Category Archives: Music

Dan Auerbach at KCRW’s Apogee Sessions

 On stage at Apogee Studios, playing songs from his new album, “Waiting On A Song” (Nonesuch/Easy Eye) for a future broadcast on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic,  Dan Auerbach certainly looks relaxed. Hair a trifle shaggy, his eyes a little sleepy-looking, he appears to be a man without a trouble in the world.

It’s an attitude matched by the music; the album is breezy collection of pop-country tunes, like a summer afternoon playlist from an imagined AM-radio station. As he told KCRW’s Jason Bentley, the songs were the result of a period of enforced leisure, the first time in eight years he had nothing on his calendar. It allowed him, he said, to explore  his adopted hometown  of Nashville, and hang out with local musicians and songwriters; the album is the result of those collaborations. They’d spend the first part of the week working on songs, the second half recording them.   It’s also something of a calling card for his studio, Easy Eye Sound, and the musicians he’s gathered around him: Nashville legends Dave Roe and David Ferguson (who co-produced); Bobby Wood and Gene Christman, part of the house band of  Memphis’ American Studios; and guitarists Mark Knopfler and Duane Eddy.

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              Pat McLaughlin (l) and Dan Auerbach performing for KCRW’s Apogee Sessions                         (photo: Brian Lowe)

But at Apogee, it was just Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin on acoustic guitar and mandolin. Seated on stage, they could have jut as easily been playing at the Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe as in Santa Monica. Loose and intimate, it’s an approach that showed off the songs’ craftsmanship, but also exposed their limitations. They’re catchy, but insubstantial; the less attention you pay to the them, the better they sound. The lyrics show off a puckish, Roger Miller styled humor, but like most jokes, you only need to hear them once. “You only got a couple of miles to go/if you’re trying to drive me insane,” he warns on the kicky “Shine On Me” (which misses Knopfler’s springy guitar), the chorus of the sprightly psychedelic stomp “Stand By My Girl,” admits “because she’ll kill me if I don’t.” But they’re performed with a sidelong charm and affection that makes it hard to dislike. It’s best to see Waiting on A Song as Auerbach’s busman’s holiday. 

 

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Björk Digital: A Cross Between A Tour Group & A Tasting Menu

There’s always been something a little otherworldly about Björk; if you told me you had proof she was a descendent of Puck and Titania, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise. And  in “Digital,” her captivating exhibition of virtual reality installations and videos (up until June 4 at The Reef,  part of the LA Phil’s Reykjavik Festival), she is a shapeshifter. Over the course of seven videos, Björk (or one of her avatars)  turns volcanic, reproduces like a paramecium, harmonizing and surrounding you on gorgeously abandoned shore, swallows you whole, spouts aurora borealis, turns incorporal—you can walk right through her—and ends up taking you on a 2001-styled oddessy.

The 90-minute show is part tour, part tasting menu: you are guided from room to room in groups, and each room comes with its own set of instructions—how to put on your goggles, seated or standing, in “Family,” work a pair of handsets that allow you shoot streamers, Spiderman-style.

Talking on a digital hookup from New York City (and appearing in the skin of one of her avatars), Björk, introduced by the Phil’s Director of Presentations Joanna Rees and Andrew Thomas Huang, her collaborator on three of the VR videos, explained she considered VR a way to make an even deeper connection with her fans. Experiencing the songs on VR, she was, was more intimate than listening to a CD. And as an artist, VR inspired some of the most spontaneous, improvised work she’s ever done.

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Björk, as she appeared at the Digital press preview. Photo credit: Jeanette Oliver

 

There’s no narrative to speak of, but it does feel like there’s progression from room to room. You start out interacting with an app based on her “Biophilia” album; each song is supposed to teach a new aspect of musical theory. I only had a few minutes with it, and could have used a 14-year-old as a guide. Next you’re led into the room for “Black Lake.” 

It’s not VR, but certainly immersive. Giant screens, surround sound. You’re encouraged to wander around; the images on the screens—Björk in a cave, a craggy shore, a field—are some times in synch, others not, the points of view change. And you’re very aware of the others around you. It’s two screens, fifty speakers, and some two dozen adults fumbling around a room.

That doesn’t mean it’s not eeffective. It’s an approach that feels operatic, made for both Wagnerian grandiosity, or crisp surrealism of Robert Wilson’s rapturous dreamlike  productions.  The scenery alone—shot just outside the city of Reykjavik

From there you move to stools for the “Stonemilker,” “Quicksand,” and “Mouth Mantra.” Not only do you move in space, but the sound moves with you. If you swiveled away from the Björk  reaching out for you, her vocals moved from the front, to the side, then behind you. Finally, for “Family” and “Notget,” can you walk and explore the spaces around you. While I did not experience any nausea or dizziness, a feeling of wooziness for a while afterwards, more sensitive to the world around me.  This might have been a late-blooming reaction to the VR, but I chose to believe it was the way Björk used it.

Björk’s performance at Disney Hall May 30th will take things to the other extreme. There will be no visuals or electronics,  just her voice, and a 32-piece string orchestra. “There’s nothing to hide behind,” she said. “I feel naked.” She returns to LA to headline the FYF Fest on July 21, for a performance she promises will be “more celebratory and communal.”


Hurray For The Riff Raff/Kera & The Lesbians—Hollywood Forever—13March17


I’ve tried to listen to the putative renaissance of protest music in the Tr**p-era, but the songs  I’ve heard have generally been a sorry lot, too specific and straining for relevancy, the playlists feeling like musical versions of cable news roundtables, only instead of argument there was a bothersome one-upmanship, each song trying to outdo the others in angry sincerity. It’s quite possible that in today’s balkanized, echo-chambered, epistemological bubble the kind of rousing call-to-the-barricades anthem that once characterized protest songs is a relic of the past. But last night at  Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s Masonic Lodge, a double-bill of New Orleans’ Hurray For The Riff Raff and local newcomers Kera & the Lesbians showed a new  way forward. Taking a page from the 70s slogan “the personal is political,” the frontwomen of both bands respond to the current administration’s anti-woman and immigrant policies by turning to their own stories, taking as their subject how to become their most authentic self.

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For Hurray For The Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, the path has been anything but direct. From the Bronx to the Lower East Side, to busking her way across the country, and finally to New Orleans, she has distilled her experience into her wonderful new album The Navigator (ATO). Dressed in high-waisted pants, her hair topped by a beret, she looked like the girls I used to see riding uptown on the 6 train when I lived on E. 93rd Street; she performed with a feral energy and conviction that reminded me of Patti Smith.  Her songs are steeped in American and Latin roots, with echoes of Springsteen, Doc Pomus and Mink DeVille,  but subvert their sources: “The Body Electric” is a murder ballad told from the point of view of the victim, “Settle” is a torch song  pining for respect instead of love. And in “Fourteen Floors,” with Segarra at the piano playing the song’s simple figure, it’s hard not to hear the line “when I woke up, it was all gone, they took you when I was asleep” and not think of the families torn apart by Il Douché’s immigration raids.

She’s assembled a fine band for the tour. Guitarist Jordan Hyde isn’t flashy, but searching solos perfectly serve the songs; drummer Charlie Ferguson has that NOLA knack of playing with a propulsive ease, and bassist Caitlyn Gray, a cool Hitchcock blonde, locks in with her bass, and keyboardist Sarah Goldstone adds swirling, Garth Hudson styled fills.

As on the album, the show reached its climax with ” Pa’lante,” an emphatic bilingual epic  demanding that no matter what one does, “be something.” The encore, a slowed down take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” brings the song’s class resentments of the privileges of the 1% to the forefront; there’s no missing  who the son is in this scenario.

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Kera & the Lesbians also impressed. Kera Armendariz  cuts a stunning,charismatic figure on stage. Her vocals, which  ranged from an slurred whisper to a clairion call, have an intimacy and directness that demands your attention.  they were a mixed a little too low to really catch the lyrics, but there was no denying her determination. The songs look toward the dramatic, overwrought drama of Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison (a cover the the latter’s “Crying” was stunning) but with unexpected touches—a percussionist in addition to their drummer gives their sound an unexpected soulfulness, while the harpist who joined them for a few songs bought a heavenly quality. What impressed most was the way their setwas structured—spacious and slinky to start, a but like the early Talking Heads, turning denser and more urgent, the final two songs breaking on a wave of tenderness.  This is a band to keep an eye on; they’ve smart and have talent to spare. Armendariz told the appreciative crowd her aim is “to create a safe space for all of us to exist.” With any luck, that space will keep expanding.


Spoon at KCRW

Spoon has been one of those bands I’ve always admired, but never seemed necessary. If I hear them on the radio, or at a coffee shop, or a store, or even on an airliner (see below), I’ll nod my head in satisfaction, and not feel the need to immediately change the channel.  But I can’t remember the last time I felt the need to put a Spoon record on, or had an overwhelming desire to hear one of their songs.  To give you an idea how little real estate Spoon occupies, I had no idea they had released two (count ’em, two!) albums since 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga

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Photo Credit: Larry Hirshowitz

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Photo Credit: Larry Hirshowitz

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So you would be perfectly reasonable to ask what the hell was I doing at Apogee Studios Tuesday night  for their KCRW-promoted performance? Short answer: I was invited. Longer version: Well, for all the above, they are still a decent band, more than decent, actually, and my curiosity was piqued.  And I was glad I went.

The Spoon on display Tuesday was more warm-blooded than the band I’d seen in the past.  My issue with them was always that they were too battened down; a tad too cool, a bit overly manicured.  Their songs sounded stretched just  enough so you can feel the strain, but never so much that there was a chance of the seams tearing. The recordings existed in a hermetically sealed vacuum, perfect and unruffled. And while Britt Daniel’s voice had a pleasant graininess that could take on shades of John Lennon, he sounded like a man sorely in need of a laxative.

Maybe he’s just loosened up, or maybe as he’s matured, he’s started worrying about his prostate, but Tuesday night Daniel sounded like a weight had been evacuated. He was almost frisky, and  he worked himself into a sweat.

 The songs are still bitter and angular—the titles from the new album  included “Do I Have To Talk You Into It” and”I Ain’t The One”—but Daniel sounds less frustrated and more likely to flare up in actual emotions. As always, drummer Jim Eno played with an admirable precision, elegantly framing the tunes, and Alex Fischel, who Daniel, during his charming  interview with Anne Litt, said looked like “a sexy cabana boy,” added piano and guitar sounds that mussed up and thickened the sound. “Rent I Pay” (from 2014’s “They Want My Soul”) had a clipped riff reminscent of the Cars—which makes sense, given that Ric Ocasek is one of the few singers who sounded even more tightly wound than Daniel—while “Can I Sit Next To You” is built around a stretched out “Gallows Pole” riff.

“Can I Sit Next To You” is a song you might recognize if you’ve traveled on American Airlines recently. The band made a deal that gave the carrier exclusive rights to the song. But oddly, it was done sub rosa;  according to Daniel, if you tried to  find the song on Shazam, the band’s name wouldn’t come up. But whoever came up with that promotion was pretty clever—on most flights you end up sitting next to strangers, so it’s not a completely left-field connection. And given today’s market, you’ve got to get your music out somehow.

Spoon’s performance and interview will run on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic on March 22 at 11am PDT. They’ll be part of the station’s Annual Global Music Festival at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, August  6, along with Belle and Sebastian.


Dis-Passion Play: Ian Anderson/ Jethro Tull at the Pantages, October 15, 2016

There aren’t many surprises on Ian Anderson’s current tour, save for this: Who knew that his secret ambition was to have his songs performed on “Glee”?

Billed as “Jethro Tull” on the ticket, “Jethro Tull: Written and Performed by Ian Anderson” on the Pantages maquee, and “Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera” on the title card seen as the lights go down (the last allows you to guess the crowd’s reading comprehension, as the enthusiastic cheers deflate into puzzlement—”YAAAAAaaay-uh?”

What follows is not, thank God, a musical retelling of the band’s history, and it’s not really about the 18th century inventor/agronomist who lent the band his name. Rather, it’s about his great-great-great-great-great-great….grandson, also named Jethro. He’s gone into the family business, only instead of a farmer, he’s a bio-chemist. But he’s a good biochemist, or something, spurning the father and his awful city to toil in the fields. It’s all very muddled, truth be told, railing against GMOs and “Frankenfields,” while also warning darkly of famine and crop failures caused by global warming (which, I think, young Jethro manages to thwart, so…better living—or not?—through chemistry…).

Anderson—a musician who has never shied away from conceptual bloat—does manage to pull off a neat trick. Instead of presenting his “opera” as a discrete composition, to be followed by a set of hits, he absorbs Tull’s best known songs into his opera. (And it’s a good thing he did. The new songs and interstitial material composed for the piece are a sorry lot, lacking any memorable melodies or prog-rock riffage; Anderson is not the type of songwriter who can make intellectual property or biological patents hummable. Things reach their nadir on “Fruits of Frankenfields,” an interminable screed against GMOs and Big Agriculture. It could make even the  greenest among us feel sympathy for Monsanto.)

The production doesn’t help matters. In the interest of drama (or, if you’re less charitable, to give his badly deteriorated voice a rest), Anderson has apportioned the  lyrics to different characters: the young Jethro, his father, and his wife. He’s cast two additional singers: Ryan O’Donnell as young Tull, and Unnur Birna Björnsdóttir as his wife (bassist David Goodier takes the role of Jethro’s  father). But rather than appear on stage, they perform on video. It feels like a cost cutting measure, as does the video, which follows the action from the British countryside to London to Oxford to Italy by inserting the actors over backdrops. It’s pomp on the cheap, which is never pretty.

It’s musically unsatisfying as well. My heart’s not so small and black  that I didn’t feel a thrill  when the six-note riff introducing “Aqualung” was played, but if I were a fan, I’d feel cheated once I realized the song was going to be performed by Anderson’s Harry Potter-manque….on video. What’s surprising is how easily Anderson’s songs fit into musical-theater trope. “Wind-Up” is turned into the hero’s declaration of intent, a “Don’t Rain On My Parade” for a cloudy country;  “With You There To Help Me” a duet of long-distance love.

The musicians are all fine, but little more than that. They’re asked not to add personality, but play to a track. Guitarist Florian Opahle manages to not only recreate the recorded solo on “Aqualung,” but to perform it in unison with a video of him playing said solo. It’s a talent, but only a superfically impressive one. The finale, a bit of Bach-rock (including “Bourée”) allowed the band a chance to stretch out, and gave Anderson his longest flute solo.

There’s something to be said for classic rockers trying to recontexturalize their catalog, and Anderson has seemingly solved the problem of how to keep fans in their seats for his new songs. But for now, Jethro Tull: the Rock Opera is a prog-rock jukebox musical, a repackaged hits collection taken on the road.


Best Second Albums

OK, you’ve recorded your first album—congratulations! Now, what do have planned for an encore? My latest piece for BestClassicBands.com, the eminently readable site edited by my friend Rob Patterson, counts down ten classic bands whose second album improved on their debut.

How’d I do? Let me know and tell us your favorite 2nd LPs?


Anti-Tidal

I would be a lot more inclined to see Tidal‘s “free” streaming of “Anti,” Rihanna’s new album, in a generous light if they didn’t ask for my credit card information before letting me hear it.


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