Rants + Raves

The editors at Smells Like Pop recently experienced the rare opportunity where we were all together at the same show. In this case, it was for Brian Jonestown Massacre at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland. And, instead of relying on one of us to do a write-up, we thought we’d all add a short review. Including our friend, Pete Champ!

Cory X’s Review

The BJM show got almost no local press, which was surprising because of a) the band’s famed and filmed love-hate relationship with locals The Dandy Warhols, and b) they put on a kick-ass show. Anton Newcombe orchestrated from the side of the stage, his distinct vocals and guitar standing out somehow over the wall of sound emanating from four to five other guitars on stage at any one time. The result was loud, of course, but almost restrained, counter to the band’s reputation for chaos. Newcombe even thanked audience members individually (rather than kicking them in the head, for instance). The night was given to dispelling all such demons, graciously inviting Zia McCabe herself onto the stage, for a distinctly Dandy-ish song. BJM put on a remarkable show, the guitar-work layered and even disciplined, avoiding the pitfall of the many-guitared jam band. Indeed, they didn’t let loose until the final song, a Beatles cover that seemed to have no end. Afterward, I wished it hadn’t.

Gene Brunak’s Review

It’s beyond cliché to reference the documented struggles of Anton Newcombe and his band, The Brian Jonestown Massacre. But it does seem to be fair to acknowledge when he – and they – get it right. Highlighting tracks from the band’s latest, Aufheben – which is arguably their most solid album from beginning to end, the BJM transcended that album’s strengths with an even stronger live performance.

BJM ranged through its material, playing some old favorites, as well as showcasing the strength of newer tunes like the catchy “I want to hold your other hand”, and the warm-fuzzy inspiring homage, “Blue Order/New Monday”. Zia McCabe (of Portland’s Dandy Warhols) even hopped on stage to contribute some booty shaking and tambourine support – a nod to the past, while perhaps sensing the forward momentum created by the strength of BJM’s new material and focused performance.

Peter Champ’s Review

Anton Newcombe is still chief engineer on the BJM express and everyone else is along for the ride. With each song, you can pick a small piece from many bands. Now that the drama seems to be over you can focus on the music and relax. Being so prolific with their songs they almost blend together until they unleash a manic tambourine tune that reminds people why they like them.

David Bailey’s Review

The audience waiting for the show to start at the Wonder Ballroom skewed older and artier. The seen-it-all-before crowd was cautiously waiting for something new to happen – again. When the Brian Jonestown Massacre took to the stage with little fanfare, I was secretly glad to see lead tambourine player, Joel Gion at the center of a stage that also included five guitar players (including bass), a drummer and keyboardist – all looking like they were about to play a show at the ’60s-era Factory as opposed to Portland in 2012. The band sounded great – even better than on record. Songs that have seemed shambling and misshapen in the past, became beautifully orchestrated walls of blissful-noise pop. Songwriter/founder/cult leader Anton Newcombe has found a nice collaborator in Spacemen 3 bassist, Will Carruthers who seems to be keeping the band more centered – there were no interpersonal flare-ups this night. The band played many songs from their great new album, Aufheben as well as a cross-country tour of their previous twenty-plus back catalog of psychedelic inspired pop. If you have a chance to see BJM live, do it. Dig?

Mercer reclaims pop’s throne with Port of Morrow

It’s been a long time coming, but with the latest album from The Shins, Port of Morrow the “band’s” fourth long player, it becomes abundantly clear that James Mercer is a master songwriter – and the one in charge.

Who knows why it’s been five years since Wincing the Night Away – a solid, if not underappreciated album – after which Sir Elton John dubbed Mercer the most talented songwriter.

The fact is that, for true pop music lovers, it was worth the wait.

Mercer has currently created a musical kingdom (a part of Portlandia?) from which to explore his sonic adventures; Port of Morrow (an actual location in Portland) allowed him to bring in members of the original band (court jester Marty Crandall guests on keyboards, Dave Hernandez provides bass and guitar work) along with Pacific Northwest icons (Janet Weiss provides some solid drumming on the standout single, “Simple Song”, and a handful of other tunes).

Perhaps it is because of this mix of the old and the new that the record occasionally pays homage to some of the great sounds to be found on the band’s debut (Oh, Inverted World) on tracks like “September”…while still exploring Mercer’s fascination with country-bar balladry (“40 Mark Strasse”) and his continued inspiration via 60’s pop (“Bait and Switch”).

Even with the different players, and the sonic shifts, the album is one of the band’s most cohesive. Mercer’s combination of hooks you think you’ve heard before, along with lyrics that run the gamut from clever playfulness to melancholy memory, remind the informed listener that it is possible to have solid songcraft for an entire album.

Perhaps Mercer knows that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that in The Shin’s five-year hiatus, there really haven’t been any serious challengers to his throne.

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Sleigh Bells first crashed onto the scene a couple of years ago.

With a distinctive mix of blazing guitars, bass turned to 11, screams and high-pitch vocals, they sounded like Katy Perry hijacked by the guitarists from Slayer. Their first album, Treats, grabbed attention for its blend of sonic turbulence and pop swayings. Visually, the band played on the disjunction of crashing beats over syrupy lyrics with videos featuring cheerleaders and leather jackets. Gimmicky, yes, but it seemed to work. My (inner- as well as real-life) twelve-year-old loved it.

I can imagine that the prospect of a second album was daunting for Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss, with their carefully managed image in play. In this vein, the album cover for Reign of Terror, featuring a pair of worn cheer shoes spattered with blood, serves as a clever meme for the brand–I mean, band. If there was any worry that they would sell out to their potential for wider pop distribution, their opening salvo “True Shred Guitar” aims to dispel such doubts. The song was recorded live, with pounding drums, teeth-grinding guitar, and Krauss shouting fuck-bombs–you know, just to make it totally legit. From there, the album oscillates between her familiar screams-and-melody vocals, as in “Born to Lose,” and a more breathy straightforward delivery (as in “End of The Line”). At its best, the latter effect is a kind of eerie, Julee Cruise spaciness (“DOA”). At its not best, it’s more like cotton-candy (“End of the Line”). Even the album’s single, “Comeback Kid,” has a fierce guitar line, but the vocals leave a saccharine aftertaste. Fuel to the suspicion that the odd bubble-gum and cheerleader fetishism may not be a put-on after all.

Sleigh Bells have been described as a noise pop band, putting them in comparison with such heavies as Sonic Youth and Jesus and Mary Chain. However, with Reign of Terror, Sleigh Bells suggest a more apt description such as pop noise, placing themselves much closer to the top 40 end of the spectrum. As such, the album may bring a challenge, being too bitter for the pure pop crowd but cloying for those with indie tastebuds.

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Van Etten wows, War on Drugs channel Springsteen live in Portland

It doesn’t hurt when Bon Iver covers you, The National produce you, SXSW adores you, and hip websites anoint you the latest musical “it” girl.

That being said, Sharon Van Etten – touring on the strength of her latest, Tramp, didn’t disappoint a packed house at The Aladdin. After a solid set from Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs (channeling early Springsteen, and a self-professed love of The Waterboys – who they covered in their encore), Van Etten and her talented supporting cast seemed right at home in the intimate confines of The Aladdin.

Though Van Etten was the clear attraction, a reasonable contingent of folks were also on hand to support the (arguably) equally talented Heather Woods Broderick, who provided flawless harmony vocals, keyboards, and guitar. Broderick (affectionately nicknamed “Bro-Derek” by Van Etten during their tour) is a Portlander, and Smells Like Pop has witnessed her talent first hand as a member of Horse Feathers (along with her brother, Peter Broderick).

The band fleshed out the subtle and nuanced dynamics of Tramp – taking an already solid record and bringing it lovingly to life. Guitarist Doug Keith captured the gothic-twang necessary to make “Give Out” shine, while drummer Zeke Hutchins allowed the power and menace of “Serpents” to be showcased.

With her talent on an upward trajectory, hopefully the young Van Etten won’t get pitchforked over for the next inevitable find.

Field Music’s latest unearths more pop gems

Brothers David and Peter Brewis (the core of Sunderland England’s Field Music) have channeled numerous disparate elements in concocting their brilliant 4th long-player, Plumb. Hints of Yes and Steely Dan (chief songwriter/vocalist David even sounds like a young Donald Fagen at times) appear, along with their continued channeling of XTC. However, this is made all the more listenable by amazing hooks that rival Guided by Voices in frequency and abrupt change.

Plumb builds on a legacy of songcraft that the unrivaled (well, maybe James Mercer of The Shins would be a contemporary) Field Music have been developing for over a decade (2010’s Measure – a double album – was arguably that year’s best pop record). Plumb clocks in at about 35 minutes – frustrating for those of us who want more of them, but perfect for our hurried times – indeed, the underlying theme of the lyrics, which address (in a whimsical way) frustrations with the daily commute, and the need to acquire more “useless shit” and treat people like fecal matter.

This album is definitely a “grower”, which should reward the patient and intelligent listener upon repeated spins.

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The documentary on the short, but prolific life and musical career of Jay Reatard is playing now at little movie theaters across the country. We got to see Jay Reatard and his band at an in-store show at Jackpot Records in Portland shortly before his untimely death (murder). I’m glad we did, but it makes this footage all too sad. Reatard’s last record was a sign of greatness to come–fast and messy pop songs that had so much power and energy bundled-up in 2-3 minute little nuggets. Alas, what we have is what we get and Jay Reatard is no more. Except on the big screen.

Luz Elena Mendoza’s band, on Court the Storm, bring latin radiance to Portland pop

If you’ve already heard Y La Bamba (there’s a reasonable chance, what with all the positive – and well deserved – press they’re getting, including multiple plugs on NPR, where the album is currently streaming in its entirety), then this is old news. Their new record, Court the Spark (released by Portland’s Tender Loving Empire), is everything that is good about cultures clashing…lead singer Luz Elena Mendoza’s Mexico-via-California-and-Oregon roots clearly influencing an otherwise Americana take on pop.

But Y La Bamba is, in the best sense, a band. Mendoza’s bandmates contribute everything from solid musicianship, to rich vocal harmonies. And all the while, the mix is tasteful, striking and subtle at the same time – due in no small part to Portland-resident Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) and his long acquaintance (perhaps his creation of?) latin-tinged modern pop music. There’s even a little treat on the record with the inclusion of Americana vocal goddess Neko Case, a long time fan of the band.

There will be a record release party with the band at Music Millenium (which has a great background story on the Y La Bamba posted) on March 4th (at 3 pm) and a show at the Doug Fir on April 21st.

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Great live music dies, while studio zombies like Lana Del Rey “live”

My friends – please excuse me while I shake my cane – but I was listening to the radio this Sunday morning, when the deejay (a younger fellow) reminded me about the sad news that The Woods (perhaps Portland’s most unique – and likely best – music venue) is no more…

The intimate space played host to a slew of artists off the promotional and hype-driven radar. The deejay echoed as much, and talked about a particularly memorable show delivered by a shy musician from Colorado.

Smells Like Pop was able to enjoy the venue, as well – one of our more memorable shows was watching our friend, and London’s musical gem, Alessi’s Ark perform her magic there. It didn’t hurt that the venue was run by Ritchie Young of Portland band Loch Lomond. His sincerity and welcoming attitude helped make The Woods a special place. The fact that it was a former funeral home, with its unique atmosphere, and haunted sound, only added to its mystique.

But it is no more.

Perhaps with a sense of irony, the same radio station seconds later advertised a visit for a live performance from Lana Del Rey. Only time will tell if she has any staying power (or talent) – but she seems to represent everything that The Woods was not…ostentatiousness (the rumors of “enhanced” lips), hype (if you haven’t already heard about her, crawl out from under that rock!), wealth (her father is apparently a dot.com billionaire), studio-wizardry (Damon Albarn – Gorillaz, etc. – is rumored to be working with her), glamour (her name was “inspired” by hanging out in Miami with friends) – a symbolic nod to our culture’s severe ADD, as much was made from her SNL appearance after all of ONE decent song to her credit.

The same local radio station will be hosting a live session from The Shins’ James Mercer – who at least has a few albums under his belt.

The Shins (with a new lineup) also have an album (Port of Morrow) due out in March (so do the Magnetic Fields, Love at the Bottom of the Sea ); Field Music has a new album (Plumb) due out in early February, the Dirty Projectors have a new one due in spring, and Outkast has something coming out this year.

In the meantime, you might find me listening to music in the woods (you know, with real trees, plants, and stuff).

I’ve only been listening to my favorite album of the year for the past few weeks. While I had heard good things about it since its release in April, I had consciously avoided the album. Chalk it up to aNoYaNcE with C A P I T A L I Z A T I O N. When I finally took a listen, I knew immediately it would rise to the top of my list. In a year when many releases had a familiar pop alternative tameness (with a large dose of folk from northwest bands), W H O K I L L sounds like nothing else released this year, at least in the States. With its upbeat African sensibility, quirky vocals, and stray jazz riffs, the album has a level of risk so often avoided this year by other bands. And it pays off.

tUnEyArDs is primarily Merrill Garbus, a looping machine, ukelele, drums, and sax. The first song, “My Country,” establishes her cred. “My country ’tis of thee,” she sings, but with its springy beat and vocal style echoing something like the Mahotella Queens, it sounds like she could be referring to South Africa or Mali. For a further disconnect, the sunny style evident in this song and others is belied by a clear stream of protest running beneath. This is most evident in the later song “Doorstep,” about a police shooting.  Toward the middle of the album, in “Gangsta” Garbus unleashes a driving edginess from some third world street in the slums of Rio (or Detroit) that could be straight out of the movie “City of God.” Violence is a recurring theme in the work, and she reveals some swagger, like MIA but without the Tamil Tiger gunplay. In her concluding song “Killa,” the most self-referential and perhaps the weakest song of the bunch, she declares herself a “new kind of woman” whose violence is constrained by her music.

If you want to see a great demonstration of the construction of this album, and of live looping itself, tUnEyArDs’ performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts (or the video from KEXP above) serves well. One note, however. Perhaps the biggest disconnect with tUnEyArDs is Garbus herself. With all the worldliness of her album, it may come as a bit of surprise that it emanates from a young white woman with a side mullet, looking like she stepped straight off of a liberal arts campus somewhere. To me, this makes the album all the more remarkable, its musical genius in its ability to transport the listener elsewhere.

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You be (Kim Jong) illin’! Though this pirate is dead, the CD aint, yet…with a couple of exceptions, I actually purchased a physical copy of my favorite albums of the year.

  • Wye Oak – Civilian
  • Kate Bush50 Words for Snow
  • St. VincentStrange Mercy
  • Peggy Sue – Acrobats
  • Destroyer – Kaputt
  • The WeekndHouse of Balloons
  • Atlas Sound – Parallax
  • Alessi’s ArkTime Travel
  • The AntlersBurst Apart
  • Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues
  • WireRed Barked Tree

Honorable mentions: The Roots – Undun, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical, Tom Waits – Bad as Me, Tuneyards – Whokill, The Decemberists – The King is Dead, Toro Y Moi – Underneath the Pine, Chad Vangaalen – Diaper Island, Cass McCombs,- Wit’s End, Radiohead – King of LImbs, Stephen Malkmus – Mirror Traffic, EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints, Real Estate – Days

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