Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Five unforgivable music-related things (from this week) (what, only five?)

1. This mix by Keoki starts with about a minute and a half of crowd noise. It's like he's introducing himself with clapping and cheering to build anticipation for the music you are about to hear via your CD player. The goal of music-loving humanity for the next year or so is to prevent Chris Daughtry from hearing this at all costs, because otherwise he will use this idea for the start of his next album. It's also unfortunate I prefer the cheering intro to a lot of the music on the disc, so I doubt I'll be digging this off the shelf too often.

2. Cowboy Junkies 20th Anniversary "Trinity Sessions". I haven't heard the re-recorded album yet, but I have heard a couple of gig recordings where they play the entire album from start to finish, interspersed with Margo Timmins' glacially slow storytelling about what a special day it was in that church, how their lives changed forever, and plenty more goopy ramblings. Now on one hand, the Cowboy Junkies are fantastic, as is the original "Trinity Sessions", and every lo-fi, reverb-obsessed indie band that recorded anything in the last 20 twenty years owes them a big thank you. On the other hand, why mess with perfection and then spend two hours on stage spilling turgid, demystifying details? I'm torn on this one, but for this week, it's in the "unforgivable" category.

3. Stereotyp, "Keepin' Me". In which Stefan Moerth obsessively attempts to create a radio-friendly R&B megahit. His album "My Sound" suffered from the same problem, but it also had "Fling Style", which out-Rhythm and Sound-ed Rhythm and Sound, complete with the poaching of Paul St. Hilaire, so I was more than willing to give Stereotyp another chance. He's capable of much more adventurous music than this.

4. Asian Dub Foundation: why? Who used to like this stuff? People who bought mix CD's with "Buddha" in the title? I couldn't figure it out ten years ago, and I still can't, but every time I pull out "Stoned ... Chilled ... Groove" I'm forced to revisit the issue. This disc is still a fascinating listen, and it's aged a lot better than you might expect. Fila Brazilia's opener twists itself through fascinating rhythmic changes, Global Communication are their usual amazing selves, and Journeyman drifts his way through a peaceful ambient epic (although, as is the case with nearly everything Paul Frankland did post-"Woob1194", there is too much emphasis on "melding influences" and not enough on ambiance). And Bandulu's "Run Run Run" is still the king of the disc, saving the second half of the mix with its jaw-dropping, stomach-flipping bassline.

5. My International Herald Tribune recently informed me that Starbucks' once-devoted pool of music buyers is starting to turn against it. Why of course -- they've become too commercial ("you sold out!" scream the sweater-clad thirty-somethings over a non-fat latte that can be purchased in roughly 985207235 mega-conglomerate coffee stands throughout the world)!

I never had a problem with Starbucks' much ballyhooed exclusivity deals with the likes of Bob Dylan and Alanis Morrissette. Only major music retailers would be so desperate to treat artists and their albums as public domain whose wares should be sold everywhere in the interest of fairness. It's not fair for the New York Times to exclusively print this article -- let's print it everywhere so all the other papers can make money too! Dumb. But silly me -- I thought the whole idea of selling music at Starbucks was to create their own fiercely loyal highbrow niche market out of thin air (i.e. getting people who don't buy CDs to buy CDs), not to compete with real music chains and to take sales away from them. The notion of people heading down to Starbucks to check out some hott new soundz might seem silly to you and me, but they made it work. And now they've overstepped their original business plan by such a large margin that they've managed to piss off people who buy five CDs a year, and that's not easy to do. It doesn't make Starbucks any less stupid, though. See also, Idolator's take.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Max Romeo/Ben Klock weekend doubleheader

Max Romeo and his band put on a sensational show, and any fears I might have had about Romeo's voice fading with age were put to rest from the start. An active, involved crowd always makes a concert that much more memorable, but I was especially impressed with the venue (Barbi), which boasts itself as the city's true reggae home and backed it up in spades. It's a crusty venue in the best possible sense, with a dingy (but not at all grimy) atmosphere, like a giant log cabin, with an intimately aligned second tier along one edge of the hall that makes the place feel like an early 90's AC/DC video once everybody crowds against the railings to watch the show.

Ben Klock warmed up with perhaps the toughest minimal techno I've ever heard. The basslines were virtually nonexistent but the beats were brutally stiff, creating an oddly tranquil sense of space even as the music pounded from the speakers at high volume. Eventually, he progressed toward denser material, Detroit-ish stuff with blazing HIHATS that gives me hope that my Cari Lekebusch and Kai Randy Michel records are becoming cool again.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Autechre, "Quaristice"

It sounds like Autechre, as you'd expect.

I'm tempted to leave it at that, not only because that basically sums it all up, but because it's apparent that Autechre have stopped trying to make original and compelling music, so why shouldn't I minimize my effort in writing about it?

Autechre are becoming the Rolling Stones of electronica, in which each new album is more or less a retread of the one previous, but is automatically praised as their best since "LP5"/"Some Girls". I do hear elements of the warm, analogue bleep-fest that was "Incunabula" on this record, but otherwise virtually any of these songs could have appeared on any one of the past six Autechre releases.

Not only that, but 15-20 track albums that run 60-75 minutes are typically snoozefests. Having that many tracks breaks up the flow of the album more times than one's attention span can normally tolerate, and then dragging the length past the hour mark makes it feel as though the repeated jumpstarts will never, ever end. If Autechre really wanted to play around with a bunch of short songs, they should have taken this album's content (and admittedly, there are plenty of interesting ideas here) and shaped a ten-track, forty minute album of sweet ambient interludes and electro-tinged beats. This isn't 1994, and they don't have to stick to the double-album format anymore. Twisting "new ideas in[to] slightly newer contexts" is a micro-evolution process that I simply don't have the patience for anymore.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Vienna music update II/roundup

What happens when you hear the same nine or ten songs on the radio every morning? Among other things, the new James Blunt single has grown on me. I still think that Blunt is a sappy, unimaginative songwriter and performer, but he is damn good at filling a particular niche of weepy ballads beloved by little sisters and their moms. Also, the greatness of Alicia Keys' "No One" has finally been forcibly driven into me, no doubt because I heard it two or three times per day over the past two weeks.

The Cure concert on February 23rd was predictably great, in the best and worst possible sense of the phrase. On the positive side, the band ripped through a solid three-hour set packed with hits and rarities. They opened strong and seemed to tire out a bit toward the end of the main set, but that's a minor quibble because they came back blazing for the encores. They consistently sliced two or three minutes off of the long songs ("One Hundred Years", "Pictures of You", "End" ...), which started to get on my nerves. Nearly every time, I will gladly trade hearing uncut songs, yet fewer of them; to hearing a larger number of songs that are cut down in order to fit them all in. However, the Cure are settling into a comfortable rut, where they have gradually transformed into their own oldies band. The past fifteen years have been nearly purged from their history, and the once fresh "17 Seconds" encore has been beaten into the ground to the point where part of me wishes they'll get it over with as quickly as possible.

"Rave Up Records" is a scruffy (in the best possible way) shop near the Naschmarkt and one of Vienna's university campuses. They stock a healthy variety of music, and I was particularly impressed by their reggae (vinyl!!) and electronic sections. The latter section wasn't so large and was a bit disorganized, but the quality made up for it (there are plenty of hard-to-find gems to be found, but you have to dig a little). Prices were a bit high (although reasonable by Viennese standards -- it's an expensive city) and comparison shopping is recommended if you will be in another major music hub anytime soon. Local music was noticeably priced lower, with certain high-profile exceptions (i.e. Fennesz, but I guess they can get away with that, and I can't really blame them for it). I picked up Minit's "Now Right Here" and Pomassl's "Skeleton", these being a) hard-to-find CD's that aren't easily found in Toronto, let alone Tel Aviv, b) yet more reminders that I don't live in Berlin and cannot shop there regularly to buy CDs like these all the time, all of these being the types of thoughts I've had more regularly ever since I moved to Tel Aviv and rejoined the ranks of the music-buying living. Excess begets more excess, it really does.

"Substance"'s calling card is its vinyl section, particular for soul and techno. "Musik und so" has one of the most wonderfully bizarre collection of second hand CDs I've ever seen, with huge, largely uncategorized rock and electronic sections that are filled with zillions of Eastern European bands I've never heard of, and plenty of Western European and North American bands I'd thought I'd forgotten about. It also has a prodigiously huge collection of oldies, shlager (European pop), and jazz on vinyl. I bought a handful of second hand gems, including Arcana's "The Last Embrace" (wall-of-sound medieval goth) and Cluster's "Zuckerzeit" (a long overdue CD purchase for me).

The recently unearthed 1967 Velvet Underground bootleg is every bit as good as advertised, with the band firing on every proto-krautrock cylinder. This version of "Run Run Run" turns out to be one of the funkiest eight-minute stretches of their career, and "new" track "I'm not a Young Man Anymore" doesn't disappoint, rocking out in crunchy, amped-up Bo Diddley style that they perfected between albums two and three with three songs like "Foggy Motion" and "I Guess I'm Falling In Love". The biggest gem of the bunch is the reputed debut performance of "Sister Ray", which easily surpasses the studio (and many subsequent live) versions in its first half, rocking out the song's basic minimalist groove for ten whole minutes until the intensity grows positively eye-watering. If it continued on this way, I could probably listen to it forever, but instead they shifted gears toward the improvised section of the track. In this fledgling version they clearly didn't have a clear idea of where the song was going, so they meandered in circles with none of the chaotic explosiveness of the studio version until the track eventually bleeds away. That first half is something else though.

Somewhere deep in the Vienna woods, somebody drew the Sigur Ros logo on a random tree stump. Bewildering but pleasant, and a nice surprise on an otherwise predictable hike.

Centimeter II's music rotation, at least on the night I was there, was overflowing with not yet critically rehabilitated late-80's rock, such as Roxette and Cyndi Lauper's "I Drove All Night" (which I can't ever remember hearing in any bar, any city, at any time) (although I'm pretty sure I've heard Celine Dion's version in a bar at least once!)

I took a quick time out from the museums and cafes to catch "I'm Not There" at the English-language theatre near my hotel. Ten minutes in, as real Bob Dylan anecdotes and mythology were superbly weaved together with a fictionalized stories, I knew I was watching a great movie but wondered how they'd possibly be able to continue with this sort of content for two more hours. Even Cate Blanchett's sensational "Don't Look Back"-era Dylan got his point across about halfway through the movie. Thankfully, this wasn't a series of actors attempting various Dylan impressions, as only Blanchett was taxed with the unenviable task of apeing Dylan's vocal cadences and mannerisms, and pulling off all of the iconic lines. I didn't feel anything from the Gere character at all, and felt it badly detracted from the movie. Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg (who carries this storyline on her back and is the second best thing about the film after Blanchett) were also playing out a drama that felt detached from everything else in the movie, but that was clearly the point -- to cleanly drive a wedge between public Dylan and private Dylan.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Jeff Healey

Paradoxically enough considering his constant health problems, I had always assumed that Jeff Healey was indestructible like so many other bluesmen who lived and played to ripe old ages. News of his death came as a big shock to me.

I found myself regretting that I never saw him play, despite living in Toronto for so long and having a million opportunities to do so ... and then I remembered that I did, in fact, see him one time. Although I have fond memories of the one and only Bourbon Tabernacle Choir show that I saw, I had somehow nearly forgotten about Healey's walk-on from a packed audience. He played a couple of songs with the band, and although it was surely (?) pre-planned, it *felt* spontaneous, as if he'd just wandered in off the street and was invited on stage to the delight of a surprised BTC and their audience. Another day, another BTC gig where barely restrained chaos was the norm (*you* try cramming anywhere between six and twelve people, depending on the song and which of the band's friends are in attendance, on stage at the Horseshoe Tavern).

RIP Jeff Healey.