Monday, September 21, 2009

before i change my mind

Blame all those years of listening to critical punching bags for developing my tin ear to music reviews. Fortunately, I have friends who don't rest on their musical laurels, who recognize the haphazard potpourri that comprises my musical tastes, and whose opinions I respect. Thanks to everyone who's urged Frightened Rabbit on me over the last year. Your patience and your prescience have won out.

Frightened Rabbit, the Independent, September 18, 2009: We music nerds sometimes like to say that the best tunes reveal themselves on their own schedule, and titles that take weeks, months, or however long to take hold can offer the biggest reward. I can think of numerous examples of this credo, but on the other hand, there's something to be said for the immediate hook and instant appeal. Count Frightened Rabbit among the latter.

Frightened Rabbit, the Independent, Sept. 18, 2009

I don't know why some bands click, but I know when it does. Not a minute into Frightened Rabbit's show, I was hooked. The pealing guitar, the galloping rhythm, and the hints of melody, all before the vocals arrived, reeled me in, but you also sensed that these disparate elements were deployed in the service of something greater--and that you'd be a fool to miss it.

Simply, Frightened Rabbit rocked it, supplementing that initial blast of amazement with powerful aftershocks. Though the band's passion planted you in the moment, I couldn't help pondering what else would be possible for the group. The music could--and will, I'm sure--easily fill spaces much larger than the Independent. And if tonight's audience was any indication, the band can look forward to even more support and goodwill from their fans, perhaps through singing along, clapping in time, or shouting out names of Scottish football clubs, as was the case tonight.

Here's an advantage to attending a show as an impartial observer (or as impartial as you can be when you've paid for a ticket): It's not just your personal infatuation talking when you sense a band's sway over an audience. From the get go, the fans were in lock step with the band. Though they couldn't exactly help themselves during some of the quiet parts--such as the first song of the encore, lead singer Scott Hutchinson's solo acoustic take on "Poke," sans amplification (I love that shit)--their eagerness was neither obnoxious nor desperate. Rather, it felt like the natural expression of their desire to join in, no matter how off-key their contribution.

This ardor was put to better use on the final song, "Keep Yourself Warm," when the lyrics echoed through the club, aided and abetted by the crowd's roaring accompaniment. It's the kind of loyalty you rarely see for such a young band, and it's not hard to predict great things for them.

Twilight Sad, the Independent, Sept. 18, 2009Filling out the bill with Frightened Rabbit were two other Scottish bands, Twilight Sad and We Were Promised Jetpacks. In addition to their provenance, they shared some surface similarities, but they were far from cookie-cutter clones. True, all three upheld the fine Scottish tradition of falling far short of fashionable--in the best way possible--but whereas Twilight Sad orbited the moodier, more impressionistic end of the spectrum, We Were Promised Jetpacks wore their earnestness even more blatantly than Frightened Rabbit.

Is it too much to ask? Can't I be guaranteed a new band to fall in love with every 12 to 18 months and to be reminded that not all fledgling groups have to be so predictably derivative? For now, yes, and Frightened Rabbit is keeping that hope alive.

Friday, September 11, 2009

bring it on home

I didn't expect to be back at Largo and a Jon Brion show so soon, but somehow, it always works out. I'll skip the usual rigmarole of concocting an excuse and simply proceed to the report.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, September 4, 2009: Most visitors may not know this about Los Angeles, but this city of transplants is a veritable ghost town for the holidays. There's no better time to visit than Christmas, and traffic never materialized this Labor Day weekend. Granted, that may have been partly due to the Station Fire raging a valley away, but in true Hollywood fashion, we were shielded from the reality.

Largo managed to buck this trend, and to our surprise at least, the big room filled up nicely by the time the show was about to begin. After commending us for sticking around, Jon sat down at the piano for an instrumental opening that I--for once--recognized: Cole Porter's "Everytime We Say Goodbye," I believe, proving that the Red Hot + Blue compilation ranks among my better music purchases.

Turning his attention to a couple of originals, Jon lingered over a particularly Eno-esque intro to "Over Our Heads," but "Further Along" turned out to be more a battle of wills between Jon and his guitar. Rest assured, Jon prevailed.

The last time I saw Jon's show, it was the day after Les Paul's death, and we speculated if and/or how he'd honor the memory (with full knowledge that he usually does so by not attempting the dearly departed's music so soon after the loss). The tribute didn't transpire that night, except for some old TV footage playing on the flat-screen in the Little Room.

I guess the moratorium had lifted because Jon combined two separate audience requests, first for the Les Paul treatment, then for Harry Nilsson. "Alone Again Naturally" required more tinkering than usual, but by the time Jon hit his stride, it sounded magnificent, with a bridge that can only be described as delightful and oodles of fine fingerpicking--if only all posthumous salutes were so joyful and dignified.

The video mix kicked off with an elderly guitar player I can't name, and after isolating and looping a certain measure, Jon matched it to some footage of Toscanini (maybe) for an almost pastoral affect. It took me a while, but after Jon added a MicroKorg-derived beat, I finally figured out the song: "That's Just What You Are" with a chamber-pop twist.

From here, Jon asked for requests in earnest, and a small chorus of voices prevailed with a suggestion for "Little Person." Though he seemed less than certain of its key, I was thrilled to finally hear this tune--the highlight of a movie I desperately wanted to like--for myself.

Maybe it was the long weekend, or maybe it was the fires, but the audience requests seemed more ludicrous than usual. Then again, maybe it's always like that, except that Jon actually humored them tonight, though not without an inscrutable silence. I'm pretty sure I've heard Jon do "Electric Avenue" before, at least in part, but this may have been the first time I've seen it in toto, built from the floor up. In case you're wondering what it actually sounded like, imagine Eddie Grant taking a detour through Paisley Park. (No, seriously.)

I'm pretty sure the next selection came from an audience request, moving Jon back to the video mixers. His first clip was of recent vintage: an MTV show with Alexa Chung and Adrian Grenier on drums. Matched up with an orchestra and an opera singer, they comprised a grand backing band for the Kinks song we ultimately heard. I've comment before that sometimes it's hard to pick out the discrete elements of Jon's multimedia mashups, but as with the evening's previous video foray, the collaborators' roles were clear and distinct.

Early in the show, we spied a spectator in the wings and waited for the announcement from the stage. But apparently, the visitor's presence was completely lost on Jon until Bret informed him at nearly the end of the set. So while Jon urged us to shout out more requests, he ducked away, welcomed his friend, then finally brought her forward: Gillian Welch, last seen at Largo in July.

Jon and Gillian tried to include us in their decision-making process, but the crowd consensus on "Safety Dance" (not me) probably spiked that idea. Instead, they went with what Gill knew how to sing, and both songs turned out to be fine selections. Gill even got in some time on the drum kit for "You Can't Always Get What You Want." This preference carried over into the encore, so with Gill once more holding up the bottom end and Jon asking for Sun-style slapback, they looked to Sam Cooke, and I thought of at least one person in Los Angeles who really should've been there.

Over in the Little Room, Jon called us lucky bastards and ceded the stage to Benmont Tench and Gillian Welch. From our front-row perch, it hit me almost immediately: There's no reason for these world-class musicians, whose audiences regularly number in the thousands, to play for the two dozen people who stuck around tonight. Yet they do, and as trite as this may sound, it seems they're motivated by nothing other than their love of music.

In the main room, Gill and Jon had established that their brains were "mush," so it fell to Benmont to play the crucial role of arbiter. He provided the request for "Wabash Cannonball," which established a mini trend of train songs for the night. Benmont would also assume lead vocals on "How Deep Is the Ocean" when Jon commanded him to "take one."

Jon's presence was something of a question mark until, two songs in, Gillian called him back to the stage. He dutifully obliged, but also managed to steer clear of the mic, content to sit on the floor for much of the show, mostly supporting the others on guitar, backing vocals, and er, Guinness. He was helped in part by David Rawlings's eventual arrival, guitar and guitar case in hand.

Though there was much give and take between the musicians, David ostensibly took the lead, singing a handful of songs himself and sharing the duties with Gillian on the others. Actually, my notes show that Gill did most of the singing, but they came together at the mic often--just the way we like it. My favorite moment might've been "Elvis Presley Blues," which David started, but Gillian closed the deal in one of those effortless handoffs that characterize their partnership. Along the way, Jon had been moved to leap to his feet in solidarity with David, and Benmont gave us a gorgeous glissade on "Wildwood Flower."

After the show concluded but before we left the premises, we caught a peek at one more spectacle: Gillian, David, and Jon singing in a cappella harmony just outside the Little Room, carrying off what we think was one of the titles they passed over just minutes before. I don't kid myself that I've seen everything possible at Largo (or that such a compendium exists), but it sure was a pleasure to check that item off the list that I didn't even know I was keeping.

Set 1
--Everytime We Say Goodbye
--Over Our Heads
--Further Along
--I Really Don't Want to Know
--Alone Again Naturally
--That's Just What You Are
--Little Person
--Electric Avenue
--This Is Where I Belong
--Same Mistakes
--Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain *
--You Can't Always Get What You Want *

--Bring It on Home to Me *

Set 2
--Make Me a Pallet **
--Wabash Cannonball **
--Love in Vain **
--How Deep Is the Ocean **
--Copper Kettle ***
--Mountain Dew ***
--Window Up Above ***
--Elvis Presley Blues ***
--Wildwood Flower ***
--It's Too Easy ***

* = with Gillian Welch
** = with Gillian Welch and Benmont Tench
*** = with Gillian Welch, Benmont Tench, and David Rawlings

See also:
» i've got it bad
» i've been traveling near and far

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


As much as I mythologize that city to the south, there's no place like home. I'm duly reminded of this fact by concerts such as this: the Nels Cline Singers recording a live album over two nights at Cafe du Nord.

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, Sept. 2-3, 2009: I've seen plenty of shows that have been filmed for TV, video, or movie purposes, but to the best of my recollection, I haven't attended the taping of a live album--at least none with real release plans. It was just a matter of time before my concert plans and an artist's recording plans intersected. The fact that the Nels Cline Singers would furnish this opportunity was a welcome coincidence.

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, Sept. 2-3, 2009

My knowledge of live albums is mostly limited to--honestly, Duran Duran's Arena, but I have a passing familiarity with the Budokan, Royal Albert Hall, and prison recordings (among others) of note. One of the questions for me was how the abundantly improvisational Singers would present themselves on, in essence, a set document.

For one, they stuck to a similar--though not identical--setlist over both nights. They bashed through a number of originals, some unreleased, some reaching far back into their catalog, and others of more recent vintage. One of the new songs was provisionally and aptly titled "Build." They referred to another as "Thurstonius," subject to change before it reached its final form. The nod to its potential namesake was clear, but its rhythm and melody reminded me of a different Wilco/Sonic Youth project--specifically, Loose Fur's "Laminated Cat." Speaking of Sonic Youth, the Singers opened the two-night stand with their cover of "Mildred Pierce," killing time while the crew worked out technical issues.

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, Sept. 2-3, 2009

But back to the earlier question about the experimentation of the Singers vs. the formalities of a live album: There was no reason to worry. The trio at no point held back, whether on the tentatively titled "Metalgasm" (or "Gee, I'm White," according to Nels), the psychedelic middle ramble of "Blues Too" on the second night, or either performance of "Fly Fly." It wasn't all discord and din, however; in between, they tempered their push with more hushed works from Carla Bley and Andrew Hill.

Then again, it wasn't all business as usual. For starters, there was the tireless presence of producer Ron Saint Germain, who dropped in frequently to adjust microphones or let the band know when each round of technical difficulties subsided. Those electronic bugaboos interrupted both nights' proceedings, though to a much lesser extent on the second go-round. However, they also brought out Nels's inner Goulet, to borrow his phrasing, as he made ample use of the microphone to chat, vamp, and generally await Ron's thumbs-up.

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, Sept. 2-3, 2009Striking a more joyful note (no pun intended) were Greg, Satomi, and John (who I didn't recognize at an earlier show with Nels) from Deerhoof, who dropped in on the second night--Bay Bridge closure, be damned!--to reprise their performance from last November, first on a Weather Report song, then on the Singers' own "Suspended Head." For the former, they raided Scott Amendola's extensive percussion kit; on the latter, Nels called Greg back to the stage to take the mic.

One more aspect worth mentioning, for both its unexpectedness and because I'm not sure how much of it will make it to the released recording, is Nels's loquaciousness. Even he admitted he had never spoken so much at a show. I can't begin to list all the topics that he covered with mic in hand, but I wholly believe Scott Amendola's comment that now we knew what it felt like to be on tour with Nels.

Ava Mendoza opened both shows, and she impressed the room with her lyrical guitar playing, bringing to mind the likes of Django Reinhardt and M. Ward. She was far from the typical girl with an acoustic guitar, which is not a bad thing at all.

See also:
» spider wisdom
» still carries a torch

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

how can i compare

The two words that guaranteed my attendance at Joe Pernice's gig at Cafe du Nord? Early show. It's shameful, I realize, but I've been exhausted for the better part of the last month and a half transitioning to a new place--apartment downsizing sucks. I'm just happy I made it out for a night.

Joe Pernice, Cafe du Nord, August 30, 2009: According to my records, I last saw Joe Pernice in concert before I started this blog, and I know for certain that I was out of town the last time he visited. Once more, I blame my skewed priorities rather than my lack of interest.

Joe Pernice, It Feels So Good When I StopOf course, this time Joe's tour had a hook: These dates would encompass a reading of his book It Feels So Good When I Stop, along with a concert. I'm not particularly married to the idea that rock music has to be a certain way, but I admit to being skeptical of such a pairing--and it appeared that Joe did too. Though he came across as justifiably proud and invested in his novel, he was probably at his most assured when he was allowed to simply play his music.

Then again, if any musician can embark on a literary career without sending a collective cringe through both the listening and reading public, it's Joe Pernice. Even if you didn't know about his MFA, his way with words and characters has always come through in his lyrics. In an attempt to be frugal, I didn't buy his book, but the parts that Joe read were funny, lively, and both familiar and novel, in that way that some of the best books are. The Lou Barlow excerpt (even if the two have never met in person) alone was worth the price of admission.

Thankfully, music dominated the night--which is not a slight on the book. I just mean that Joe is such a gifted singer/songwriter that it'd be a shame to not hear his songs or, in this case, other people's compositions--because, of course, the book has a companion CD, wherein Joe offers his own takes on the tunes that color the characters' lives.

I'm wary of cover albums these days, but as with the reading itself, Joe shook up some of these prejudices. Though he chose some radio hits, such as Del Shannon's "I Go to Pieces" and, in his words, the "creepy" '70s ditty "Chevy Van," I can't say that either are obvious pieces. This wasn't a matter of redoing some song that's already been on a dozen TV commercials. In the case of both aforementioned titles, he simply sounded lovely. The former reminded me of the wonders he can work with classic pop; the latter comically contrasted with his darker, sadder songs.

On "Chevy Van," Joe enlisted James Walbourne from the Pretenders, who had played the Saratoga Mountain Winery the day before, and from Joe's own records. Though Joe both claimed the song was a hit before James' parents even knew each other and had to inform James of the chord changes even as they played it, neither technicality stopped James from adding some truly gorgeous touches to the tune.

Joe also treated us to a handful of his own tracks, including "Bum Leg" and "How Can I Compare," and brought out a couple more players: his brother Bob (thus comprising the Pernice Brothers) and Peyton Pinkerton, his longtime compatriot. These rarer tracks, combined with the equally atypical acoustic treatment, added up to an exceptional delight.

One of the other unforeseen effects of this setup was hearing Joe banter with the audience. Whereas his traditional shows tend to be straight-ahead affairs, he took advantage of the opportunity to explain the songs, both his own and the covers. Unsurprisingly, he was funny, profane, and easy-going. It'd be great to see more of that next time he comes to town.

Straight from England's Lake District, John Cunningham opened the show, and the Pernice Brothers accompanied him on a handful of tracks. Specifically, Joe took the lead vocals while Bob and John played and contributed harmonies. Joe explained how he had received John's CD more than a decade ago after a gig at London's Garage and how that recording turned out to be his favorite of the decade. John's songs were simple and melodic, echoing John Lennon at times. They did, indeed, sound better with Joe at the mic, but the tuneful fundamentals were already intact.

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