There were some baby goats in one of the barns at the Boogie Room last night that were born just three days ago, cuddled up together in a pile of hay. It was amazing. I don’t get to see that sort of thing very often, and especially not at a show, where sweetness and innocence aren’t exactly in fashion these days.
Maybe it’s just me, but it sure seems like there’s a lot of bands lately who hold purity in low regard. Following secret motives and adhering to a growing nouveau underground which dictates a bitterly knotted anti-aesthetic, the only use they’d have for baby goats would be to ironically put them on their CD-R cover with, like, some rainbows and duct tape and bloodstains.
You know the kind. They all play a chaotic amalgam of fast, schizophrenic drum beats, noodling, atonal hardcore riffs, sparse, unnecessary non-vocals, and quirky or nonexistent tempos. They usually have a surefire gimmick, like dressing up in toilet paper or manhandling some artifact of malfunctioning vintage electronic equipment. Invariably, they have unconventional instrumentation, causing fans to say things like “it’s just a guitarist and a drummer!”—as if that’s, like, a totally original thing because that’s not how Nickelback or Sugar Ray or any other dumb band in their secret pile of CDs now collecting dust on their bedroom shelf does things. And they rarely, if ever, talk to the crowd.
Nickelback and Sugar Ray suck hard, don’t get me wrong. But what’s lame about this current voguish, anarchistic approach is that is it defined not by what it creates but by what it blatantly disregards. Right now, there’s way too many bands that tear down conventional form, melody, structure and rhythm, yet add nothing in its place—other than technical wankery and a juvenile nose-thumbing to what they perceive as the musical establishment. They’re like the sect of iconoclasts who have decided that interpersonal love is too mainstream and who avow to combat the fascist regime of loving one another by going out and displaying their autonomy by masturbating in public.
If this is the revolution, then sorry, man, but I’m bored with it before it even begins. How did Sara put it the other week? “If I leave a show, and my ears are ringing,” she proposed, “I want to at least have heard some songs.”
At the Boogie Room the other night was a fresh sign of hope. Pwrfl Power—the stage name of solo Japanese-American artist Kazutaka Nomura—not only played actual songs (and good songs, too), but he engaged the crowd with stories, jokes, observations, and genuine purity. “How are you?” he asked the crowd, and after we all muttered “good,” he smiled, adding to the exchange a trademark tangent.
“When I said that right there, ‘how are you,’” he said, “I was thinking of the book that I learned English, and it had an example of a conversation between, like, Tom and Kathryn. Some generic names like that. And the conversation was: ‘How are you?’ ‘I am good.’ ‘Is this a chair?’ ‘No, it is a table.’” He laughed. “What kind of stupid person is that?”
But whether he knows it or not, Nomura’s songs carry the same simplicity as those rudimentary textbook conversations. They’re basic statements that mean so much more exactly because they’re presented in such simple terms. “It’s okay to be yourself, it’s okay to be yourself,” he sings, “Because you’re you.”
Underneath innocent pronouncements about dogs, tomatoes, bananas—that sort of thing—lies a complex philosophical strain. Is it okay to fake some tears when you break up with a girl? Can one contribute to society without having a job? Is there a heaven where all the dead birds, dead cats, and dead drummers go?
Nomura plays the guitar with an advanced fingerpicking style, sometimes peeling into a dazzling interlude that sounds like Joe Pass at high speed (see “Coffee Girl Song”). With this sort of jazzy accompaniment and a restrained singing style, his set at the Boogie Room was like an ungrizzled form of beat poetry, and the mostly sitting-down crowd listened in rapt attention. Once again, like the first time I went to the Boogie Room, it reminded me of Studio E in Sebastopol.
I’d be super-curious to find out if Nomura, like other Japanese performers, plays up his language barrier while onstage to win over American audiences. I’d also probably be pretty jealous if I were on tour with him, watching him steal the hearts of the crowd every night with his painfully twee songs about chopsticks. But from an audience point of view, and especially in the context of the heinously garbled bullshit that passes for music in the underground these days, Pwrfl Power sure is a breath of fresh air.
You’d think, with a healthy affinity for Broadway and a probably unhealthy affinity for pop vocalists from the ’50s and ’60s, that I’d be all over the Rufus Wainwright thing. One problem: I’ve heard his records, and they’re too syrupy and overdramatic, bogged down by pretense and orchestration. When he toured last year for Release the Stars with a large ensemble and wore, like, five different poofy outfits onstage, I didn’t feel like I’d missed much.
But today, friends, I stand before you a changed man. Wainwright played a solo show at the Napa Valley Opera House last night, spotlighting his songs in a stripped-down format, and it was absolutely incredible. I can’t say that I’d follow him around on tour, or hold up star-shaped signs, or jump up applauding after every song like some of the more fervent dyed-in-the-wool fans in the crowd did last night, but if there’s a regular old kind of casual fan club, then sign me up, brother.
The fact that Wainwright was playing such a small venue made the evening feel like a special event indeed. Apparently in the know about his obsessive fans, Napa Valley Opera House Artistic Director Evy Warshawski introduced Wainwright as “you-know-who,” and was forced to deny requests from the audience demanding to know which hotel he was staying at afterwards. Quite a build-up.
Getting off to a shaky start, Wainwright came out, sat at the piano and banged away on the piano for “Grey Gardens,” an otherwise nice song affected by an awkward attack and bad dynamics. Something must have been going on with the monitors, because for the first three songs, it felt like he was overcompensating for imaginary sounds in his head. Eventually, either Wainwright or the soundman figured things out, and throughout the hour and fifteen-minute set, his accompaniment only got better, and was especially sensitive on numbers like “Zebulon” and “Going to a Town.”
Wainwright’s still not the most suitable guitarist—abrasive strumming and fret buzz got in the way—but his piano playing became beautiful and exhilarating, especially during the hands-down best song of the night, “Nobody’s Off the Hook.” Contained in reverence from start to finish, with a pensive instrumental passage, a heartbreaking final verse and an upper-register quote of “Over the Rainbow,” it elicited a communal awed silence before bringing the house down.
From the small stage, Wainwright took advantage of the intimate Napa Valley Opera House, talking with the crowd like old friends. “This is such a cute little Opera House!” he exclaimed midway through the show. “I’m imagining a cute little production of Aida. . . with baby elephants playing big elephants. . . little midget singers. . .” The crowd couldn’t stop laughing, and Wainwright, trying to bring the mood back down for the sad lament “I’m Not Ready to Love,” begged, “Get sad!” When that only dragged out the laughter, he got mock-desperate: “Oh, this is a nightmare!”
“Matinee Idol” sparked an ongoing discussion with the audience about River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Jon Voight and Cary Elwes, and during “California,” Wainwright changed the lyrics, pointedly singing that “life is the longest death in SOUTHERN California.” When the crowd hooted, he cattily admitted to the pander, saying, “I said ‘Northern’ down there!”
“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” and “April Fools” were woven nicely into medleys, and though Wainwright didn’t do any Judy Garland songs (like the night before in Monterrey when the crowd sang “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”) he convinced the crowd nonetheless to tackle the vocally gymnastic bridge to “Sansoucci,” his ode to the German palace which he hilariously referred to as “the Madonna Inn of Germany.” He also got off a side-splitting line about meeting up again with an old high school crush, a story which isn’t worth repeating here, unfortunately, because it would lack the necessary wit and zest-laden delivery of coming from Wainwright himself.
Wainwright’s songs are so good, his melodies so well-crafted, his sense of bombast so refined, and yet throughout the set all of these attributes sometimes took a backseat to his personality. Before the elegant final encore of “Dinner at Eight,” for example, Wainwright thanked opener Spencer Day for flying in at the last minute to help offset the Daylight Savings Time change. “And,” he quipped, “for providing me with an extra hour to look at myself back there.”
Some performers are performers and some performers are superstars. Wainwright isn’t a superstar, not yet, at least, but at least he’s adhering to the first rule of art, that of striking a pose. Wainwright’s chosen pose—a tortured diva who could crumble at any moment—would easily be an excruciating cliche, except that it’s backed up by such a richness of talent, and eventually, it will see itself fulfilled by said talent. So preen away, Rufus, and look at yourself for another hour. History will catch up.
Just a selection of records that’ve been on the stereo lately.
Deerhoof – Milk Man LP: I saw them the other week and they were never as good as this record. They eventually evolved a little bit to blend sweetness and chaos – the two are still separated on this album, and that’s great.
Pantera – Far Beyond Driven LP: Me and Hesh used to rock this shit hard in ’94 at 714. Somehow over the years I lost it, but the other day Dave sold it back. Thanks, Dave. Some albums kind of gently work under your skin, or slowly hit your consciousness. This is one that goes straight to your blood.
Kraftwerk – S/T 2LP: Every once in a while I nerd out on some German crapola like Neu! or Peter Brotzmann. This is early stuff, before Kraftwerk had “songs.” It’s a lot of glitchy noise, which matches the sounds in my head, from time to time.
Ruby Braff – Braff! LP: A great trumpet player who unfortunately often sounds like the cliche of ‘jazz trumpet player’ much like Coleman Hawkins sometimes sounds like the cliche of ‘jazz saxophone player.’ Too bad; following his solos is like talking to a really funny, witty person.
The Cribs – Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever LP: My favorite record of 2007. It made me guiltlessly happy every single time I listened to it. It still does.
Curtis Mayfield – Live 2LP: The smallest band, the biggest heart. Does he really play a Carpenters song and make it sound like the most sincere thing ever? Yes, he does. An exercise in minimalist soul.
David Murray – 3D Family 2LP: Goddamn eyes rolling into the back of his head, goddamn horn falling apart under the weight of his lungs. I saw him last year in NYC with my dad. Indescribable.
Spank Rock – Yoyoyoyoyoyo 2LP: Sleazy, juicy, do-me, sweaty, sticky, bring it on, dance-even-if-you-can’t-dance album. It grows on you in a pretty harsh way. Production sounds like the dance music from a strip club on Mars.
Pinhead Gunpowder – Carry The Banner 10″: “What a shitty version of a Diana Ross song,” I thought when I first bought this. Then, a couple weeks ago at Gilman, they finished their set with it and it was the GREATEST THING IN THE WORLD. Why is life so unpredictable and why do I love that so much?
The Watery Graves – Caracas LP: If Bill Evans were alive in 2008 and worked at La Sirenita in NE Portland, he’d make music like this.
Celia Cruz – Canta LP: Good old Cuban music. A little goes a long way, but it’s always good for at least Side A or Side B while cleaning up the house.
Bobby Short – S/T LP: None more expressive, down to the tiniest fraction of a syllable. An amazing interpreter and filled with such gayness. In that, yes, gay, and yes, hella vivacious and exuberant. I bought this on the last night Village Music was open, at about 11:45 pm, along with an autographed Atlantic Starr record.
Can – Ege Bamyasi LP: After all these years of working at a record store and I managed to resist the Can thing for almost the entire run. It finally hit me this year.
Mary Lou Williams – Zoning LP: Jazz with a lot of open space in which to think about God and a lot of recurring grooves to pull you back to reality. I never understood why everyone was so crazy about her until I heard this.
Moggs – The White Belt is Not Enough LP: A great Petaluma band. Those words are rarely if ever typed together, I know, but it’s true. Heavy, fucked-up, Sonic Youth art school sort of stuff. Some parts just get repeated forever and ever and it’s so satisfying.
Headlights – Kill Them With Kindness LP: Swirly beautiful pop music with boy-girl harmonies, keyboards, well-crafted songwriting. . . sounds like a rocket taking off. Never gets old. They’ve got a new one that just came out last week and I’m dying to hear it.
<– These little scraps of paper were found scattered backstage while Cursive played last night, ascertained as the proposed end of a set list that had apparently been scrapped. “Hey,” a friend of mine said, “can you believe they wouldn’t play these songs?!” I checked it out, saw some damn great songs consigned to the the backstage cutting floor, and I agreed that no, I could not believe it.
Cursive showcased a lot of new material last night, and even apologized for it (the band’s recording soon and they’re “road-testing” new material), although a number of vintage crowd-pleasers made their way into the set: “Sierra,” “Art is Hard,” and the never-fail one-two punch of “The Casualty” and “The Martyr” from what’s still their greatest album, Domestica. Thusly teased, the crowd heavily laid on the applause at the end.
Backstage, someone in the band must have found one of the scraps of paper with the jettisoned songs, because for their encore, not only did they play them—hell yeah—but for “Big Bang” Tim Kasher brought the microphone out into the middle of the Phoenix Theater’s floor and sang amongst a circular flock of hyped-up fans. It ruled. The song rules. I felt the magnetic pull and joined in.
And then, good god, Kasher started playing the unimposing guitar intro to “Sink to the Beat”—tossing out a “We miss you, Clint” to the ex-drummer who practically defined the song—and plowed into the jam of all jams: “I’d like to make this perfectly clear…” It was mayhem out on the floor: a sweet unification of a great song, a cluster of strangers all singing the great song, and directly in the eye of the storm, weathering the busy tides of excited bodies on all sides, the guy who wrote it.
Kasher grabbed the mic stand, hopped back up on stage, finished the song, and called it a night. Crazy to think that what was originally ripped from the bottom of the set list turned into the awesomest part of the show.
Lookin’ Good: How ’bout those new curtains at the Phoenix on the stage and side walls? And the fresh paint job on the ceiling and balcony? As someone remarked last night, “It looks like a real theater again.” I mentioned it to Tom Gaffey and he was pretty stoked about it too, pointing out that more interior painting is on the way but no, they’re not going to do away with the graffiti murals.
Also: Tim Kasher seemed pretty happy after the show, hanging out and chatting about Omaha, the on-stage patter mastery of Neva Dinova, and how triumphant it felt to perform “Big Bang” in Colorado Springs, a bastion of Christian fundamentalism. Somehow the conversation turned to Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, and Tim recalled being a student in Lawrence, Kansas and reading about the funerals that Phelps and his lower-than-shit organization picket. “And I distinctly remember fantasizing,” he said, “in my more-angsty youth, about being the one, you know, that bought the gun…” Right on, brother.
I’ve had “For Reverend Green” by Animal Collective stuck in my head all day, and it wasn’t until I got off work and started pedaling towards the Crux House that I figured out why I like that song so much. It’s essentially a bunch of totally strange, disparate sonic elements, but they’ve been identified and recast as new ingredients of a cohesive composition with structure, melody, and form. It combines just the right amount of adventure in creating a familiar end result, which is how all good songs that get stuck in your head should be.
I was still thinking about this when I made my way down to the basement at the Crux House tonight to watch a band from San Diego, whom I knew nothing about, called Vaginals. Three girls, one guy, and in devout subscription to the hipster code, no “the.”
The band started playing, and I was immediately intrigued at how off the wall they were. Weird singing! Discordant guitar solos! Everyone playing unusual instruments in different keys!
But as their set plodded on, the potential faded along with any initial thrill. Vaginals seem to view adventure as both the means and the end, with no solidified result other than ingratiation. The totally strange, disparate sonic elements were all there—lots of cool shit like delayed vocals, thumb piano, modified synthesizer, harmonica, cello, maracas, haphazardly-played drums—but none of them ever came together to resemble what’s commonly referred to as a song.
Okay, okay, there were two things that sounded like songs. One of them started with the line “I’m not waiting around for your review” (which I hope is actually the case, because they’re not likely to appreciate this one very much) and ended with the hopelessly steamrolled-into-the-ground doll reference: “I’m not one of those perfect Barbie girls.” The other one rhymed “Slim” with “Jim” and “Gin” and “Him” over and over again in a screeching fake Southern accent. You get the picture.
Near the end, during a Residents cover, just for a quick second, I saw their singer crack a rare smile, and it was then that I realized what had been missing. Where was the fun?! It’s fine to be art-school charlatans who make crappy noise that makes no sense, but damn, at least have some fun while you’re doing it. Realistically, that’s the only way anyone’s gonna take you seriously, unless it’s 1965 and you’re John Tchicai.
I intentionally parked about a half-mile away from the Boogie Room last night so I could walk the long narrow road in rural Santa Rosa under the moonlight, surrounded by farmland, alone. It’s something I used to do plenty often, before I had a driver’s license—and before most of Santa Rosa’s empty fields were turned into tract homes. It was serene, and I think, since the Boogie Room is located pretty much in the blissful middle of nowhere, that I’ll make a tradition of it.
I don’t want to say too much about the Boogie Room, because in the guerilla tradition of the last couple years, it’s an under-the-radar venue and probably prefers to stay that way. Think of it as a Studio E for the younger set; a homey place to see friends, play fetch with the house dog, sit by the campfire, and watch terrific bands in a cozy barn in the middle of a field. House concerts, as it were, with an edge.
I was given a tour of the sprawling grounds by Bryce, who’s something of a navigator for this amazing, multi-tiered ship. He enthusiastically showed me around the large greenhouse and huge garden; the collection of barns full of old cars and owls; and the many, many improvements that he and other residents have made since they moved in about a year ago. Sliding open the door to one leaning barn, he blankly explained that it was where the previous tenant, who had been running a chop-shop for stolen cars and a methamphetamine lab, had hung himself.
In the music room, the junkyard classicism of the Highlands—a cellist, a violinist, a possessed guitarist and two drummers—was filling the place up. After a truncated set by Battlehooch, who manhandled a Theremin, a Sony Watchman and multiple vocal effects before submitting to technical difficulties, it was time for the Iditarod, who were as epic and majestic as their name implies. Medieval synthesizer solos, heralding trumpets, three-part-harmony battle cries, absolutely strange guitar playing and hyperactive drum beats. Shit, as they say, was goin’ off.
I’d never seen Xbxrx before, but I could tell that the guys standing by the side of the stage had to be the band members. They looked bored and annoyed, like they couldn’t wait to play and get the whole thing over with, and sure enough, as soon as the Iditarod were finished, it took exactly 40 seconds for them to start hurriedly setting up their equipment on the stage. So I wasn’t expecting much; after all, they’ve been a band for ten years, they’ve toured with Sonic Youth and Deerhoof, their last few shows were in Berlin, London, and Amsterdam—why would they possibly care about Santa Rosa?
But a total transformation occurred when they plugged in and started playing; it was like they’d become lightning rods for all the Earth’s energy for miles around. They leapt, flailed, ran, fell down, writhed, spun, and shook wildly. . . and that’s just in the first two minutes. I’ve seen a lot of goddamn hardcore mayhem, but this was up there. Way up there.
In matching baby-blue outfits, the guys in Xbxrx didn’t perform so much as they blurred their way around the entire barn, as far as their guitar cables would allow, unpredictably crashing around while playing blast after blast of insane noise. They climbed the walls, they banged their heads on the ground, they shoved their bodies behind the couch and they did haphazard flips into the crowd. Antagonizing, sure, but even though I stood just a couple feet from the guitarist’s amplifier and mic stand the whole time, I amazingly never once got hit.
At the end of the set, one of the guitarists crawled underneath the stage with his guitar and just laid there in a fetal position. He didn’t move. It made sense, in a way. So I left before Batman vs. Predator with my ears ringing, and walked the half-mile back to my car in the quiet foggy midnight air.
“One request: ditch the cell phones and digital cameras. If they weren’t here, fuck ‘em.”
Apparently something happened tonight called the Grammy Awards, a bloated, self-congratulatory clusterfuck which, as a music journalist, I should probably attempt to care about. But even if for some sadomasochistic reason or another I followed the Grammys like a hawk, I’d have to opt instead for witnessing an event infinitely more electrifying and significant: Billie Joe Armstrong’s grand return to the stage at 924 Gilman Street.
Gilman in itself holds a big place in my heart; from 1990-1995 I played there, slept there, volunteered there, and went to more shows there than I can count. And of the 20 or so times I saw Green Day—including the time they fulfilled a request to play my own high school in 1991—none was as special as seeing them at Gilman, because it was and still is the most miraculous and amazing club the world has to offer.
Billie Joe, now a decorated Grammy alumnus himself, suffered the psychological blow of not being able to perform again at Gilman—essentially his home and breeding ground for six formative years—when Green Day signed to Warner Bros. in 1993 (the club explicitly bars major-label bands from its lineups). In a number of songs and interviews, he made the scars public; yet skirting back to the venerable warehouse fifteen years later, his less-mentioned but no-less-brilliant “other band” Pinhead Gunpowder was added onto tonight’s hush-hush Sunday evening show. (Judging from the long line that snaked around the block as the doors opened at 5pm, the news that Billie Joe was playing didn’t exactly escape the wildfire of Message Boards and MySpace postings like the organizers hoped.)
Pinhead Gunpowder does not play a lot of shows. In fact, they’ve only played 17 shows in 17 years. And though the band had just finished up a round of Southern California dates the previous week, tonight’s show carried a particular historical weight.
“We’ve played some shows, like down in San Pedro, the kinds of shows I haven’t played in 15 years,” he explained to me, hanging around the side door before the doors opened. “It’s been fuckin’ great. But this place…”—he paused, stared nervously at the club—“I haven’t played here in a long time.”
Playing Gilman again for Billie Joe is probably a lot like getting dumped by an amazing girlfriend, only to have her call up years later out of the blue for a roll in the hay; strange, kind of awesome, and more than slightly nerve-racking. Nearby, some people arrived with video equipment; “What are they filming for?” asked Billie Joe, no doubt concerned that his private communion with Gilman could be turned into a documentary critique.
But if the love showered on him tonight was any barometer, then Billie Joe needn’t have worried. Two girls at the front of the line, who’d arrived at 7:30am, came around the corner and approached him; some gushing-adolescent conversation and a couple of hugs later, the girls ran back to the line shaking, shuddering, and coming precariously close to throwing up in excitement.
And onstage, after setting up his own equipment and adjusting his own mic stand, Billie Joe had the world in his hands, from the opening chords of “Find My Place” to luminous chestnuts like “MPLS Song” and “Losers of the Year.” Not a drop of animosity remained from 1993. Bodies crushed, heaved, and lurched as one in the wonderfully chaotic fray of the crowd, where I and hundreds of others tried to stay on two feet. Gilman staffers on either side of the stage, most of them in grade school when Green Day were banned from Gilman, all sang along.
“Welcome home!” someone yelled.
“Welcome home!” replied Billie Joe, in a sort of gleeful amazement at the phrase, and then began singing, “Welllll-come hoooo-me, wellll-come hoooo-me!”
Obviously enjoying the shit outta the occasion, Billie jumped around like a madman, quoted John Denver and Don McLean lyrics, and slashed away at his black Gretsch guitar. Through “Reach for the Bottle,” “Before the Accident,” and, in a dedication to Pinhead Gunpowder’s old guitarist Mike Kirsch, “Future Daydream,” he couldn’t have appeared more inspired on Gilman’s well-worn stage. Being tangled in the sea of people up front, I swayed and sweat and gasped for air along with every goddamn beautiful moment of it all.
After “Mahogany,” the lights came up, the side door opened, and Billie Joe Armstrong ambled out onto Eighth Street. I caught up with him, steam emanating from his drenched body, in the same spot where beforehand he’d expressed uncertainty.
“That,” he told me, “was great.”
P.S. Pinhead Gunpowder brought out a lot of faces I haven’t seen in a while. Jesse Luscious, Robert Eggplant, Paul Curran and Patrick Hynes: nice seeing you all. You too, Aaron. And massive kudos to the opening band, Zomo, who were almost as great as the headliner.
I walked into Amoeba a full hour before Vampire Weekend’s scheduled set on Friday night, only to see the first two aisles in front of the stage already filled with diehards waiting for their chance to watch, up close and personal, one of the suavest new bands of 2008.
The indie rock cognoscenti have been burbling about Vampire Weekend for months now, with descriptors like “Ivy-League Death Pop Woven With African Filament”—I mean, how can you resist?—and yet for Friday night’s hugely high-school-aged audience (ponytails, braces, and zits in abundance), it was all about the here and now. The band’s debut album, Vampire Weekend, just released, the 18+ show the night before at Popscene an unattainable dream, and twittering throng waiting anxiously between Amoeba’s Gospel and Rockabilly sections.
The rest of the store filled fast, with unknowing customers humorously caught off-guard by the commotion, and then, the big moment: in casual Harvard fashion, the band ambled out onto the stage and started their set with the first song from their album, a catchy two-minute blast called “Mansard Roof,” nailing all the high vocals, syncopated rhythms, and jaunty melodies.
After the second song, “Campus,” singer / guitarist Ezra Koenig acknowledged San Francisco—“It’s one of our very favorite cities, and we don’t just say that everywhere,” he commented, adding wryly, “Sometimes it’s very obvious that it’s not our favorite city.”
Vampire Weekend’s songs are what people call deceptively simple—both “Mansard Roof” and “Campus,” for example, rely on just a basic major scale for a riff—but the band kneads enough bizarre influences into the dough that listening to them is like deciphering a Rosetta Stone of music, from Sting to Sister Carol to Schubert to a healthy dose of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Live, the band rocks harder sans the string quartet on record, and, dispensing with collegiate reticence, Koenig passionately emphasized lines like “do you want to fuck?” from the South African-flavored “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” In the aisles, the kids ate it up.
After “I Stand Corrected,” “A-Punk,” and “Oxford Comma,” it was all over, truncating their already-short album (it’s a refreshing 34 minutes long) into just a six-song set. For a tiny short while, the innocence of pop music and the excitement of a great new band with oodles of potential lay bare in front of a crowd of fervent admirers, and on a cold, drizzling night in San Francisco, well, it’s hard to ask for more.
Best Lyrics: Magnetic Fields – Distortion
The album title, Distortion, refers to the Psychocandy-esque fuzz that permeates every song on this album—making it sound drearier and more hungover than anything you’d expect from Magnetic Fields. But holy bejeezus, the lyrics are a goddamn hoot. Some reviews of the album have actually complained about the lyrics in particular, citing Stephen Merritt’s ongoing “downtrodden, sad-sack schtick,” causing me to wonder if Noel Coward could very well be out of work if he was born in the 21st Century. Making mirth out of the morose is a tight market these days, apparently.
From “The Nun’s Litany”:
I want to be a topless waitress
I want my mother to shed one tear
I’d throw away this old, sedate dress
Slip into something a tad more sheer
I want to be an artist’s model
An odalisque au naturel
I should be good at spin the bottle
While I’ve still got something left to sell
From “Too Drunk To Dream”:
Sober, life is a prison
Shitfaced, it is a blessing
Sober, nobody wants you
Shitfaced, they’re all undressing
No one should listen to any Magnetic Fields album before they listen to 69 Love Songs, but for the already initiated, the sharply pained ribaldry of Distortion’s lyrics will remind you of at least one of a hundred reasons why you fell in love with the band in the first place. They’re playing two nights at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco on Feb. 28-29, and man, is it ever sold out.
Best Sonic Quality: Black Mountain – In The Future
I saw Black Mountain late last December and it was undoubtedly one of the year’s highlights. I drove down to the show in San Francisco on a complete whim and had no idea what to expect, brandishing only an ardent fascination with their self-titled debut, released three years ago.
The lights went down. The guitar amplifier billowed smoke. The drums illumined with each bass kick. The voices of Amber Webber and Stephen McBean cavorted together, intertwined, above a thundering morass. I was stupefied.
In The Future doesn’t quite capture all of Black Mountain’s hazy bombast, and its songs aren’t as classic as those on the band’s first record, but it’s a mind-transporting headphone album nonetheless that just sounds great. They’re playing at the Independent in San Francisco on Monday, Feb. 4.
Strange New Band: MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
They’re too hippie-sounding for the fixed gear crowd but they’re, like, too concerned with their own image for the stoner crowd. I still can’t figure out if I like ‘em or not. Their video, though, is an absolute work of art. So, yeah: strange new band.
It was a hella enjoyable night last week at Kate & Coalmine’s Roll Call, thanks largely in part to the very funny and ultimately surreal set played by Lila Cugini (seen here getting clubbed by, uh… a sadomasochistic police officer?).
The Roll Call, a recurring feature on Wednesday nights at the Toad in the Hole Pub in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, operates like a well-organized (and, thanks to the beers on tap, well-oiled) open mic. Performers are booked in advance, but the carefree, anything-goes attitude is the same. Basically, you never know what you’re gonna get; a time-honored concept which can be excruciating when it fails but awesomely surprising when it succeeds.
It worked for Lila, who happened to be celebrating her birthday last Wednesday and had plenty of well-wishers in tow. Lila opened her set by showing off and reading from her latest present, just given to her by a friend outside on the sidewalk: an autographed script of the pilot episode from M*A*S*H.
Then, kicking things off with a tongue-in-cheek ditty called “I Want An Ugly Man,” Lila told a story about copying and pasting the song’s lyrics onto a personal ad on Craigslist, just as an experiment. “And here’s the really terrible thing about dating in Sonoma County,” she related: two hours later, she opened an inbox full of responses from 19 homely, disfigured, fat slobs, all professing their undying, requited love.
Lila plays simple chords and sings simple melodies, and even when she forgets her own lyrics, she’s got a charming, hey-I-could-do-that-too thing going on. Her voice reminds me of a younger Lucinda Williams circa Happy Woman Blues, and her songs—“My Lovin’ Days Are Over,” “She Wants Him Back”—reveal a similar plaintive heartbreak.
But it was the set’s closer that brought the house down.
Last time I saw Lila, oh, about five years ago, she dedicated a cover song—Green Day’s “She”—to her son, Adler. On Wednesday, her cover song of choice had changed considerably: R. Kelly’s “Real Talk.” Totally goddamned hilarious. You haven’t lived ‘til you’ve seen a birthday girl with a voice full of heartbreak, strumming slow chords on an acoustic guitar, singing lines like “I been with you five years and you listenin’ to your motherfuckin’ girlfriends / I don’t know why you fuck with them ol’ jealous, no-man-havin’-ass hoes anyway.”
(P.S.: Throughout the set, North Country bike enthusiast and all-around man-about-town Chris Wells projected weird-ass videos on a screen, and just when the night couldn’t get any stranger, he quickly followed “Real Talk” with a candid clip of Lila, Kate and Dani (all of whom were at the Toad, none of whom knew they had been filmed) sitting around a campfire at a dustbowl hoedown party, singing Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers” at the top of their lungs. Awesome.)