Sunday, January 23, 2011

Stephen O'Malley @ Levontin 7

It probably goes without saying that this was the loudest solo gig I've ever seen.

Over the course of one hour, O'Malley's crushing guitar drones just got louder and louder. I know this was true and not some cumulative aural illusion where my ears were slowly destroyed because ten minutes into his set, I started getting a nice massage from my vibrating jacket. At the start of the set there was no massage.

The stage setup couldn't have been much simpler -- O'Malley and his guitar, a row of effects pedals and a semi-circular array of candles in front of him, two huge Marshall stacks behind him. Nothing really to see, nothing really to do except for bliss out or rock out (most people did the former, a couple of metalheads near the front indulged in the latter. I did some of both). Levontin 7 is a great venue for this kind of music -- a small, windowless underground space with low ceilings -- and the sound was just perfect. Despite the enclosed area and our proximity to huge guitar amplifiers turned all the way up, bass-heavy (as opposed to treble-heavy) drones means no ringing ears afterwards!

The volume wasn't as oppressively huge as the time I saw SunnO))) in a church a few years ago, but O'Malley's timing was a lot better this time. Always better to err on the short side rather than the long side with these sorts of shows.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Pazz and Jop 2010 - the results

The results have been out for a few days and the only big surprise (at least for me) was Kanye West's margin of victory. Kanye was also listed on ONE-THIRD of all albums ballots, which is equally, if not more unbelievable.

Clover Hope's essay on hip-hop artists crossing over into pop music stands out as the finest essay this year, edging out Rob Harvilla's E!-Network stargazing meets the Mad Hatter tribute to Cee-Lo Green's "Fuck You". A few years ago, we used to joke about how Coldplay had become the rock band of choice for sensitive rappers and R&B artists who wanted to get in touch with their softer sides. Who knew it would become such an epidemic?

Third Eye Foundation's "The Dark" received just one vote -- mine. It was the first time that I was the sole person to vote for my number one album (it was close in 2006, IIRC I was one of three to vote for Bardo Pond's "Ticket Crystals"). I'll have more to say about this later on. The Voice chose to publish my slightly crazy comment about Taio Cruz's "Dynamite", virtually unedited, which was a nice surprise. I've had one-liners chosen for the comments section before, but this was my first mini-rant.

As always, Glenn McDonald did a sensational job with his yearly statistical breakdown of the P&J results (link here, and further comments and explanations by Glenn appear on the VV website). I finished 422nd out of 711 (41st percentile) on the Centricity rankings this year, down from last year thanks to only one of my picks (Arcade Fire) finishing in the top ten, as opposed to two from 2009 (Animal Collective, YYY's). Oddly enough, this felt like my most "centric" year ever, judging from the results. Last year I still saw myself as sitting far outside the consensus, because once you got past my AC and YYY's votes, my selections were mostly nowhere to be found anywhere near the top of the table. This year I had four picks in the top 50 (a first, I believe) and a total of six in the top 100. However, my #1 and #3 albums finished way down the list, which is why I was ranked so low. And if you look at my "empathies" list, none of them have ballots that look anything like mine (I didn't see anyone with more than two albums in common with me), which is more or less how it is every year.

Centricity ratings tell us whose votes come closest to matching the overall consensus. An ILM commenter noted that Ryan Schreiber's 5th place in centricity tells us more or less all we needed to know about the results (he was 5th last year too) and I can't really argue with that -- the results are pretty clearly Pitchfork-approved, and the favourites of the Rolling Stone generation (e.g. Robert Plant, Broooce, Neil Young) seem to slip further down the table each year. New to this year, the Kvltosis ratings took this a step further by weighting each ballot by the voter's centricity score. The results are fascinating -- you end up with alternate universe results where only the critics whose tastes border on the weird and wonderful cult album fringe are allowed to vote.

Yellow Swans' "Going Places" finished 10th on Kvltosis. This is reasonable, since people who vote for noise albums are way outside the consensus virtually by definition. It finished 81st overall, which is an amazingly high placing for a noise album (some might consider Emeralds' "Does It Look Like I'm Here", which finished 50th, to be noise but to me it sounds like it appeals to the same sorts of people who like The Field, so I wasn't too surprised by where it placed. To be fair though, I haven't heard the album in full).

Ditto for metal voters and techno voters (and voters from virtually all "fringe" genres). Records by Pantha du Prince and Actress were the highest ranking techno albums both in Kvltosis and overall (well, almost -- James Blake finished one spot higher than Actress). The people who voted for these albums were more or less the usual suspects when it comes to techno votes on this poll, which never includes me because I've never ended up voting for the consensus techno album or single in any year. I did really like the Pantha du Prince album though, and it would have finished around #12 or #13 on my ballot.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Fall, Electra @ Barby

This was my second time seeing The Fall play live, the first time was in September 1994 and they were ancient even then. Stereolab were the opening act (it was my first time seeing the 'Lab as well) and they were the band I had really come to see. The fact that The Fall would be playing a set afterward was a nice bonus, I was enough of a fan that I enjoyed their music from time to time, but wasn't enough of a fan to buy any of their records. And in 2011, that's still true, amazingly enough. BTW, sixteen years between gigs by a particular band is a personal record -- nobody else even comes close.

But first comes Electra, a three-piece outfit whose lead singer has an uncanny resemblance to Jon Spencer. On one hand, they're a shouty, harmonizing guitar pop trio and on the other they're trying to iron out the last of their garage-y tendencies to make their music more arena-friendly. Nothing wrong with thinking big. They blaze their way through a tight 25-minute set and are practically sprinting off the stage with their equipment in tow before the final note is even finished.

As for the Fall, John Peel's description pretty much tells the story: "they are always different, they are always the same". In '94, MES didn't even acknowledge the audience. I'm not talking about "thank you"s and between song chatter -- I wasn't expecting any of that. He didn't even look at the audience. Not one time. He came on stage with his back turned and he walked off when the set was over, without glancing over his shoulder even once. This time, he faces the audience, perfect for letting us all see how surly he is. Just when you thought MES couldn't get any grumpier or surlier, he does it. He ages on different time scales than the rest of us. But wouldn't we all love to have his job -- on stage every night, wandering aimlessly around, grabbing the nearest mic whenever it suits him, garbling who knows what for an hour and a half ... I can't imagine that MES ever feels pressure to perform.

The Fall bring their own opening act these days. They have a DJ/laptop artist whose combination of tongue-in-cheek humour and noisy sound loops recall the work of similarly bonkers noise/cut-up performers like The Rip-Off Artist. He takes video of an iconic act, e.g. Black Sabbath, and loops the sound synced-to-video into a dizzying mesh of odd shapes -- the overall effect is Ozzy or Barbra or Sinead or Elvis singing and sustaining their notes seemingly forever. The Fall have gone multi-media -- they even have a backdrop with simple video projections now!

MES somehow managed to marry a woman who is way better looking and much younger than you'd expect. In '94, Brix Smith showed up late and strolled onstage halfway through their set. Who knows if this was a pre-planned thing or not, something that was part of their everyday gigging routine, but I remember hearing rumours that she wasn't going to show up that night, and getting the reactions of people who were stunned to actually see her there. His new wife, Elena Poulou (actually not so new -- they've been married for nine years) does quite a lot of singing (sometimes including lead vocals) and they GASP seem to interact in subtle ways and might even be enjoying themselves. She carries a comically large tote bag on stage and stands with it slung over her shoulder for the entire night. It's like she doesn't want to leave her valuables in the dressing room or something. During one of the encores, she sings lead on the band's cover of "White Lightning", which was the first Fall song I ever heard. That was in 1990, and I hated it. I felt like switching the station whenever it came on the radio. But I eventually grew to like it -- it took years, but I did it. Tonight, I'm even a bit disappointed that MES wasn't the one to sing the song.

The 1994 gig blew my mind a bit because it featured an enormously heavy wall of noise -- a two drums + two bass attack. And they played "New Big Prinz", which was so fantastic and got half the club pogo-ing and was such a memorable moment all in all that it instantly turned me into a fan of the band. Seriously, it was one of those amazing moments in music where you get blindsided and suddenly, irretrievably, everything makes sense and you completely change your feelings toward a song or band. The Fall 2011 sound a bit too professional, bordering on pub rock albeit with a singer who does nothing but grunt and mumble -- when he's onstage at all. They can play, there's no doubt about it, but they're a bit sterile. If history is any indication though, MES will eventually fire some people and overhaul the band before they get too complacent or too reliable. And The Fall will change again, and yet manage to stay the same.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Continuing the 2010 roundup

Two notable releases that I didn't hear until 2011 ...

Glenn Branca, "The Ascension: The Sequel". How in the hell did I miss out on hearing the "sequel" to one of my favourite albums of the 80's? Branca's M.O. hasn't changed much in the past 30 years, which is another way of saying that the blueprint he laid out for himself in the late 70's still sounds as heavy and as powerful now as it likely did then. But even so, I was surprised at how much this resembled a real, credible sequel. Not some tired retread where the artist writes an essay in the liner notes about how he tried to recapture the spirit of the original using newfangled studio tricks that he wished had been available to him at the time, but a work whose turn-back-the-clock-ness is uncannily similar to something that he could have conceived and recorded in 1982.

Even his new ensemble does a remarkable job at capturing the manic energy of the legendary combo that recorded the original "The Ascension". The exception would be drummer Libby Fab, who can't match Stephen Wischerth's raw force and his ability to somehow play above the rest of the ensemble. I think that Branca's larger ensemble works, in particular the symphony for 100 guitars, de-mythologized the role of the guitarists in his music. When he can put out open calls for guitarists and rehearse them into performance-ready shape in a couple of afternoons, it does a lot to detract from the idea of the guitarist as virtuoso talent. Instead, it's like almost anyone can join, provided they allow themselves to be plugged into Branca's formula. Where you can't get away with all this plug-and-play musician swapping is with the drummer (guys like Phil Spector certainly understood this. He only needed one Hal Blaine).

The music is pretty good too! "Lesson No. 3 (Tribute to Steve Reich)" is the only track that comes close to matching to intensity of the second half of the original album, although even then, the coda is a bit a letdown compared to the build up. This is a problem with the album's other epic track, the huge 19-minute "The Blood" -- Branca knows how to get there but he's not sure what to do when he arrives. It's not fair to complain that "The Sequel" doesn't measure up to "The Ascension" -- what can?? -- but it's and the best thing I've heard from Branca in a long time, and is more than worthy of adopting the name.

Actress, "Splazsh". I "get" this album, at least I think I do. It definitely doesn't sound like most techno albums, it's equal parts hi-fi gloss and lo-fi samples, equal parts jacking beats and chugging Krautrock rhythms, perfectly at home borrowing from the 70's both dirty funk and prog rock synths. When you try to describe it, it seems like an important, original album. The problem is that it's just not all that good.

Don't get me wrong, it's good. But there's a problem when the first two minutes of every song are the best two minutes and there isn't enough substance to hold my attention through the rest of the track. "Purple Splazsh" is an homage to Prince, and cuts right to the heart of my criticism. What's not to like about the idea of techno that is meant to sound exactly like Prince? After all, isn't techno supposed to be Kraftwerk and P-Funk stuck in an elevator? Where would Prince have been without P-Funk? On the other hand, if it was such a great idea, wouldn't everyone have been doing it years ago? Somehow, the joke gets lost in the translation. "Supreme Cunnilingus", on the other hand, was never a good idea in the first place.

There are plenty of highlights though ... plenty of words have already been written about "Maze", and I love how it captures the woozy qualities of Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity", arguably their most atmospheric and underrated album. "Hubble" is what Fluxion should have been doing on his post-comeback albums, rather than rehashing the music he was making in 1999-2000 in order to seamlessly jump back onto the dub techno train. The concept behind "Bubble Butts and Equations" is brilliant -- distorted, lo-fi bass and hi-hats with shrill and clear beeps and whistles to carry the melody. I badly want to hear a whole album of stuff that sounds just like this. If he'd nailed the execution behind the concept then we might have had a classic on our hands.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Has "Glee" jumped the shark?

I managed to go a whole month without mentioning "Glee" ... but of course that show is rarely out of the entertainment news cycle, even with another month until the next new episode airs. The latest announcement from the "Glee" camp concerns Lady Gaga's upcoming single "Born This Way", which is due to be performed in a future episode. And just like that, I believe "Glee" has crossed a line.

The appeal of "Glee" is simple, at least the way I see it. You get to hear your favourite songs performed on TV, staged in audaciously theatrical, weird, and zany ways. They take songs that everybody knows and stick them in a totally different context, acted out by oddball teenage characters who have little in common other than a shared love of singing. They're equally at home performing either classic or contemporary hit. And since there are approximately a zillion beloved hit songs to choose from, "Glee" looks set to be on the air from now until the sun goes supernova and swallows the earth.

I've got no problem with themed episodes or with the show's producer's revealing the songs weeks or months ahead of time -- I don't need to be surprised. But "Born This Way" is different. It hasn't even been released yet. We're supposed to be excited about hearing it on the show in a couple of months time, but nobody's even heard it. "Glee" has crossed the line from performing hit songs to trying to break songs and make them into hits. Whether intended or not, this feels like cross-promotion for Lady Gaga's new album. And once you go from being a nostalgia show to a show that plugs the new release schedule, you can't go back.