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First Novels at the Toad in the Hole

Posted by on Mar 19, 2008

The Toad in the Hole has an official fire capacity of, like, 48, and I usually feel really bad for Eddie, their doorman. Part of his job is to be the messenger of bad news and to turn paying customers away when the place is hopping—which was definitely the case last Saturday night. Chalk it up to First Novels, with the match-made-in-heaven pairing of Andy Asp and Brian Fitzpatrick, to pack the tiny Toad in the Hole and to leave latecomers stranded on the sidewalk outside.

Andy and Brian, who for years played together in Cropduster and seem essentially like soulmates at this point, are a thrill to watch together—sometimes you think Brian’s the luckiest guy in the world to play with Andy, sometimes you think Andy’s the luckiest guy in the world to play with Brian. Their songs, influenced by tunesmiths like John Prine, Tim Hardin and Neil Young, are microcosms of wonder, and between Andy’s voice and Brian’s guitar work, they’re played with a hypnotic, untainted delicacy. Note to people who try to talk to me when Andy and Brian are playing: dude, be quiet.

Special mention must be made of Muir Houghton, upright bassist extraordinaire, who picks up songs on the spot and plays them like he’s played them forever. I’ve seen him a few times now, and whether bowing or plucking, whether playing with John Courage or Amber Lee or First Novels, he’s always on top of his game.

The Spindles played last, and incidentally, I don’t think they’ve ever been better, benefiting greatly from the addition of new drummer Jonathan Hughes, who plays with a really thoughtful and compatible sense of taste. Sweet-lookin’ drum kit, too.

Pwrfl Power at the Boogie Room

Posted by on Mar 16, 2008 2 Comments

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.

Rufus Wainwright at the Napa Valley Opera House

Posted by on Mar 10, 2008 One Comment

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.

Vinyl, Mp3s, Sermons, Reissues

Posted by on Mar 10, 2008

While researching my Bohemian article on the independent music industry phenomenon of including free mp3 download coupons inside of vinyl LPs, I had the pleasure of talking to a number of labels whose records I’ve listened to and loved for half my life. Vinyl comes and goes pretty quickly these days, and there’s a lot of records that everyone owned at one point but somehow sold, lost, or loaned out for good. So it was exciting to find out during my interview that Merge Records will soon be introducing a “Merge Classic Reissues” series, revisiting out-of-print or previously-unavailable-on-vinyl titles and repressing them on LP. Matador did this with the first three Pavement records recently, and it’s fucking awesome that Merge is starting it too.

The first three titles to be reissued: A Series of Sneaks and Girls Can Tell by Spoon, and The Charm of the Highway Strip by Magnetic Fields, all elegantly pressed on 180-gram vinyl. Here’s hoping they press 69 Love Songs and Red Devil Dawn, which have criminally never been on vinyl, and No Pocky For Kitty, which is just a damn great record, in the near future.

Also, Jon Collins over at Dropcards was telling me about all the various projects they’ve worked on, including a Hannah Montana card for Disney and a huge promotion for Vitamin Water. I asked him what the weirdest project they’ve done, and he told me about a Southern baptist preacher who ordered an mp3 of his sermon on a bunch of Dropcards so he could hand them out to his congregation. Crazy.

Collins also used to work at an independent record distributor in Philadelphia, and I think it’s pretty cool that a guy who now does business with Kelly Clarkson,  Red Bull and SnoCap has a record collection that looks like this.

Dear Mark

Posted by on Mar 10, 2008 2 Comments

Stop worrying about the Vampire Weekend record and just give in. That’s the great thing about records—you can love them hella hard for a week or two and then abandon them entirely with no guilt. I was lucky enough to hear it before the hype kicked in, so my view was pure and untainted, which is an enormous asset. I loved it immediately and unabashedly; it’s so catchy and precocious and instantly attractive. And yet, I’ll freely admit that after just a month I hardly listen to the thing anymore. It lasted for a couple weeks at best, a red hot love affair that died in the best possible way—with no strings attached. Come to think of it, if you’ve been hearing about them in as many places as they’ve been talked about, it might be too late for you at this point. Now it’s like Vampire Weekend is the town floozy that’s seduced and slept with everyone else already. There’s no mystery involved, they’ve got some conspicuous stains on their clothes, and their perky cuteness comes off as a pitiful faux-twee attempt to convert yet another into their bedpost victories.

Sometimes I really hate the new media and its hyper-advanced condition of propping up and knocking down, don’t you?

That said, “A-Punk” and “M79″ were the wrong songs to play on Saturday Night Live. For all of their varied influences, “A-Punk” always sounds like Operation Ivy’s “Artificial Life” to me, and as for “M79″—it’s pretty impressive that they found players to manage the hyperfast bridge, but the whole thing just screams out “Look, we’ve got a string quartet playing with us!”

It’s cool on the record, but it’s convoluted and awkward in person:

On The Stereo

Posted by on Mar 4, 2008

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.

Cursive at the Phoenix Theater

Posted by on Mar 2, 2008

<– 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.

In News

Sonoma Jazz Festival Announced

Posted by on Mar 1, 2008 3 Comments

The lineup for the Fourth Annual Sonoma Jazz Festival has been announced. Let the bickering begin!

Thursday, May 22: Kool and the Gang
Friday, May 23: Herbie Hancock
Saturday, May 24: Diana Krall
Sunday, May 25: Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo

Yup—as in each of the first three years of the festival, there’s a couple of acts in the Memorial Day Weekend lineup who could hardly be classified as “jazz.” At this point, it’s a local tradition that seems frivolous to argue, but it nonetheless consistently succeeds in getting hardcore jazz fans riled up to the nth degree.

Steve Winwood and Boz Scaggs, both headliners at the 2005 inaugural festival, rose the eyebrows early. Steve Miller and B.B. King stoked the fumes in 2006. Last year may have been the harshest of all: LeAnn Rimes and Michael McDonald.

Maybe that’s why festival directors have changed the name – slightly. Much like the Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park became “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass,” the Sonoma Jazz Festival is officially known as “Sonoma Jazz +.”

As residents of the “Jazz” arena, both Diana Krall and Herbie Hancock are making return appearances at the festival, with the indefatigable Hancock recently handed a what-the-hell Album of the Year Grammy Award for his Starbucks-friendly sort-of-Joni-Mitchell tribute River: The Joni Letters.

Kool and the Gang, Bonnie Raitt and Keb Mo are gonna have to be content with the “+” category, although after scoping out the crowd in previous years, I hardly think that the average Sonoma Jazz attendee will mind all that much. As for the expensively-dressed and well-Chardonnayed woman sitting behind us last year who continually talked on her cell phone, well, I doubt she’d even notice.

But I have to personally hand it to the directors of this crazy weekend festival. Whatever your take on their choice of booking, they’re bringing world-class talent to an event with an impeccably well-run yet laid-back atmosphere—I mean jeez, it’s held in a tent on a baseball diamond, fer cryin’ out loud. The mood around the festival is jovial and swank, the shows are often sold out, and everyone generally leaves happy.

Here’s another thing you can’t argue with: to reward local residents, tickets go on sale in the town of Sonoma on Saturday, March 8 at the Sonoma Community Center from 2-6pm. Out-of-towners, positively hungry to boogie down to “Ladies’ Night” and “Celebration,” have to wait until the nationwide release of tickets, two days later, on March 10. Pricing and ticket info for the general public is served up here, but the March 8 pre-sale for locals is a strictly in-the-know kind of thing. Cool deal.

Hooked on Campaign Songs

Posted by on Feb 27, 2008

Vaginals in the Crux Basement

Posted by on Feb 27, 2008 One Comment

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.