Saturday, April 30, 2005

rilo kiley 4/28/2005 - SOMA san diego

It’s a little surprising to see a band, so well designed for stardom, still flying well below the radar. They took the stage on a Thursday night at a crowded, but not sold-out, Soma. Which is really too bad, since those of us at the show were perhaps seeing the band on their last tour before fame truly strikes. Now this is all conjecture of course, but their momentum is building. Soon after this show, they head to The Coachella Music Festival, for maximum hipster exposure. A pivotal date with Coldplay in the near future should also up their profile.

Their live shows only add to their appeal. Front woman Jenny Lewis is a rare sight in an 'indie rock' scene dominated by male emo-shoe-gazers and bed-head rockers in girl jeans. She is charismatic, aggressive, and most importantly, a communicator. Her words refreshingly change the perspective on all the lyrical topics we have become so used to. Remember emo-dudes, girls get broken hearts too. And just like you, they can feel jealously, rage, confusion, and bitterness. Plus, they can get pregnant! Try singing about THAT, Mr. Kasher.

The audience had obviously come to see Jenny, as the many cries of "Jenny, you fucking rock" and "I love you Jenny" were repeated between almost every song. And what great songs they were. At this juncture in their career, Rilo Kiley benefits from having an impressive back catalog of material to choose from (3 albums, multiple EP's). There was something for every fan that night. There were the virgin newbies, such as myself, who needed our More Adventurous fix. This was satisfied with the inclusion of songs like 'It's A Hit', 'Portions For Foxes', and 'Does He Love You'. Then you have the veterans of the Rilo Kiley mystique who longed for older gems, like 'Execution of All Things', 'So Long', 'Hail To Whatever...', and 'Wires and Waves'. And they had a few rare tracks to throw at the true super fans, like 'Sword', 'Somebody Else's Clothes', and a Jenny Lewis solo performance.

The main set closed with an inspired rendition of 'Portions For Foxes', and the four-song encore ended with an equally stirring performance of 'A Better Son/Daughter'. The dialogue between songs was minimal but heartfelt; mostly supplied by guitarist Blake Sennet. Of course, you'll always have your disappointed fans. Like the five people mixed throughout the audience who called for 'The Frug' to be played between nearly every song. That song was not played, leaving those fans to 'Frug' later on in the parking lot, no doubt.

The opening acts were barely worth writing about. When I arrived, there was a solo acoustic guitar player strumming away on-stage. He seemed to perform the same song three times in a row. Maybe he was doing Autumn Defense covers. Maybe he was boring. Soon after, some young American men in suits (the 88's) took to the stage. Once the first power chord was struck, they suddenly became British in style and delivery. During their painfully long set, they channeled bad Oasis and even worse Costello. Their music forced me outside to socialize.

My only other complaint of the evening revolves around Blake Sennet. I'm probably alone in my criticism, but his actions did distract me throughout the night. For those of you wondering which member Blake is, he's the one who looks like the lovechild of Conor Oberst and Crispin Glover. And his past relationship with Jenny, combined with his overblown stage antics, remind me of Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham. I have no problem with attempts at guitar heroics and Hendrix-esque flair, as long as the context is appropriate.

The strengths of Rilo Kiley however, lie in tight musicianship, thoughtful lyrics, and most importantly: Jenny Lewis. Whenever it was Blake's turn to sing, I'd suddenly become less interested. He has a fine voice, but for better of for worse, I was here to see Jenny. And his guitar-god noisemaking and guitar throwing seemed a bit staged and attention starved. I can't help but feel that he has 'front man(woman) envy'. That said, I'm probably being a paranoid, picky bastard. Regardless, the show was great, and they have made me a Rilo Kiley convert. Now if they had only played 'The Frug'... ^_^

Monday, April 25, 2005

never underestimate the power of denial

Some people never learn. Those people being, me, myself, and I. Long ago (mid-90’s) I owned a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. Its articles, pictures, and reviews helped to nurture my young music-snobbery. I made a collage in my room strictly of pictures taken from the magazine over the course of two years. Its reviews led me to some wonderful surprises (Bjork, The Orb) and fed my hunger for new CD’s. This love affair ended in the late 90’s.

Looking back, I’m not sure what the main reason was. Bad reviews, too many ads, too many fashion issues, too many unworthy artists on the covers, etc… Maybe my tastes just changed. Admit it, those years were awful. We were somewhere between the wasteland of soft-alternative (Third Eye Blind, Matchbox 20), pop-punk (Everclear, Eve 6) and party rock (Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray) … and the wreckage of teen-pop (N’SYNC, Britney Spears), nu-metal (Limp Bizkit, POD), and third-generation grunge (Godsmack, Creed).

I shudder even now. And Rolling Stone seemed to create no real distinction between the latest multi-platinum flash-in-the-pan, and those artists who had built a solid reputation after years of recording and touring. And each cover seemed to alienate me more and more (between 1999 and 2001, Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys each appeared on the cover three times. N’SYNC twice, with a special edition that featured a member per cover). This is the magazine that used to be controversial and underground!! The magazine that used to be picky about who they put on the cover. Also on the cover in 2001? Tommy Lee and Pam Anderson, J-Lo, Johnny Knoxville, Julia Stiles, The Rock, and the girls from American Pie 2.

Let’s see who was on the cover back in 1971… John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Jefferson Starship, Country Joe McDonald, Ike and Tina Turner, Elton John, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, James Taylor, The Jackson 5, The Doors, The Beach Boys, George Harrison, and Michael Jackson. That year also included covers featuring ‘Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas’, ‘The Incredible Hulk’, and Evangelist Mel Lyman. Ok, outside of Mr. Lyman and poor ‘ol Country Joe, each of these individuals have made a lasting and important contribution to music (though 'I Feel Like I'm Fixin to Die Rag' did matter for a short while). Heck, it wasn’t even that bad in 1987… U2, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Madonna, David Bowie, Motley Crue, The Bangles, Pee-Wee, Talking Heads, R.E.M., Robert Cray, Jimi Hendrix, Jon Bon Jovi, George Harrison, The Grateful Dead, Michael Jackson, Michael J Fox, Pink Floyd, and Peter Gabriel. Once again, not perfect (Pee-Wee!!!???), but more often than not, all of these individuals still matter today.

Yet every once in-a-while I still pickup the damn thing. Because I enjoy being disappointed I suppose. You always know what to expect, yet you grab it anyway. Silly covers, blurbs from bands you don’t care about, and bad reviews. The ‘serious news article’ that no one reads. The left-wing editorial that no-one should read (and I’m a liberal!!).

The last two issues I’ve picked up have done little to ease my pessimism. The first was an issue called ‘The Immortals’. It listed (magazines LOVE lists because then their jaded writers don’t actually have to research anything) the most important musicians of all time. Yes, I do have a problem with a couple of names on here. The list should exile Eminem for being too recent. I feel that we can’t honestly know an artist’s complete impact on music history until at least 10 years after their debut (if not after their most successful moment). And could be stop pretending the Sex Pistols were so God-like? They were a short-lived train wreck who needed the Ramones to show them what punk was. Give me The Clash or The Buzzcocks any day. Kudos to the magazine for including Roxy Music on the list. Minus 3 points though for having John Taylor of bloody Duran Duran do the write-up! Speaking of Duran Duran…

According to the latest issue of Rolling Stone, the members of the currently red hot Duran Duran are all still handsome, sexy and virile looking. Well, the above picture and the one actually in the magazine do little to back THAT claim up. The article goes on and on to praise the band as the hippest group of old guys on the planet, and namedrops their various bastard children, such as Interpol and The Bravery. Of course, instead of actually writing a good article on Interpol or placing a band like that on the cover, they simply get lumped in with the rest of the Duran Duran-ites in a neat little box in the corner of the massive Duran Duran spread.

Didn’t these guys already get a decade of love? And where were all these gushing baby boomers and blushing critics during the not-so-glamorous years? How many of you people bought 1990’s Liberty, or their last three disasters; Thank You, Medazzaland, or Pop Trash? No, no. It takes the glorious return of the ‘Three Taylors’ to get you all excited again! Well, their latest album is pretty bad too. And someone should tell Andy Taylor to stop wearing shades indoors. They make him look like an asshole. Oh wait, he already was.

Also in the magazine was yet another article about how weird and wonderful Rivers Cuomo is. Actually, he’s just an asshole too, who’s methodically eccentric behavior is worshiped in American ‘indie’ circles with the same enthusiasm that a Pete Doherty overdose earns in England. Make nice with Matt Sharp and put out a record with some soul (oh how I miss you Pinkerton), and maybe I’ll stop hoping you break up the band and actually back-up your weirdness with some bondafide craziness (see Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, and Keith Moon)!

Friday, April 15, 2005

the only 'problem' is that you're not listening...

Children of ‘indie land’, please take note. Look at your clothes and look at your hair and ask yourself, what is true independent music? Take a week (hopefully longer) and learn some lessons from the music of Mr. Mark Stewart. Or should I say, just Stew. Formally the singer, songwriter, and all-around ‘Svengali’ of LA-based pop-pranksters, The Negro Problem, Stew has prospered in the wake of an acclaimed solo career. Currently, his screenplay We Can See Today (co-written with long time collaborator Heidi Rodewald) has been accepted into the esteemed Sundance Institute’s 2005 Director’s Lab. This comes following the successful run of Stew’s theatre piece, Passing Strange.

Along the way he’s gathered repeated critical praise from such publications as Mojo, LA Weekly, Entertainment Weekly (his first two solo albums have both been included among the magazine’s picks for ‘album of the year’), All Music Guide, and The New York Times. He played the Meltdown Festival in London, on a roster that included such legends as Queen (sorta) and David Bowie. He also toured with Love (featuring Arthur Lee), and opened for The Counting Crows and Live during the west coast leg of their joint tour.

But what about the music you ask? I first went to see The Negro Problem back in the winter of 1997. They were playing at Java Joe’s in Ocean Beach, a locally famous coffee joint that spawned Jewel (and fired her as its waitress). They were playing in support of their debut album, ’Post Minstrel Syndrome’, which had been reviewed by the local paper, receiving four stars. Obviously, between the glowing review and the shocking band name, I had to investigate.

While the opening act, Cockeyed Ghost, plowed through their pop-power set, I noticed Stew and hiding in the back of the coffee house. Although he was nursing a cold, he was immediately friendly, and allowed for an autograph. He was actually surprised by the copy of Guitar World I produced that carried an article on his band. According to the article, the band was catchy and full of potential…that is of course if: 1) Their highbrow pop could find an audience. 2) If they would change their controversial and confrontational name.

Well, the band found an audience and never did change its name. One person in that audience was myself, and what I found was the perfect pop band. Unfairly catch songs, meaningful and challenging lyrics, harmonies, wit and humor, and humble but supremely professional playing. Their sound channeled an array of styles and artists, from Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb, to Syd Barrett, Sly Stone and XTC. Stew performed like some wild-eyed street prophet, as the band shifted from new wave grooves to progressive moods. I immediately purchased their album, which stayed in my CD player for two straight weeks.

I went on to see The Negro Problem (or Stew solo) perform a total five times. Along the way I purchased the next two TNP albums, as well as Stew’s solo CD’s. Coupled with 'Post Minstrel Syndrome', Stew’s second solo disc, 'The Naked Dutch Painter', should be required listening for anyone doing a survey of 21 century music. It’s hard to find something truly original, and perhaps that concept doesn’t really exist. But this artist is about the closest I’ve come in my search. And his talents refuse to be pigeonholed, as he moves seamlessly from bandleader to solo troubadour to playwright to screenwriter. Do yourself a favor and see past the band name (define irony, people) and taste something special. People like this are cultural treasures. Also, please be on the lookout for a new documentary on Stew’s career called: What’s The Problem, directed by Jeffery Winograd.

For further investigations, please visit these sites:

Stew’s official website -
Documentary website with trailer -

Friday, April 08, 2005

records that ruined my life, part one

PINK FLOYD - 'Momentary Lapse of Reason'

The first Pink Floyd album I ever owned was a tape cassette copy of 'Delicate Sound of Thunder’. And it wasn’t even the entire live album. It was only tape 2, which started off with ‘One of These Days’ and then moved straight into Darkside-era classics. Side B contained the encore, with more harmless tracks from the classic era. This live album was released after the 1987 tour with the Dave Gilmour-led line-up. Roger Waters was well into his lyrically intriguing but musically boring solo career. Startled by the sound of this legendary band crackling through my worn out cassette, I went to the mall with my buddy and made two life-altering purchases:

#1 Bjork - ’Post’
#2 Pink Floyd - ’Pulse’

I would soon fall in love with the Bjork album (as well as Bjork herself, which culminated in my very first concert…Bjork). I purchased the 1995 Pink Floyd live album for two reasons. Firstly, I wasn’t yet familiar enough with the band to know where to start (this was obviously before the ‘Best of’ was released). Secondly, the cover featured a really cool eye and a blinking red light on the CD spine. I’m a sucker for visuals. This album provided a more complete overview of the band than my crummy tape. It also introduced me to the difference between Waters-era songs and Gilmour-era songs.

Before purchasing ‘Momentary Lapse…’ a couple years later, I was the proud teenage owner of a majority of Pink Floyd’s back-catalog. ’Pulse’ contained a few ‘Momentary Lapse…’ songs and other Gilmour tunes, but in the context of the live performance, and due to track sequencing, I was rarely too harsh on the songs. I recognized that Gilmour wasn’t as strong a writer as Waters, but felt that he had his own charming and inoffensive style. Hell, I’d read books on the band and understood the various feuds, and had primarily been a Dave Gilmour apologist…

Until THIS album became mine. At this point in his career, realizing that no one wanted to buy his solo albums, Dave Gilmour roped Nick Mason back into the fold and decided to revive the happily dead Pink Floyd moniker. Much to Roger Waters' chagrin, it was a phenomenal success. An obvious example of hype and name brand recognition outshining quality (or lack there of). Man, this album had everything. The worst in over-processed, over-reverbed 80's production; soulless sythn tones and lifeless drums (or drum machines); multiple rewrites of that 'Comfortably Numb' guitar solo; stupid experiments ('New Machine'); and bad saxophone playing. Even the songs that I had liked or tolerated off the live album were pale shadows of their live selves. 'Sorrow' should have been re-titled: 'Boring'. And 'Learning To Fly' should have been re-titled: 'Learning To Falsely Market My Solo Album'.

No one should have to see a band they love become such a thing. And what a traumatic way for it to happen! Some of these titles sounded so cool!!! And the cover was so inviting. But its not Pink Floyd. I think Nick Mason played drums on maybe one or two songs. And Rick Wright was brought in on salary to make the venture seem more legit. I can pinpoint the ONE harmony he sings on the album. And I'm sure his keyboard parts are just as sparse. It's like resurrecting Marlon Brando, keeping his speech pattern and mannerisms, but leaving his talent in the grave...and not bothering to dust him off either. Ok, gross. But do you get my point? This album hurts to listen to. My one moment of happiness occurs when 'One Slip' plays. Co-written by Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music, the song is a rare moment beauty in this sea of tar. Though the bass in the song is processed to the point of vomit.

The moral of the story is, know your idol's limits. Protect yourself and avoid any work that is universally paned. I don't put much stock in reviews. After all, Rolling Stone magazine gave Britney Spears' third album four stars. Eh? WTF? But when an album like 'Momentary Lapse...' is disregarded by EVERYONE, its a good chance they're onto something...

PS. And yes, I noticed the obvious joke inherent in the title of the album. If that's not bad enough, the real kicker is that they almost named the album after the first track - 'Signs Of Life'. Too perfect...ha ha ha...