Saturday, June 28, 2008

Concert Review: Tom Waits at the Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO, June 26, 2008

It's an understatement to say that expectations were high and the crowd was madly eager for Tom Waits' St. Louis show at the Fox Theatre on Thursday night. Playing St. Louis for the first time since the mid 1970s (and not, as one snide person commented to me, for the first time since the American Civil War), Waits and his excellent backing band delivered a performance that made it well worth the, er, wait.

By now the Waits stage persona has been written about and described to death: the odd twitches and gestures, the stomping and hollering, and the overall theatrical/carnival barker qualities that are impossible to miss, and that Waits himself has been willing to embellish and exaggerate over the years. Still, those descriptions don't adequately reflect what it's like to see Waits live on stage. A day after the concert, with a slight and bizarrely enjoyable ringing still in my ears, I suspect I'm not the only fan or critic struggling to suitably describe what a tremendous show this was.

I've long thought that the main reason people attend concerts is because they want to participate in a communal experience and walk away from the show with a few lasting musical memories. Well, ok, I've actually maintained that the primary reasons people attend concerts are to get shitfaced and/or stoned, drunkenly request "Freebird" at the most inappropriate point in the evening, get a night away from the brats (sorry, children), or behave like inmates freshly escaped from the mental ward. And after all that, people attend live performances for the communal experience and the memories.

If that's true, Waits and the band didn't disappoint. In a set that ran a little over two hours (and even then felt far too short), what was perhaps most noticeable was Waits' ability to convey a song's themes and moods in a live setting. In this way, Waits could somehow go from the slow and beautiful solider song "Day After Tomorrow" to the hilariously demented "Cemetery Polka" without the contrasts seeming forced or out of place. Waits' stage movements were clearly at least partly choreographed; even when glitter rained down on him during "Make It Rain," it somehow managed to fit into the mood onstage.

One of the show's most memorable portions found Waits playing several songs at the piano, with minimal instrumental accompaniment. "Hang Down Your Head" was followed by "A Little Rain" for a wonderful duo of grand weepers. A Waits solo piano tour in the near future would be nice...

The band's (Casey Waits, Patrick Warren, Seth Ford-Young, Vincent Henry, and Omar Torrez) ability to provide new textures to the songs was also noticeable. Several of the songs performed were markedly different than their album counterparts. "Black Market Baby" and "Lie To Me" bore little resemblance to their album versions, and benefited nicely from the reworked musical arrangements.

The crowd was clearly appreciative of the effort, with wild applause and hollers throughout the night that sometimes came at odd times (you don't need to scream in orgasmic joy after every refrain). There were also some other bizarre moments. One fan shouted for "Johnsburg, IL" about 20 minutes after it had been performed; that guy's probably currently nursing a massive hangover and racking his addled brain to remember anything about the show. Another male fan shouted on a couple occasions that he wanted to have Waits' children (see buddy, the way it works is that...).

Worst of all, there were a couple altercations in the Fox's plush velvet seats. During "Lucky Day," a handful of angry Rain Dogs approached a couple engaged in conversation and rather forcefully "suggested" that they be quiet. Waits himself seemed aware of the ruckus, or the frequent and obnoxious shouts and bloodthirsty screams, joking later that the audience hadn't worked together before and needed an elected official to maintain order, describing it as (my faltering memory notwithstanding) "mass pandemonium."

It was as close to perfect as a live performance could be. It took over 30 years for Tom Waits to come back to St. Louis (though to be fair, many fans at the show weren't even on this mortal coil in 1974, myself included). All around, it was a wonderful show where the audience's expectations were exceeded by a truly memorable performance.

Satire: Area Cyclist Agrees to Share the Road

Local cycling enthusiast Randall B. Pieder shocked family and friends at his surprise 30th birthday party when he reluctantly agreed to share the road with motor vehicles. As the party lapsed into the early morning hours and the cyclist received his 14th water bottle as a gift, it soon turned into a mass intervention, as Randall's tearful wife, children, and non-biking friends pleaded with him to "respect the fact that he's a solitary, wiry, skinny man who possibly shaves his legs, alone on a bicycle in a world of angry SUVs."

Perhaps most relieved by Randall's decision is his wife of five years, Elsa, who actually met her husband when he unexpectedly cut across two lanes of traffic and plowed into her Range Rover. "At first I was totally pissed," Elsa reported. "What kind of person treats the roads like his own personal velodrome? And here this hump just totally splats into my car. But when I saw his Lance Armstrong biker outfit with his junk prominently on display, I was totally smitten."

Despite Randall's Lycra and spandex-accentuated physical endowments, his wife admits it wasn't always a bike ride in the park for her. "Our first date was what he called an 'easy peddle across West St. Louis county,'" she reminisced. "Before I could say 'Cycling Rocked by More Allegations of Steroid Abuse,' he had us both securely planted in the right lane of Manchester Road, traffic behind us brought to a crawl. We looked like the head of a massive funeral procession."

Elsa also admits that drivers lost their patience after a while. "Most people swerved into the left lane with nothing more than an angry sneer or look of complete and utter confusion and befuddlement." But when Randall spontaneously decided to bike in the left lane, prefaced only by a perfunctory hand signal, drivers soon became frustrated. "I'll never find words to adequately describe all those bleating horns, fingers, and fists raised to the heavens we endured. And all the while Randall just kept peddling on, lost in some bizarre Greg Lemond-like trance.

"I'm just so relieved he's agreed to again share the road."

Less excited are Randall's fellow cyclist friends, all of whom are clearly disappointed that he's hanging up his endangering-himself-and-those-around-him shoes. "Some people view cyclists like us who use traffic lanes as mere suggestions as risks to traffic safety who lack even the smallest amount of common sense," said Spencer Darlington.

"That's pure nonsense. In all the years I've been cycling with him, I can count the number of near-scrapes and minor vehicular accidents he's directly caused on my two hands, two feet, and your left hand, counting the thumb. Randall's biking safety record speaks for itself, except for that one time he collided with the manure truck. No shit!"

Darlington also views his friend's decision as a sign that things are no longer like the good old days of 2005, when he first met Randall. "He was part of that breed of cyclist who just knew that the roads were built specifically for bikers, not two-ton gas-fueled behemoths traveling at ungodly speeds.

"When I wanted to ignore a stop sign, Randall was there for me. When I wanted to use the chicken lane as my own personal raceway, Randall supported me. When I wanted to bike on the interstate instead of the national park one mile from my house, Randall encouraged me.

I won't wildly approach a blind turn from the center lane with fearless abandon without thinking of him. It's truly the end of an era."

Monday, June 23, 2008

Music Review: Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer

Wolf Parade’s debut full-length album, Apologies to the Queen Mary, was a decidedly manic and unnerving album. The lyrics were more spat out than sung, with odd vocal twitches from both Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug. The instrumentation was jagged and aggressive, with guitars in the forefront. The album’s themes were vague but not obtuse; most songs implied both an internal and outward tension and dissatisfaction that made it pretty clear the characters in these songs weren’t the types of people you’d want to have a beer with. Indie fans and critics swooned and raved with wild superlatives

At Mount Zoomer finds Wolf Parade exploring similar themes as their debut album, but with a noticeably different vocal style and instrumental sound. Like the best moments of Apologies, the songs hint at Big Existential Concepts without getting heavy-handed or laughably philosophical: images of death are most noticeable, with enough bleakness to put a downer on anyone’s day (“like some dead relative you will remember me most”). Boeckner and Krug’s subjects all tend to feel perilously out of place in their environment (“Soldier’s Grin”), engage in pointless acts for no apparent reason (“all this work just to tear it down” in “Language City”), or desperately seek to escape their lives (“The Grey Estates”).

The vocal approach taken by both singers is very different from Apologies. Modest Mouse frontman/deranged carnival barker Isaac Brock’s vocal influence was felt throughout that album in his role as producer, with Wolf Parade’s lyrics often being yelped out and oddly phrased in a way that occasionally made the words hard to decipher (it’s not the Canadian accent, as one less-than-enthused smartass friend once told me after listening to the album).

On Zoomer, the vocals are mostly far more controlled and restrained, without making the songs sound any less urgent. There’s also an audible fatigue in both singer’s voices that serves the songs well. In some ways, this restraint actually heightens the tension throughout the album’s songs.

The other striking departure is the instrumentation; keyboards are much higher in the mix this time around, and as prominent as the guitars, drums, and random synth noises. Detractors might drop the magical “P” word (Prog, you fiends…get your minds out of the gutter), but this new sound fits in well with the more-restrained vocals. The instrumental breaks are also more pronounced; the last minute or so of “Fine Young Cannibals” and closing track “Kissing the Beehive” incorporate this approach very well. While it’s not a wildly dramatic shift (like, say, Tom Waits going from crooning over a piano to pounding away on random junkyard scraps), it does show the band incorporating sounds that were absent from Apologies.

If Wolf Parade can be faulted for anything, it’s that At Mount Zoomer could be accused of being overly-serious; indeed, moments of hope, or even simple levity, are virtually non-existent. The voices in these songs are frail, with their nerve endings exposed and no real indication that anything will change for the better. With great lyrics and an evolving musical style, this album is every bit as good as Apologies to the Queen Mary.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Music Review: Silver Jews - Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, the latest offering from indie darlings Silver Jews, is a tough album to define. It’s not that it’s inaccessible, although David Berman’s ragged voice certainly won’t attract the mainstream crowd or other non-believers. It’s also not a mailed-in effort; the typical Silver Jews sound, and Berman’s lyrical observations, are present and used to good effect. Overall it’s a solid album.

That’s part of the problem. The songs are good, but they aren’t exactly outstanding or mind-blowing. There aren’t as many of the holy shit musical or lyrical moments that can be found on previous Silver Jews albums. With no real high or low points, the album sort of just rolls along, never gaining momentum and leaving the listener a little confused, disoriented, and underwhelmed. It’s like walking into a movie that’s halfway over.

This tone is largely set by opening track “What Is Not But Could Be If.” Besides sounding like the title to a poem a troubled and overly-sensitive college undergrad might scrawl, it’s a weird way to open the album. Vague and excessively slow, it’s an anti-climactic song right out of the gates, and it’s placement as the first track throws off the pacing of the rest of the album. This is immediately felt when the up-tempo second track, "Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer" kicks in. There’s just something about the running order of the songs that seems a little off.

The mix of the album is also disappointing and doesn’t serve the songs very well; it lacks the warmth of American Water and, to a lesser extent, Tanglewood Numbers. Some of the instruments sound buried and too low on many of the songs. This strange separation between the vocals and the instrumentation makes it sometimes sound like the two are separate, distinct parts that don't really mesh together. And I’m all for keeping the wife happy, but bassist/Berman wife Cassie Berman is ridiculously upfront in the vocal mix, most notably on “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” and “Suffering Jukebox.”

Like any other Silver Jews album, Berman’s lyrics are again one of the album’s greatest strengths. Alternately humorous and poignant, with plenty of observations ranging from the banal and silly to those of pure brilliance that will make fledgling lyric writers everywhere jealous, the lyrics do somewhat offset the album’s overall odd and ineffective flow.

The previously mentioned “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” is damn funny in a bizarre and twisted way, describing a dishwasher fellow who meets a girl described as a “hardcore gobbler and a longtime guzzler of hydrogenated crap.” Similarly, in “San Francisco B.C.,” amid a collection of criminals and dodgy characters with lousy haircuts, Berman offers up perhaps the best line of the entire album: “Romance is the douche of the bourgeoisie was the very first thing she imparted to me.”

By and large, Berman’s misfits on Lookout seem far less desperate and fractured than those hapless souls from previous albums. As with any lyricist whose songs often come across (or are interpreted by fans and critics) as highly personal, the obvious temptation is to view this shift in light of what is known about how Berman’s life has stabilized in the last few years. Of course, this is pure speculation and critics and fans would be misguided to apply their limited knowledge of such things to the songs. Lyrically, the songs stand on their own, regardless of whether the listener wants to view them as biographical or not.

Lookout is a good album with good songs. Even if it doesn’t quite stack up to the Silver Jews’ best work, it’s worth checking out and giving a spin. But, like some of Berman’s more troubled characters, it never really gains any steam or goes very far.

Music Review: Colin Meloy - Colin Meloy Sings Live

Drawing on songs recorded during his 2006 solo acoustic tour, Colin Meloy Sings Live marks lead Decemberist and hero of bespectacled sensitive male indie fans Colin Meloy's first "official" album release. Previous limited edition, tour-only releases have included a set of Morrissey covers (for the mopey person inside all of us), a collection of Sam Cooke songs (for the hopelessly romantic types), and a mess of songs by Shirley Collins (for those with high pain thresholds).

Unlike those previous albums, Sings Live primarily focuses on Meloy's Decemberists tunes, though the album is sprinkled with a few cover snippets: portions of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" and The Smiths' "Ask" are worked into the songs, and the melody of R.E.M.'s "7 Chinese Brothers" (or, for the rabid R.E.M. fans out there, "Voice of Harold") shows up in the break between "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade."

With the songs stripped down to just acoustic guitar and voice, Meloy's solo performances offer a different take on the Decemberists' songs, which, depending on your point of view, are either textured and ornate, or excessively theatrical and melodramatic. This stripped-down treatment reveals the melodies that sometimes get buried in the Decemberists' instrumentation, and is particularly striking on "We Both Go Down Together" and "On the Bus Mall."

Many of the songs performed fall under the romantic and tragic story-song category Meloy is best known for, but it's the more non-specific and abstract songs that are the most memorable and engaging on this album. Previously-unreleased song "Wonder" contains none of the locales and landmarks of the typical Meloy song. One of the best performances on the album, it's poetic, moving, and sincere. Opening song "Devil's Elbow," from Meloy's former band Tarkio, contains a few place names that set the song in a specific setting, but still comes across as personal and contemporary.

Meloy also works the crowd with his dry and often self-deprecating sense of humor. This approach brings a certain amount of levity to the performances, without with some of the songs might seem excessively serious. With the confidence of someone who knows he's written plenty of good songs, Meloy presents "Dracula's Daughter" as the worst song he's ever written, and he's probably right.

There are some drawbacks to this release though. The guitar sounds distant and flat on a few of the tracks, and occasionally can be difficult to hear with Meloy's singing. The more energetic and picky Decemberists fans out there could also find fault with some of the song choices as too easy and obvious; the album versions of some of the songs performed are already pretty stripped down ("Red Right Ankle" for one), at least by the band's standards. Those hardcore and demented fans hoping for an acoustic take on "The Infanta" will just have to wait.

Still, these are minor complaints - indie fans can never be completely satisfied with an album, right? As an album that showcases both Meloy's abilities as a lyricist and musician, it's well worth repeated listens.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Satire: Mysterious Group Vows to Constantly Talk During Music Concerts

A mysterious group calling itself Concert Talkers of America (CTOA) announced today its ambitious plan to “create a steady, audible, and obnoxious torrent of constant talking and to utterly ruin the concert experience for as many concert goers as possible” by the year 2010.

In its defiant statement, CTOA also boldly declared: “Our aim is to return the concert experience to its purest, most primitive, and least civilized form. Concerts are meant to be talked through with conversations ranging from the banality of modern life to Jimmy’s bizarre and unusual sexual proclivities to Susan’s doctor who totally misdiagnosed her, not listened to with rapt attention, or danced to in enjoyment. We are certain that both the majority of music fans and musicians themselves would agree with this.”

Although the group admitted its strategy for achieving these goals is not yet solidified, it reported its first successful test run at The National’s opening slot of the May 29 R.E.M. show at the Hollywood Bowl. “Conditions were perfect for this experiment,” the group stated. “An indie band with increasing popularity playing the bottom of the bill for a Voltron-like legendary band. Only the most dedicated National fans would be there for their set. A perfect setting for ruining the experience for those indie hipster kids.”

The group declared their first victory once they heard a tape of the band’s performance. “Even the loud songs are compromised by our constant, inane chatter. We worked in topics ranging from Bud Light Lime to circus freaks to that one’s girl’s haircut. We even received several requests to sit down and shut up, from clearly agitated fans. One little indie fella even said we were more obnoxious than post-Exile in Guyville Liz Phair, whatever that means. Our mission was a complete success."

Although CTOA was not willing to divulge its current number of members, the group did announce plans to actively recruit throughout the United States. “Our requirements are simple but strict: anyone wishing to join CTOA must pay their own money to attend a concert, find a dedicated fan who really wants to hear the band or dance the night away, turn their head immediately to the left, and loudly talk nonstop for the length of the concert. Requests to be quiet must be swiftly answered with either an F bomb or a rabbit punch to the spleen. Intoxication via pink-hued beverages ending in ‘tini’ is also strongly encouraged.”

The CTOA statement also placed the group in the larger context of American concert talkers. “From the most famous and influential American musicians of the 1960s to the least-known and most-talented unsigned band pounding away in some dingy, poorly-ventilated shithole club in Fort Wayne of today, Americans have a fine history of treating live music as an incidental backdrop to more important concert activities, like playing grabass with old college frat brothers or talking about the finer assets of Janine in Payroll. We aim to expand that tradition into all genres of music.”

In an attempt to gain increased exposure, CTOA is targeting Tom Waits’ upcoming American tour as its next foray into concert sabotage. “Waits shows are rare and tickets are difficult to get. His fans are fiercely loyal and appreciate his music. There will be many people who have never seen him in concert before, complete with excessive expectations of musical transcendence and the simple desire to listen to the music without extraneous background talking. Our forces will be mobilized and our vocal chords will be well rested to ensure that simply doesn’t happen.”

Finally, CTOA has its sights set on expanding overseas. “Our methods will likely be different in Europe,” the statement concluded. “A quick, jarring first volley is needed. We likely will begin employing the primarily American practice of talking during the entire concert, and then screaming hysterically like possessed drunken louts when the one song we recognize is finally played.

“Ambitious? Sure. Unrealistic? Possibly. But with dedication, perseverance, and blatant disregard for that short guy in the Sufjan Stevens Illinoise t-shirt who’s nearly in tears as we chat during the entire show, we can achieve these goals.”

Satire: Prince Sues U.S.-Based Mirrors

A publicist for 1980s pop icon and resident weirdo Prince announced today the eccentric musician’s intent to sue U.S.-based mirrors for unlicensed use of his image. This legal action comes in the wake of Prince’s apparent demand that videos of his recent April Coachella performance of the Radiohead song “Creep” be removed from YouTube.

According to the publicist, who spoke on condition that he be referred to only as “Magic J. Mysterio” and that interviewers swear under oath that they aren’t really, totally, entirely still creeped out by the Lovesexy album cover, the Dirty Mind album cover or the Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic album cover, the pending lawsuit is simply the musician’s latest attempt to control how his likeness is used and disseminated.

“Prince has always maintained his inalienable and other-worldly right to decide when, where, and how both his image and recorded output are used,” Mysterio stated in an alien language that was expertly translated by Prince’s loyal translator. “He currently remains vehemently opposed to video sharing sites that post footage of his massively creative and ever-evolving performances in which he re-invents both his music and the songs of others. Prince is a musician, and clearly such unauthorized clips of a musician doing musician-type things are inappropriate from a musical point of view.”

Mysterio also asserted that the bold lawsuit against mirrors, which baffled legal experts say has no precedent in American jurisprudence, once again shows that Prince remains dedicated to controlling how the public at large views him by carefully monitoring the footage that reaches the public domain.

“Think back to the 1980s. Almost everyone viewed Prince as a musical master whose genius could be confined only by the limits he’d impose upon himself. Through-out that decade it poured Purple Rain. When you thought of Prince, you thought of genre-bending, exciting, and beautiful music.

“Now, through nearly two decades of vigilant persona-framing, almost everyone considers him a bizarre pseudo-human who once changed his named to an unpronounceable symbol and who may or may not have more knowledge of various taboo proclivities than Caligula. And, oh yeah, he occasionally releases albums.”

Although the lawsuit is still in its formative stages, the publicist did provide some details. “After discussions with his lawyers, soothsayers, snake wranglers, and circus acrobats, Prince feels the only way to stop unauthorized use of his concert performances is to cut the problem off at its source. He has noted on many occasions that mirrors are using his image without permission. YouTube is simply an outgrowth of the culture of invasion of privacy foisted upon us by mirrors.

“Furthermore, Prince has personally observed numerous instances where these mirrors have mimicked his every word and action, repeating exactly what he’s saying at the exact same time he’s saying it. It’s as if the mirrors are mocking him. One time the mirror image even gouged him in the eyes, Moe Howard-style. We aim to aggressively end this unsanctioned practice.”

Mysterio did acknowledge one minor hiccup in being able to file the lawsuit. “The lawsuit’s scope is constantly expanding. Every time Prince looks into a new mirror, it steals his image and we are forced to add another defendant to the suit. Honestly, I see no end in sight.”

Satire: New Kids on the Block Fans Vindicated

New Kids on the Block fans, alternately known as either Blockheads or Thirty-something Female Masochists, formally declared vindication today regarding ticket prices for the boy band's upcoming reunion tour.

Ever since it was revealed that the band (best known for such classic songs as...uh...uh...never mind that, there's more to a band that the songs they record) would be reuniting, critics, music fans, those with functioning temporal lobes, and cultural observers with a modicum of good taste have questioned the band's motives in reuniting after a blissful nearly 20-year layoff.

Yet the band's fans are now having the last laugh, as the reasonable ticket prices for the tour have confounded skeptics and silenced critics who leveled the age-old charge that the Kids "are just in it for the money" and that a reunion tour "would be more pointless than a surf board in Siberia."

For the NKOTB tour starting in September, ticket prices range anywhere from $35 for a view near the rafters to upwards of $80 for the best floor seats. Prices which, the vast majority of Blockheads agree, are more than appropriate for a band of NKOTB's stature. "Of all the bands that could described as a footnote on the epic ass of music, NKOTB was the biggest of all!" exclaimed user Iluvjordan in a recent internet posting. "Only between $35 to $80 to see my favorite childhood band at a coldly impersonal, enormous, cavernous arena? Sign me up!"

Although the band was rehearsing 20 hours a day to perfect their instrument-less song and dance craft, an announcement via the band's website explained the band's decision to offer such cheap, inexpensive, music-superstar-level prices: "In continuing the NKOTB tradition of honoring its dedicated fans, tickets for this tour have been priced in keeping with rates for other artists of NKOTB's caliber. We used equivalent artists like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, as well as other reunited bands such as The Stooges, to gauge our market value. The best tickets only cost about $16 per Kid, though Danny might of course get less."

Kathy McMontgomery, an avid 35 year-old Blockhead from Wheeling, West Virginia who still boasts about her NKOTB ankle tattoo, took a quick break from her work-at-home telemarketing job to express a view shared by many of the band's fans: "All we've heard since the reunion was announced was that the band was doing it just for the money. Let's be clear: the ticket prices for this tour clearly answer that accusation."

Husband John McMontgomery, a rare male NKOTB fan who didn't request that his identity be withheld for this report, echoed his wife's sentiments: "An NKOTB reunion comes along, if you're really, really, really lucky, only once in a lifetime. Although you can't really put on a price on that, I think it's fair to say that the prices speak for themselves."

The Blockheads also feel that the going rates for the upcoming tour confirm their belief that the band's primary motives in touring are strictly fan-based. "No question these low, low, bargain basement liquidation ticket costs clearly show the Kids are doing the tour for the fans," stated Annie Franzen-Crosby of Kansas City, MO. "With these ridiculously low ticket prices, it's clear the Kids aren't interested in making any profit. This is truly a tour for the fans, just like we also thought."

Franzen-Crosby added, a bit less diplomatically, "All those critics who thought the reunion was simply a way for the band to cash in on some people's love of irrelevant, nostalgic, mediocre, disposable kitsch can shove it. We're rough."