Sunday, March 29, 2009

Chris Isaak -- Mr. Lucky

Chris Isaak -- Mr. Lucky (Wicked Game/Reprise)

It’s been about eight years since Chris Isaak’s last album. So has he been keeping up with current music trends? Nope. Isaak knows what he does well and he keeps on doing it. This approach has yielded only a couple of great albums (his debut, Silvertone, and Forever Blue), but has rarely yielded a bad one.

As is often the case, absence has made my ears grow fonder. I’m a sucker for Isaak’s classic balladeering and Orbison-esque vocals. This album shows that Isaak knows his strengths and plays to them accordingly.

All Isaak needs is a downcast melody to brood to and some tasteful guitar, and a great song might emerge. That’s what happens on “We Let Her Down”. Isaak looks at a woman whose life goes array, and no one was there to help (yep, just like the title indicates). The music pulses and Isaak is given room to show that he can still cry with anguish, sustaining high notes for a long period of time. Sometimes, with the right voice, it doesn’t take much to make a great pop song, and this certainly is a great pop song.

Isaak tones things down just slightly on “You Don’t Cry Like I Do”. Here, Chris demonstrates once more why he’s been garnering Roy Orbison comparisons for over 20 years. He sounds pained as he sings the loser lyrics and then cuts loose on the chorus, and it is beautiful, sad and captivating.

Isaak has always balanced the moody songs that his voice demands be sung with some more playful material. There’s plenty of that here. “Take My Heart” has a Hawaiian feel, with cheesy backing vocals and jazzy guitar licks. Isaak breaks into a rockabilly shuffle on “We’ve Got Tomorrow”. And the album closer “Big Wide Wonderful World” sounds like a meld of Isaak’s ‘50s rock style with something more in the vein of Bobby Darin at the Sands.

Isaak also does a couple of duets, with intermittent success. He teams with Trisha Yearwood on “Breaking Apart”. Both singers are in fine form, but the chorus is blandly melodramatic. Meanwhile, Michelle Branch doesn’t add much to “I Lose My Heart”, which is a fairly generic Isaak tune.

So this isn’t a great album, but there’s enough here to ensure that I’ll plunk down for Isaak’s next effort.

Wiley and the Checkmates, The Hideout, Chicago, March 28, 2009

This was one of those nights where I was so happy that I live in Chicago. It had nothing to do with the weather. The temperature was not much above freezing, but with the high winds and constant rain, it was as miserable as a 10 below zero day.

What made me feel so happy was that there are people like Tim Tuten, John Ciba and James Porter in this town. Tuten is one of the owners of The Hideout. It's a small bar in a factory section of town. Tuten is one of the folks who turned into a premier music club, which has become famous for its annual late summer block party. He's also a hilarious presence introducing bands, or, in this case, DJs and a band.

The DJs in question were the East of Eden Soul Express. James Porter has been involved in the local music scene as a writer and a musician (in Hoodoo Hoedown, for example). And John Ciba worked at record store, then for a record company/distributor, and then he found himself putting out records.

And not just any records. His forays to Alabama connected him with great undiscovered soul sides, leading to his first release on Rabbit Factory, a collection of great stuff from Birmingham. Since then, Porter and Ciba have become popular DJs, getting 20-somethings dancing to deep soul dusties, and getting some vintage R & B singers to come to Chicago.

One of those singers is Howard Wiley. Back in the '60s, he played the chitlin' circuit. And earlier this decade, he got back into music. Wiley and his new Checkmates now play out with some regularity.

Wiley has put together one hell of a band. The basic guitar/bass/drums foundation is augmented by a percussionist and a two-piece horn section (saxophone and trumpet). All were impressive, especially the deep bottomed work of Anthony Wortham on drums and the tight chicken scratch licks of J.D. Mark on guitar (he has been a touring guitarist with LCD Soundsystem). After the Checkmates warmed up with two instrumentals, Wiley came out.

He is a joyful presence on stage, who provides the grit and the grease that adds spice to the smooth razor sharp grooves laid down by the band. The set was mostly covers, with a couple swell originals thrown in. Wiley has personality and showed off surprising power and range at times. Whether it was a slow bluesy burner or something hot, Wiley was up to the task.

Two big highlights in the set were a great R & B recasting of Bobbie Gentry's classic "Ode to Billie Joe" and a terrific workout on James Brown's "Cold Sweat". On the former, Wiley sang in more measured tones, but altered lyrics to fit the funkier vibe. On the latter, Wiley didn't imitate the Godfather of Soul, but found his own way to connect with the song. Even better, he used this song to let each Checkmate to play a little solo and get some love from the crowd.

And Wiley really connected with the crowd. He doesn't just have character, he is a character. Moreover, it was obvious he was having a great time up on stage.

Just over two weeks ago, I saw Raphael Saadiq do a modern version of a classic soul show. Now I got to see an original do his thing. What I've learned is that old or new, soul will always be around.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A.C. Newman w/The Broken West, March 25, 2009, Logan Square Auditorium, Chicago

This was my first time seeing a show at Logan Square, which is a big boxy room that looks like a VFW hall, with a temporary stage at the back and lots of room for folks to wander. The sound from close to the stage was pretty good, though I imagine the acoustics further back might not have been so hot.

I got to see a swell double bill for my rookie LSA experience. I had heard of The Broken West, as people like writer Bryan Thomas have touted the band’s music. The five piece band (two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums) is a well oiled machine. In particular, the drummer was terrific, driving the music throughout.

The band’s sound could loosely be called roots music or Americana. They fall somewhere between the catchy sounds of bands like The Byrds and early Wilco and more robust fare like Neil Young and Green On Red. The first two songs from The Broken West simply had a great sound, as the interplay between the musicians was very compelling.

On the third song, the show hit a higher level. There’s no other way to put it -- this was simply a better written song. And from that point forward, almost every song in the set had a great chorus, strong vocals (the lead singer has a sandpapery voice and the bass player had a good vocal turn) and on the few occasions where they stretched out a song, the collective power really lifted things higher.

This performance was met by an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. The band thanked everyone for showing some “Midwestern hospitality.”

A tough act to follow perhaps. But A.C. Newman and his co-ed band were up to the task. I came into the show having taken awhile to warm up to Newman’s second solo LP, Get Guilty. Before the set, I would have told you that it was a bit too close to the formula for his band The New Pornographers, whereas his first LP, The Slow Wonder, was more intimate and deviated from the formula more.

Coming out of the show, in which five or so debut tunes were mixed in with pretty much the entire new album, I’ve got to change my tune. Newman was augmented by a guitarist, a keyboard/trumpet player, a violinist, a bassist and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster on drums. Hearing the intricate arrangements performed with such energy made me realize how much I take for granted.

Much like his fellow New Porno Neko Case, Carl Newman has really created his own style. It’s in the melodies and rhythms and the chords he chooses. And it’s amplified by the clever arrangements. After opening the show with the opening songs from his first two albums, he went into the new tune “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer”.

This song is everything that makes Newman special. It’s built on a few crisply strummed acoustic guitar chords with sympathetic accompaniment by the drummer, tapping the rim around the drum head. This sets up the verse, which is insistent. The song softens up in the refrain, as keyboards come in. After the second refrain, there’s a dramatic instrumental break with a cool squealing guitar solo, which melts away and the song gets going again.

That doesn’t even begin to fully describe what all is going on with this one tune. To hear a band actually pull it off live, with the interlocking parts, the backing vocals, leading to a great ending…well, it’s pretty special.

The set, like the new album, mixed stirring moments such as the pretty “Thunderbolts” or the haunting “Young Atlantis” with cool quirky pop like the locked in groove of “Submarines of Stockholm” or the bouncing “The Collected Works”.

The new material is so fully realized that the smattering of Slow Wonder selections sounded thin at times. The E.L.O.-ish “Better than Most” and “Drink to Me, Babe” were two examples of songs that did not come off nearly as well live as on record. But this was not true of everything from the debut. Indeed, the encore of the sensitive “Come Crash” and the E.L.O.-ish (yes, another Jeff Lynne-like tune) “Town Halo” was a great way to end the night.

So there were two good national acts on the same bill. It was like it was 1988 all over again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Condo Fucks -- Fuckbook

Condo Fucks -- Fuckbook (Matador)

There’s no doubt that Yo La Tengo has a sense of humor. Whether it’s the amusing baseball anecdote from which the band got its name or having Bob Odenkirk and David Cross of Mr. Show in a YLT video, Yo La Tengo does not take itself too seriously.

This comes through on Fuckbook, a garagey sequel to the band’s all-covers Fakebook album. In addition to hyping some fake Condo Fucks albums in the CD booklet, the back cover boasts production by Mutt Lange and mixing and mastering by sound gurus Bob Clearmountain and Greg Calbi. Rest assured that not only was there no production necessary for this album, but it sounds like it was recorded on the tape recorder Rerun used to bootleg the Doobie Brothers on the greatest episode of What’s Happening ever.

The song list is terrific. The Fucks fuck up songs by The Small Faces, The Electric Eels, The Kinks, Slade, The Beach Boys and others. This sounds like it can’t miss.

Yet it does. The tossed off quality of the affair yields diminishing returns. It’s not that the performances are dispassionate, but they certainly aren’t passionate. And if an album of covers leaves me wanting to hear the original, far superior version of a song, the cover isn’t succeeding. And that happens far too often on this set.

Maybe you’d like to hear an off-key rendition of The Kinks’ “This Is Where I Belong”, but I have no need for it. And the lurching version of Slade’s “Gudbuy T’Jane” would have Noddy Holder spinning in his grave, were Noddy dead.

The Fucks hit once in a while. I like the take on The Flamin’ Groovies’ “Dog Meat”, which is probably the most intense performance on the disc. And while I can’t vouch for the performance of The Beach Boys’ “Shut Down”, I like hearing it done as a grimy rock song.

But that’s setting the bar pretty low for a song, isn’t it? Let’s face it. If this were a demo, the powers that be at Matador would have tossed it in the garbage. Just because it’s Yo La Tengo does not give it any magical powers.

Monday, March 23, 2009

1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon

I picked up this 2008 book at my local public library, figuring it would suck, but might be worth a giggle. If you're not a bookstore denizen, you might not be aware of the Before You Die series, which looks at various things, like travel destinations, restaurants, brands of saltines, that one should check out before checking out for good. The concept isn't a bad one, but how could a guide possibly incorporate every genre and so much musical history in a complete fashion?

It can't, really. That's because it would have to 100,000 or 1,000,000 recordings to hear before you die, and if that was the case, you'd have to write it at a grade school level, so readers could have even a slim shot at meeting the goal.

But as I started reading the book, I was sucked in. Tom Moon, a writer and NPR contributor, has played in rock and jazz bands. He writes about music with equal amounts of intelligence and enthusiasm. And he's quite intelligent.

Since he's a musician, he can ably describe what's going on in a host of musical styles. Yet he avoids getting too insider-ish and overly technical. For the most part, he does a good job of giving you an idea where each selection is coming from.

I really appreciate this, as his descriptions of jazz, classical and world music recordings are giving me a lot of suggestions that will broaden my horizons. Nowhere is this more true than with classical music. Moon's writing about classical (and for that matter, anything that's not strictly pop) music gets across a critical notion: classical music is just part of a continuum. While not all of the compositional devices from greats like Beethoven and Mozart are part of pop music, they are part of music in general and it seems to me that the ability to appreciate the complexity of Captain Beefheart or the bold ideas of Can should equally apply to classical music.

Of course, complexity isn't the sole criteria for what makes music great, and Moon has enough selections that tout primal punk and inane pop. Speaking of which, if there's one area where I quibble with Moon, it's in some of his pop selections. I'll give you two examples.

First, he includes Tracy Chapman's debut album. Now I'll agree that "Fast Cars" and "Talkin' About a Revolution" are great songs. But the album as a whole is merely good. There are some other selections along these lines.

But Chapman's inclusion is arguably defensible. I can't imagine why Britney Spears merits a spot amongst the thousand. Yes, "Toxic" is one of her few good songs, but I can think of a 100,000 songs that one should listen to before hearing that one.

Which is another way of saying that sometimes Moon tries too hard. This also manifests itself in another aspect of the book. After each mini-review (about eight paragraphs on each entry) he includes recommended work by the artist, and then two other steps one can take afterwards. In the Green Day entry (for American Idiot) the next two steps are the Ramones' debut album (okay, I can see that) and then an album from Godsmack (WTF?).

These sporadic slip ups are more than outweighed by the sheer variety of albums and Moon's mix of criticism, description and music history. Yep, not only do I have a bunch of new things to check out, this book is chock full of cool tidbits. Until today, I wasn't aware of how big of a role Benny Goodman played in integrating jazz. Indeed, according to Moon, rather than put the African-Americans in his band through hell during tours in the Deep South, Goodman decided to skip visiting the South entirely. I like Goodman even more now.

This book has taken predictable criticism for not being inclusive enough or overly so. Moreover, a lot experts in specific fields, especially classical, have not been pleased with Moon's treatment of their fave genres.

I can't agree with that. Even if I don't agree with some of Moon's selections in areas where I have a great deal of knowledge, and within those entries, I might not entirely agree with his criticism, I just see that as a difference in perspective. Moon's writing is consistently good throughout.

This book is now out in paperback, but Moon now has a website which covers the ground of the book and more, which I have just cleverly hyperlinked where it says 'website.' The entries are not as full as those in the book, but they give you the idea. While this isn't perfect, I think it's a worthwhile guide for any music fan who wants to explore new areas.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dora Flood -- Dream Out Your Window (2008)

Dora Flood -- Dream Out Your Window (self released)

Along with Donovan’s Brain, Dora Flood is one of the most reliable psychedelic rock bands in America. This California band consistently puts out quality releases of dreamy rock, and this disc is no exception. Compared to more recent releases, this album is probably a wee bit more traditional, as the band doesn’t throw in any cross-genre wrinkles. This is pure, unadulterated psych-rock, the way Syd and The Pretty Things, and Tomorrow, and (insert name of favorite ‘60s psychedelic act) intended it.

One thing I like about Dora Flood is how the band spins its web and then adds something to spice things up. For example, “Mantra” sets a hypnotic Eastern styled groove, with appropriately spacey vocals from Michael Padilla. In the midst of this, some twanging, rocking guitar comes in, the song takes a brief melodic swoop, and then the groove picks up with guitars buzzing from speaker to speaker. It gets a bit funky and the track is all the better for it.

“I’m way beyond depending/on a nuclear assault.” This is the tag line of the chorus of prettiest song on the album, “Suspended”. Padilla plucked the melody out of the ether, and the guitars and keyboards create a warm bath of sound. Imagine all of the texture of the swooniest My Bloody Valentine song with the guitar feedback removed. This song is a highlight in the Dora Flood catalog.

Along with those two great songs, other highlights include the haunting closer “All”, which is space rock at its best, the gentle jangle of the opener “Never to Forget” and “The Message”, which centers on a menacing guitar riff which builds up with the keyboards into emotional swells and squalls.

So it’s yet another enjoyable album from Dora Flood. They make it sound easy, but it can’t be easy to keep putting this much good stuff out.

Pretty & Nice -- Get Young (2008)

Pretty & Nice -- Get Young (Hardly Art)

Hey, it’s an arty pop band! Pretty & Nice like the ol’ herky-jerk, mixing dissonant chords and riffs with wonderful melodies. This album merits comparisons to early XTC, Lilys The Sugarplastic and 10CC, among others. If that sounds appealing, you may have a new favorite band.

The album gets off to a great start with the dissonant (hard to find a synonym for that) yet poppy “Piranha”. The band alternates a noisy guitar clang with sweet melodic bursts, with the seeming mess resolving itself in a swell twee pop chorus.

The band then finds a mid-point between Futureheads and Field Music on “Hideaway Tokyo”. A robust guitar part rides over art-pop undercurrents, while somehow the band manages to tuck in a verse that is simulataneously aggressive and pastoral. And this is all crammed into two minutes without feeling overstuffed.

Not everything is go go go. “Pixies” works mid-tempo magic with a repetitive damaged blues rock guitar part. Again, the juxtaposition is what makes it work, as the band shifts into pixie mode (by that I mean purty music) while singing “fly away you pixies.” Like the band the Pixies, Pretty & Nice know how to work dynamics. But they like to go from loud to soft, rather than the other way around.

The great thing about this approach is that it allows for a lot of variations. So the band easily carries ten songs in just a bit shy of 28 minutes. This 2008 release should not be overlooked, as this band has plenty of energy and ideas, a great combination.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Rusty Willoughby -- Filament Dust (2008)

Rusty Willoughby -- Filament Dust (self released)

I liked Rusty Willoughby’s work in Pure Joy, and the first two albums by his old band Flop are about as good as punky pop ever gets. So it was a pleasant surprise to find this solo disc in one of the used bins at the Hollywood Amoeba Records. Just looking at the songs on the disc, I knew this would be a different sort of album. A Jimmy Rodgers song, a classic Bob Dylan folk tune and a Beatles number indicated this would not be balls out rock.

Indeed, Willoughby is now purveying moody folk music. He still sings in that high adolescent voice, which works better with this type of material than one might suspect. For the most part, the songs are short and melt into one another. Throughout the disc, Willoughby is wholly engaged in the material. He may be strumming an acoustic guitar, but the same passion that was on display on the loudest Flop song comes through in more of a slow burn fashion.

Willoughby’s original songs seems inspired by John Lennon, with a touch of Dylan. He often adds just a bit of reverb to his voice, which stands out starkly over his guitar. I think his two best compositions are on the second half of the disc.

First, there’s “Where are The Knives”. This is a folk-blues with cryptic lyrics. Willoughby sings of a relationship that may turn out fatal, which might not be a problem: “he’d give that to her/if she’d ask nice.” The song fades out while Willoughby is starting the next verse, as an interlude called “Interlude” provides a pastoral break.

Willoughby comes back on the title cut, which is another folk-blues. He adds extra reverb to his vocals, making this sound like an overmodulated radio transmission. This obviously puts his voice in the center, and his phrasing and enunciation wavers and punctuates, teeming with emotion. Again, the lyrics turn fatalistic: “I really didn’t want to cry/but all you really wanna do is die.” And this segues into a haunting version of The Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry”.

Willoughby also does a great version of Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”. He adds some fake applause to simulate a live audience. But the canned clapping makes it sound like this is being performed live from limbo. He emulates Dylan’s phrasing, to a degree, but because his vocal quality is so different, it gives the song a fresh feel.

And feel is really the key to this album. Willoughby’s originals fit in well with the Dylan, Rodgers and other traditional songs. His production choices set a mood and tone that make this album all the more compelling. It’s not quite psychedelic, not quite gothic, but it is dramatic.

I’m so glad to rediscover a favorite artist. I never would have guessed he’d go in this direction, it’s now my turn to catch up on what I missed.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Raphael Saadiq, Park West (Chicago), March 12, 2009

Nearing the end of his 70 minute set at Park West, Raphael Saadiq took the time during an instrumental breakdown, to make a little speech about the music that he plays. His 2008 release, The Way I See It has been praised and tagged as a retro item. But Saadiq explained that what he's doing isn't retro -- he's been playing this music since he was 7 years old (that's 35 years, folks
!). He described himself as a running back, whose offensive line included Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Eddie Kendricks and other soul legends.

And Saadiq's point is well taken. Ever since he arrived on the scene fronting Tony! Toni! Tone! in the late '80s, he has always been a purveyor of classic R & B.

His love and knowledge of R & B was evident in the expert show that he put on. Augmented by a six-piece band (bass, guitar, drums, keys and horns) and two back up singers, all decked out in dress shirts and ties, Saadiq brought the soul revue into the 21st Century. He was particularly debonair, in his gold suit. Saadiq and his backing vocalists (one male and one female) executed choreographed dance moves that brought back memories of The Temptations and other groups from the Motown school.

The band started things off with an instrumental version of "Aquarius" (from Hair). The band then kicked into "Keep Marchin'", and the show took off immediately. Saadiq has so thoroughly absorbed so many influences that rarely are his individual songs derivative. I hear bits of Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, James Brown, Motown, Sam Cooke and others, but never to the point where they overwhelm the song.

And Saadiq still sings with a sunny boyish tenor that isn't powerful, but is so expressive. His phrasing and timing are so good and he's even found a way to sound like a credible lover man.

While the show centered around his newer material, there was a lengthy medley where he hit on songs from throughout his career, including some of the songs he's written for other artists. That 15 minute stretch was extremely impressive.

The set had a great flow to it, as he mixed pure R & B work outs with simmering funk and creamy ballads. I must admit that I came into this show cold. I went because of raves from Anna (Tallboy Records) Borg and Shawn Campbell, the president of the Chicago Independent Radio Project. Therefore, I can't ID many songs, though I bought a CD at the merch table.

And can say that his band was so good, especially the rhythm section. This is particularly evident comparing the recorded version of the slinky "Let's Take a Walk" with the powerhouse live performance, where the drummer gave the song twice the power.

Because the set was so well balanced, the audience got more involved with each minute. The 70 minute set was followed by a 20 minute encore, highlighted by the New Orleans inspired "Big Easy".

The near sell out crowd left the venue floating. I was really heartened by the crowd, as it showed that classic soul music could survive and thrive in this modern era. I don't mean that as a knock on contemporary R & B -- since the late '80s, R & B has struggled with relevance in the hip-hip era, and this has resulted in some good things and some bad. R & B is still moving forward. But we need artists like Saadiq to keep reminding us where it comes from and why we should celebrate that.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Does M.I.A.'s choice of mate undercut her message?

It's interesting to read a British take on The Clash. Here in America, they didn't break until London Calling, and their politics were just part of their identity, which was equally defined by their catholic musical tastes and cuddly singles like "Train in Vain" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go?". But in the land of the band's origin, some true punks thought the band was nearly an instant sell out. The Clash's crime? Signing with CBS Records, a major label.

This argument has cropped up from time to time with respect to other artists with a political message, such as Rage Against The Machine. I think it's a false premise. Maybe it's an entertainment version of capitalism being its own gravedigger, but if a band has a social or political message, there's nothing wrong about utilizing a corporation to help spread the message. As long as the affiliation does not compromise the message, then the band has made the right decision.

But can an artist compromise her message by her choice of life partner? I'm a big fan of M.I.A. I think that her records are dazzling. She works with many collaborators to create a real world music, mixing all sorts of cultures into thrilling pop.

M.I.A. got her start in the art world before she started making music. The visuals are as striking as the finished tracks themselves. Moreover, she has made political noises. She has especially pushed the fact that her father was a Tamil rebel in Sri Lanka (she was actually born in London, and her parents moved back to Sri Lanka when she was an infant). M.I.A. has used this to give her music some political context.

So this daughter of a Sri Lankan rebel just had a baby with her fiance, Benjamin Brewer. Brewer is a member of the band The Exit (yeah, I've never heard of them either). I can safely say that no matter how good or bad The Exit is, the band will get a record contract. That's because Brewer's daddy is Edgar Bronfman, the head of WMG, the gigantic entertainment conglomerate. The Bronfman family made its fortune with Seagram's, the whiskey/alcoholic beverage company.

Of course, everyone should wish the couple the best, particularly now that M.I.A. and Benjamin are parents. I hope they are truly in love and that their love grows over the years.

But once M.I.A. marries into one of the wealthiest families in the world, will this make it tougher to accept any political messages in her music? Will her calls for "third world democracy" lose credibility when she's now filthy rich (even after a pre-nup) and part of a clan who haven't done much to help the poor?

To put it another way, would The Clash have blown it if Joe Strummer was seen partying with Liz Taylor or denizens of Studio 54? I think the answer to that is yes. If you're a man or woman of the people, you've got to put up some boundaries to keep it real. Heck, no matter how asinine Bono is, he doesn't get caught in either celebrity culture or flaunting opulent wealth.

Now I may very well be overstating things. M.I.A.'s lyrical content does not even measure up to Public Enemy, a band that sometimes rapped more about being political than actually rapping about politics (and I say that as a big fan of PE). But even if her lyrics aren't always up to snuff in this category, her music actually is in the same vein of what The Clash was doing with Sandinista.

It's possible that once M.I.A. is a Bronfman by marriage that she may be able to use this status and wealth as a platform to act on issues that she's alluded to in her music and interviews. If so, then her current artistic stance will be bolstered. But if that doesn't happen, I might be a lot more skeptical of her future endeavors.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Handcuffs -- Electroluv

The Handcuffs -- Electroluv (OOFL)

The second Handcuffs album finds Chloe F. Orwell and Brad Elvis (who goes full name on the credits – Brad Elvis Steakley) continuing to expand their musical palette. Meanwhile, Brad Elvis shows yet again that he’s a wiseacre emeritus, as his lyrics are clever and witty (though sometimes, they fall a bit short. That’s the risk you take when you go clever). Moreover, Elvis, who is one of the flashiest drummers around, does not show off, doing what is necessary to make the song better.

Of course, Orwell can make most songs better. I am not the only writer who makes the inevitable Deborah Harry comparison. This is because Chloe has a great voice and brings an actor’s touch to the songs, providing the right attitude or feel to each tune.

A great example of this can be found on the third and fourth cuts on the disc. “I Just Wanna’ Be Free, Man” is a glam rock stomp (with an appropo “Jean Genie” reference) that allows Orwell to strut her sassy stuff. This is a particularly well produced track, as it crackles with electricity of a live show.

The next song shows off a much softer side. “Turn It Up” is a piano based mid-tempo number, and Orwell is as tender as can be. This is a dramatic song which builds to a great finale. Before getting there, Orwell plays a nice vibraphone solo (!), which is a sweet respite before the urgent pleading at the end. “Wonderful Life” isn’t as stirring, but it’s also a good change of pace from the more upbeat offerings surrounding it.

That includes the silly “Baby Boombox”, which is grounded in Brad Elvis’s rumbling drum beat with deft bass accompaniment by Casey McDonough. And Orwell’s flute adds an odd touch to this percussive track. The song is about a guy who’s truly into music, from his thousands of vinyl records, his reel to reel tape collection and the boom box with a Clash sticker on it. Super fun.

Of course, that could apply to most of the tracks on this disc, from the adrenalized power pop of “Gotta’ Problem With Me” (which sounds like a Cheap Trick-y remnant from Brad and Chloe’s Big Hello days) to the galloping piano pop of the driving “Half a Mind”.

The only songs that don’t do it for me are “Fake Friends”, which, compared to “Turn It Up”, is overly dramatic. It’s kind of in the vein of Pat Benatar’s “Fire and Ice”, but it’s a tad too much for me. Then “God is Sure One Funny Girl” takes a T. Rex riff and applies it to a lyrical concept that just doesn’t work. The song just doesn’t flow.

I find that on every album from Brad and Chloe there’s a track or two that doesn’t click. I think it’s because they aren’t just rewriting the same songs over and over. Yes, there is a style and sensibility at work that holds all of it together, but they are really about new ideas, whether it’s a new lyrical conceit or some new riff or arrangement that will expand their sound. In other words, they don’t believe in filler. But the price of having ideas, is that not every one will work.

When I listen to The Handcuffs, I’m well aware that a lot of their favorite artists are mine too. Unlike some bands that settle for imitation, Elvis and Orwell know that the reason their influences sounded so good was because they kept trying new things. So they do the same. The result is yet another swell album.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart -- The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart -- The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (Slumberland)

For whatever reason, my initial reaction to this young band’s homage to British late-‘80s indie pop was pretty sour. I couldn’t deny that the music was enticing and, at times, quite catchy. Yet the band seemed to be a bit lacking in the personality department, with wan vocals that barely stood out amongst the prominent guitars.

Then I looked at the lyric sheet. And once I grasped what they were singing, my feelings changed. As carefree and innocent as these songs sound on the surface, there is little that is pure about this crew. Moreover, I have to admit that The Pains mastered this classic sound.

Perhaps the less cynical among you will connect sooner than I did. The track that turned the trick for me was “This Love Is Fucking Right!”. This song makes Prince’s “Sister” seem tame. This is a tale of sibling lust, with the brother essentially giving a pep talk to his sister/lover. The song sails in on a bed of strumming guitars with a subtly insistent rhythm section propelling the track. Lead singer Kip Berman, with backing from keyboardist Peggy Wang, explains how the rough sex they had is better than what she gets from her husband. If that isn’t enough, he concludes: “Can you go home/look your best friend in the eye?/No you can’t go home/after where you slept last night.” Now I don’t condone what this song is about, but the mix of sweet poppy rock and disgusting salacious lyrics is pretty cool.

Sex and death permeate the lyrics, though rarely are they as distinctive as on “Fucking Right!” I do like the sex in the library plot of “Young Adult Friction”. Riding a beat and bed of guitars that could have fueled a Primitives song, Kip sings in a fey voice: “I never thought I would come of age/let alone on a moldy page/you put your back to the spines/and you said it was fine.” You think it would be tough to have a quickie in a place where it’s so quiet.

Meanwhile, the band moves into “Pink Turns Into Blue” territory on “A Teenager in Love”. I only mean that in terms of subject matter. The music is twinky Motown meets ‘80s Brit indie pop. The jauntiness supports a song about a gal who OD’d: “A teenager in love with Christ and heroin.”

Though I like the sour words and sweet music, over the course of an album it can only take things so far. Every song here is very attractive and made for blasting out in the summer (and since I’m from Chicago, I’m hoping we have a sunny warm day by August in which to do so). But the music sounds great at the moment, but it doesn’t always resonate.

Only on “The Tenure Itch” does the music really stick. The snappy drums and the keyboard backing, which suggests strings and horns (in the vein of China Crisis) give this a bit more lasting power. And when the band turns up the fuzz and rocks out on “Hey Paul”, I wish they’d do that more frequently.

The great news is that the Pains have released a fun debut album and have room to grow. So this isn’t Sliced Bread, 21st Century Version, but if you can get over that, you can accept this for the pop platter it is and hope for even better things next time.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Song Sung Blue

Song Sung Blue (2008)

Milwaukee may not be our largest city, but it has inspired two documentaries about ordinary people following their dreams in the entertainment world. First it was American Movie, about aspiring filmmaker Mark Borchardt. This time around, Brew City is the setting for Song Sung Blue, which follows Mike and Claire Sardina, who performed around the city as Lightning & Thunder, a Neil Diamond tribute act.

The beginning of the movie, for the most part, is a whirlwind. An array of performance clips and interviews establish that Lightning & Thunder had a legitimate following in Milwaukee. Sure, there is a cheese factor to watching Lightning with his buxom blonde back up singer, but there's no denying that this was as sincere a tribute as could be. Lightning has Neil Diamond's phrasing and tone down fairly well, and is a big ham, making for a solid musical experience and a lot of fun.

Lightning & Thunder reached an apex in 1995, when Eddie Vedder invited them to perform a song during Pearl Jam's set at Milwaukee's Summerfest. Lightning relates that Vedder wanted them to perform "Song Sung Blue", but Lightning nixed that, explaining that "Forever in Blue Jeans" was the right song for the Pearl Jam crowd. The footage of Vedder singing with the duo is hilarious, but the 30,000 or so in attendance ate it up.

But this movie isn't really about the act. It's a love story about an inseparable couple who lived for performing. There is no doubt they love each other, but a large part of the love was fueled by the magic they created (and felt) on stage.

So when an elderly driver drove up on the Sardina lawn while Claire was mowing it, she lost part of her left leg, which caused a downward spiral from which she and her husband/partner had a hard time recovering from. The giddy energy of the movie grinds to a halt, as the travails of the Sardinas are often painful to watch.

The pair allowed director Greg Kohs extraordinary access during this terrible period. Moreover, Mike Sardina kept his video camera running during some of the most awkward moments. In one particularly chilling home video, Claire delivers a holiday message that almost seems like a suicide note of sorts.

This section of the movie might go on a bit long, but what is remarkable is how the Sardinas ultimately endure. And they keep the dream alive. A prosthetic leg and a near complete dissipation of their audience during their lost years is no deterrent. Even more remarkable is it becomes apparent that their sole livelihood was Lightning & Thunder.

At this point, I'd have to travel to Spoiler City to go on about the movie. Let me just say that there are more ups and downs, and by the end of the movie, I was far from the only one who had failed to hold back the tears.

The movie is full of local flavor, whether Kohs takes a detour to Neil Diamond's favorite frozen custard spot in Milwaukee or gets insight from an array of local characters who knew Lightning & Thunder. For example, a member of the odd-rock band The Frogs has a great anecdote about Lightning's sort of meeting with Neil Diamond.

I was fortunate to see this at a festival screening. After the movie, Kohs, Thunder and her daughter (a teen in the movie, a young adult now) took some questions, and Thunder even gave us a rendition of Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight".

Kohs noted that the movie almost didn't get played at Slamdance. He was having trouble getting the music licensing cleared. With things coming down to the wire, he called in a favor from the number one Lighting & Thunder fan in the world, Eddie Vedder.

Vedder got on the horn with Neil Diamond and a copy of the movie was shipped to the living legend. Soon thereafter, Kohs got a call from one of Neil's people: Neil wanted the movie to show at Slamdance.

Maybe Eddie and Neil can now find a way to get this movie into general release. While they're at it, they should write a song about Mike and Claire. It would be perfect for two of the most dramatic singers of the past couple of generations.