Friday, October 27, 2006

Paste magazine launch party with Beck

Paste launch party, Oct. 26
at the Knitting Factory, NYC
featuring Beck
I’m broke. To make matters worse, I’m luckless. When my friend Christina called me last week to say that she had an extra ticket to Beck at Madison Square Garden I considered myself on the cusp of some sort of karmic turn. Then she dropped the price on me: $65. Whew, no way could I come up with the sum.

So, while my girls trotted off to their expensive arena seats I sat at home in front of the computer. Bored and a little irritated with my situation, I perused some music sites and stumbled upon a Web competition from Paste. They were giving away tickets to the 26th issue launch party at the Knitting Factory. Conincidentally the issue features Beck on the cover, (a sore subject for me), but what the hell, I’ll fill out the form. I never expected to win.


When I arrive at Leonard Street around 8 p.m. knots of people stand behind a velvet rope puffing on butts. It wasn’t an exclusivity thing; apparently the club has had trouble with the neighbors. It might have something to do with all the construction on both sides of the street, little room for traffic, less for smokers. A check of my ID, an eye locating my name on the guest list and I’m in.

The main room and its adjoining area are already packed with wannabe rock stars, writers and Paste personnel. I cop a drink and move towards the main stage as the NYC-based folk/alt-country act Hem mount the stage. Singer Sally Ellyson’s voice is sweet enough, but her protruding stomach proves an unconquerable distraction. Seven and half months pregnant, you have to give the woman respect for crooning in that condition, the blandness of the band, however, deserves few if any props.

At this point I’m wondering why I bothered to show up. Sure, the tickets were free, but my roommate is super late and I’ve been standing around by myself for an hour and half. I’ve only had a few blips of conversation with other partygoers and Hem’s adult contemporary sound is just not doing it for me. I decide to have one more drink and peace out. Matt finally shows up and we order two beers.

Halfway through our Sierra Nevada and Heineken, stage hands start to assemble the stage for the next surprise band. It took an unusually long time to complete sound check and considering how disappointed I was with the first act, I vowed to be out after I swallowed the last sip of my pale ale. Who wants to stick around for a group that probably sucks as much as the last one, especially when they’re pretentious enough to take 40 minutes setting up?

At last the Paste host ambles up to the mike to announce the special guest. After tipping his hat to Questlove who had filled dead air with various guitar driven dance jams during intermissions, he said, “We here at Paste are pleased to introduce Beck!” Are you serious? Beck is playing in this small club for 150 people when the previous week he sold out the theater at the Garden? Do I hear Lady Luck shuffling in a 180 degree rotation? Well, I at least see Beck emerge from the side room and that’s proof enough for me.

Without scrims or massive video screens, without lasers or scantily clad dancers, Beck and his band plow through songs from his newest release The Information right down to Mellow Gold. After coursing through a few selections, Beck asks the audience for requests. Inexhaustible answers spring from the crowd as Matt chimes in with a booming “Devil’s Haircut.” Beck looks him directly in the eye and strums the opening chords. At that moment, Beck doesn’t play for Paste, he plays for us.

The band -- composed of a fro-ed out hipster bass player (name) with white latex pants and matching sunglasses, a percussion/dancer (name) in brick red jeans, a keyboard/sideman (Brian LeBarton ) with a pageboy haircut, a drummer (Matt Sherrod ) hitting the skins so hard the snare popps up and down and a too-cool-for-school guitar player (name) who munches on gum like cud and stands aloofly in the same spot all night – played a professional set, yet seemed to take the experience rather lightly.


It’s probably been ages since Beck and his band played small club. I imagine the show provided a certain leeway that performing in front of thousands of people doesn’t allow. After Beck left the stage, the band stayed on to a do an original song with the degrading and repetitive chorus “drop your panties to the floor.” No one, of course, followed their commands, but it was a light touch on an otherwise thoughtful set.

On the way out I reveled in my good fortune and relished the opportunity to call my friends and tell them about the free Beck show. As I was entering the final corridor, a face struck me as familiar. I realized it was James Iha, former guitarist for the Smashing Pumpkins. I sent my roommate in to snap a shot. I’m still broke, but at least I have a story to tell and a picture to prove it.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

American Hardcore review

Modern usage for the word “hardcore” carries with it a lot of baggage. Images of explicit sexual acts abound, but to the ‘80s punks who absconded the term for musical purposes hardcore will always mean something beyond screwing (at least in the literal sense). Hardcore was a rejection of the leadership, the social niceties and the plastic façade of consumerism; a big F-U to disco balls, pop music and spandex fashion. In other words, what these young punks screamed from coast to coast was, “screw the American way.”

The hardcore punks said so in an obscenely fast, raucous way to make sure that those outside the community would take the sound as an assault not only on their ears, but also on their values. It’s no coincidence that this radical musical genre manifested as a response to an era overwhelmed by materialism. With parallels being drawn between the current president, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, today’s youth may find a renewed interest in hardcore as the antithesis of modern politics. True, hardcore did little more than quell the anger of a few thousand musicians and fans by creating a new social set, but every generation needs a sufficient mode of expression.

A new documentary is letting audiences examine the hardcore movement, whether or not they chose to incorporate its philosophies into their own daily actions. Through Paul Rachman’s American Hardcore, the viewer gets a behind the scenes dialogue with the forefathers of the most extreme form of American music. Spanning the distance from hardcore hotspots such as San Francisco and Los Angeles to New York City and Boston, the 98- minute film gives not only a history of the aesthetics behind the movement, but also a glimpse at the former lives of these middle aged misfits.

Interviews of huge hardcore figures like Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi) and Brandon Cruz (Dr. Know/Dead Kennedys) are interwoven between classic tunes and live footage of such luminary bands as the Circle Jerks, Bad Brains and Black Flag. Mosh pits abound as pubescent boys throw elbows, knees and fists at each other in possessed fits of sublime rage. This may sound like a destructive scenario, but these kids actually built a community out of expressing their angst with American culture. Positive things grew from hardcore’s excitedly fast pulse and raucously played guitar chords: straightedge, for example, the abstaining from drugs and alcohol, became a branch of the hardcore ideology.

After five or six years of community-building, the hardcore scene began to fall apart around 1985. The ideology of the scene was so loosely held together by music that the movement never had a chance to actualize. Some of the bands, such as Hüsker Dü, lost the notion and began to play arena rock. Fans became disillusioned by the same pumping beat and excruciatingly loud guitars. Others turned to public violence and riots (and police brutality ensued).

What the participants of American Hardcore unanimously agree on is that the genre is dead, the sense of freedom and belonging gone to the wayside with it. Although many bands continue taking the title of hardcore as their style of playing, the musical similarities are superficial and the political sentiments often missing. Perhaps we are all searching for a new musical genre to incorporate the outsiders, to take a stand, to sound the call. Or perhaps the hardcore vision of a community united against the mainstream was only that: a vision.

Up with Tool, Down with Tools

I have to admit it: I was disappointed by Tool’s 2006 release 10,000 Days. After unleashing an alluring and groundbreaking album with Lateralus in 2001, I didn’t expect the band to take a detour back into the trodden lands of modern rock. Following epics like “The Patient” (Lateralus), I felt songs such as “The Pot” (10,000 Days) served as little than radio-friendly airs or possibly LP filler. (BTW: I so predicted “The Pot” would be Tool’s next big popular market sensation.) However, after attending the last show of Tool’s fall stateside tour at Nassau Coliseum, I renewed my respect for one of America’s greatest rock ensembles.

Tool puts on a great show—period. Whether the band chooses to aggrandize the visual or aural side of their supple package, the guys know how to keep a stadium crowd entertained. On past tours--most notably during Lateralus--Tool tricked out the stage ala scrims adorned with holistic art work and giant plasma screens broadcasting interpretable images. At Nassau Coliseum, they scaled back the eye candy and concentrated on epic art rock tunes, making even “The Pot” impress with an alacrity not previously revealed to me by listening to the album cut. The newer songs, especially the title track, stood ground with classics such as “AEnema,” “Forty Six & 2,” “Stinkfist” and “Schism.” My only concern after witnessing the concert is a repeat of the modern rock cycle, which now, thank God, seems to be a rabid dog begging to be shot in the head. How much more mediocre Chevelle ditties can a person take?

No doubt Tool had a big part in creating a fan base for the harder edge style of these clone bands and the airwaves dedicated solely to this kind of drivel, but it’s hardly the band’s fault that these amateurs never learned to play their instruments. Practically anyone can coax a chug, chug out of their Les Paul, but Tool’s Adam Jones can do that and carry an acrobatic lead line in 5/4 time, all while looking stylishly disaffected. Therein lays the problem: they make it look too easy. Well, scratch that, on earlier tours they made it look too pretty. I think young fans figured if they threw enough glitz and glam into their stage show, they could pass as a play-alike act. Now that Tool has scaled back the visual aspect of their performance, I’m afraid younger wannabes will take this as a cue not only to copy the band (it may sound hard, but it looks easy), but also dump the showmanship attitude. That’s a lose/lose situation, considering most modern rock bands have difficulty playing the three-chord traditional structure of their compositions.

At Nassau Coliseum, singer Maynard James Keenan’s lizard-like gyrations, bassist Justin Chancellor’s head thrash and drummer Danny Carey’s precision skin thumps served as the only human movement on stage. Projections of older stop-motion animation Tool videos along with rapidly changing light patterns behind and underneath the band nary distracted from the bombast of the music. I don’t know about all of you guys, but I wouldn’t pay $50 to see a band practically stand still among some lasers if the members couldn’t slam on their instruments. That’s the threat here. Say “yes” to Tool and “no” to all the hard rock tools. Do it or we’re facing another 10 years aural punishment.

Monday, October 23, 2006

I'm Back!!

After taking a rather large break from blogging, I have returned with a review of the band Katatonia. I have an excuse for such a long excursion; I moved to New York City at the end of Sept. I'm trying my best to jumpstart a career in freelance arts writing. Stop laughing, I'm serious.

Anyway, I will continue regular posts until someone gives me a job and I need my chops for an actual printing press (no dis to you Slate, you're the best!)

Katatonia at B.B. King’s, NYC

Katatonia at B.B. King’s, NYC

For a music lover, nothing evokes such disappointment as a lackluster concert by a band you adore. That performance passed for me last Sunday night at B.B. King’s when I attended a show by the Swedish outfit Katatonia, my heart sinking from the mediocre resonance of songs that have often quieted the tension within my soul. Katatonia’s music is intentionally cathartic with vocalist Jonas Renkse’s main topics including the decline of character, loss of love and general dissatisfaction with the surrounding world. Here exists a man whose somber sentiments until now comforted me with the touch of a kindred spirit.

Yes, I suppose I came to the show with preconceived notions of how the band would look, act and sound. I pictured a Robert Smith kind of presence, considering the tone and style of Renke’s singing. I imagined the atmospheric undertones of the band rising up to join Renske in a stratosphere of pining sounds, penetrating the darkness and decending on the crowd with the slow leak of despondency. All clearly manifest in my mind, none fulfilled.

Like reading a book, you create a dream world using someone else’s art, changing the characteristics of a face despite the author’s own penmanship pronouncing otherwise. The writer externalizes flesh and bone, his vision transferred to an alterable dimension, one that becomes a divergent environment with each new reader. It is the same with music albums where it is quite probable that your fantasy of grandeur exists only as a once removed ideal of someone else’s creation and a twice removed delusion of reality.

From Katatonia’s records I expected Renkse’s visage to express his aggrieved nature, but instead he barely offered his eyes, so covered with dark unkempt locks. Instead he bowed his head, slumped his shoulders and avoided the gaze of his audience. His nervousness at touring the States for the first time overrode the proper instincts of a frontman as he seemed to cower before the faces longing to exalt his figure. Renkse inevitably lost the audience; during a dramatic pause in “Criminals,” the band tried to get the crowd to cheer a second time with little response. The silence ensuing, it became quite clear that the disappointment was transcendental.

The other guys in the band— Anders Nyström, Fred Norrman, Mattias Norrman and Daniel Liljekvist —worked hard to project a rock star image, oddly juxtaposing their mentality with music that suggests a whole different kind of vibe. Despondent, discordant, disarrayed, these constitute the adjectives that Katatonia’s songs bring to mind, not arrogant, aggrandized and audacious. The only distraction from the showboating came from the excellence of song selection (not to be confused with the poor quality of their execution), which included “Ghost of the Sun” (Viva La Emptiness), “Deadhouse” (Discouraged Ones) and “Tonight’s Music” (Last Fair Deal Gone Down).

Continually during each tune, Nyström threw his hands up in a fist while lip-synching every lyric. When he did approach the mic with thinning fair hair and the demeanor of a middle-aged man, his voice rang strained, under-the-pitch. The bass player, Mattias Norrman, joined his antics with a deceivingly youthful looking haircut, much like one sees on the heads of Good Charlotte members. He thrashed from front to back, side to side, as if the riffs demanded a sort of anthem attitude.

Appearances aside, the sound of the show lacked the brilliance of a learned engineer and a more practiced band. Part of the problem comes inherently from B.B. King’s cramped space and architecture that hardly takes into account the science of acoustics. The band, for its part, muddied up the performance by not playing tightly. Their tendency towards drawn out drones of chords and short, repetitive sections requires precise timing as a split second delay registers almost like a mistake. The albums that I listen to, the ones adhering to my soul, never include a glitche.

It serves me right for expecting a perfection only technology produces, a concert such as this one, dependent on human competency. In a way, my reality of Katatonia’s music passed through the additional filters of a mixing board and mastering session. Those albums made me buy tickets three months in advance, the performance shriveled my adoration of Katatonia in but one hour. How distorted our perception when it’s tainted by misleading tangibility.