, and I had worn that tape out by the time I got to college. Oddly, as hot as the guitars were, it was the poetry that was the true hook. New York is Lou in full bile mode, at the very end of the Reagan era. I wasn't really aware of politics at 14 — my upbringing in Orange County, California was pretty much the epitome of sheltered — but I knew enough people were pissed off at the status quo that maybe I should learn why. So how confusing was this bit, right in the middle of "Dirty Boulevard": "Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I'll piss on 'em / That's what the Statue of Bigotry says / Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death / And get it over with and just dump 'em on the boulevard." Where did all the negativity come from? Was he speaking as himself, or was he speaking in defense of the poor huddled masses? More importantly, where is this Dirty Boulevard? How I do see it for myself? I learned the rules pretty quick: Read the newspapers. Watch the nightly news. Travel. Stop trusting the government. Value art. See firsthand how others live. And keep listening to Lou Reed records.
October 20, 2013
The California son pumps out another one, and it's big. This is a double album, not like that really means anything now that everything's gone digital. But still, there are a lot of songs here. Thankfully, they're almost all crackerjacks. Right at the top is the title tune, "Big Wheel," which bounces along and brims with really tasteful playing. Next is the stellar "Angel Blood," a drum-less, acoustic midtempo thing with liberal washes of pedal steel to tie everything together. The first two tunes set a mood: western, wistful, dreamy. They also set a high mark, and the whole record follows with perfect instrument parts all played and recorded just beautifully. I really like the variety of rhythms on the record — not tempos, because almost everything is at that familiar Cass McCombs lope, but rhythms. There are very few traditional "rock" rhythms on the record. Instead, we get a variety of percussion styles and flavors, which is a great choice since it keeps things from getting fatigued over the marathon hour-and-a-half playing time. I've seen Cass play live a few times over the last couple of years, and one highlight of the recent sets is "Joe Murder," which shows up about half way through in a creepy and powerful arrangement. There's a sax solo inside of it that goes off like a paint grenade. Later in the record are more highlights like the genuinely groovy, "It Means a Lot to Know You Care," and the gorgeous "Brighter!" which pops up twice, sung once by Cass and once by Karen Black. She even does that very Cass thing, where the vocal part suddenly shoots straight up an octave to deliver a line. And she does it the same way he does it: swiftly and with effortless grace. It's endearing, and will hopefully make you grin the same as it did me.
October 13, 2013
No surprises here. In this case, that’s a very good thing. White Manna’s first record from 2012 was great, and this new one (their second) is better by a whole pay grade. The territory is space rock—long songs, solid mid-tempo grooves with few changes, laid-back vocals that drift somewhere near the middle of the mix, giant cascading sheets of rhythm guitar, and echoey, acid-stripped solos riding on the top. And while the landscape is familiar, everything is just deeper this time around. The sounds are richer, the band is more confident. These guys come from Arcata in northern California, a place where the trees are giant and prehistoric and the airy buzz is hyperreal. If you’re in the woods up there and the sun goes down, you look above you and it’s like you’ve never seen so many stars. I'm guessing that’s where these guys get their inspiration (aside from various fruits and vegetables likely being consumed in the studio). It reeks of the great beyond. It’s devotional art, something to put on when you want to take a ride outside your body. Actually, I was thinking that if they ever do a big 3D movie "reboot" of the Silver Surfer comic book (which seems inevitable), they should hire White Manna to do the soundtrack. Riding a longboard through galaxies, peering through time, saving and destroying planets, space-tripping across the Astral Plane—this is the sort of cosmic audio assault you need backing you up.
October 6, 2013
The band Fuzz is a trio -- Charlie Mootheart on guitar, Roland Cosio on bass, and the seemingly unstoppable Ty Segall on drums and lead vocals. They played Noise Pop and a few indie music festivals this year, and of course all eyes are on Ty, so they're already riding a big wave. But the hype is fully deserved, I think, because they're simply one of the best heavy bands going in California right now. All thrash and drive and reverb and of course, miles of shit-hot guitar shenanigans. It's a perfect formula, and their first full-length record is just pure rock glory. Fuzz gets weird and proggy at times, especially during side B, like on "Loose Sutures," embedded above, and on the instrumental closer, "One." For the rest of the record, it's just all straight-up monster riffs and a whole lotta fun. Ty's a great singer, belting it out from behind the kit. His trademark high-pitched vocals are a perfect match for this garage-psych stuff, which too often gets sunk by frontmen who lack that tasteful touch. I got this in the mail on Friday, and I've listened to it probably six times in the last three days. Yesterday is when it really started to sink in -- I was walking around jamming it on my headphones, waiting for the crosswalk light to change, and I started head-banging involuntarily. A girl walked by and laughed at me. Not mocking, but with a hint of recognition. I smiled back and fired off my best excuse: "Fuzz!" Get the vinyl -- the cover art deserves to be seen, and the wax is blue. Also, get the "Sunderberry Dream" single -- the B-side is a wicked cover of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man."
September 29, 2013
There are few pop songwriters currently operating on the same level as Kelley Stoltz. The man just keeps pumping out record after record of catchy, bittersweet gems. It's been about three years since his last one, and I was beginning to wonder if and when we'd hear from him again. But forgiveness is warranted -- he's moved into a new recording studio, a shed behind his house here in San Francisco, and it appears the faucet has never stopped flowing. The new record, Double Exposure, is just stacked with brilliant tunes. It's more intimate and laid back than 2010's amped-up To Dreamers. Lots of mellotrons, pianos, synths, tambourines and shimmery guitars. The title track has a thumping fuzz bass backbone, but that's about as rowdy as it gets. From there, Stoltz takes us right into the nine-minute daydream of "Inside My Head," then onto the funky, drum machine-powered "Still Feel." The closer, "Summertime Again," is a slice of spacey bliss. So, about the video I've embedded above. "Kim Chee Taco Man," which falls half-way into side B, is definitely the weirdest song on the record and undeniably a little stupid. But it's super-catchy. And who says you can't take your work seriously and still have a bit of fun? Judging by the video, it's some sort of LSD send-up. Either that, or it's really just a song about delicious tacos. There's some deep poetry going on here, too. "Kim Chee Taco Man / Ko-rean Mexi-can." Certainly the very best rhyme on the whole album.
September 21, 2013
Cohen is mostly known around these parts for playing guitar in Deerhoof (his tenure began with Apple O', their best record) but he's also bopped around other indie acts as a band member or collaborator. And this here artifact is one killer solo record by the man. It has a cluttered, ramshackle vibe, sort of like a basement tape or an outsider 8-track thing. On first listen, the sounds seem hazy and jumbled, all piled atop one another. But keep going back to the short-ish album and you'll realize this some fully-formed, mature work. The songs are meticulously and skillfully crafted, rich with echoing passages and ambient textural sounds. The drums and bass are mixed at the fore, with a lot more piano than is obvious at first. The guitars are used sparingly. They add spice and occasionally dazzle, and they never take control. I'm loving the lead track, "Monad," embedded above, which goes from proggy and weird to harmonic and gentle to some serious "freak out the squares" stuff, all in just a few minutes. I also love the sweeter, slower tunes "Sunset" and "Open Theme." Chris' songs are sharply edited and sincerely delivered. And best of all, even when they get a little poppy, they're never lazy or familiar. Cohen works on the far fringes of pop, making songs of pure adventure. They're like the overgrown path. They twist and turn as they go up and up, asking you to duck under branches and trudge through mud, the wind whipping raw. Eventually you arrive at a weird precipice with an amazing view, and everything's an echo, and you can't see all the way down, and he's asking you to jump, and you're not sure why but you let go...