Author: Gene

Real Estate & Clap Your Hands experience Portland’s enthusiastic crowds

Real Estate (Brooklyn via New Jersey) and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! (Brooklyn via outer space) recently graced the stages of performance spaces on the West Coast. Judging by their responses – especially here in Portland – they got back what they gave. Smells Like Pop’s Cory X and I went to both shows, and left feeling an appreciation for our hometown fans’ refreshing attitude. (editor’s note: we are both veterans of live shows in other cities – Cory having caught acts in NYC, Minneapolis, as well as legendary Portland venues; I’ve caught numerous shows while living in LA, NYC and the SF Bay Area).

Alec Ounsworth (main Clap-per, pictured above) stated part way through CYHSY’s set at Portland’s Hawthorne Theater that he was under the weather and fighting something off – and that that situation could get worse, or turn into a type of “euphoria”; fortunately for us, he said it was heading toward the latter, and proceeded to provide an energetic set, that the crowd responded to with appreciation and some frenetic dancing, to boot. The show surged on an upward arch, as the band and crowd seem to feed off of each other – and, as Cory X noticed, this was made all the more remarkable considering it was a Monday night. New numbers received a polite welcome, while old favorites (primarily from their debut) were greeted like the new classics they are seemingly becoming.

Though the world seems to be experiencing bad economic news in regards to real estate, the band Real Estate seems to be bucking that trend. Their new record, Days, is getting positive press, and their music is being utilized to accompany everything from NPR programming to TV and movie soundtracks. The band’s music – Cory X pointed to clear influences ranging from The Shins to The Feelies – is cheerful enough to begin with, the band seemed particularly receptive to the crowd – a packed Doug Fir Lounge clearly engaged by the atmospheric-bordering-on-psychedelic pop being provided. The strength of the band’s new record made its material stand out, though they wrapped things up with an encore of “Fake Blues” from their debut, dedicated to “our friends Das Rascist”- the fellow NYC artists, who apparently were in the crowd. The band encouraged the audience to join them at their hotel room for a party, somehow able to generate energy on perhaps the toughest night of the year (Sunday, evening after daylight savings). I suspect some folks actually made it…

Real Estate’s new album continues to channel waves via NYC

Days, the newest album by Brooklyn (via New Jersey) band Real Estate, sounds like an album by a band envisioning the experience of the surf from Tony Soprano’s hunting ground; it’s got the haze, the dreaminess – but still has the angsty feel of someone being prevented from “hanging ten” because of the loading docks and litter-strewn beaches. Much like their self-titled debut, the vocals are buried – intentionally it seems – allowing vocalist Alex Bleeker to be enveloped by foggy, Dick Dale-referencing guitars and some dreamy percussion. The melodies, and song writing, is stronger then their already solid first album. The band inhabits similar ground to potentially “herbally inspired” brethren Band of Horses.

Real Estate is currently touring in support of the record (at the Doug Fir Lounge November 6th)

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Strange Mercy, the latest effort from St. Vincent (ne, Annie Clark) is the payoff for years of hinting at a record like this. Her vocals – precious in the past -now reveal an artist who has literally and figuratively found her voice. The musicianship (her guitar work on “Cheerleader”) and compositions – once complex bordering on pretense – now nuanced and beautifully, sophisticatedly layered (the fantastic “Surgeon” a prime example).

Lastly, her lyrics – once clever-bordering-on-contrived, seem to reveal a poetic maturation. Great music from beginning to end; this album is an early frontrunner for record of the year.

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Upon repeated listenings to Hysterical, the latest from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, I’ve come to realize how much I enjoy the album, and once again, the band. They seem to have melded the celebratory sound captured by their debut, while more successfully exploring the soaring sounds of their sophomore effort, Some Loud Thunder.

I was initially taken aback by the less than enthusiastic review provided them by Pitchfork – the site that was pretty over-the-top in their praise when this “cool new Brooklyn band” started, but which was now dismissing them. The review felt like reading the posting of a 17-year-old boy trashing the girlfriend that just dumped him on the internet….understood the sentiment, didn’t share the experience.

Catch them live if you can, as they are touring to support Hysterical, playing some smaller venues (including Portland’s tiny Hawthorne Theater, November 7th).

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Danger Mouse’s Cinematic Mish-mash Somehow Works

Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi | Rome
Capitol Records | May 2011

Upon first listen, there is no denying the influence of the spaghetti-western on Rome, the latest work from super-producer Danger Mouse (Danger/Doom, Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells…the list goes on) and composer Daniele Luppi. But if you go further, the album reveals a film score connection with classic James Bond films; maybe more John Barry then Sergio Leone.

To continue it’s cinematic theme, Rome “casts” singers Jack White and Norah Jones in the lead roles; where White serves as an adequate male voice (think Johnny Depp replacing Clint Eastwood), this album really is more a coming out party for the talented, but heretofore reserved, Norah Jones. Ms. Jones is more than able to serve as the glue between Bond-esque tunes (“Season’s  Trees”, “Black”) and the Ennio Morricone-referencing “The Rose With the Broken Neck”, a tasteful duet with White.

Reportedly recorded in a church, this album has an airiness that sometimes runs the risk of floating away on its influences. There’s a little bit of everything here, and for those familiar with Danger Mouse’s varied and impressive catalog of work, some of this is (intentionally or not) self-referential. String work reminiscent of his work with Beck, vocal arrangements (“The World”) which James Mercer would be happy with in Broken Bells, soulful tempos Cee Lo could have wrapped his pipes around with Gnarls Barkley. Luppi’s contributions seem to give the work a more cosmopolitan, European flair – only adding to its widescreen, epic feel – despite its brevity (clocking in at a little over ½ an hour).

And yet, it still holds together – more so than another Mouse project, Dark Was the Night, his collaboration with director David Lynch and the late Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse). A short film, Rome is a flick that I enjoy hearing; perhaps White and Jones could even capture on the screen what seems to work in the studio – we’ll probably never know, and that’s ok.

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Iron and Wine | Kiss Each Other Clean
Warner Brothers | January 2011

It’s easy to look at Iron and Wine musical development in terms of the listening to a radio on a farm.

Sam Beam now lives outside of Austin, but his roots are firmly in the South (born and raised in South Carolina), his early music reflecting Nick Drake-via-Appalachia on songs like “Southern Anthem” (from his first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle). Churches, crosses, the countryside and cattle – his low-fi, stripped-down songs like AM-radio lullabies to a rustic life.

But with each subsequent record, Iron and Wine continues to distance itself from Beam’s folk troubadour roots; on 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, they’d become more of a band, Beam’s trust in other musicians pushing their recordings into new territory – his radio had added the FM band.

Where Shepherd’s Dog was more sonically ambitious than its predecessors – Kiss Each Other Clean takes this ambition more than a step further – metaphorically embracing XM radio. This provides for interesting, if not always cohesive, results. It’s like a lot of strange new folks have come to visit the farm – providing funky bass lines (“Me and Lazarus”, “Monkeys Uptown”), and Fleetwood Mac-esque vocals and guitar (“Tree by the River”, “Half Moon”), and about as close to Radiohead as Beam will get (on the mini-epic “Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me”).

And like The Shepherd’s Dog, the instrumentation continues to become more diverse. Though Beam isn’t quite the genre hopper that, say, Ariel Pink is, it seems as if track is intentionally imbued with a different feel, and a unique instrument to convey it.

There is still some of Beam’s seductive vocal whisper that introduced many to the band (the ubiquitous cover of The Postal Services’ “Such Great Heights”); but this is frequently replaced by the stronger, more confident delivery exhibited on Shepherd’s Dog – and even occasionally a growl (the somewhat out-of-place “Big Burned Hand”).

The record may not have the accessibility of earlier work, or of its new-folk contemporaries (say, The Decemberists’ The King is Dead), but – upon repeated listens, it is a far more cohesive than it initially seems. Its ramshackle held together by solid, if sometimes obscured melodies (and signature occasional F-bomb),  Clean is Beam’s “dirtiest”, if not funnest, record to date.

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Destroyer – Kaputt
Merge Records | 2011

When I was a kid, I remember seeing Barry White on a daytime talk show – curious to know what this bearded, unglamorous looking guy had to offer the entertainment world.

Then I heard him perform something from “Sheet Music” – one of the best album titles of all time, considering the “activities” White worked to stimulate. He was the “Maestro of Love”, and my burgeoning libido – on a primitive level – yearned to emulate him, as well as Marvin Gaye.

Well, apparently I wasn’t the only one. Dan Bejar had been the indie world’s Oscar Wilde until now (providing obtuse, abstract, satirical lyrics not only for his band Destroyer, but the New Pornographers as well), his sound sometimes glam, sometimes folk. That is until Kaputt, his band’s latest.

More than a few comparisons will be made to late-era Roxy Music and Steely Dan – which is definitely here. But that influence was more than hinted at on 2009’s Bay of Pigs EP (which is included on Kaputt – the 11:18 epic is a journey through Bejar’s influences).

But the bigger surprise to me is what sounds like the R & B singers of the same era. In the same way that Steely Dan (with their often underappreciated risqué references overlooked) referenced fusion-era jazz sonically while nodding slyly to drug-and-hooker nightlife in their lyrics – Kaputt wears Lou Rawls’ white suit and carries white powder, hangs with sexy backup singers, luring the listener with cocaine-dusted existential angst.

His band’s newest, Kaputt, still showcases his clever wordplay – but he’s a bit more laconic, his words now framed by saxophones, trumpets, synths, and bass lines (oh, the bass lines!) much more suited for late 70’s discotheques then hipster cafes.

And it all somehow works, fantastically. Bejar’s confidence convinces the listener that he – like Barry White – is the guy that the listener should spend the evening with. Bejar’s social criticism – repeating the theme of writing a “Song for America” – is still there. But he’s more suave than sarcastic – Destroyer making love to your mind.

Smells Like

Wire – Red Barked Tree
Pink Flag | January 2011

It’s no irony – Wire stopped being ironic with their inception – that the track “Two Minutes”, on their newest album Red Barked Tree, clocks in at 2:01. As the band’s website declares, they’ve been “confounding expectations” since the release of their debut, 1977’s Pink Flag.

“Two Minutes” is a career-defining moment: one that acknowledges the past (and Pink Flag’s 21 tracks, some under a minute long, were a harbinger for the age of Attention Deficit Disorder, sound bites, channel surfing) – but provides a “welcome to the age of fragmentation” – all while employing one of their signature sounds, industrial punk.

As a fan of the band (not just their debut), it always amused me when someone would declare their affection and appreciation for Pink Flag – as if that’s when Wire stopped defining what would come. Their second incarnation (in the 80’s) would signal the approaching industrial influence in pop music (culminating in records like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless). The yin-yang braintrust of Colin Newman and Graham Lewis have always been ahead of the curve – their music career, to me, an infinite jest at the music industry’s expense.

Their present –and what could be considered third – incarnation (minus founding member/guitarist Bruce Gilbert) addresses, among other things, the aforementioned “fragmentation” (some say fracturization) of society, environmental issues – all very contemporary concerns.

But none of this would matter, really, if the songcraft wasn’t solid. And it is. Sonically, this might be one of Wire’s – dare I say – most listenable and accessible albums, with nods to their prior incarnations, but also some truly epic moments (“Adapt”, with treated piano and horn flourishes, is a thing of beauty), as well as more of the expected-unexpected (acoustic guitar!- on the title track).

Paradoxically, on Red Barked Tree, Wire continues to confound expectations by not confounding their potential audience – and that’s a good thing.

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The Decemberists Make a Prince of a Record

The Decemberists – The King is Dead
Capitol | Released January 18, 2011

Let’s face it – the Decemberists aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. They’ve fallen into the good graces of literary fans, literate celebrities (oxymoronic as that may be) and people who like pirate AND Victorian references delivered by the bar band that will forego the complimentary drinks until AFTER they’ve played. They’ve created the most clever lyrics this side of Stephen Merritt, and can still threaten to create a children’s book.

Well, I’m part of their target audience (an English teacher who loves Victorian literature!); but, as a long time fan (their debut, Castaways and Cutouts, is still one of my favorite albums), I have to admit to becoming less enthusiastic upon each successive release. Where their sound was still hyper-literate, their fragility was beginning to lose its appeal to me.

So it is with a welcome relief that The King is Dead features a band more comfortable showcasing its musical chops, rather than relegating them to frame Meloy’s wordplay.

Their sound isn’t heavy – like the more aggressive sound of their last release, The Hazards of Love – but simply fuller. Meloy’s often twee, and affected, vocal stylings (its distinctness being a sometimes blessing, sometime curse) have been somewhat tempered here – which might bother some longtime fans…but endear those who weren’t. Though Jenny Conlee has always provided perfectly capable female accompaniment (along with her solid work on keys and organ), there’s no denying that Gillian Welch’s presence brings an air of maturity that Meloy seems to be stepping up to. Their solid chemistry is apparent right off, with opening track “Don’t Carry it All”.

Rumor has it that this record was recorded in (near?) a barn – and that would explain many things, including the overall “twangi-ness” of this their 6th long player. This shows up in “Calamity Song” – where it’s impossible not to hear Peter Buck’s signature guitar sound (recalling Reckoning-era REM), and a more than healthy nod to the Southern roots of Americana. This trend continues with “Rise to Me” – lap steel (Mr. Chris Funk’s handiwork is subtly apparent throughout) carries this tune, with harmonica bookends.

“January Hymn” might be one of the prettiest songs they’ve created – no mean feat, a poetic way to signal the most contemplative season – and the creation of one of their richest records.

In the eyes of this fan, it’s good that the king is dead; long live the Decemberists.

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OK, so my internal clock knew it was almost Oscar nomination time (January 25th), and I’m one of those people that still cares (and even throws an Oscar party, where invitees have to bring a dish inspired by a Best Picture nominee – I’m already thinking “True Grits…corny, I know).

I love films, and there are some that are inseparable from the music associated with them. I’ve never been a fan of musicals (I believe they’re the most difficult type of films to do well), but I’ve included a couple.

Just in case you need an inspiration/memory jog, go here.

This is Spinal Tap – it is difficult to say how profound this film has been in ridiculing the music industry, bands in general, documentary filmmaking., and Stonehenge. Hello Cleveland!

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – who knew that a musical about a transvestite could be this good! And gummy bears!

30th Century Man: Scott Walker documentary – the first third of the film is essential viewing, 2nd third for frustrated Romantics like me, the last third for fans of difficult listening (me too!)

I’m Not There – a bizarre but fun look at various actors portraying Bob Dylan in different stages of his life (Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, etc.) – plus, really good covers of his songs!

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – Gene Wilder will forever be Willy Wonka – shame on you, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton

Oliver (the musical) – Food! Glorious food!

Buena Vista Social Club – Wim Wenders is one of my favorite filmmakers (see below)

Neil Young: Heart of Gold – a quality job of following one of the cornerstones of American music

Dig! – came because of the Dandy Warhols, stayed because of Brian Jonestown Massacre

24 Hour Party People – more enjoyable glimpse into Factory records, Manchester scene, etc.

O Brother Where Art Thou? – even though the soundtrack become an industry unto itself, the film holds up because of it

Stop Making Sense – Talking Heads concert film directed by Jonathan Demme

Wings of Desire – Wim Wenders’ marquee film, with a great soundtrack that is actually essential to the film – PLUS appearances by Nick Cave, and Crime and the City Solution. Not for everyone (my dad never slept better, after watching about 20 minutes) – but it rewards patience.

Movies I had higher hopes for:

Control (Joy Division biopic that offers little insight to band beyond the clichés)

Almost Famous (fun but ultimately not as grand as it attempts to be)

 

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