Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flight Of The Conchords, April 29, 2009, Arie Crown Theater, Chicago

This was the back end of a two-night stand at the 4,200 capacity venue. Quite a jump from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where Jemaine Clements and Bret McKenzie made their mark earlier in the decade.

Of course, having an HBO TV show and the resulting viral video from the Conchords’ many fine songs has made them a gigantic cult act. Despite the elevation to larger venues, Jemaine and Bret have made only one concession to playing to so many people -- accompaniment by the New Zealand Symphony, comprised of a single multi-instrumentalist. Jemaine explained that there were budgetary restrictions that caused cutbacks in the Symphony.

The Conchords show, as Bret stated early on, consisted of songs and talking, sometimes the Conchords playing consecutive songs and sometimes “talking and talking” which, he noted, would be harder to distinguish. The mix of dimwittedness and cleverness that is the essence of the television show clearly derived from the stage act. While I’m sure that a great deal of the patter between Jemaine and Bret is planned out, they are so relaxed on stage, I could not tell you where the rehearsed dialogue ended and the ad-libs began. Well, there’s one exception to that -- these comedy club vets had no problem making sport of all of the audience members who yelled out things to the Kiwis.

The show got off to a great start, as Jemaine and Bret donned their cheesy cardboard robot heads and electro-popped to “Too Many Dicks on the Dancefloor”. From there, they played a mix of songs from the first two seasons of the show, with a few other songs blended in. This confirmed that the second season songs were not as consistent as those from the first season. A few of the second season songs are a bit stilted, like “Let’s Get Freaky” (I may have the title wrong), though the second season still yielded some gems, like “Sugar Lumps”, which they closed the set with, edging to the lip of the stage to thrust their junk into any digital or cell phone cameras near the front.

Meanwhile, the first season classics sounded, well, classic. Even “Mutha’uckas”, which I think is one of their more contrived songs, came to life on stage. These songs have been in the Conchords set for so long, they often embellished them with little asides that made them even better. This was especially evident on “Business Time” and “Robots”. Other highlights included “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)” and “Foux du Fafa”.

One thing that the Conchords don’t get enough credit for is how much they clearly love the music they spoof, and the wide variety of the music they love. Certainly, their facility with R & B and rap is quite evident, but they showed a totally different side on a Johnny Cash styled country ballad about a totally evil dude named Stana -- Satan with the letters scrambled (“Santa was already taken,” Jemaine explained). It was a hilarious tune that playfully tweaked yet another genre.

Jemaine and Bret also excelled on a duet where Bret played a gal who runs into a fellow and begins to reminisce...about a day he doesn’t remember. Jemaine’s attempts to suss out what the hell the gal is talking about were quite funny.

The show flagged a bit in the middle, much in the same way that some eps of the show are merely amusing rather than hilarious. But there was plenty of laughs throughout and Bret and Jemaine started and ended very strong.

A quick tip of the hat to opener Eugene Mirman, who plays the landlord on the show. His too brief stand up set was hilarious, ending with a long bit about his dealings with Delta Airlines after the his luggage was lost. When he read from his letter to Delta and noted that “now I know what it feels like to be black in 1955" he ensured that I’ll go see him again. As a bonus, John Wesley Harding came out to sing a song based on Mirman’s Delta riff, which provided a nice musical segueway to the Conchords’ set.

All in all, a smashing evening.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Superchunk -- Leaves In The Gutter

Superchunk -- Leaves In The Gutter (Merge)

Superchunk is back and on this new EP, the band dispenses with any pretense of expanding its sound, which has been evident on its past albums, and commences to playing its trademark brand of rock. On the opener, “Learned to Surf”, the patented Superchunk sound is as good as it has ever been. The song starts with a tight lead guitar line and the dexterious rhythm section gets going and everything builds to a memorable chorus. It’s all so effortless.

The next song, “Misfits & Mistakes”, starts out sounding a fair amount like the band’s classic “The First Part”, with lead guitar interplay over a solid rhythm backing. The verses are a rush with Mac MacCaughen sounding as energized as ever. The song has at least three hooks, from the melodic chorus to the little rhythmic and guitar twists. This could have come off a Superchunk album 10 years ago, and that’s exceedingly high praise.

The band lays back, only in a relative sense, on “Screw It Up”, a mid-tempo track with a dirty rhythm guitar offset by more pleasant sounds from the lead guitar and flowing rhythm section. This is the least memorable track on the EP, but it’s still pretty pleasant.

The band gets back into Superchunk rock mode on “Knock Knock Knock”, again opening with a signature riff before pulling back a bit to reveal the melody. The melody of the verse then flows into a variation on the opening riff which is the bridge into the chorus. Each one of the parts of this song fits together perfectly with the other parts.

The EP ends with a nice acoustic rendering of “Learned to Surf”. These five songs show that Superchunk can still do its thing, and do it at a high level. This bodes well for the band’s next full length release.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Superdrag -- Industry Giants

Superdrag -- Industry Giants (Superdrag)

Knoxville’s finest are back together and they have NOT mellowed with old age. For that matter, they haven’t changed much at all. The biggest difference on this album from prior LPs is that John Davis cedes the microphone to a couple of his colleagues on some tunes. This may have been a miscalculation.

Still, if you are a fan of this band at their most rocking, and they were certainly one of the heavier powerpop outfits of the alt-rock era, you might want to get this. Any fan will be hit with a pleasing familiarity in Davis’ melodies and vocals.

The album bursts out of the gate showing off the band's guitar power and how Davis throws in little melodic wrinkles to make it more than just a sonic assault. On "Slow to Anger", Davis sounds kinda angry, his voice a bit raspy. This falls somewhere between Cheap Trick and Channels (the most recent band from J. Robbins of Jawbox fame).

It is followed by the languid "Live and Breathe". The song fades in with just a strummed acoustic guitar and Davis singing angelically, "I don't know the first thing about you" and after a few more lines, heavier guitar backing comes in. The contrast between the dreamy melody and the rough texture of the guitars is winning. Meanwhile, I'm guessing that this song shows that Davis, who put out a solo Christian rock record, is still singing about faith. Whatever it is, it is devotional and this track alone makes the reunion worth it.

This one-two punch had me hoping that Superdrag was gravitating back to the more versatile and experimental approach of the band's second and best album, Head Trip In Every Key. And the yearning melody of the mid-tempo "I Only Want a Place I Can Stay" kept my hopes up.

But the album can't sustain this quality and it falls into the familiar sounds of the post-Head Trip albums. This is reliable and enjoyable music, but the songs are more about the overall sound than big hooks or memorable bits of lyrics.

A couple of other songs stand out, the blistering "Aspartame", which has stinging lead lines and gallops like Secretariat out of the gate, and the Cheap Trick-y "Cheap Poltergeists", one of Tom Pappas' two compositions on this disc.

Although this is yet another Superdrag album that's merely good, and not great, I will say that the energy and force and passion on display here are striking. Most bands don't even release one great album, and Superdrag has accomplished that. And listening to this new one, I still think they aren't that far away from another one. I want them to keep rocking out, but don't want them to forget that they can do even more than that.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Neko Case -- Middle Cyclone

Neko Case -- Middle Cyclone (Anti)

While a few folks are commenting that Neko Case is straying further from her country roots, I think that this new album is just more evidence that Case has become a genre unto herself. To call the music on this album a move towards the so-called Adult Alternative sound is meaningless, and represents a failure to appreciate what a special talent Case is.

Maybe it’s because her voice always announces itself and draws away attention from Neko’s amazing songwriting. Her country roots are still at the center of her songs, along with gospel and other traditional American music. Case has found a way to add layers of atmosphere to what is generally very direct and plainspoken music. So her tales of nature, broken hearts and dreams alive or soon to be crushed float and dart and soar, yet remain grounded and tangible.

She can ably move from the twanging of a guitar that could come from a Morricone soundtrack or a David Lynch movie, as on “Prison Girls”, to the Spector-ian grandeur underpinning “I’m an Animal”, to the jangle pop perfection of “People Got a Lot of Nerve”.

“Nerve” is one of Case’s most accessible concoctions. The inviting beds of guitars support Case’s evocative lyrics, and the indelible chorus: “I’m a man-man-man eater/still you’re surprised, surprised, surprised/when I eat ya.” Somewhere there’s a universe where this is a quirky left field hit. After the second chorus, Case’s voice swoops up and the music swoops along to an end that comes a bit too soon, with music so enthralling.

Case’s melodies are broad and allow her to show her vocal power without showing off. And the music is always spacious enough to support and drive her. This is illustrated on the opener, “This Tornado Loves You”, where the rhythm lopes along like an old Glen Campbell number. There are spots where the music slows down to let a bit of drama build, before the song goes back into its natural canter.

This album is cohesive and demands repeat plays. But there are standouts beyond “People Got a Lot of Nerve”. “The Pharaohs” begins with plaintive guitar picking, and soon thereafter, Case tells a tale of a mysterious relationship where a husband is distant from his young bride. Case fills this song with memorable phrases, such as “I want the pharaohs/but there’s only men”. Like a lot of Case’s material, the words don’t tell an obvious story, but they are evocative and allow a listener to fill in the blanks.

I’d be remiss not to mention her cover of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth”. Case doesn’t mess with the melody or the basic arrangement. Instead, she adapts that to her own style, with sumptuous strings and multi-tracked vocals burnishing this fantastic Ron Mael composition. If anything, she may make the song a bit more foreboding than Russell Mael ever could.

The only thing that may be keeping Case from full scale popularity is that her music, despite the familiar foundations, is built on abstractions. As a result, she may never have one song that becomes her gateway to a much larger audience. Well, that’s the much larger audience’s loss. I wonder if someday someone will have the stones to begin covering these songs. Yes, Case’s voice makes them so great, but it’s not just the voice -- Neko is a true artist.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cheer-Accident -- Fear Draws Misfortune

Cheer-Accident -- Fear Draws Misfortune (Cuneiform)

I last heard this Chicago art rock band during an accessible phase on the wonderful What Sequel? album. But now it’s back to more exploratory fare with this effort.

The sound here is offbeat guitars meeting with offbeat horns on compositions that negotiate a path between precision rock as practiced by Frank Zappa and some of the less pompous British prog-rock bands, and jazz, while picking up and discarding other styles and genres along the way.

As someone who only has the band’s two “accessible” records, this is a challenging disc, but there is a consistent sensibility at work, even when the band isn’t trying to make pop records. There are certain ways that the band works with chords and rhythms that are as distinctive as fingerprints.

The album begins with “Sun Dies”, which has discordant guitar sounds, joined by swerving horns. With the vocals of drummer Thymme Jones and Carla Kihlstadt, this song mixes the art-garage sounds of Pere Ubu and Tin Huey with more fusion-y elements. After the vocals fade out eerily, the band commences to lock into a groove, and from there the musicians explore, with ghostly choral vocals entering and exiting at odd times.

After two nifty short instrumentals, one a slice of concentrated pomp (“Mescalito”) and the other jazzy and horn driven (“And Then You Realize You Haven’t Left Yet”), the band moves into “Blue Cheadle”. The jagged guitar riff that focuses the tune wouldn’t sound out of place on an old Shudder To Think record. The guitar is supported by tight drumming by Jones. The rhythm pattern established by the guitar and supported by the bass is the foundation for the whole song, which then shoots off into slight detours -- horns parts, vocal interludes, a piano break, and so forth. This is a rocking musical journey.

The band moves into something approaching Krautrock on the modulated “Disenchantment”, with low key thrumming over jazzy drums and walking piano. This sets up “The Carnal, Garish City”, which has full horn accompaniment and creeping and crawling guitar lines. This song is moving towards a specific destination, but never takes a straight line to get there.

There’s a lovely art pop interlude on the melodic “According to the Spiral”, with Jones singing the pretty melody over an undulating rhythm section. The warmth of the vocal is in stark contrast to the mechanistic quality of the instrumental backing underneath.

The final two tracks are long numbers, full of exploration. “Humanizing the Distance” is in the vein of “The Carnal, Garish City”, with a tight structure, but lots of passages that sound like they were either improvised or came out of some serious jamming. Again, the strong rhythm section gives so much freedom to everyone else, whether it’s the guitarist playing darting lines or the horns squonking in odd fashion.

Jones starts off “Your Weak Heart” with a piano piece that is strongly inspired by Brian Wilson. This on its own would be a sensational song. But the various keyboards and wind instruments come in like a chilly storm, and the song moves in a completely different direction. Jones plays some sophisticated piano runs, accompanied by his own trumpet part. Although this is a totally different piece, in a sense, both sections of this song seem to cast a sense of infinite space against a lonely, solitary figure. The song then moves into fusion/prog territory, the piano still driving everything. Eventually, things wind back to the original stark song with Jones singing. This song mixes an intellectual bent with some real emotion and is an excellent way to end this set.

For all of the exploring going on, Cheer-Accident never falls back on flash or theatrics. The band enjoys a challenge, pulling together disparate elements, and on this album, the musicians are quite successful in putting together a very compelling set of songs.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tim Finn -- The Conversation

Tim Finn -- The Conversation (Capitol)

This is a fine follow up to Finn’s 2006 Imaginary Kingdom album. Finn is focusing on writing classic melodies, which he is pretty darned good at. However, whereas Kingdom was lush and widescreen, this is an intimate affair, spotlighting Finn’s voice which has weathered a bit, giving it more emotional depth.

Working with a small band, including his former Split Enz keyboardist Eddie Rayner, this album charms with simple songs. On one song, “Only a Dream”, Finn’s pithy tunesmithing is comparable to Ron Sexsmith.

But Finn's work is usually more expansive. Even with four musicians, "Imaginary Kingdom" is full of texture, with strummed acoustic guitars, electric guitar lead fills, Rayner's keyboards and Miles Golding's violin helping Finn cast a spell. The lyrics are so basic, as Finn sings of a guy who is so wrapped up in his own world, he won't acknowledge those who love him. On this song, Finn moves up in his range, which still sounds as good as it did three decades (and more) ago.

Golding's violin is a big part of "The Saw and the Tree", which is great slice of folk-pop. Using a basic metaphor, Finn sings about having a bad temper. The tenderness of the music belies that ongoing problem at hand. Finn recognizes that this problem may not ever go away: "A prisoner of his own device making his apology." This track is one of the highlights of the album.

Another highlight is the rustic "Forever Tuesday". Finn is looking back at a crystallizing moment with relish, the night that "I couldn't wait to show you/the lyrics to "Tin Soldier". This song sounds like an old Faces back porch romp and captures a fond reminiscence quite well.

There are a few other top notch tracks, such as “Out Of This World”, “More Fool Me” and “Invisible”, as bits of old Split Enz wrinkles and Beatle-ish moves blend into the gentle acoustic songs. Perhaps it’s a wee bit padded with 13 tunes, but this low key charmer goes down easy. It’s not Finn’s best, but it might be the Tim to turn to on a Sunday morning.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Franz Ferdinand -- Tonight

Franz Ferdinand -- Tonight (Domino)

Coming on the heels of a pretty close to perfect debut album, Franz Ferdinand’s second LP, You Could Have It So Much Better, was considered somewhat of a disappointment. I can see why some folks thought this, as the album simply didn’t have as many great songs. But I liked how the band tried to split the difference from building on its classic post-punk meets dance pop sound, while adding some new styles to the mix. The attempts didn’t always succeed, yet they showed promise for even better things for Franz Ferdinand.

Rather than build on those new ideas, on album number three, Franz Ferdinand has retrenched. If anything, the post-punk touches of the past are barely audible, as the band narrows in on the goal of getting people to shake their asses. This results in an album that has great surface appeal. However, repeat plays reveal that the grooves overwhelm the band’s lyrical and melodic talents. So this is an album that will sound good at parties, but track for track, it’s a bit of a step backward.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t like it. There are three absolute killer songs on this album. The lead track, and first single, “Ulysses”, is slinky and sexy, with Alex Kapronos full of insinuation, setting the tone for the album: “I’m bored, I’m bored/C’mon, let’s get high”. The song gets into a full groove in the chorus, and there’s an awesome downshift in the middle eight, before the song builds to a big finish. This is an instant classic.

“No You Girls” uses a similar musical template, finding a mid-point between funk rock and icy Roxy Music cool. What makes this song shine are the sharp lyrics: “Kiss me/flick your cigarette and then kiss me/kiss me where your eye won’t meet me.” The song captures the lunkheaded nature of a club guy, complaining that girls don’t understand “how you make a boy feel,” but turns the tables near the end of the song.

Towards the end of the album, the band hits another nice rock-funk groove with grand musical gestures on “Lucid Dreams”. The groove is complimented by icy melodic keyboards that create a compelling contrast. Eventually, the electronics dominate the song, as there is a lengthy synthesizer breakdown (shades of Giorgio Moroder) that takes a cool song and makes it ten times cooler.

There are some nice change up tracks, like “Bite Hard”, which starts off gently before turning into a pulsing rock tune and the chilly synth-pop ballad “Dream Again”. But the band goes to the dance and chant well a bit too often, making individual tracks sometimes hard to distinguish.

Nevertheless, despite the sameiness of some tracks, every song sounds really good and this might be one of those albums that I will like much more after I see them live. Because these songs will sound great in concert.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Buddy Holly -- Down The Line Rarities

Buddy Holly -- Down The Line Rarities (Geffen/Decca):

This 2 CD set is really a four LP set. The first album consists of the earliest recordings of the great Buddy Holly. The second album features Buddy and the Crickets woodshedding on (then) contemporary rock songs. The third album is comprised of alternate takes or undubbed mixes of classic Holly tunes. And the fourth album is Buddy in his apartment, accompanied only with his guitar, demoing songs.

The first and third LPs are interesting historical material. But the second and fourth LPs are essential music from one of the towering figures of early rock ‘n’ roll.

The collection starts with a 13-year old Holley (before he dropped the ‘e’ that would have certainly hampered his future success) warbling a country tune, “My Two-Timin’ Woman”. This is followed by a number of decent country songs when the young Buddy was the front half of Buddy & Bob. This portion of the compilation closes out with some 1955 recordings where Buddy Holly becomes...Buddy Holly. His version of “Baby, Let’s Play House” is the first tune to showcase his trademark hiccupping vocals. Yep, it’s starting to get interesting.

Then the Crickets proceed to rock out. Unfortunately, the best performance on here, a version of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, is cut off at the 80 second mark. But this version is a bit faster and more urgent than the well known versions by Big Joe and Bill Haley & The Comets. Holly’s vibrato laden voice is extra shaky and the whole thing crackles with excitement. And the drums really swing.

But most of the other numbers are just about as good. They tear up “Rip It Up”, do a swell “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (which was subsequently committed to wax), do a version of “Blue Monday” that Buddy really puts his stamp on, and play an early version of “Holly Hop”. Fun stuff.

If you’re not a true Buddy-ophile, some of the charms of the first half of disc two will be elusive. At times, like on “Not Fade Away”, I recognize that stuff has been stripped away. I can’t really say if it’s for the better. But a great tune is a great tune, right?

There are two alternate takes on the disc. First, a version of “Peggy Sue” where Buddy’s voice is a bit more upfront, due to the lack of any Norman Petty sweetening. The other alternate take is “Think It Over”, and I really like his lead vocal.
All of this is a prelude for the acoustic demos he recorded in his New York City apartment. Kudos to Erick Labson for the remastering. These demos sound intimate and immediate. To hear these versions of “Peggy Sue Got Married”, “Crying, Waiting, Hoping”, and “Love Is Strange” (the Mickey and Sylvia hit that was written, under an alias, by Bo Diddley), is to hear the greatness of Buddy Holly in an entirely new way. I wish there were four discs of these performances, which are so warm and personal.

One track really got to me. It’s not a song. It’s about three and a half minutes of Buddy talking to his young wife, Maria Elena. At one point, they are joking around and laughing, and it’s so playful, making it all the more poignant that Buddy would die in a plane crash only weeks later.

Despite the tragedy, we’re fortunate to have his recorded legacy. This collection isn’t quite essential, but it has enough on it to add further to that legacy.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lily Allen -- It's Not Me, It's You

Lily Allen -- It’s Not Me, It’s You (Capitol)

The good news is that Lily Allen remains a sharp, incisive lyricist. The not as good news is that producer Greg Kurstin (of The Bird and the Bee), who worked on some of the tracks on Allen’s debut, is not as creative as Mark Ronson. The result is a solid sophomore effort that could use a few more hooks.

The album kicks off with its strongest track, “Everyone’s At It”. The music is crisp keyboard/synth dominated pop with a slightly dramatic heft. This is excellent support for Allen’s blunt and smart observations about drug use. Allen minces no words in noting that reliance on prescription drugs can be as bad as the stuff the law does not allow (this should be an anthem for Bill Maher): “From grown politicians to young adolescents/prescribing themselves antidepressants.”

Allen then turns her attention to fame and tabloid culture and beyond on “The Fear”. Over a mid-tempo electro pop background, Allen not only skewers starlets who take their clothes off for fame, but goes further: “it doesn’t matter because I’m packing plastic/and that’s what makes my life so fucking fantastic/and I am a weapon of massive consumption/And it’s not my fault it’s how I’m programmed to function.” The lacerating verses are matched with a flowing chorus that makes for a darned good song.

Things get personal on “Not Fair”, which has loping faux country music in the background. On this track, Allen calls out a lousy lover. Although he’s nice to her, he can’t make her come, and that’s a deal breaker: “Oh I lie here in the wet patch/in the middle of the bed/I’m feeling pretty damn hard done by/I spent ages giving head.” Allen’s frank and clever lyrics are consistent throughout the album.

Unfortunately, the music is not always up to the task. After these first three winners, the songs blur together a bit. The middle of the disc perks up with the clubby house inflected pop of “Back to the Start” and the Russian folk (think Mary Hopkins’ “Those Were the Days”) feel on “Never Gonna Happen”, where Lily tells a fella that he’s a temporary fling, even if she still uses him for booty calls.

I think that Kurstin’s a bit limited, not just in terms of the music he composes, but the instrumental tracks are thin at times. Granted, putting tunes to Allen’s words may be challenging, because she tends to write in specific cadences that don’t always conform to easy melodies or rhythms. But it can be done. Allen would be served better by searching out for a more inspired collaborator. Nevertheless, this sophomore effort shows that, whatever her limitations, she can reach further with her lyrics and make smart pop.