Sunday, May 31, 2009

MUTEK revisited (IV)

8. Tim Hecker vs 242 Pilots

May 29, 2003:"Then, after a couple of exercises in sound/visual synchronization by 242 Pilots, it launches into their improvised visual accompaniment with Tim Hecker. He's dead-on awesome, combining noise and splendour while holding the room in his own personal trance."

You can grab a recording of this from MUTEK podcast #9, but be warned that it's not a complete version of the gig. The first twenty minutes were the "exercises in sound/visual synchronization", musically this resembled Thomas Brinkmann's vinyl-slicing experiments far more than what you'd typically get from Tim Hecker. I'm listening to the complete recording, the MUTEK version picks up once Hecker's warm, enveloping, airy tones kick in, as the set begins to focus on "Radio Amor" material.

So, what else can I say about the great Tim Hecker? He is one of the most reliable artists of the decade, and also one of the most formulaic. Both are meant to be compliments. He has found a signature style that works wonders for him, and I'm completely OK with continuing to listen to sets like these from now until he chooses to stop making them or quits music altogether. He takes his formula and alters it depending on how melancholy he wants his music to be (with choice of additional black metal or shoegaze add-ons) and away he goes. He is to the 00's what Stereolab were to the 90's -- he has about three songs and keeps rewriting them over and over, but those three songs are so damn good that the endless recycling scarcely seems to matter.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

MUTEK revisited (III)

6. Senor Coconut y Su Conjunto

May 31, 2003: "Despite the novelty graphics on the video screen (Space Invaders, robots, etc.), it's obvious when seeing them that they are no novelty act. Musicianship this good is no joke. Marimba and vibraphone players with this sort of dexterity aren't looking for laughs. I'm sure the majority isn't well versed with the Kraftwerk originals, but the band holds the crowd in the palms of their hands for a solid hour and a half. And Uwe Schmidt, despite sticking out somewhat by being the only band member dressed in a full suit, plays the role of the anti-star and stands off to the side with his laptop and lets the rest of the band be the stars. If you didn't enjoy this show, then you have no pulse."

Why did I think that the crowd wouldn't be familiar with the Kraftwerk originals? There must have been some reason for such an usual comment, but I can't for the life of me remember what it could have been. Comments from people I talked to before the show? Were people not singing along during the set?

When you're as prolific as Atom Heart, almost anything you do will have a limited shelf life, performance-wise. In this case, he got out while the gimmick was still hot. The world didn't need Kraftwerk songs done in mambo, salsa, and cha-cha-cha styles, and a few of these songs don't lend themselves well to the styles at all (e.g. "The Man Machine", "Trans-Europe Express"), but songs like "Neon Lights" and "Showroom Dummies" are just gorgeous -- you could probably slot these tracks into rotation at a salsa bar and anybody who didn't know the original songs would carry on dancing without batting an eyelash. And that massive, fifteen-minute "Musique Non Stop", complete with a round of instrumental solos, forgives just about any earlier miscues.

I don't understand why they didn't switch the order of the encores ("Expo 2000" should have been the first encore, with "Tour de France" as the second, and final encore that closed the book on this chapter of Senor Coconut for good) but otherwise, this performance is about as good as anyone could have possibly expected.

7. Bola

May 30, 2002: "When one goes years between releases and live gigs, you'd expect nothing less than all the stops pulled out. And he complies by mainly avoiding the blippy curiosities that have surfaced on Skam lately, and covering his songs in the lush ambiance that he's best known for."

One of the things I really loved about this show were the lush, colourful visuals, which were a relatively new thing for techno gigs at the time. Now, video accompaniments of the quality presented by Bola are pretty much the standard, or at the very least, nobody would look at them in 2009 and say that the artist had "pulled out all the stops". If I saw this gig today, I'd be far less impressed, right? Right?

I disowned Bola and anything Skam-y for a long time. In 1998, I was convinced that this stuff was the future of techno, nothing less than the next major step forward for electronic music, on par with the pioneering sound of the Detroit originals. HAHAHAHAHA. On just about any given day, I'll tell you this was my all-time biggest musical fortune-telling blunder. By 2002, I had stopped drinking that particular flavour of Kool-Aid, but was still fairly stoked about seeing Bola, whose album "Soup" remained special to me.

IDM is about as dead as dead can be, even deader than it was in 2002, but dammit if this set doesn't sound shockingly fresh. Maybe it's just because I haven't listened to Bola in a while (i.e. it's fresh all over again because I've dug up something ancient that nobody bothers with anymore), but the connections between this and contemporary dub techno have never seemed clearer (although today's dub techno is itself largely a turn-back-the-clock genre that is simply reprocessing the same Basic Channel records, but whatever, things run in cycles, current is current). Bola's music was ahead of its time in that the more serene moments perfectly anticipated the bedroom "pop ambient" style, and he balanced the funky/lush divide better than just about any other IDM-er.

This is my favourite of the "revisited" sets I've heard thus far. Who would've thunk it??

Friday, May 29, 2009

MUTEK revisited (II)

5. Deadbeat/Monolake webjam

May 30, 2002: "To add a note or sound to the music, all one does is point and click at the desired spot in one of the stanzas. Scott's additions are in blue, Rob's are in red. All is composed on the fly. In real time. And following it is as easy as watching the bouncing ball - white dots sweep through the stanzas indicating the position in the music. "

Here's another one that hasn't aged well, or to be more fair, loses a lot when deprived of the live visual element. And that's not really a criticism -- the whole point of this was to pull off a real-time performance between two collaborators thousands of km apart, so it shouldn't matter too much if the resulting music doesn't come off well as a stand-alone piece. Sure, the music meanders quite a bit, and is mostly just two guys switching loops on and off for thirty minutes, but what do you expect considering the stated improvised nature of the performance and the fact that the musicians couldn't communicate with each other except via a few dancing dots on a computer screen? It feels like they didn't have a clear idea of where they were headed during the first ten minutes or so, but once they hit the intermittently beatless portion about halfway through and Monolake's icy ambient bits start floating about, then it starts to feel more like a cohesive piece of music.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

MUTEK revisited

I attended the 2001-3 versions of the festival, but haven't been back since due to a combination of factors ($$, work commitments, and relocation, in that order). Thee is a rich history of techno and experimental/improv music in Montreal, and this unusual combination of scenes (something that isn't easily found in many other cities) helps make MUTEK so unique.

Memories naturally fade over time, and I'm lucky that I can help myself relive those days through the diaries that I kept during those years at the festival (although I still call myself names for never having the good sense to bring along a camera). Years ago, the MUTEK website had an audio archive of past performances, but unfortunately that section has repeatedly come on and offline with the site's many full-body overhauls.

A couple of months ago, I started digging up a bunch of old sets on slsk, and I'm curious to see how well they hold up and what I think of them today. Around that time, MUTEK made that task a bit easier by starting up a podcast featuring performances from past years in the run-up to this year's installment of the festival.

MUTEK10 began yesterday, and I thought it would be fun to pay tribute with a series of new posts about previous festivals. Next year, screw it, I'm getting on a plane.

1. Stephan Mathieu presents Sad Mac Studies

May 30, 2002: "Stephan Mathieu, flanked by a glacially chameleonic video screen, soothes me to the core with drones resembling a cross between chimes and choruses, and [an] electroacoustic hum which is so calming [that] I stretch myself out (never feeling tired for a moment) and reveled in putting my ear to the floor and listening to it purr."

Sadly, I only have about 20 min of this set. It's so incredibly peaceful and serene, something that makes you feel totally alone whether you're sitting at home, or stretched out on the floor of a darkened room surrounded by hundreds of other similarly stretched out people, lounging all over the gymnasium-like polished wooden floors of Ex-Centris. Mathieu performed two days later as "Full Swing" and was even better, confirming me as a fan for life, heck, I even bought a CD of his just a few months ago in my never-ending quest to recreate the 3D, all-enveloping intensity of these shows from 2002. Part of the problem is mine, I have to pick the wrong discs, obediently buying what happens to turn up in the shops even though Mathieu does drone infinitely better than he does weird experimental bleeps.

2. Gentle Bakemono

June 1, 2003: "Pleasing the dance floors has never been his principal focus. Showcasing his brand new digital-based sound as Gentle Bakemono, he opens with beautiful drifting ambient followed by his old familiar sounding material. Except that it's digital, I guess. Since the hub of the Montreal techno scene excludes him, Kristian's been overlooked as of late. But he hasn't been left behind."

And yeah, that opening 20 minutes of ambient is absolutely stunning, easily the best part of the set. David Kristian undoubtedly remains underrated.

3. Closer Musik

June 3, 2001: "... somehow, however inconceivable it may seem, Closer Musik and their dinky, catchy melodies are fun-tastically brilliant. This may all go to pot and fall into a casualty ditch as did with Rephlex records' similar experimentations with electro-retro-futurism, but for now, this crowd adores them ..."

(warning: the nicknaming and silliness in that writeup was something of an experiment, a goofy throwback to the naming conventions of my 90's clubbing days, it probably comes across as infuriating these days, but it was just a bit of fun I was having at the time, so let's be cool)

So much is lost from that Closer Musik set when you can't lay eyes on their dapper pop star clothes and antiquated equipment. Back in the days when everything was archived on the MUTEK website, I listened to this set over and over, wondering where the magic had gone and why it felt so exciting at the time.

This is why I have to take issue with the blurb from the podcast, which feels hugely revisionist to me. At the time, nobody was marveling at the timelessness of their approach or how it was such a departure from other acts on Kompakt. Closer Musik weren't ahead of their time, they were behind the times (their computers were Ataris!), and intentionally so, framing their sound as a throwback to "The Model"-era Kraftwerk, but stretching their primitive, minimally constructed tracks out to epic lengths. I don't think they sounded much like anything Kompakt released later on, unless the tie that binds is little more than Closer Musik's occasional use of vocals.

4. Akufen

June 2, 2001: "The countryman vibe continued with Montreal's own Akufen as your headliner. He started by roping everyone into a false sense of security, Process-style, with the stuck-in-a-cave atmospherics, which soon exploded into furious (but minimal, of course) techno beats with various electronic mayhem spread on top. Oh yes, everyone danced like a bastard again."

Again, the podcast blurb doesn't really ring true -- Akufen's big coming out year as the "great white hope" of the festival was 2002, after the release of "My Way". This is probably as good as Akufen ever got. His creativity was peaking here, later on, his reliance on microsampling became a crutch that pigeonholed his music into a time and place. But it's all here in the 2001 set -- dubbed-out ambiance, funky microhouse beats, and plenty of unusual twists and turns.

Friday, May 22, 2009

American Idol Finale Part II, running diary!

I'm watching a commercial-free version, so this will be organized by segments. I managed to avoid the internet for the entire day after the finale so that I wouldn't find out who won, so these are truly "live", unbiased thoughts. Going in, I really had no firm idea about who would win Season Eight, making this a coin flip that we haven't seen the likes of since Season 2 (Clay vs Ruben).

1. There were 624 million votes cast this season, 100 million from last night alone. WOW. "The thing for me for you for me" ... ha, it's good to know that they recognize that Randy Jackson is a glorified Speak and Spell and are willing to exploit the humour in that. And why is Randy dressed like Urkel? Those glasses!

It is a somewhat interesting that Paula made an effort to not just be a cheerleader this season, and to be a bit more eloquent this season. Funny how she stepped up her game when Kara joined, because wasn't the plan for Paula to continue being a flake so that Kara could be the insightful one?

The top 13 commit murder against Pink's "So What", this was some serious summer camp talent show singalong material. I see that Jasmine Murray still sucks and can't sing her one line in tune.

2. David Cook belts out a scream-filled power ballad. I hope people download the heck out of it to raise money for cancer research, but unfortunately the song blew, and his voice sounded shaky and strained throughout. At least he screamed at proper moments in the song, and saved his voice for the big, majestic phrases in the chorus. Adam Lambert fans take note. In the meantime, AI found Justin Guarini under a rock and stuck him in the audience!

Now the AI version of toilet humour starts with the first of the silly "awards" segments. This Outstanding Male category is obviously a preamble to a Nick Mitchell appearance. I still think that they hugely missed the boat with this guy, sure he might have broken the show but it takes talent to pull off this psycho vaudeville shtick and unlike Adam Lambert, when Nick screams randomly and goes OTT, he's doing it for laughs.

3. Lil Rounds hits the stage full of fire, showing the kind of energy that made her look like a front runner during the semifinals, but then Queen Latifah, whose totally bland voice is completely unsuited for a song like this, appears and sucks all the life from the stage.

4. Why is Jason Mraz on stage and Kris Allen is not?? Because Kris had to get ready to sing with ... Keith Urban? The bloody hell????

But I have to admit that the two of them have fantastic chemistry onstage. Kris is the real "sing the phone book" contestant because you could basically put him on stage with anybody and he'd fit in. He could credibly guest on an impressive variety of records in a bunch of different genres, unlike Adam who would fit in with My Chemical Romance and that's about it.

5. Allison gets to introduce Fergie and the Black Eyed Peas. I guess this is her consolation prize for being the highest placing girl and being forced to hang with this chorus line of stiffs. Poor Allison.

6. More dumb awards, as Kara gets schooled during the Bikini Girl audition and is put in her place by the other judges for the first (but far from last) time. But what follows are a couple of the most awesome minutes in the history of the show. It starts with BG sauntering out, waving around her new fake tits (and looking unfazed when Ryan gets in a nice zing about them), and acting like the biggest snob who ever snobbed. Seriously, Paris Hilton is home watching this and thinking "what a spoiled little bitch". So BG gets the chance to sing again, acting like this is her second big break and a star-making moment that we're all going to remember, only to have Kara make a surprise walk-on, sing the hell out of "Vision of Love", and rip off her dress to display an even teenier bikini afterward. There's just no way that BG knew this would happen, if she was in on the whole thing then she should probably switch to acting. I'm going to invoke Occam's Razor and assume that she is in fact a completely talentless whore, and therefore she got PWNED, I mean, just watch her trying to sneak in a few notes and reclaim the song from Kara, then, when she realized that was hopeless, listen to her meekly attempting to draw some attention to herself by throwing in some worthless melisma as background vocals, then watch her awkward, shamed face on stage when Ryan comes out at the end, and finally watch her jealously checking out Kara's bikini body like she was a "Jerry Springer" guest who's about to start a catfight with the girl who stole her trailer trash boyfriend. If Kara is really about to be kicked to the Idol curb, then this was a HELL of a way to go out.

7. Allison and Cyndi Lauper seem to have their timing off throughout "Time After Time" (even including the post-song hug) but the spark of greatness is still there.

8. Danny Gokey sounds pretty good on "Hello", and then stands up to introduce ... Lionel Richie (I was ready to put my money on him singing a duet with his friend Jamar Rogers, but this is obviously a better option). It's just too bad that their version of "All Night Long" is pure cruise ship material (cf. Simon Cowell).

9. A retrospective of "Adam's journey" leads directly into a short rendition of "Beth", dressed up in studded leather, enough eye makeup to blind Cyndi Lauper, and a pair of O_O black wings that even Martin Gore wouldn't have worn on stage for fear of looking ridiculous. Then he introduces the real deal -- Kiss! I take back what I said, he obviously fits in with Kiss, because this is exactly the setting where his excesses don't matter one bit.

10. Carlos Santana with ... Matt Giraud? Before I can throw my shoes at the TV while angrily wondering where they stashed Kris Allen when he could have been onstage singing "Smooth", here come the top 13 (including Kris front and centre) to sing, yep, "Smooth"! Heather Locklear isn't nearly as excited as I am.

11. Steve Martin has a new album out? I keep waiting for the weirdass Inspector Clouseau moment to break out with Michael Sarver and Megan Joy as his jesters in training, but it doesn't happen. This is a pretty sweet song, actually.

12. The guys take a crack at "D'Ya Think I'm Sexy", which is a truly bizarre choice for a group performance, which leads to Rod Stewart sauntering out and gasping his way through "Maggie May".

13. And how could we survive until next season without one last Golden Idol award, this time for "Outstanding Female", but Idol delivers again because we really do need to see Tatiana del Toro again. The season is now complete, no sarcasm. If the AI producers really believed that Tatiana and Nick Mitchell were such jokes then you'd think that they wouldn't waste everyone's time in slotting them into the top 36 (and letting Tatiana into the wildcard round), but hey, it's not my show.

14. Now it's the swan song performance for the final two, dueling each other one last time on "We Are the Champions", and suddenly Queen themselves appear out of a cloud of smoke. Corny choice, but great booking, if you know what I mean. Queen's music is right in Adam's wheelhouse, so this is either his unofficial coronation song, or a sweet bit of irony as he goes down swinging. SO stoked for the results now!

15. YES! IT'S KRIS!! And the moment is ruined with a stupid AI winners trophy?

We can start the post-mortem analysis now, including the conspiracy theories about how Kris actually dominated the voting throughout the season and the producers tried to knock him down a la Clay Aiken to try to forge a real competition out of what might have otherwise been a runaway win. Bring on Season Nine ...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

American Idol Finale -- random liveblogging notes!

-- Adam's "Mad World" II doesn't even remotely touch the greatness he showed the first time. He was constantly on the verge of oversinging, and it lost all the vulnerability that made it so wonderful the last time around.
-- useless twat Matt G with his pouty sad face IN THE AUDIENCE. What's this guy's problem? He's pissed that he's not up on stage?
-- Kris kills it with "Ain't No Sunshine", showing more passion and fire than he has all season long. And good on him for not making the safe choice and going with "Heartless" again (hi dere Kat McPhee you sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" during the finale in Season 5).
-- "A Change Is Gonna Come"? What an AWFUL choice for Adam, who will surely scream the hell out of it in an attempt to inject his version of "soul" into it, and kill any and all of the sentiment that makes the song so great.
-- See, I told you. Maybe Simon Fuller just wanted to expose Adam as a pantomime freak. They spent all those weeks trying to sabotage Kris' chances, so maybe what goes around comes around.
-- Of course the judges love it, but screw them.
-- Another awesome performance for Kris, which again perfectly displays the best of his talent, although I agree with Randy and Simon's comment about the arrangement being not ideal for the setting. This means Adam won't be singing any rock and roll tonight, which is a mistake.
-- This year's schmaltzy Idol winner's single is at least better than the usual crap they serve up. Kris' best argument for choosing to sing last when he won the coin flip is being justified right here, i.e. you definitely don't want the pimp spot going to Adam Lambert singing a Diane Warren-ish OTT power ballad.
-- Kris sounds hesitant from the first note, and doesn't have the big voice to carry this kind of song. He flubs a note in the first chorus and is clearly praying for it all to be over as soon as possible. His biggest trainwreck of the season, easily. Poor guy, and it's not at all his fault.
-- Of course the judges are living in bizarro world. Randy thinks it's more suitable for his voice than for Adam's. If we're only voting based on the talent they showed over the course of the entire season, then why hold the finale? What's the point of singing these songs if they're not meant to count. Or how about this, what's the point of praising a guy all season for "knowing who he is an an artist" and then forcing him to sing a schmaltzy ballad that is exactly the opposite of who he is as an artist?
-- In all, this felt like a completely superfluous show -- we heard the exact same praises we've been hearing all season long, and nothing occurred that will change anybody's mind about their favourite contestant, so GO KRIS GO!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Depeche Mode, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ramat Gan Stadium 10/05/09

In 2006, I followed Depeche Mode halfway around the world to see one of their concerts, and once the show was canceled, I was stuck here for three years while waiting for them to reschedule.

Writing about a DM concert is the toughest writing assignment I could ever have, and as I get older, it's getting harder, not easier. I choke up when trying to summarize the emotion and visceral thrill of seeing the best band ever, performing some of my favourite songs ever. The first concert I ever saw was DM on the "World Violation" tour, so every time I saw them after that, I thought about how Depeche Mode were both the first and last concert I'd seen in my life, bookends for my musical life, oh my how we've all grown and so much has changed. That angle is always there I want to tackle it. But enough corniness for the time being.

This is not at all like writing about a new album or single. The album will still be there tomorrow, and in one year's time. I can change my mind about it whenever I want, and discover new things about it that I like or dislike. But the tour blows through town and is gone the next day. After months of anticipation, the entire experience goes down in a few hours, leaving me bewildered and wondering how it could all be over so soon. it's all about the here and now. I get one shot to make it count. They only tour about once every four years, so it's like the Olympics for me -- come through on that day or else! I've seen them six times now, which seems like a lot, but that's spread over 19 years. 19 years! Depeche Mode concerts are the fence posts of life, forcing me to examine who I am and what I've done in the years since their previous concert ... oh yeah, no corniness. Let's talk about the music.

I can't tell you how happy I am to live in a country where "Enjoy the Silence" is widely considered to be one of the greatest songs ever, where almost every bar is sure to include it on their playlist. All this despite the fact that until last week, Depeche Mode had never played a concert in Israel. During the Second Lebanon War, Depeche Mode fan club members lamented the cancellation of their gig by assembling at the site of the concert and singing "Enjoy the Silence". The nightly news on National Channel 1 actually took time away from showing the ruins of rocketed buildings in order to broadcast this. OK, it was the final story of the evening, right before the top of the hour, at a time when virtually every newscast in every country shows something light and fluffy. But still, I never forgot that moment. Depeche Mode really matter here, I thought.

It turns out that I was somewhat mistakenly, or at the very least, overestimated the solidity of DM fandom in this country. This was more than obvious at the show as well as afterward, when every major news outlet was flooded with reports, photos, and reader comments about this historic gig. Fifty thousand people, many of whom were finally seeing this band for the first time, couldn't sustain their energy through the entire show, or even through half of the show. Some hits received enthusiastic, impassioned reactions. Other hits were greeted with much lesser reactions. The new songs, for the most part, earned almost no reaction, bordering on complete indifference. There were a lot of complaints, and a lot of complainers. I could have sworn that some of these opinions were coming from people who had never seen a concert before. Or is it really that surprising that a band who just released a new album might be playing some songs from it on their tour?

Even the fairly intelligent reviews, such as the one published by ynet, was marked by bizarre fixations on details of dubious relevance. The writer praised the beauty and elegance of the background visuals, but claimed that they were a distraction from the music. Silly me, I thought the whole point of going to a stadium concert was to be overwhelmed by a rush of sound, lights, video displays, and the deafening roar of thousands of screaming people. The writer can rest assured that there will be a tour DVD that may include those videos as bonus material, so that they can be watched at home, free of other aural or visual stimuli.

Part of the problem can be traced to Shuki Weiss, who nicely acted the part of the scummy local promoter by being widely quoted in assuring people that even though DM were undertaking a world tour in support of a new album, they were naturally not obligated to play any of those new songs here, so fans could be confident that there would be plenty of time devoted to yummy DM smash hits. It was just another example of shady concert promotion in this country, which is one reason why it's difficult to bring bands here. So maybe people were fooled into thinking there'd be a special Tel Aviv-only setlist. Nevertheless, we descend into ridiculousness with the scads of complainers who whined that DM didn't play "the hits". Just to be clear, when they say "the hits" they mean "songs from the 80's" (+ a couple of songs from "Violator"), whether they explicitly say so or not. Oh, and who are "they"? In most cases, they are people under 30 years old who barely remember the 80's and are searching for ways to relive through what they've only seen in pictures and music videos. They know a handful of DM songs, none of them released after 1990. They complain that DM focused on recent songs, even though they played one song from "Ultra", one from "Playing The Angel" and zero from "Exciter". Of course they played seven from the new album, but that's what touring bands do, you don't have to see them in your country in order to know that. The bottom line is this: when the first encore goes "Stripped"/"Master and Servant"/"Strangelove" and you barely react, all while complaining that they didn't play any 80's songs, then the problem is with you, not with the band. So let's dismiss "them" for who they really are -- crybabies who wanted to hear "Just Can't Get Enough" whose opinions are nearly worthless.

Even the 30+ crowd, who could be counted on for losing their shit at the start of "Stripped" just like proper fans should, were mostly muted for the new songs. They missed out, because the new songs sound fantastic live, kicking harder, ballsier, and funkier than the studio versions. "Sounds of the Universe" is turning out to be a real grower or a record, revealing more layers of sound and depth with subsequent listens than other Depeche Mode albums. It's not as immediate as "Playing The Angel" or "Violator", it's not laid back, understated, and groovy in the same way as "Ultra", it's loaded up with vintage synths like the ones they used in the 80's, but it's not epic like "Music For the Masses", or filled with jittery angst and in-your-face eroticism like "Black Celebration". For other DM tours, I was already "sold" on the new album before I saw the concert. I knew the songs and already had my favourites. The concert would simply amplify all my existing preconceptions in a linear fashion. But this time it was completely different -- the show sold me on "Sounds of the Universe". My perceptions of the album have been turned upside down and my old favourites have been replaced by new favourites. I believed that this record was "Exciter Part II", but it's not. Songs on the Exciter tour were fairly mellow when played live, but the "Sounds of the Universe" songs are anything but. "Come Back" assumes a robo-funk groove that would make mid-90's Stereolab feel jealous. The driving, motorik funk of "In Sympathy" has completely transformed the way I think about that song. Everyone who sat on their hands during the new songs missed out on appreciating some great moments by a band that continues to evolve in fascinating and unpredictable ways.

Of course, something needs to be said about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who are just a incredible band right now, who overcame terrible sound quality (apparently nobody bothered to properly mic the band or give them a half-decent mix on the soundboard, or to crank up the volume to stadium-sized levels) to deliver a smartly paced set of classics and soon-to-be classics to a mostly bored crowd who admittedly had many other problems to deal with in the form of scrambling to find their seats in this confusingly labeled stadium, not to mention queue for food and/or beer. I ignored these problems, found a spot in the aisles where people were dancing to "Heads Will Roll", and hung out there until the set was over. "Maps" exactly at sunset = pretty darned cool, actually.

The peak of the show, by the consensus of nearly everyone I'm sure, was "Enjoy the Silence". Excitement levels peaked all around me, but I found myself enjoying a very calm moment, maybe my calmest moments of the show. I didn't expect this reaction at all. I flipped into documentary-making mode, and wanted to take pictures and videos to preserve the moment for myself. I've seen and heard plenty of live clips of the song, and have naturally heard it played live in person a few times, and I always get a little lump in my throat during the build to the last chorus, and to the final and biggest singalong. I had never brought a camera to a Depeche Mode show before, and I wanted to photograph them and film them myself, no matter how silly and amateurish that might sound, that's what I wanted. So I calmly snapped more pictures and took a couple of minutes of video, including that triumphant segment before the final chorus.

I might have been more composed at the time, but when I view my own videos now, everything reverts back to normal. I get that lump in my throat. As it should be.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

American Idol: YOUR Top Four!

AI results shows have been fairly predictable since Megan Joy got the boot (she was a bit of a wildcard, seeing as the judges so obviously wanted her to do well even though she sucked something fierce), with the exception of the "save", which was completely wasted on the useless, sad-faced crybaby Matt Giraud. I'd rather they waited a week and given us another week of Anoop (even though he was doomed as well, since the top four was virtually set in stone for weeks).

Allison never really connected with the fans, which is why she ended up in the bottom three a few times despite being awesome week in and week out. If the judges had given her 5% of the push they gave to Megan during the few weeks that she stunk up the show, then maybe she'd be in the top three right now and be considered a favourite. Nobody ever called Allison "different" or "current" or "commercial", or even "beautiful" (not even Paula) -- all of these praises were heaped on Megan, undeservedly, because she was a talentless flake who was exposed as lazy and arrogant and shown the door by the fans when these "qualities" became impossible to ignore. On the other hand, Simon was right in criticizing her personality and the way she came across on camera. It wasn't right for him to remind her of this on a weekly basis while downplaying all of her strengths, but he was right on concept. Like Jason Castro last year, you can only go so far as a bored stoner on "American Idol" because people don't want to vote for someone who appears unmotivated and doesn't care too much about winning or losing.

So it's going to be Adam vs Danny in the final, which is exactly what the show's producers and the four judges have been pimping since Hollywood week. Adam can be great when he doesn't go AYYEYAEYEYAEYOAEYEY without warning in the middle of random verses, and Danny shows flashes of very good-ness when he doesn't sing in his lower register and reigns in his Hicks-ian tendencies (most annoying: the dancing). He's also burned up some of the dead wife-related goodwill that the producers so nicely exploited on his behalf built up for him by being a bit of an arrogant dickhead the last couple of weeks. However, he showed a sense of humour with the fallout from his "Dream On" scream and could laugh along with all the ringtones and animated gifs, so that makes him less of a diva than I thought he was.

I think nothing can stop Adam from steamrolling his way to the title, but Allison and Kris's albums will easily outsell anything Danny or Adam put out (unless Danny goes the Xtian rock route).

Friday, May 08, 2009

I waited nearly 15 years to see Jeff Mills ...

The time flew by and somehow I never got around to seeing Jeff Mills spin. The most memorable near-miss happened in Toronto, in 1997 I believe, when I was locked, loaded and ready to hear him one weekend, only to have my plans derailed by a massive January snowstorm. 99% of the time, I'm not one to be deterred by a bit of bad weather, but it snowed all Saturday long and by the evening, I decided that driving all the way downtown simply wasn't going to happen, seeing how getting the car from the driveway to the end of the street looked like enough of a challenge as it was. The roads were such a mess all over the city that I figured that hardly anybody would be able to reach the club anyway.

The next day, I spoke to a friend who, to my surprise, had not only gone to the club, but had traveled twice as far as I would have needed to. The place was packed like you wouldn't believe, she said. And Mills was awesome. Fucking hell.

It all began with a surprisingly posh crowd in a club, Haoman 17, whose layout is easily predisposed to the instant deification of superstar DJs. The booth is elevated four metres above the dancefloor, a throne from which to look down on cramped clubbers dancing underneath a huge square-shaped chandelier array, facing a facade of LED video screens that flashed hypnotic red and blue ripple patterns all night long. Behind the booth is the main bar area, from which you can get a close look at the DJ masters doing their thing. And of course, Mills hits the hard stuff right from the start. He doesn't bother playing anything else, he never does. Every time is peak time.

Down on the dance floor, confusion started to set in after maybe half an hour. When Mills began his set, a healthy percentage of the crowd could be labeled as "politely stoked". Happy to be there, always liking a good party, but only passively curious about techno. Jeff Mills eats up these kinds of people. Soon enough, they were wondering "is this all there is?", you could read it on their faces. Yep, it's chest-crushing techno, hour after hour, that's what you signed up for and you didn't even know it. The bass was so loud, I could feel my skin being stretched by the vibrations.

It's great to see that the rise and fall of minimal techno was water off a duck's back for Mills. He hasn't compromised. With him, "minimal" was always about simplicity, it was about loops, it never meant "stripped-down". The perplexed onlookers started to clear out and the dancers took over. Through it all, Mills remained stoic and emotionless in the DJ booth, the prototype of the silent killer. He may have been aware that there was a crowd in attendance, if he did know then he certainly never acknowledged it. But that's expected, because he doesn't even acknowledge his own music -- no swaying to the beat, no head-nodding, he went about his business in his own way.

For his finale, he worked the filters like mad over the long, beatless finish of the final track, only to launch the beats again by switching over to an absolutely punishing track, such a pleasant bit of cruelty for 6:15 AM, and a kiss-off to the DJ who had to close down the club. "Whatever you got, try mixing it into THIS, because I'm outta here."