Tearing A Hole In Heaven – Explosions In The Sky live in Tucson and Denver on “The Wilderness” Tour

Explosions In The Sky ignite the atmosphere in amazing shows in Tucson and Denver.

I often wonder about the magic of sound.  It’s said that David was able to sooth the savage beast with his harp, and we have all been moved to both ecstasy and agony by songs that are able to invoke strong feelings and emotions in us.

But what is music?  Music is just combinations of soundwaves at certain pitches and intensities, put together in repetitive rhythms and in either harmony or dissonance.  Broken down, music is just patterns of airwaves.

And yet we all know that music is far more, has to be more, than that. Simple airwaves would not be able to remind you of the night by the lake under a cloudless sky and full moon where you declared your eternal love for your first real girlfriend.   Simple airwaves would not be able to remind you of the depths of the darkest nights of your life and put you immediately back into the despair of those moments at the sound of certain chords and voices.

Music not only reflects emotion; music can create emotion and pull you into feelings.  Music establishes passion and pain, and creates its own existence.  Music is a time machine for memories.

Almost every important moment of my life is tied to music of some type, and it brings me back to thinking about sound.  As I write this, I’m riding jumpseat in a US Air Force C-17 transport plane, and every sound in it is of restlessness and ugliness, from the roar of the wind and the clank and clatter of the equipment aboard groaning under stress. It makes my spirit unsettled, and yet just like music it’s only airwaves of certain combinations of pitch and rhythm, timbre and tone.

Which brings me to two of the most amazing sonic experiences of my life involving seeing the band Explosions In The Sky on their current “The Wilderness” tour. My first time seeing them was in Tucson, AZ at the Rialto Theatre on 2016-05-02. I don’t remember ever having seen anything like it, and it affected me so much that I ended up going to see them the subsequent week at the Ogden Theatre in Denver, CO on 2016-05-11.  I see so many shows that at this point it takes a lot to surprise me but these guys really shook me to my core.

There’s really no other band I can think of that’s hit the American public radar that is comparable to Austin, Texas based Explosions In The Sky. EITS has no singer; rather they front three guitarists of considerable skill and an amazing number of pedals (Michael James, Mark Smith and Munaf Rayani) who each alternate leading and combining in a way that’s really unlike anything else around.  There are other instrumental rock bands (Mogwai is the obvious reference point) but EITS mines a different musical vein than other instrumental rock bands that I’ve heard.

EITS guitar lines and figures loop and interlock, sometimes combining and sometimes opposing, in a majestic symphony that is like a single 100-minute symphony in 25 movements. The music is angry and violent and then on a dime will wheel into a gorgeous whispered lullaby of repeated figures and melody in a way that is trance-like and hypnotic.

Through seven studio albums (including the recently-released “The Wilderness” that provided the namesake and focus of the current tour) EITS has really fleshed out their sound but nothing preps you for the dramatic impact of their sound live.

Here’s an example from the Denver show:

 

 

In both shows, there were moments of martial metal madness that would then be tempered by musical movements and interludes that were so delicate and fragile that they disappeared before your eyes like mist being evaporated on a spring morning.

Because they don’t have a singer to distract the audience, their music isn’t absorbed by your conscious but rather immediately goes into your subconscious, lulling you into a trance state.  They serve that premise by never stopping to talk to the crowd or break for an encore.  No forced stage patter or annoying stagecraft to stall for time during the show: they come on stage, pummel your body and mind with music, drilling your soul with soundwaves and then walk off.

Like the best of drone blues or Saharan blues, EITS do an attack-and-release style of playing, where the tension gradually builds with the sonic structure until you physically feel like the constriction is suffocating, and just at the point where you start to feel physical discomfort, the music resolves and relaxes in a way that releases both your body and spirit.   It’s a great trick that they do, and I wish I could find a way to bottle it.

A couple of times, I had an experience that I don’t actually remember ever happening before at a concert, where each of the guitarists played a different, weaving melody that when interleaved with each other like waves created a fourth, distinct melody out of the three disparate parts.  It was so startling that it awoke me from my reverie just to stare in wide-eyed amazement at what I was hearing and seeing on the stage.

EITS are something that you have to experience live. Their albums can’t possibly do justice to their live set, where the highs and lows can sear themselves into you in a way that studio albums can’t possibly do.

Ably backed by a skronking rhythm section of Chris Hrasky on drums and touring bassist Carlos Torres, each of the musicians is a virtuoso but I want to focus on guitarist Rayani. All three of the guitarists slowly weave and groove as they play but it’s Rayani that you can’t take your eyes off of – he’s one of the most compelling guitarists to watch that I’ve ever seen. He loses and loosens himself completely into the music in a way that invites you to climb into his brain with him as he plays.

Just check out the clip below, also from the Denver show.  It’s a long one so if you have to jump to the 5:00 mark I’ll understand. I’ll wait while you watch.

Now was that something or what?

I guess in the end it doesn’t really matter what music consists of, and the mechanisms by which it works on the mind, body and soul are probably better left a mystery. It only matters that music exists, and that each person experiences the truth in their soul that can only be brought out by music.  Music is part of what it means to be human, and a part of what it means to be alive.  I still assert that what humans are best at is music, science, architecture and war, and that the best thing that recommends continued human existence is music.

Here are some clips from the Tucson show followed by the setlists for both shows.

 

 

 


Setlists:

Tucson


  1. Tangle Formations
  2. The Birth And Death Of The Day
  3. With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept
  4. The Ecstatics
  5. Greet Death
  6. Let Me Back In
  7. Disintegration Anxiety
  8. Colors In Space
  9. Six Days At The Bottom Of The Ocean
  10. Logic Of A Dream
  11. The Only Moment We Were Alone

 

Denver


  1. Infinite Orbit
  2. Tangle Formations
  3. The Only Moment We Were Alone
  4. Greet Death
  5. Logic Of A Dream
  6. Let Me Back In
  7. Disintegration Anxiety
  8. Colors In Space
  9. The Birth And Death Of The Day
  10. Memorial

The Exception That Proves The Rule – FFS Live at the Lincoln in Washington DC

In a rare collaboration that proves the sum can be greater than the parts, electro-pop pioneers Sparks and post-punk aught-wavers Franz Ferdinand combine for an audacious and delightful collaboration at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington DC on 2015-10-05 that charts new waters for each band.

I hadn’t seen this one coming.

Rock history is spotty when it comes to true collaborations where two bands come together and create a genuine third thing that is wholly distinct from the material of each original band. What usually happens is that each band tends to bring some of their own material and serves basically as the backing band for the other band for their material. Maybe the lead singers trade off some lead vocals, but it doesn’t really feel like a new band has been created.

That’s what makes the collaboration between Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, called FFS, so interesting.

I’ve followed Sparks off and on throughout their 40-year plus career as one of the most quirky and creative bands in rock. The Sparks core has always been the brother team of Russell and Ron Mael, with Russell the hyperkinetic and flamboyant front man prone to burst into falsetto and Ron the stoic behind the keyboards acting like a scowling and disapproving teacher as he monitors his younger brothers’ antics.

Los Angeles-based Sparks had a couple of unlikely pop hits in the 70’s in the UK, most notably “This Town Aint Big Enough For The Both Of Us” (#2 UK Pop in 1974) and “Number One Song in Heaven”. They probably hit their commercial peak, or at least their peak influence, in the US in the early 80s in the heart of the New Wave era with a run of influential albums like “Whomp That Sucker”, “Angst In My Pants”, “In Outer Space” and “Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat”, all of which tried to leverage Sparks’ creative video sensibilities and turn them into New Wave posterboys and keyboard-based symbols of the New Wave era.

You might remember this duet with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s that was a big college radio hit in the days before “alternative” was a thing…

I run hot and cold with Sparks. They had a great sense of pop melody, but the lyrics would sometimes be slightly too clever and filled with, depending on your mood, funny or groanworthy puns and although they owned the musical niche in between Devo and Yello, the music could at times be a bit twee for my tastes.

However, their influence on at least three generations of bands cannot be denied. Across their 20-plus albums they have generated a body of work that has been highly acclaimed by electropop and dance artists, and one of the things that surprises me the most is how young and rabid their current fan base is. They are the very definition of a “cult” band.

Led by Alex Kapranos, Franz Ferdinand (Kapronos: guitar/vocals; Nick McCarthy:guitar, Bob Hardy:bass and Paul Thomson:drums; all original members since 2002) is one of my favorite bands to come out of the 2000’s. I love their lean, angular, spiky and muscular approach to alternative dance rock. Coming out of the Glasgow music scene in the early 2000’s, they brought a fresh injection of adrenaline into the moribund UK music scene like a post-punk version of Gang of Four for the new millennium.

Admit it, the first time you heard “Take Me Out” and the rhythm change that comes after the intro you thought, now that’s interesting. And then the biggest compliment that you can give a rock band – “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before”.

Franz Ferdinand have followed their debut with a string of solid albums – “You Could Have It So Much Better”, “Tonight: Franz Ferdinand” and “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions” that have solidified them as one of the most reliably creative bands to have come out of the 2000’s. In particular “Do You Want To” and “Right Action” are examples of alternative dance-rock that just pop out of the speakers and into your ears as earworms. The only negative I have about Franz Ferdinand is that they’ve created such a distinctive sound that they may have painted themselves into a bit of a corner stylistically for the future, unless they consciously make an attempt to break the mold they’ve made.

Which in retrospect probably made them a perfect candidate to collaborate with a band to shake them out of their patterns. Enter Sparks.

Based on interviews I’ve seen/heard with Russell Mael and Alex Kapronos, apparently the two bands were discussing collaborating to at least release a split single (remember singles?) as far back as 2004. However, nothing came of those original discussions until a couple of years ago when a chance meeting in San Francisco made them give it a shot.

The two bands, based 6,000 miles apart, sent files back and forth with either completed songs or just musical snippets and they iterated back and forth for months to flesh out the songs. They hadn’t met face-to-face during that time or actually played together at the same time until an intensive 15-day recording session that completed the entire album.

The sound of the FFS album and the songs really is a revelation – the four members of Franz Ferdinand bring a muscularity and punch to the songs that gives them a sense of urgency, and the Mael brothers bring a sense of melody and fun that can at times be missing in FF. FF sands off a bit of the weirdness of the Mael brothers, while the Maels bring out of some FF’s inherent quirkiness and an artsy side that they can tend to keep submerged.

In other words, each side brings the best of what they do to the other side and in so doing pushes the other side to expand what they do best and to explore new territories for each.   There are times where you can definitely tell which group came up with the original material (Sparks: “Piss Off”, FF: “Police Encounters”) but more often they came up with truly original sounding material.   “Collaborations Don’t Work” is a particularly wry observation on the difficulties that go into artistic collaborations, and at nearly seven minutes in length goes through more tempo and time signature changes than some bands do in a career.

It’s a really audacious and unlikely sound that they create throughout the album, sort of like if the movie “The Nightmare Before Christmas” had come to life as an album. It sounds like an update of the best 80’s New Wave, with pulsing keyboards and mass vocals and spidery guitar work that verges at times on Snakefinger territory.

In particular, Mael and Kapronos’ voices meld together very well. They sometimes sing in unison and sometimes trade off the vocals in a way that sounds absolutely organic. You would never know that they didn’t write the songs together in a room.

When it works best, the results are thrilling and exhibit the best attributes of all six members. In particular, check out “Johnny Delusional”, “Call Girl” and “The Man Without A Tan”.

See the video for “Johnny Delusional” below…

Which brings us to the show in Washington DC on 2015-10-09. This was one of the most surprisingly enjoyable shows I’ve been to in years. All six members were obviously having a huge amount of fun, with Russell Mael bouncing like a hipster with a vigorous energy that belies his 67-year old status while his 70-year old brother sat at the keyboards with a bemused scowl (if there is such a thing). I’m not being ageist, I mention the ages only because I’m astonished at the level of energy they were putting out, literally like men half their age.

Alex Kapronos, freed from having to carry the front-man duties by himself prowled the stage like a panther declaiming and exulting. It was an arch and arty performance but one that drew the crowd in because he was obviously having so much fun.

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The band had played approximately thirty shows apparently prior to this one, and there was no sign of any hesitancy on the new FFS original songs, they played like a band that had been together for a decade and was having an absurd amount of enjoyment.

Throughout, they traded off instruments and sometimes all came together to play on Mael’s keyboard. The musicianship was solid and tight throughout.

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“Johnny Delusional” was the opener and was a declarative statement of faith that this truly was a new band. “The Man Without a Tan” was the second song, and here’s how that went…

Kapronos sometimes sang and sometimes played guitar, and the other members of FF traded off guitars, bass, drums and keyboards throughout the show.

They played nearly the entire FFS album, as well as “covering” three Sparks songs (“Number One Song In Heaven”, “This Town Aint Big Enough For The Both Of Us”, “When Do I Get To Sing My Way”) and three FF songs (“Do You Want To”, “Michael” and “Take Me Out”).

Here’s the cover of “Do You Want To”:

They ended the main set with a rousing rendition of “Piss Off” and Ron Mael regaled the crowd with his dance moves.

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The encore highlighted a discofied version of “Call Girl” that was really outstanding and concluded with an extended and nearly operatic version of “Collaborations Don’t Work” that thoroughly disproved the song title in its success.

It’s not often that you see two established acts creating a baby band together, and it’s gratifying to see it done this well. Collaborations may not often work, but this one definitely does and I personally hope to see an FFS round 2. One of the most surprising and satisfying shows of 2015, certainly.

Set list:

  • Johnny Delusional
  • The Man Without A Man
  • Police Encounters
  • Do You Want To (Franz Ferdinand cover)
  • The Power Couple
  • Little Guy From The Suburbs
  • Save Me From Myself
  • Things I Won’t Get
  • So Desu Me
  • The Number One Song In Heaven (Sparks cover)
  • Michael (Franz Ferdinand cover)
  • This Town Aint Big Enough For Both Of Us (Sparks cover)
  • Dictator’s Son
  • Take Me Out (Franz Ferdinand cover)
  • Piss Off

encore

  • When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”
  • Call Girl
  • Collaborations Don’t Work

 

 

 

The Future Is Unknown – Mike Peters live at the Hamilton in Washington DC 2015-09-08

The Alarm frontman brings his Love-Hope-Strength message to the Washington DC faithful in a passionate solo show honoring the 30th anniversary of the seminal Strength album.

The older I get, the more interested I become with survivors; people who encounter and transcend obstacles, bending with the storm but not breaking. The manner in which we face turmoil, turbulence and pain reveals more about our character than anything that happens during the sunny days of life. Rain in the summertimes of our youths is one thing, but it is only when our lives are declared unsafe buildings that all of the unimportant aspects of our lives are cauterized away, revealing the burning fires at the centers of our souls.

Mike Peters is many things: rock star, father and alternative music icon, but above all he is a survivor. His 35-plus year career as a rock troubadour both as the leader of multiple incarnations of The Alarm and as a solo artist would be enough to attest to his perseverance and power as an artist.

In addition, in the 1990s after he had disbanded the legendary first incarnation of The Alarm, Peters pioneered the more direct way that artists in the 2010s now interact with his fans, through his yearly Gathering fan conventions, which in retrospect were years ahead of their time. Peters was sufficiently determined to reach his fans, one-on-one if necessary, that he even recorded special one-off versions of songs for fans (I still have the version of “Shine On” he did for me in 1995).

But far beyond anything to do with music, it is in his battle with blood cancer (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia or “CLL”) on both a personal and international level where Peters has found his true survivor’s voice.   Without going into the recurrences and treatments that he has surmounted, it is his Love Hope Strength charity that has revealed his true character.

The charity’s name is taken from lyrics from the chorus on the title cut from 1985’s Strength album:

Give me Love, Give me Hope

 Give me Strength, Give me Someone to live for

 I need it now

With the eerily prescient verse that begins “Who will be the lifeblood coursing through my veins” it is clear that is through Love Hope Strength that Peters has found the strength to survive. Through LHS’s “Get On The List” campaign nearly 2000 patients have been matched with donors who consented to get swabs to identify the genetic markers.

The 30th anniversary of the Strength album was a logical time for Peters to tour, spreading the Love Hope Strength message, and he brought that tour through Washington DC at The Hamilton on 2015-09-08 marching on a vibrant solo tour that highlighted the cuts from the seminal album.

Peters had a very unique setup for a solo show – four microphones at different locations on the stage, a foot drum and bodhran, keyboards and a looper. Each of the mics was set up slightly differently and he used the looper to set up keyboard loops and guitar loops which along with some of the prerecorded instrumental backing tracks that he triggered live via foot pedals, allowed him to go from solo acoustic through full “band” arrangements.

Peters’ voice was in fine form throughout the show. His voice is still a remarkable instrument, a force of nature, the perfect mixture of punk and blue-eyed soul that pops right out of the speakers capable of anger, beauty and pain simultaneously. He strains to hit the highest of the high notes at this point but still pushes right through as if they are aural sculptures being revealed as he sings.

The revelation on this tour was the relaxed and conversational tone that he took between songs to tell stories that related to the writing of the songs on Strength. He had his personal lyrics diary that he used as he composed the songs and at times read out some of the lyrics and even alternate unused lyrics from the time. Peters seemed to revel in telling the stories, some humorous and some poignant, that framed the fabric of his youth starting from the formation of his very first band, the unfortunately named Toilets, which Mike asserts was the first punk band from Wales.

He told a hilarious story about buying his first pair of tight leather pants mail order because there were no punk haberdasheries in the town where he grew up, and in a remarkable segment he told the story of how seeing Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols changed his life in the way that the Pistols did not ingratiate the audience, but rather challenged them. He then did a spot-on impersonation of “Mr. Rotten” in an impromptu version of “Anarchy In The UK” that was a definite crowd favorite.

While all of the songs from Strength sounded fantastic in this form, the standouts to me were remarkable versions of “When The Ravens Left The Tower” and “Dawn Chorus”. The version of “When The Ravens Left The Tower” is below:

Here are “Strength” and “One Step Closer To Home” also from the same show:

After the show, Mike’s enthusiasm for both the fans and his Love Hope Strength message were unabated as he stayed to talk to every fan that came up to him, speaking with grace and enthusiasm to each person that has stuck with him through the stages of his journey.

Mike Peters has left indelible contributions in two areas, through his music and his charity. Here’s hoping that his indomitable character allows him to continue to develop both for many years to come. I, like all of his other devoted fans, will be there to walk forever by his side.

You can find the Love Hope Strength Foundation at:

http://lovehopestrength.org

Setlist from the Hamilton:

=========================

Howling Wind

Unbreak The Promise

Majority

One Step Closer To Home

Absolute Reality

Knife Edge

Strength

Dawn Chorus

Father To Son

Only The Thunder

The Day The Ravens Left The Tower

Deeside

Anarchy In The UK (Sex Pistols cover)

Nothing To Do (snippet)

Spirit Of 76

Walk Forever By Your Side

Marching On

Where You Hiding When The Storm Broke

68 Guns

Blaze Of Glory

=========================

Tinariwen – When The Legend Becomes Fact, Print The Legend – live at the Bluebird Theatre in Denver Colorado, 2015-08-12.

The legendary Tuareg collective brings their spectacular Saharan drone blues to the mountains of the Mile-High City.

Tinariwen is one of the world’s most fascinating bands, and one of the best live bands currently working. They do a hypnotic and sinuous style of sahara drone blues called “assouf” among the Tuareg nomads that is exhilarating, spiritual and sensual at the same time and their mastery of the style was in evidence in their recent show at the Bluebird Theatre in Denver, Colorado.

Tinariwen’s music is hard to describe because it penetrates your consciousness from the inside out. It’s like being in the middle of a cloud while a storm is being born. The polyrhythmic, serpentine, trancelike tunes play out in subtle ways, and the more you try to focus on it and grab the music the more it slips through your fingers like trying to hold the wind in your hands.

When you hear Tinariwen live for the first time, you start by saying – “I don’t get it. This is weird and atonal. I don’t think I like it. The song structures sound wrong. I’m becoming vaguely uncomfortable”. But then once you let your subconscious take over, your brain locks in and gets it, and suddenly it’s the greatest music you’ve ever heard in your life.

If there had not been a Tinariwen, it’s clear that the world would have had to create one anyway, because it’s obvious that the world needs Tinariwen. How much of the Tinariwen experience is created by the band, and how much is created by the audience, is hard to know. Similarly, how much of the Tinariwen legend is true doesn’t even matter.

Their backstory has become so legendary that it’s impossible to know where the facts end and the legend begins. But as aptly stated in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

So here’s the story as far as I’ve read: founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, son of a Tuareg rebel living in Mali, learned to play guitar by making his own Instrument out of a tin can, a stick and bicycle brake wire. (Not even Jack White can match that!)

After Alhabib’s father was executed, he grew up in Algerian and Libyan refugee camps and gradually gravitated to playing traditional music such Moroccan chaabi protest music with his fellow refugees. People began to call the group “Kel Tinariwen”, which translates from Tamashek as “The Desert Boys”.

In the early 1980s, Alhabib and his companions, along with many other Tuareg living illegally in Libya, were conscripted or otherwise joined the Libyan army. In the mid-80s they joined the Tuareg rebel movement in Libya and started distributing homemade cassettes of their music, which apparently were popular underground protest symbols.

Around 1990, the group left Libya and returned to Alhabib’s native Mali village. About the same time, the Tuareg people of Mali revolted against the government, and some of Tinariwen became rebel fighters. After the peace accord was reached in 1991, Tinariwen shifted their full-time focus to music.

Tinariwen can’t seem to evade drama and unrest though, and most recently in 2013 during another Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali Tinariwen had to escape Mali when the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine denounced their music as contrary to Islamic values. Most of the members of Tinariwen escaped to the southwestern desert of the United States but guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida was imprisoned for an undocumented period, although he’s now back with the band.

Mali’s loss has been America’s serendipity, as Tinariwen recorded their well-received 2014 album Emmaar in the US and has been regularly touring the US for the last three years. I’ve gotten a chance to see them live five times in that time across four states, and their live shows are transcendent experiences.

Over the years the lineup has shifted quite a bit and become multi-generational. They truly are a collective, and whoever is in the troop at any particular time is “Tinariwen”. When I first became aware of Tinariwen in the early 2000s, the focus was on Alhabib, whose calm and noble demeanor on stage belied a quiet storm inside. He was a stoic counterpart to the other elder members, guitarist/singers Alhassane Ag Touhami and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, who when they are not singing or playing guitar clap their hands, dance and weave around the stage waving benedictions to the crowd.

On the most recent two shows I’ve seen, Alhabib has not been part of the group, supposedly he’s returned to Mali, but the shows carry on with Touhami and Lamida leading the band. The focus has shifted to the younger generation of players, including a gifted young guitarist and lead singer with matinee idol looks named Yad Abderrahmane playing hypnotic loops and elegantly spare solos, a bass virtuoso named Eyadou Ag Leche with skills on a level like Flea or Bootsy Collins, a percussionist named Said Ag Ayad playing a traditional gourd-style tinde drum and a mysterious shrouded guitarist who always stands at the back, doesn’t appear to sing and keeps the music grounded and pulsing by playing the drone parts.

Tinariwen are visually arresting to watch. They all dress in a color riot of traditional long-sleeved robes and headscarves, although from show to show various members take off the headscarves. Supposedly they used to always play scarved to avoid identity because their music was outlawed, but it hardly matters; it does add to the mystery of the music though.

The size of the band varies from six to ten members that constantly switch positions, guitars and mike positions from song to song, and although I’ve seen as many as five people playing guitar on some songs (!), usually it’s “only” two or three guitarists with the remainder doing background vocals or handclaps. Up to four of the members sing lead vocals depending on the song, while the rest provide a unison background vocal chorus.

They don’t seem to speak English but do speak French and don’t talk much to the crowd during a performance, but that’s fine because talking to the crowd would break the hypnotic trance mood. Since I obviously don’t speak Tamashek I don’t claim to understand the lyrics except the ones translated on the album jackets that typically seem to be either songs about the desert, water, life, ancestors, missing loved ones and other universal themes. It’s a tribute to their music that you don’t have to understand the words in order to think you have a deep understanding of the songs (even if that understanding is probably different to each person who listens to them).

The crowd mix at a Tinariwen show is nearly as interesting as the band. Tinariwen crowds are a wildly diverse mixture of ethnicity, age and style from world-beat music fans to alternative hipsters to aging blues guitarheads to (especially in Colorado) jam-band crunchies and pothea…err…recreational drug enthusiasts. Seeing all of these groups intermixing and dancing together without irony or self-awareness can’t help but bring a smile to your face.

I didn’t even attempt to keep a setlist from the Denver show, but below I’ve posted a couple of phone-videos I shot, including my favorite Tinariwen song “Toumast Tincha” along with their biggest “hit” in the states (“Tenere Taqqim Tossam” – “Jealous Desert”). The latter is a collaboration featuring Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio that is partially in English.

Tenere Taqqim Tossam is an amazing song, in that it starts in Tuareg and then shifts to English so subtly that the first time you hear it you think to yourself – “Damn, this music is inside my head so much that I’m starting to understand Tuareg!” Then you realize – oh, Adebimple/Malone are singing in English. Never mind.

The world is a big place filled with people you don’t know, songs you haven’t sung and stories that you haven’t heard. Tinariwen exists in this world, and the world is better because of it. You should not consider your life complete until you’ve seen them play.

Toumast Tincha, live in Denver, CO, USA at the Bluebird Theatre

Tenere Taqqim Tossam

Death Cab For Cutie – Live At Red Rocks 2015-07-15

Soul Meets Body as Benjamin Gibbard and the iconic indie-pop band enthrall the faithful in a sold-out show at Red Rocks.

Red Rocks Amphitheatre is one of America’s very best concert venues and a personal favorite. Just outside Denver, Colorado in the town of Morrison, Red Rocks is a natural amphitheatre with sandstone walls that create a tremendous sound environment and is hollowed out with great sight lines to the stage.

STSIW - DCFC - Red RocksSTSIW - DC - Red Rocks cover

On a gorgeously clear mid-summer night under the stars on July 15, 2015, the stage was set for a magical night with Death Cab For Cutie in front of an ecstatic crowd of mostly young, mostly female adherents after an enthusiastic opening set by tUnE-yArDs and their blend of polyrhythms and vocal effects.

DCfC is an excellent and underrated live act and their fans are some of the most ardent in music. They seem to fill the same places emotionally to their audience that The Cure filled to an earlier generation. On their first major tour since 2012 to promote the new outstanding “Kintsugi” album, DCfC drew from all stages of their surprisingly long career and rich catalog (eight studio albums) going all the way back to 1998’s Something About Airplanes.

Ben Gibbard’s voice, equal parts Neil Young and Neil Finn, is a wonder – plaintive, open and expressive while simultaneously holding a hint of bitterness and threat that combine to make a romanticly dangerous, or dangerously romantic, combination of obsessivesness, melancholy and sweetness. The lyrics are thoughtful, literate and full of longing but with a bit of an edge that keeps them more edgy than maudlin.

In concert, Gibbard bobs and weaves like a boxer in front of a double mike setup that includes his vocal looping kit used on tracks like “You Are A Tourist” and periodically moves back to the piano. Nick Harmer on bass prowls his part of the stage like a panther and Jason McGerr on drums pounds out a surprisingly sturdy rhythm for a pop band.

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Dave Depper on guitar/keyboards and Zac Rae on keyboards/guitar fill out a deceptively lush sound. Gibbard keeps the between-song patter to a minimum which services the carefully crafted set list to move between moods and emotions without a break. His playing showed no ill effects from the wrist injury he suffered this spring.

Kintsugi is an ideal metaphor for DCfC’s music, so ideal that if it didn’t already exist someone would have had to invent it. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using gold, silver or platinum as the interstitial. The idea is to celebrate brokenness and highlight the beauty of being broken. We are all broken people in one way or another and kintsugi highlights the beauty of the brokenness unique for every individual, telling the story both of the breakage and the repair.

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Without being too heavy-handed here, that’s a great description of DCfC’s songs as well, particularly the ones on Kintsugi.   As Gibbard approaches 40, it’s hard not to focus on whether the lyrics apply to Gibbard’s recent divorce from Zooey Deschanel and the rebuilding of his life since then, but the tie is inescapable on lyrics such as “Black Suns line “How could something so fair/Be so cruel”.

Although Kintsugi’s songs are largely somber, melancholy and wistful, there is also passion and beauty in the lyrics, music and singing that both revels and reveals pain while searching for beauty. This is Night Music that you play to acknowledge Pain before the Dawn you know is coming.

Here’s an example from the show off Kintsugi, the understated “Little Wanderer”…

DCfC’s music is more complex and brooding than typical indie-pop and I was impressed that the crowd seemed to fall right in on some of the complex pieces. An example is “I Will Possess Your Heart”, to me one of the best songs of the past decade and which opens with 2:00 of feedback and squall led by Gibbard with Harmer locking down the bass, followed by another 2:00 of piano moodsetting over the driving beat before any vocals kick in.

I Will Possess Your Heart builds a tension/release like the best of drone blues from the American South with the pressure gradually building and building to a fever pitch before the constriction gets released as the vocals begin, after which the song is actually just beginning. Not your typical radio-friendly indie pop, and it really is something of a revelation live…

Other highlights of the show included a skronking version of “The New Year”, the driving pulse and riffs of “You Are A Tourist”, and the pallet cleansing of the acoustic interlude for “I Will Follow You Into The Dark”, to which the entire audience sang along note for note like it was a Dashboard Confessional emo concert.

Videos for all three songs below:

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Other than I Will Possess Your Heart, the high point for me was their usual set closer, a transcendently romantic and crystalline version of “Transatlanticsm”. Transatlanticism is one of my all-time favorite songs, and I’m always amazed by how moving the music and simple lyrics like the repeated “I need you so much closer; Come on now” refrain can tug at your heartstrings.

No video of Transatlanticism here because I put the phone down, got in touch with my inner tween girl and lost myself singing along with the crowd. Every once in a while you have to do things like this to not only remind you that you’re alive, but why you’re alive.

As they left the stage at the end of Transatlanticism, Gibbard flipped me his guitar picks and the evening was complete.   The teenage version of me would have been happy to skip life and proceed directly to Heaven from that point. No-longer teen-age me wouldn’t quite go that far, but it was still a reminder of the power of music to move the spirit. We all need that reminder from time to time. Thank you DCfC.

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Setlist:

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  • No Room In Frame
  • Crooked Teeth
  • Why’d You Want To Live Here
  • Black Sun
  • The New Year
  • The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive
  • Grapevine Fires
  • Little Wanderer
  • No Sunlight
  • Company Calls
  • President of What?
  • You’ve Haunted Me All My Life
  • What Sarah Said
  • I Will Follow You Into The Dark (acoustic; solo)
  • Everything’s A Ceiling
  • You Are A Tourist
  • Doors Unlocked And Open
  • Cath…
  • Soul Meets Body
  • I Will Possess Your Heart

Encore:

  • Passenger Seat
  • A Movie Script Ending
  • The Sound Of Settling
  • Transatlanticism

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Gig Review: Of Monsters And Men – Washington DC – 2015-05-05

The Icelandic Indie folk/acoustic darlings drop a batch of new songs from the upcoming “Beneath The Skin” along with crowd favorites from “My Head Is An Animal” on the faithful in Washington DC.

Certain things in music are generally true, including the assertion that any English-speaking Icelandic band is going to be quirky, individualistic and worth a listen.

That truism has been valid at least as far back as the Sugarcubes/Bjork, continuing through bands like Seabear and Quarashi and of course Sigur Ros. Of Monsters And Men carried through on that proud tradition on 2015-05-05 in their soldout show in Washington DC at Echostage, where they previewed several tracks from their upcoming (June 2015) new album “Beneath The Skin” along with popular favorites.

Of Monsters And Men’s debut album “My Head Is An Animal” was an unlikely hit in 2012 in American alternative circles with several infectious hit singles and clever animated videos including “Little Talks”, “Dirty Paws”, “King and Lionheart” and “Mountain Sound”. OMAM hit US shores at the crest of the wave of acoustic/folk bands that followed in the wake of the Mumford & Sons breakthrough, and were often lumped in with both European and US bands that on the surface carry a similar sensibility such as the Noah & The Whale, The Head And The Heart, The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, etc.

I thought that “My Head Is An Animal” stood out from the rest of the pack as one of the best albums of 2012, combining some of the best of the Arcade Fire, The Head And The Heart and The Wind And the Wave. The lyrics were interestingly impenetrable, and I really liked the timbre of singer and guitarist/drummer Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir’s voice. Hilmarsdottir’s voice has just a trace of Bjork in her slightly-accented English, and her voice melds nicely with other singer/guitarist Ragnar Porhallsson.

I’m still not sure that I understand all of the metaphors in their lyrics (at least I’m assuming they’re metaphors), but the big-hearted singalong style in their hypermelodic folkish choruses make you feel that their songs have always existed and the melodies are very pleasant and accessible, albeit with a slightly dark twinge. They have released lyric videos for several songs off of MHIAA but which don’t help me a bit to understand the songs, and I’m OK with that.

OMAM have kept a low profile since the extended touring that accompanied My Head Is An Animal but have just started touring in North America in support of the upcoming “Beneath The Skin”, and they played several brand new songs at Echostage, including the two strong new songs that have already been released, “Crystals” and “I Of The Storm”, leading off the show with two brand new songs.

“I Of The Storm” might be the more representative example of the new songs, which in general seemed not as immediately accessible as the singles from MHIAA but are probably growers on extended listens. The choruses seemed smaller and overall their sound has grown and evolved, broadening and deepening the heavily percussive and rhythmic elements with heavy bass drums and martial snares. Along with the percussive elements, they kept enough fragile keyboards along with some trancelike atmospherics from the hollow-body guitars and even an occasional trombone to broaden the sound and keep it from getting too heavy. As a comparison point, the song off of the first album that ties closest to the new songs might be “Your Bones”.

None of the songs had the mass-vocal bounce of “Mountain Sound” or “Little Talks” but they probably realize that they had mined that vein pretty fully on the debut album and their earlier “Into The Woods” EP from 2011. There was also the natural tendency of a young band to be a bit more tentative on brand new songs as opposed to the songs on the debut album that they’ve been playing in concert since 2011 (if you include the Into The Woods).

There is a fine line between fully realizing a signature sound, and reaching a musical dead-end. The evolution of the new OMAM sound is not nearly as pronounced as on the new Mumford & Sons album but it is a noticeable difference from MHIAA and bodes well for the band’s future as the winds of the music industry change. They appear to have avoided painting themselves into the same corner that some of their “sibling” bands appear to have done.

In concert, while OMAM play as an ensemble, Hilmarsdottir really draws your eyes as the center of attention, occasionally playing a bass drum on the side and being the most animated of the performers. She is the motor that drives the band live and gives it a distinctive character.

As with any concert where the band emphasizes brand-new songs, the audience saved the majority of their enthusiasm for their favorites from the album they knew, and this show was no exception.“Slow And Steady” was the first song from MHIAA and got a big crowd reaction, and the show reached an early peak with an enthusiastic rendition of “Mountain Sound”.

Predictably though it was “Dirty Paws” and especially “Little Talks” during the encore that blew the roof off the Echostage as the pent-up enthusiasm of the crowd was released. It did seem to me that the band seemed slightly uncomfortable playing their intimate songs to a 2,000+ person ecstatic, bouncing crowd and I do think that their future is going to be playing more acoustic and intimate shows; in either case though I think that this is a band that’s in it for the long haul.

Overall, a very nice performance by an up and coming young band. I’m looking forward to hearing the new album and hearing how it compared to what I heard last night. Definitely worth seeing if they come to your town.

“Beneath the Skin” is released world-wide on 2015-06-09 while “Crystals” and “I Of The Storm” are already available on iTunes and on streaming services like Spotify.

To get a general feel for their sound in concert, here’s their set from Bonaroo 2013:

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Gig Review: The Waterboys – Alexandria, VA – 2015-04-21

Mike Scott and his raggle-taggle gypsies burn the place down on the Modern Blues tour

Fresh off of a performance on the David Letterman show the night before (see link at bottom) Mike Scott and the current incarnation of The Waterboys played a blistering set on 2015.04.21 at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA.

After an engaging opening set by Woodstock New York’s Connor Kennedy, Scott and his merry gang took the stage with Scott in Western garb and black hat, high-energy and ready for a storming evening of folk-inflected Celtic-flavored rock.

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The set focused on songs from their outstanding new “Modern Blues” album with some new arrangements of classic Waterboys cuts thrown in for good measure.  It’s always a positive sign when a band that’s toured for more than three decades (!) at this point is so confident and happy with the recent material that the show emphasizes the newest songs. That the material was so well-received by a crowd ready to hear the classic hits is a testament to the Modern Blues song-cycle’s strength.

Of course, since the Waterboys collective frequently rotates in new members under the Waterboys banner it stands to reason that the band is always reinventing itself.  In addition to Head Waterboy Scott and founding-member electric fiddle whiz Steve Wickham, the current lineup boasts an amazingly skilled iineup of musicians including long-time drummer Ralph Salmins, fluid guitarist Zach Ernst (who appears younger than the debut Waterboys album), Muscle Shoals bass player David Hood and the indomitable, indescribable Brother Paul from Memphis on keyboards.

Each incarnation of the Waterboys has a distinct group personality, and the current version is no different. Taking their cue from Modern Blues, this is a straight-ahead, driving rock show propelled by Salmins, Scott and Ernst with Wickham and Brother Paul then pulling and tugging on the melodies and rhythms to create the distinct musical colors and shapes of Waterboys songs.

There were fewer long improvisational passages among the band members than I’ve seen at some Waterboys shows, but the passion, soul, spirit and infectious energy of the best of Waterboys shows was still in full effect.  Scott in particular played with renewed energy and vitality belying thirty years of touring, seated only when playing the keyboards and spending most of the show moving and dancing as he played.  It’s clear that he is both justly proud of the new material and believes in it, and he really is able to sell it to the crowd.  This version of the Waterboys plays with the skill and practice of a mature band but with the passion and energy of a young band.

They had played some of the Modern Blues songs like “Still A Freak” and “I Can See Elvis” in their fall 2013 North American tour, including locally in Washington DC at the 930 club, but at that show the songs were still like new shoes that hadn’t been broken in yet, and even though there were some personnel changes from that show, it’s clear that these songs have now been worn in and are being played with a confidence gainsaying the newness of the songs and newness of this combo as a playing unit.

While I was disappointed not to hear “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland” from the new album, they did play most of the songs from Modern Blues and also mixed in some of the crowd-pleasing classics.  “Still A Freak”, “November Tale” and “Long Strange Road” were particularly sharp.

Here was “Still A Freak”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNtz0avnuCg

All of the older songs sounded fantastic and as fresh now as when newly-minted.  “Girl Called Johnny” galloped with Scott at the keyboards and Wickham providing the accents and they stone-cold nailed the audience favorite “Whole Of The Moon”. “Fisherman’s Blues” was a rousing sing-along encore and the old classic “Three Day Man” was a pleasant surprise.

Here was “Fisherman’s Blues”:

For me the highlights of the heritage material were the driving, pulsing version of the Fisherman’s Blues classic “We Will Not Be Lovers” and a spellbinding, showstopping version of “Don’t Bang The Drum” with just Scott and Wickham, both below:

Steve Wickham continues to provide the spice that makes the Waterboys such an interesting meal. Wickham plays with a mesmerizing lyricism and flow that provides color and character to each song. Although I’ve seen Scott play without Wickham, together they are magic; watching them up close they communicate with just a glance as they shift rhythms, speed and volumes. They play with the synergy that only comes with a lifetime of playing together.

You can’t discuss this incarnation of the Waterboys without focusing on the whirling dervish of a keyboard player that is Brother Paul. Brother Paul is a marvel to watch, a kinetic bundle of energy just short of exploding at all times, whipping his hair around and beaming the entire time. He plays in an extremely animated and thoroughly enjoyable style, throwing his hands at the keyboards like a wizard casting spells on the keys. There were a couple of times where after a particular flourish, Brother Paul would look over to Scott like a child caught in the cookie jar asking tacit forgiveness. Brother Paul’s ageless enthusiasm is a real joy to behold, and worth the price of admission alone.

One practical tip: with all apologies to Ernst and Hood who while virtuoso musicians keep a low profile onstage, try to work your way over to audience-left (stage-right) which is the area that Wickham and Brother Paul inhabit. They’re worth seeing up close.

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Scott can be a mercurial performer, and you know you’re at a classic Waterboys show when at some point Scott has to berate the crowd for misbehaving and you’re treated to an “aw, snap” moment. In this case, during a particularly quiet passage in “Song Of The Wandering Aengus (from the 2011 tribute album to W.B. Yeats poetry called “An Appointment With Mr. Yeats”) the rather noisy crowd was clearly bothering Scott who stopped the song about 30 seconds in and sternly addressed the throng:

“Perhaps we should play more quietly so that you can hear each other talk more clearly?”.

The crowd went stone silent for 15 seconds or so and Scott was content to let the silence linger. Then he calmly restarted the song and within a few seconds the crowd was back in the swing. Classic.

In short, it’s great to see Mike Scott and The Waterboys at the top of their game 31 years after they first toured the US. If you have the opportunity to see them play in your town, by all means treat yourself to one of the finest rock bands extant.  If they’re not coming to your town, you need to move to a better town. Life’s too short not to fill it with great live music from a masterful group.

Setlist from the show as best I remember:

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Destinies Entwined

Still A Freak

Girl Called Johnny

We Will Not Be Lovers

November Tale

Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy)

Three Day Man

Nearest Thing To Hip

I Can See Elvis

Song Of Wandering Aengus

Whole Of The Moon

Don’t Bang The Drum

Long Strange Road

Fisherman’s Blues

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Waterboys on David Letterman the previous evening doing “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”:

For more information on Mike Scott, The Waterboys and Connor Kennedy see:

http://www.mikescottwaterboys.com

http://www.connorkennedymusic.com

Album Review: The Waterboys – Modern Blues

Mike Scott and company release their freshest album since Fisherman’s Blues with a focus on sharply-observed lyrics and accessible tunes

Mike Scott and The Waterboys are one of music’s most enigmatic and interesting acts. In their three decade career going back to their 1983 eponymous debut, Waterboys (and Scott solo) albums are always marked by intricate, poignantly poetic lyrics combined with outstanding musicianship.

On their first three albums (The Waterboys, 1984’s A Pagan Place and 1985’s This Is The Sea) the Waterboys were often grouped together in with U2, Big Country, The Alarm and Simple Minds in what was called the Big Music movement (after a song on A Pagan Place). More a convenience for journalists than a conscious music collective, the description fit though and stuck through the 1980s; these five bands were writing songs based on Big Ideas of spirituality, politics and the politics of love in a complex, soaring, anthemic way that was in another universe than the vapid pop of the day. The music was uplifting, the singing was passionate, the lyrics were mind-expanding and no band exemplified this spirit better than the Waterboys, culminating for me with one of the 10 best songs of the 1980s, This Is The Sea’s “The Whole Of The Moon”.

After this opening trilogy of albums, Waterboys founding member Karl Wallinger (late of World Party) and others departed the band, and Scott and the Waterboys relocated to Ireland and took a hard right turn into a more rustic Celtic style for the stone-cold classic 1988 album Fisherman’s Blues and its raggle-taggle followup, 1990’s Room To Roam. This was an extremely fertile time for the now-sprawling combo as shown by the magnificent six-disc version (!) of Fisherman’s Blues released in 2013 that showed the depth of the work that they were doing in that period. This version of the band is one of my favorite groups of all time.

In 1991 Scott broke up this version of the Waterboys (as he is want to do from time to time), moved to New York and essentially restarted the band from scratch, with a more conventional rock electric sound that continues on to this day with a focus on exquisite word play and a harder-edged sound starting with 1993’s Dream Harder.

In the 22 years since Dream Harder, Scott has released two major solo albums and by my count eight studio Waterboys albums that have all been consistently high quality additions to the catalogue and solidify Scott’s place as one of the great writers of the rock era bringing to mind comparisons to Dylan and Morrison (Van, not Jim).

I admit that from time to time as Scott has delved deeper and deeper into literary allusions and mystic references, he sometimes has gone so deep as to risk losing even some of his devoted fans like me. For every accessible album like 1997’s solo Still Burnin’ or 2007’s Book Of Lightning, there are more impenetrable albums like 2003’s Universal Hall or 2011’s An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, (based on the poetry of William Butler Yeats) that are carefully crafted but so personal to Scott that I personally find them to be difficult listening. At his most obscure, the literary allusions, location references and mystic quotes that I understand only highlight how much of his writing that I don’t understand. I’m convinced that Scott is a lyrical genius even if I don’t understand the half of what he’s on to.

Live, Scott and the Waterboys are one of the most interesting bands going. I’ve seen them probably a dozen times over the years and no two shows have been the same. More than most musicians, Scott channels his muse in his live shows and it can be a remarkable experience to witness. I’ve seen Scott rapturous, expansive, mercurial and funny on stage, and I’ve also seen him angry and churlish; but, never anything other than absolutely authentic.

At their best live, it is as if each musician is not playing their own instruments, but rather the instruments of the other band members around them. It’s hard to explain, but startling to watch, particularly as they play within rhythms, melodies and tempos within a single song. It’s what every jamband aspires to, but the Waterboys at their best are effortless at at it. Their Washington DC show in the weeks after 9/11 was maybe the most empathic show I’ve ever seen both within a band and between a band and an audience.

On their Fall 2013 US tour, I was delighted to hear some new songs and a new direction in their music, which brings us to the nine songs on their excellent new album Modern Blues, released in the US on 2015-04-07.

Recorded in Nashville with American session musicians and long-standing musical ally Steve Wickham on violin, Modern Blues is Scott’s most consistently successful album in years, rating with the best work in his canon.

Modern Blues shines the spotlight on some of the sharpest, most observant and incisive lyrics of Scott’s long career. The music serves to support and highlight the lyrics, and the lyrics demand to be heard. They are more personal and less literary (and thus more universal) than much of Scott’s recent work; they really are more like poems set to music than traditional rock songs.

More than just the words themselves it is the way that Scott enunciates, pronounces and accents the words shows the exacting and precise placement of the writing. There’s not a single sloppy or excess word, even though some of the couplets are stuffed to the brim.

Released in the US a week after Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit, Modern Blues is an interesting counterpoint. Barnett seems to work hard to have a spontaneous stream-of-conscious, nearly throw-away style to her lyrics that belies the obvious care and craft that she’s put in, whereas with Modern Blues Scott let’s you see the meticulous, crafted brilliance he’s employed throughout.

Whether it’s a quick line like his description of Elvis Presley as “razor-quiffed and leather-squeezed, sideburns flickering in the breeze” in his vision of musicians and famous figures mixing together in the afterlife in I Can See Elvis, or the extended excellence of “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”, each song has at least one lyrical sequence that pops out to you as you hear it.

“The Girl Who Slept For Scotland” is a sly, lyrical standout from start to finish. Based on the light-hearted title and chorus, it sounds like sort of a throwaway until you hear his description of a sexual tryst:

“…When we sang in tongues together and our synchronized guitars

Played music to the rafters and made love among the stars

And our bodies beat like light in love’s beautiful embrace

As her tiny kisses burst like popping suns around my face

But then drift, recline, collapse, the lights went out, she fell asleep again

Before my kiss-wet face was even dry”

Or try this verse I’m picking at random from the first single, Beautiful Now”:

 “Look down a carousel of years and darling there you are

A Dancer crying salty tears, a Vagabond, a Star

The Slayer of Mediocrity, of every sacred cow

You were beautiful then, sweet angel

You’re way more beautiful now”.

However, before you think that this is one of Those Difficult Albums That Are Hard Work To Listen To, this is actually perhaps the most accessible Waterboys album musically since Fisherman’s Blues. Whether it’s the up-tempo romp of the opener “Destinies Entwined”, the mid-tempo ballad “November Tale”, the jaunty and self-deprecating “Still A Freak”, the doo-wop vocals and handclaps of “I Can See Elvis”, or the gentle slow-dance elegy of “Nearest Thing To Hip”, this is inviting and entertaining music.

Beautiful Now” is probably the most poppy and dare I say radio-friendly single from Scott in years, with a bouncy beat, organ and backup vocals over an innocuous hook and melody that rewards repeated listening. In a more just world, this would be a hit on Adult Alternative Radio in the US.

Before I nominate Scott for sainthood, I personally didn’t think that “Long Strange Golden Road” needed the sample of Jack Kerouac reciting from “On The Road”, and I personally found the kissoff to a romantic rival in “Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy” to be too vitriolic to be appealing on repeated listens.

However, these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable, likable album from start to finish, and for me it’s bound to be one of the notable albums of the year.

The album is scheduled to be on streaming services in the US as of 2015-04-07, but in the meantime you can find the album as a YouTube streaming playlist at:

Mr. Scott – feel free to continue making Big Music for the next three decades as well. I know that you never went away, but welcome back anyway.

Download: “Beautiful Now”, “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”. Score: 9 Suns out of 10.

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Waterboys-MODERN

Album Review: Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities To Love” – The Welcome Return of the Riot Grrrls

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Sleater-Kinney return after a decade’s hiatus with the best album of their career. 

When a band reforms after a long layoff, there’s always a bit of trepidation. For every example of a successful reunion that results in an album that’s a welcome addition to a band’s canon, such as Big Country’s “The Journey” or Toad The Wet Sprocket’s “New Constellation”, both from 2013, there are many more examples where the band was obviously unable to catch the previous magic and frankly embarrasses themselves.

Rarest of all is the case where a reunited band creates the best work of their career, which is exactly what Sleater-Kinney have done with their outstanding new album “No Cities To Love” on Sub Pop. “No Cities” is the most assured, confident and accessible album of their career, and may stand as a career-defining work for this three-piece from the Pacific Northwest.

Background: Sleater-Kinney was the most proficient and well-known band to come out of the 1990s seminal “Riot Grrrl” movement. “Riot Grrrl” was a broad label applied to a group of post-grunge female alternative bands, primarily based out of the Seattle scene such as Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Riot Grrrl was as much a political movement as a musical one, featuring a feminist political stance and a DIY aesthetic.

Sleater-Kinney (named after an Interstate exit near Lacey, Washington where the band practiced) consists of Corin Tucker (vocals and guitars), Carrie Brownstein (guitars and vocals) and Janet Weiss (drums). Sleater-Kinney released seven well-regarded albums between 1995 and 2005 starting with an eponymous debut in 1995 and ending with “The Woods” in 2005. After breaking up, Tucker continued to play with various bands, and Brownstein/Weiss went on to form a band called Wild Flag that released a well-reviewed album in 2010. Of course, the most visible project from any of the members has been Brownstein’s turn as half of the creative team behind the satirical “Portlandia” TV series with her partner Fred Armisen.

Always a critical favorite, their influence was disproportionate to their commercial success, with their highest charting album being “The Woods” at number 80 on the US charts. However, their influence was felt throughout the indie/alternative scene throughout their career, influencing bands from L7 and Hole to No Doubt. Sleater-Kinney featured the interplay between Tucker’s dramatic vocals, variously shouted, yelped and sung at top of her range reminiscent of PJ Harvey, over Brownstein’s angular, skittering and alternately heavy and sludgy guitar (and occasional vocals) and anchored by Weiss’s solid and metronomic drums.

I admit I was slow in climbing on the bandwagon. From the start, I recognized what they were attempting to achieve, agreed that they were hitting their mark, and that what they were doing had value. Truthfully, though, although I liked individual songs from them I never really clicked on an entire album from them until their fifth album “All Hands On The Bad One” from 2000. I suppose that I liked the idea of early Sleater-Kinney better than the actual thing until I finally caught up to what they were (and now are again) doing.

I saw them live once, and they were just a crashing wall of sound. I only really remember two things: Janet Weiss bashing the drums like a maniac, beating them as though they’d crashed her car, and the way that Brownstein/Tucker traded off lead guitar licks, and without a bass player in the band one of them (usually Tucker) would occasionally play bass lines on the guitar. I liked that – it’s always good to remind bass players that they are optional. Here’s a linked overview that gives you some of the history if you’re unfamiliar with them:

Which brings us to “No Cities To Love”. This album is a 33-minute, 10-song revelation, if not revolution, full of ferocious and inventive riffs, licks and melodies. The guitar tones draw as much from Gang Of Four, Wire, and Television as they do anything from 90s or 00s alternative.   The guitars can veer from Sabbath-esque sludge to post-millenial Futureheads/Editors within a single song, reaching all the way to pre-synth Devo or early B-52s on occasion. Tucker’s (and occasionally Brownstein’s) quasi-operatic vocal prowess is undiminished, Weiss’s drumming is outstanding, with lots of quirky polyrhythmic touches to complement her jackhammer style.

The lyrics show a mature self-awareness and multiple shadings whether discussing domestic life and the struggles to make ends meet – and also maybe also the price of fame – (“Price Tag”) or “Fangless”’s kissoff to an unnamed person that also hints at regrets for their past (“Where’s the evidence, the scars, the dents That I was ever here?”). Perhaps the most curious lyric is on the title track. Given the identity that the band has with the Pacific Northwest, it’s strange to hear them sing “There are no cities, no cities to love; it’s not the city, it’s the weather we love!” The implication is that all cities are the same, it’s only the geography that matters, but given how specifically they have been tied to Seattle in the past and of course now Portland due to Portlandia, I don’t quite get the lyric.

But I digress.

The album leads off with “Price Tag” which sets the tone for the full album, full of spiky, quirky and occasionally atonal guitar lines, straining vocals and a bludgeoning drumline. “Fangless” is built around a classic S-K swirling guitar figure. “Surface Envy” (featured live on their recent Conan O’Brien performance) has demented guitar accents that squonk and squeal and a descending guitar line over a classic alternative sing-along chorus.

“No Cities To Love” is perhaps the most memorable song on the album. Over a propulsive beat and bass-line played on guitar and another bouncy, spiky guitar riff, the song has a great bridge and chorus that is instantly memorable and will have you humming it all week. “A New Wave” and “No Anthems” complete a strong three-song mini manifesto at the center of the album. Brownstein sings the galloping beat of “A New Wave” with punky enthusiasm “It’s not a new wave it’s just you and me….invent our own kind of obscurity” and it’s clear that although she’s become best known as a comic actor on Portlandia she can still bring the noise.

“No Anthems” is a bit of misnomer; the bridge/chorus are as anthemic in their own way as anything they’ve ever done. “Bury Our Friends” is another winner. Spitting furious lyrics over insistent guitar lines, it’s a call to action, a manifesto that rings as true as anything they’ve ever done while lamenting the passage of “our own gilded age”.

The album runs out of breath a little bit in the last two songs, but with the first eight songs being as enjoyable as they are, “No Cities To Love” is already a candidate for rock album of the year. Welcome back, ladies, we missed you.  Download: “Price Tag”, “No Cities To Love” Score: 9 Suns out of 10.

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Here they are doing “A New Wave” on Letterman: