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Sonic Reducer




SONIC REDUCER Who would have thunk that Sonic Reducer would rattle on for so long — unreduced, unredacted, Sonic even while covering Mr. Winkle or Mundane Journeys. It’s been more than seven years since Cheetah Chrome gave me the casual A-OK to borrow the name of his song, and now the end is nigh: this is the final SR in the Guardian, but what a deliciously lengthy, rich, overwhelming run it has had.

Scanning the first Jan. 7, 2003, column — chock-full of New Year’s Eve tidbits concerning one of Dengue Fever’s first shows in SF, Bud E. Luv’s turn as the Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne’s NYE attraction (playing big band versions of “Iron Man,” natch, amid strippers and absurdly outsized sex toys), and an evening out to the Coachwhips/Pink and Brown-reunion house party in a South Van Ness basement, trapped by a moat of mud, buffeted by revelers, and besieged by circuit-breaking blackouts. Lo, there was also scandalous news of rumored onstage fellatio at a Tigerbeat6 showcase and an update on Kimo’s efforts to halt the sonic seepage at its ear-bleed noise shows.

The early ’00s in SF were a giddy, madly experimental, and hyperfertile period for local music — a delirious convergence of imaginations cocked and loaded by the dot-com gold rush, exploded with the blizzard of pink slips and the onset of plentiful time and energy, and the excitement of so many ripe minds coming together — oof — at once, if from widely divergent corners of the cultural landscape: how else to explain the peaceful coexistence of Joanna Newsom and Caroliner, Deerhoof and Comets on Fire, Soft Pink Truth and Hunx and His Punx, Vetiver and Turf Talk, the Morning Benders and the Lovemakers, the Oh Sees and every other band John Dwyer has been involved in, in this fair citay?

Perhaps one day I’ll boil down these 350-plus columns — snipes, jests, always-in-good-fun jabs, and all — and come up with a rough sketch of this equally rough and rewarding zero-hour decade’s blurry contours. In the meantime, glancing hazily back over past columns, I unearthed a few highlights — from lowlifes or bright lights:

Mark Pauline of Survival Research Laboratories on not performing in Europe, 2003: “We were good enough to cause national alerts and bad international events, so we never got asked back. Again, good work.”

eXtreme Elvis on SF, 2003: “Too much of culture that surrounds San Francisco has to do with that idea of no spectators. No spectators means everyone’s a DJ, everyone plays didgeridoo, everyone has a band, everyone is a spoken-word artist. There’s a kind of culture of narcissism — guilty as charged, right?”

Inca Ore’s Eva Saelens on touring, 2006: “When you break through, it’s like being in another world. Sometimes I’ll try to push an explosion or try to lose my mind, and if you do that on a nightly basis, it’s unreliable and it’s also abusive. You’re pushing your emotions in an athletic way, almost.”

Nick Cave on Grinderman, 2007: “An overriding theme of mine is, I guess, a man and a woman against the world. But for this record, the woman seems to be down in the street, engaged in life, and the man is kind of left on his own, with, um, y’know, a tube of complimentary shampoo and a sock.”

The Cure’s Robert Smith on dumb pop, 2007: “I’m saying that most good pop singles are stupid — otherwise they’re not good pop singles. I’m from an age when disposable wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

Joe Boyd on music book signings, 2007: “I can tell you what the queue looks like. There’s a lot of beards. There’s a lot of bald pates. There’s a lot of gray hair, and every once in a while there’s a 20-something woman in the queue, and then you kind of make sure your hair is combed straight. Then she comes up to the head of the queue and says, ‘Will you please sign it “To Peter”? It’s for my father for his 60th birthday.'”

Lady Gaga on pop perfection, 2008: ” If it isn’t flawless, I gotta work myself up to where it is — otherwise I’m just another pop chick with blonde hair.”

Will Oldham on music, 2008: “You can find in music just about any ideal emotional landscape you crave, whether it’s angst or rebellion or celebration or union or dissolution. It’s all there, and none of it’s going to call you back or text you at four o’clock in the morning or blame you for anything you did or didn’t do or slap you with a paternity suit.”

Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny on “Ewok Song,” 2009: “I know it by heart, and it’s the precursor to all these kids with wizard hats. It all comes down to the Ewoks singing around the fire. Akron/Family ain’t got nothing on the Ewoks, man.”

Laurent Brancowitz of Phoenix on his old Daft Punk bandmates, 2009: “They decided to go to a lot of rave parties, and I didn’t, because I didn’t like the nightclub life. I’m a bit of a snob about it — I find it very vulgar.”

Jarvis Cocker on his song “Caucasian Blues,” 2009: “I was interested in how blues music has gone from the music of protest, of the oppressed, to the blandest, safest music for white people to listen to in bars.”

Oh, but that was then — and I loathe nostalgia, if that isn’t already clear from the past seven years of cranky natterings and screams at the sky against boring, snorey Sha Na Na-style regurgitations. And this is now. Look for more from me in these and other pages, but never look back in regret.

Feel the ‘Love



SONIC REDUCER How to reconcile an ultra-catchy, hooligan-cozy chorus like “These girls fall like dominos!” with the unpretentious, Dennis Cooper-idolizing music lover who dreamed it up — namely Milo Cordell of the rosily buzzing U.K. outfit the Big Pink?

It helps to have a little distance from your unreliable narrator, according to Cordell, son of producer Denny Cordell (the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Joe Cocker). “I kind of see it, in a way, as kind of dumb and quite crass and slightly throwaway, really. But it’s got this bubblegum sugar-coated layer on it, though underneath it’s pretty dark,” says Cordell matter-of-factly of “Dominos,” while tucking into dinner at a Turkish restaurant in his Dalton hood in London. The unpretentious keyboardist’s home “twiddling his thumbs,” waiting for a replacement for a lost passport while the rest of the band tours Australia.

“The whole subject matter is about the weakness of man, really, and then it’s made to be quite jubilant. I think it’s throws a lot of people people who think it could be misogynistic, but I think it’s quite honest.”

At least a few critical people understand: he recently e-mailed Carly Simon to get permission for a version of “Dominos” that the Big Pink put together for NME, which included a portion of “You’re So Vain,” sung by Lily Allen, in its bleak candy center. Fortunately, Simon got it. “I get a bit freaked out about it sometimes,” Cordell confessed. “That people will get it all wrong.”

Tossed-off one-night stands, MDMA massives (“Crystal Visions”), late nights spent battling back that fiery orb (“At War With the Sun”), youthful rebellion (“Too Young to Love”), and Dennis Cooper-style entanglements (“Frisk”) crop up, judgement or no, on the Big Pink’s debut, A Brief History of Love (4AD). The disc’s big hooks, up-close ruminations, and ear-teasing sounds, ranging from the 8-bitty to the Congotronic, are defined as poppier and punchier than, say, Crystal Castles, whose early recording Cordell released on his Merok label — a smudgy amalgam of “digital Velvet Underground” mixed with “Timberland and Ministry,” as he puts it.

“I think at the moment there’s a lot of bands that are bored by every other band in England,” he offers, when asked about the clouds of noise and experimentation creeping into U.K. rock. “Every other band trying same licks, all these shit bands referencing the Kinks and Beatles, which is all fair enough, but there’s so many of them! You flip through NME, and it’s the same band on every page, wearing the same checkered shirt. There’s a bunch of people who are bored by that and are creating their own sonic atmospheres. Whether it’s the Klaxons or the xx — there’s something similar between all of us because perhaps we don’t want to sound like the Kooks.”

Cordell started the project with his teenage friend and vocalist-guitarist Robbie Furze after tinkering in Furze’s studio one day. “We both had come out of relationships and were a bit lost,” recalls Cordell, “and I think we kind of found each other and found something to do as well. We filled a void of a lover with each other and making music.” Furze also supplied Cordell with one major revelation: “‘You don’t have to be a musician to make music,’ he said. ‘You’ve got an amazing ear.’ He knew all the bands I worked with [via Merok, like Titus Andronicus]. We started playing around with noise through pedals, chopping it up and layering sound.”

And as for the band name, Cordell explains, “We probably couldn’t be further apart from the Band in terms of musical styles, but there’s a certain ideology we share with them: knuckling down and having a good time on tour, the sense of grandeur and being slightly phallic-like.”

Or a vulvic, I add. “I never even thought of it as female privates till somebody said it a few months ago,” he marvels. “You just translate it as you translate it. I think it’s great. I bet Oasis doesn’t get asked that much about their name.”


Wed/10, 8 p.m., $17

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF



Bloody digits mark the the French three’s darkabilly creations, and the all-girl latter’s promise souped-up garage psych. Fri/12, 9:30 p.m., $7. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com


The Kiwis blend the Flying Nun swirl of the Clean with riptide licks, whereas Glenn Donaldson’s lo-fi jangle rumbles off a new Woodsist release. Sun/14, 8 p.m., $10. Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF. www.rickshawstop.com

Sly ‘n’ sincere



SONIC REDUCER "Move while you’re watching me / Dance with the enemy — here is my remedy!"

Though the production is vaguely "Toxic," don’t confuse this Brit with Britney. Little Boots, a.k.a. Victoria Hesketh, may be a dulcet, highly infectious dead-ringer for Britney Spears — sporting a sweeter voice and ‘tude, judging from her lyrical preoccupations and her popular homemade YouTube snippets showing the Boots covering Kid Cudi or Cyndi Lauper.

And as El Niño continues to batter our doors, one can’t help but wonder what a steadily heat-seeking, viral-vid starlet like herself makes of the chill falling over pop, both under- and overground in the form of, say, Cold Cave and the xx? Lo, behold synthpop prime mover Phil Oakey of Human League, dueting with Hesketh on "Symmetry," off her debut, Hands (Atlantic), which finally sees its stateside release this week.

"Maybe it sounds cold, but I think it sounds really cool as well. That’s the whole thing, the detached Human League thing," explains Hesketh, 25, phasing in and out by phone from London.

"I’m just really interested in electronic music and inspired by it, so I kind of got into it from that angle, being a fan of the sound and the records."

Today’s colder, sparser synth minimalism perhaps reckons more honestly with the instruments themselves, with a sound that isn’t trying to resemble anything other than itself. Its quiet aggression resonates perfectly with the cold wind of austerity that has been long blowing through the music world. That harder, tougher, oft-pared-down synth sound also jibes with the continuing cultural fascination with the ’80s: rhyming perfectly with fashion’s studded stilettos and architectural leather, it reads like armor against pummeling economic times.

Hesketh is completely frank about the hardscrabble pop environment she’s found herself in — and the way understandable fiscal conservatism is affecting the art and craft of music-making. "I think the industry doesn’t really have any money, and I’m not selling very many records, so they’re just playing it really safe because they’re scared to invest money in anything that’s too weird and can’t fit," offers Hesketh, who’s had Ellie Goulding, Music Go Music, and Marina and the Diamonds on repeat lately. She says that timidity doesn’t bleed into the formation of such delectable nuggets as the Madonna-esque "Stuck on Repeat" and the Telepathe-like "Mathematics," which sees Hesketh winningly rhyming Fibonacci with Pythagoras while entreating, "But the only formula I know will work for us / Is that when we’re together in the sum of our parts / It’s far greater than what we added up to at the start."

That juxtaposition of every-girl vulnerability is full frontal on Hesketh’s solo electric piano version of "Stuck on Repeat," one of the most popular of her DIY, laptop-made videos. Flanneled shoulder to camera, hair dark and bushy, in Paul Frank monkey jammies, she sings to herself — and to the Webcam — in a way that makes one think that you and Hesketh are sharing an intimate moment, much like meeting Lily Allen via MySpace, and peering through a tiny window into her world. But even good things must end. "I don’t do [those videos] anymore," Hesketh says flatly. "I did them a lot, so it’s a bit boring. but yeah, it definitely helped as a way to get exposure. Now I’m kind of having a break from them and doing something new." Namely performing throughout the U.S., in the flesh: these Boots walk onto the Fillmore stage March 9.


With Class Actress and Dragonette

Tues/9, 8 p.m., $15–$20


1805 Geary, SF




Where Fairport Convention meets Fleetwood Mac, the Denton, Texas, band convenes for its sublime new The Courage of Others (Bella Union). With Matthew and the Arrogant Sea. Thurs/4, 9 p.m., $16–<\d>$18. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. www.gamh.com


It’ll be a hoot when the SF psych-drone nature boys cavort with the Lungfish savant. With Carlton Melton and Electric Jellyfish. Fri/5, 9:30 p.m., $7. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com

Sing, spelunker, sing



SONIC REDUCER How many degrees of separation can be charted between the soulful, indie-folk natural men of the Cave Singers and the cut, tanned, laundered, and pugnacious bruisers and thugettes of Jersey Shore? Way fewer than you, or Snooki, would think.

“I’m all about it. It runs in my veins,” says Cave Singer Pete Quirk from downtown Seattle, taking a lunch break from his toils as a bike messenger and struggling to be heard above the din of jackhammers and a seemingly invisible, stalking squeeze-box player. He grew up on the shore, albeit on a more rustic stretch, which fostered mischievous fun like pool-hopping rather than cop car riding. “I’ve only seen the commercials, and I was so frightened by it. I got a glimpse of a guy punching a girl — so horrific.” Still, he adds, “Things seem a little less dramatic when you’re a kid. It wouldn’t be on TV if it wasn’t overblown.”

Of course, who knows what sort of reality show would focus on the Cave Singers, though the group’s origins could read like the stuff of potentially high drama considering songwriters Derek Fudesco, ex of Pretty Girls Make Graves and Murder City Devils, and Quirk, once of Hint Hint, share the same house — best friend-style, not Surreal Life-style. (Drummer Marty Lund, formerly of Cobra High, bunks elsewhere.) “People would fall in love with us, you know,” speculates Quirk, 34, gamely. “We’re just three lovable guys cruising around the country. It’s like that movie 3 Men and a Baby — just no baby. Music is the baby.” Quirk would like to be the Tom Selleck of that bunch. “But I’d probably Steve Guttenberg. But Guttenberg is cool because he’s down to earth.”

That’s an asset for these beach-, cave-, and nature-loving nu-folkies, who dive deeply into a breast-beating, witchy breed of acoustic rock on their brighter, more upbeat second long-player, Welcome Joy (Matador, 2009). A fleet of frisky, Feelies-like rhythm guitars drone with infectious optimism on “I Don’t Mind,” transmogrifying into kick-off-your-shoes pop bliss for “W” and the plucky, clickety-clack climax of “Hen of the Woods,” before taking it down a few gleaming notches for a bongo-laced, incantatory “Shrine.” The arc of Welcome Joy‘s tracks is crucial, miming the passage of a fiery orb across a midyear sky.

Why such joy? “We all went to therapy together like Metallica, y’know,” quips Quirk. But really, folks, Quirk qualifies, “we always sit around, and Derek will play a guitar line, and we’ll just be jamming, and it will bring up a cinematic image, and we’ll go with that. A lot of the songs at the time seemed joyful, for whatever reason. It seemed like there was a lot of beach imagery, or just youthful things we remembered doing in the past.”

It’s all organic down in the Fudesco and Quirk basement, where they practice and demo, decorate and sing freely, as Quirk puts it. There’s safety in that man cave — and in this band, apparently. “We’re best friends and housemates,” Quirk offers, amid the city clamor and chatter of kids with petitions. “We’re each other’s second wives or something — we help each other when we’re down. It’s like a Rotary Club down there.”


With the Dutchess and the Duke and the Moondoggies

March 9, 8 p.m., $12–$14


628 Divisadero, SF




Speedy’s Wig City cashes in with the seventh annual event showcasing Glen Earl Brown Jr., the B Stars, the Royal Deuces, Big B and His Snake Oil Saviors, the Mystery Men, Whiskey Pills Fiasco, and Misisipi Mike and the Country Squires. Thurs/25, 8 p.m., $10. Knockout, 3223 Mission, SF. www.theknockoutsf.com



Double Leopards diva Marcia Bassett serves up metal-flake No Fun noise candy alongside electronic dreamweaver Christelle Gualdi. With Vodka Soap and Bill Orcutt. Thurs/25, 9 p.m., $7. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com



“Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Steinbeck, and South Asian exotica are a few of the touchstones for ex-Concretes vocalist Victoria Bergsman. With El Perro Del Mar. Tues/2, 9 p.m., $15. Café Du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. www.cafedunord.com

Burn notice


SONIC REDUCER Eat your veggies. Don’t play in traffic. Follow your intuition, a.k.a. your muse. Judge a superstar by her voice not her frump factor. And watch for low-flying planets.

Words to heed, if not live by, since we seem to be reading the well-worn wrinkles and begging for guidance from musical wise women — pillars amid the sky-shattering winter storms, as health-care reform gets severely shaken and everyone ducks those flying shards of survival anxiety. We look to Patti Smith at Herbst, holding forth with gravity, grace, and acceptance, or even Susan Boyle, warbling like a songbird, stylist or no. So it’s an unexpected pleasure to cop a healing, soothing teacup of a chat with Scout Niblett, née Emma Louise, avid practitioner of astrology and maker of the beautifully raw new The Calcination of Scout Niblett (Drag City).

The U.K. native and onetime East Bay resident passes through town briefly for a Noise Pop show on Feb. 25 at Cafe Du Nord, and she has an astrology-informed perspective on the losses that marked the far-from-awesome recession of ’09-10 and the recent, seemingly endless processional of celebrity deaths: Saturn is squaring Pluto, an alignment that has particularly touched the Libra singer-songwriter, as well as unsuspecting others.

“I think people in general are still being affected by the tension in the sky,” says Niblett from her home in Portland, Ore. “We’re all going through it, but some of us are nailed on the head.” The effect for her: “It feels like I’m grieving for a life that I used to have or the person I used to be.”

As a result, Niblett dreamed up a series of songs like the corrosive “Strip Me Pluto,” a tune that, she explains, “is really to do with letting go of things, especially things that you think make up yourself and are completely attached to and identify with. In a sense that attachment causes you suffering, really. Learning to let go of things is your ticket to feeling better.”

“Don’t be scared, my child / It’s so clear tonight … I’m scared I’m not doing me right,” she wails on one shaved-raw track, “Ripe With Life,” under the recording ministrations of Shellac’s Steve Albini, as a stark, shark-like electric guitar twists and moans beneath a hollowed-out voice that recalls Cat Power, PJ Harvey, and the bluesmen — like John Lee Hooker — that Niblett loves. Much like the cover shot of Niblett waving and not drowning but bearing a menacing-looking blowtorch, the song comforts and unsettles, looks straight into the eye of fear. It’s a charm for troubled times.

For Niblett, the stars demanded more introspection on her fifth full-length. “I’ve noticed before that all the albums seemed to have these relationship-oriented songs, kind of celebrating my life through other people. This one wasn’t about that, but it was about me looking at myself, not with rose-colored glasses, but realistically and seeing things in my life that are dysfunctional.”

The cosmos also called for music in which “you can hear every single thing that’s happening,” and sounds that have been run through, as one track title puts it, an “IBD,” or Inner Bullshit Detector. Niblett will be testing at least one song further soon. In addition to giving a free chart reading as part of a forthcoming Drag City contest, she plans to offer 100 different versions of Calcination‘s title track on the label site, each numbered and available for download only once.

“My idea is to see how much the song will change after playing it that many times, kind of as an experiment for myself,” Niblett says. Unfortunately she’s only recorded 20 so far. “I kind of didn’t realize what I got myself into,” she exclaims. “Now I’ve started recording, and I’m like, ‘Omigod, what was I thinking?'”


Feb. 25, 8 p.m., $12–$14

Cafe Du Nord

2170 Market, SF





This Matador electro-rock combo coagulated from the Blood Brothers’ remains. Wed/3, 9:30 p.m., $5. Cafe Du Nord, 2174 Market, SF. www.cafedunord.com


Bring out your beaniest for the second annual heavy metal chili cook-off and get serenaded by Hot Fog and ezeetiger. Sun/7, 1 p.m., free. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com


Gillian Welch’s steady hand cranks out immaculately recorded, tender country rock in a ’70s-era backwoods-moderne flavor. Tues/9, 8 p.m., $25. Fillmore, 1805 Geary, SF. www.livenation.com

All together now


SONIC REDUCER What do you get when you mix air and earth, combine boisterous and baroque exuberance and densely layered yet bouncily buoyant guitars, incorporate baby Scorpions with full-blown ELO?

Voila, you just ordered Citay, the city’s musical mega-maximalists — now jumpier, rockin’-er, and more exhilarating than ever, judging from the sound of the new ‘un from this fab fantasy confab of Bay Area music-makers, Dream Get Together (Dead Oceans), all united under the imagination of one man: songwriter and guitarist Ezra Feinberg.

“I love the first album [Important/Frenetic, 2006], and I love Little Kingdom [Dead Oceans, 2007]. But whenever I listen to Little Kingdom, I’d think, God, this is sooo mellow,” drawls the chatty Feinberg by phone as he maneuvers between the raindrops and tollbooths, making his way to, sorry, the citay by the Bay. “I don’t really feel like I’m this mellow. This doesn’t feel like me. So in a sense, it’s just been a more honest record. This record is more excitable, and I’m more excitable than Little Kingdom.”

Picture a well-attuned supergroup of SF musicians like Warren Huegel (Tussle), Josh Pollock (Daevid Allen’s University of Errors), Diego Gonzalez (3 Leafs), Sean Smith, and Tahlia Harbour — a dream get-together, if you will — woven together and levitating blissfully, beneath the intense gaze of Feinberg and longtime collaborator Tim Green (Fucking Champs) as they constructed the ornate “sonic architecture,” as Feinberg puts it, of Dream Get Together.

That edifice took a year to make — “I don’t churn it out,” Feinberg confesses — as the group assembled parts like the space-rock synth solo by Howlin’ Rain’s Josh Robinow, heard on “Hunter,” and flotillas of crazily interlocked, airborne guitars. (“I like a lot of what is considered to be pretty bloated and overly athletic 1980s heavy metal guitar playing,” Feinberg says.) Drummer Huegel turned to a full rock kit, in contrast to the last album, and the vocal harmonies came to the fore. The result: songs like the title track take classic rock as its starting point then swoop and soar and leave you shaking your shag, tucked in your party van, and marveling at the sound of a rippling guitar solo in flight. “I wanted to take Citay as it was known on the first two records and blow it up, set a grenade to the first two albums,” Feinberg muses. “It’s like the other albums went off their meds.”

The phrase Dream Get Together refers to a specific relationship, also the center of this collection of songs. “It’s about how difficult it can be if you have a fantasy of a relationship with somebody and it’s met with the reality of that other persona and the real relationship,” explains Feinberg. But it also nods to the dream community of musicians that Citay itself seems to have become — despite the issues of scheduling so many busy players (“Omigod, you have no idea,” the bandleader moans. “It’s a logistical nightmare”) — it’s the same idea, or dream, of supportive, collective art- or music-making that has inspired so many in recent years.

“Citay has become this solo project that also has aspects of a collective because there are so many people,” Feinberg observes. “We’re all friends, and we encompass so many bands in San Francisco — I think there’s something really ideal and beautiful at the heart of what Citay has become.”

Now if we can only get our dream on — together.


With Fruit Bats and Extra Classic

Fri/29, 9 p.m., $15


333 11th St., SF




Seventies-era Cali-rock was the starting point for the off-and-on-again-Oaklanders’ next-level To Realize (Lovepump Unlimited). With Late Young, White Cloud, and Raccoons. Fri/29, 9:30 p.m., $6. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com


The Toronto post-rock thinkers make a rare appearance, toting the recent Other Truths (Constellation, 2009). With Happiness Project and Years. Tues/2, 8 p.m., $16. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. www.gamh.com


Yes, mo’ super-heated Afro-rock-inspired awesomeness, pweeze. With the Actors. Tues/2, 9:30 p.m., $10–$12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com


Oh, say, can you see Kelley Stoltz, Ty Segall, and the Sandwitches joining with T.O.S. for this Stand with Haiti benefit. Tues/2, 9 p.m., $10–$50 sliding scale. Café Du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. www.cafedunord.com

Post-apocalyptic post-irony


SONIC REDUCER Riddle me this, Indie Rocker: what happens when life kicks the nice, cozy crutch of irony out from under you? Where do you go the morning after cynicism, after tearing it all down and finding the ground crumbling below? The joke may be on guess who. And you’re not out of line to hear the latest albums by Magnetic Fields, Spoon, and Vampire Weekend as the equivalent of the apocalyptic scenarios cluttering nearby cinemas like The Road and The Book of Eli — post-crash-and-burn manifestations of the late-’00s that stare into the bombed-out, blank face of hopelessness.

Sure, it’s a postmodern dilemma, this crisis of what-next. The ’90s made it so easy to snark sourly — we were all in on the joke yet went for the money shot. The ’00s began with a dot-com crash and towers crumbling, and as prez-for-a-decade Duh-bya settled into terrorize the populace, it became easy to feel the sourness curdling into bitterness. How do you turn a brave face to the future when you were defined by knowing jadedness? Talking about you, Spoon, justifiably embittered by being wooed and ditched by Elektra Records. You, Magnetic Fields — too forbiddingly smart-ass to ever be “Seduced and Abandoned,” as the words of your new song go. And you, Vampire Weekend — seemingly constructed around the cynical premise of appropriating Afropop jangle by way of early childhood exposure of Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986). Which way out?

“Everybody loves you for your black eye,” sings Britt Daniel at the onset of Spoon’s Transference (Merge). From the title that references the transfer of emotions from a patient to therapist, to the song trajectory that implies the end and beginning of relationships, Transference sees Spoon — playing the Fox Theater April 13 — questioning the whys and wherefores of love. Clinical takedowns aren’t surprising from a band that has always boasted a razor-sharp suspicion of easy emotions and facile pop hooks and prided itself on its tough-minded lyrics and honed musical contours. Those sharp corners haven’t changed altogether, but halfway through around the ambient throb of “Who Makes Your Money,” the piano-driven blues of “Written in Reverse,” and the Velvets adoration of “I Saw the Light,” the music begins to break down. And open up, culminating in Spoon’s tenderest love song, “Goodnight Laura.” The baby talk of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge, 2007) — and its prescience concerning a certain Lady pop idol — has morphed into more adult feelings, and Transference sounds like a moment when Spoon’s defenses fell and Daniel discovered new reserves of power in vulnerability, while foregrounding fall-down-the-stairs piano and fizzing horror-filmish effects.

“You can’t go around saying stuff / Because it’s pretty / And I no longer drink enough / To think you’re witty.” Despite the characteristically clever phrasing, the Magnetic Fields aren’t mincing words with “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” the opener of Realism (Nonesuch), which comes clad in the girl-symbol packaging to go with the boy plastered on the band’s last full-length, Distortion (Nonesuch, 2008). The group (at Fox Theater Feb. 27 and at Herbst Theatre March 1) has decided to play nicely this time around — whether or not you believe in realism or authenticity — promising “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree” and barbs done up in buttons and bows and late ’60s and early ’70s folk instrumentation. And in stark contrast to the candy-coated shit-fi of Distortion, Realism wallows in its startling all-acoustic, electronics-free loveliness, buffeted by umpteen mille-feuille pastry layers of autoharp, flugelhorn, harmonica, violin, sitar, and lashing rattle. Still knowing — and aware of the contrivances embedded in its aural reality show — Stephin Merritt and crew also appear to be daring their audience to embrace old-school beauty, an artifice like any other, along with sentimentality and traditional folk song values. Next stop, children’s tunes?

The most pleasant surprise must be Vampire Weekend’s new Contra (XL). The counter-revolutionary tendencies hinted at in the title apply to the group’s increasingly irreverent attitude toward its source material — making the Vampires sound less like Paul Simon than Panda Bear acolytes as they close in on those 808s and ’80s electro beats. As listenable as they are, Vampire Weekend (at the Fox Theater April 19-20) makes you work for your kicks, your pop hooks, embedding the kalimba thumb piano of “Horchata” in house-y synth and percolating rhythms, which melt naturally into “White Sky,” a union of African polyrhythms and electronic pointillism. The tour de force troika closers — “Giving Up the Gun,” “Diplomat’s Son,” and “I Think UR a Contra” — send the listener into a rippling sea of beats and a seething MIA-style South Asian grime-down that lightly pokes fun at privilege, before floating on a peaceful sea of TMI paranoia. Increasingly complex and satisfying, Vampire Weekend is growing out of its baby fangs.

New Year’s relief


SONIC REDUCER Ah, if only one could give the gift of foresight, how many of us would just throw in the towel, ditch the bitching squeeze, and descend into a netherworld of never-again when faced with the prospect of a dubious New Year’s Eve celebration? Oh, the effing pressure to perform, to live it up and to have a ball, especially when booting out a good-riddance-already year like ’09.

Yet who wants to send it out with a whine rather than on a note of sublime? Who wants to crash to the curb rather than kicking it with joyful liberation and libation? Not I, La Reducer. So let me take the effort out of the forced merriment, remove the angst from the party ranks: here’s the best New Year’s Eve plan for everyone — no matter how magnificent or misguided, buttoned-up or taste-challenged they may be. Pick your NYE poison — then take two Advil and drink a big glass of water before you pass out during the warmed-over breakfast buffet the following morning, at the start of a new decade.

For my keeping-it-casual soul music maestro with a taste for the live jammies The Roots keep their distance from that adorable but far-too-desperate-to-please Jimmy Fallon for NYE and break out the deep originals, assisted by the sprawling SoCal Orgone, at this “sneakers required” beatdown. 9 p.m., $72–$95. Warfield, 982 Market, SF. www.goldenvoice.com

For our favorite mulleted hesherette, forever in acid-washed blue jeans Jump on your bad motor scooter — Montrose is totally bringing some rock candy to Avalon, the same Silly-con nightspot that came through with Y&T last year. With Voyeur and Terry Lauderdale. 8 p.m. doors, $35 advance. 777 Lawrence Expressway, Santa Clara. www.liveatavalon.com

For your too-cool coworker with the asymmetrical crop and the skinniest jeggings on the block Too hep to 12 step? Glass Candy’s nouveau disco darlings Ida No and Johnny Jewel make you wanna strive for the next level in awesome. With Desire. 9 p.m., $45. Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF. www.rickshawstop.com

For that shy, retiring indie-rock cutie-pie with a sweetly sunken chest and a song in his heart His fave local indie rockers Morning Benders just signed onto Rough Trade for their next long-player, Big Echo. Time is now to trip on the new songs. With Miniature Tigers and A B and the Sea. 10 p.m., $20. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com

For my vintage Bettie Page still mourning the passing of the lindy-hop revival Lee Presson and the Nails keep the antics on edge, alongside veteran Southland stompers Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys. And we’ll all wanna get a gander of the infamous Girl in the Fishbowl. With Project: Pimento and the Cottontails. 8 p.m. doors, $60. Bimbo’s 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, SF. www.bimbos365club.com

For our indie hip-hop homes with a penchant for a smoking party Devin the Dude wants to put you at ease and bring you home in one piece — blunts and brews intact. 9 p.m., $20. Shattuck Down Low, 2284 Shattuck, Berk. www.shattuckdownlow.com

For that indie kid with a wild streak and a secret love of FM radio Local up-and-comers Audrye Sessions might be just the ticket to check out, while Hottub bid y’all to jump in and test its waters. With Soft White Sixties and Manatee. 9 p.m., $12–$15. Uptown, 1928 Telegraph, Oakl. www.uptownnightclub.com

For your art-jam darling with a proggish spirit Chop-chop to the multitalented NorCal player Les Claypool. 9 p.m., $59.50. Fillmore, 1805 Geary, SF. www.livenation.com

For my Southern crust-vamp with a pointy-toed bootie in both the burner and retro-gypsy camps Squirrel Nut Zippers skirt the definable before sinking teensy-tiny incisors into a kind of bluesy cabaret. With Steve Soto and the Twisted Hearts. 9:30 p.m., $65. Café du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. www.cafedunord.com

For that up-for-anything music fan in the mood to shake his milky bottom line You’re down with anything, as long as it’s got a groove or a bit of blue-eyed soul — so get thee to Bay-bred Brett Dennen, A.L.O., and SambaDA, all determined to get the party ‘tarded. 8 p.m., $40–$50. Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph, Oakl. www.apeconcerts.com

Getting Xmas Twisted


SONIC REDUCER “I saw mommy fellating Santa Claus /Under balls so snowy white last night.”

Rude and crude — yes. But outrageous and sacrilegious — and worth stumbling out of the Las Vegas Hilton as fast as your aged legs can take you? Maybe. Though Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider gave us plenty of goofy warning that he was going there, giving us “the real story” — meaning his bawdy, rowdy rock ‘n’ roll story — behind the voyeuristic kicks of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” our last illusions were shattered, sorta, in the spirit of the gently taboo-busting song.

Ah, and so this is Vegas — just the place to use, abuse, and hock that illusion. The land of The Hangover, neon flash, and an expected and cheesy yet palpable air of convivial good cheer in the buffet line and beneath omnipresent the casino cameras, lurking amid the underutilized Millionaire’s Club slot machines.

“Mommy” was definitely one of the many highlights at Twisted Sister’s three-night stand “Twisted Christmas,” a mix of holiday classics with a goofy rock ‘n’ roll twist and yesteryear hits — the live successor to the group’s 2006 yuletide album of the same name. I had to tear myself away from the Kitty Glitter penny-slot amid the dated beige glam of the Hilton Elvis built, lured by post-show free margaritas and the reverently irreverent metal ‘tude promised by the band that hit it big at the Headbanger’s Ball with “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

We took in Dee Snider in full clown makeup (“Sarah Jessica Parker dipped in acid!” proclaimed guitarist-manager Jay Jay French, quoting the British press) and a black-and-hot-pink body suit entering in a sleigh drawn by dancers and vixens in skimpy Suicide Girl-wear, Twisted rewrites of holiday classics like the tweaked new last line of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” (“Christ wa-ah-s a Jew!”), and predictable yuks like the mohawked and pantless Santa Satan who joked about adjusting his sack, or a “12 Heavy Metal Days of Christmas” that naturally included “eight pentagrams” and “five skull earrings.” That’s as satanic as matters got, and though the playing was at times a bit less than tight, the band’s original members were in impassioned form, getting in as many jokes at Ozzy’s expense as Santa’s.

As we watched dozens of likely comped retirees piling into their seats, my companion, Prof. Fluffenheimer, muttered to himself, “I wonder how many of these people will be leaving in the first 15 minutes.”

Lo, our entire row had pretty much cleared halfway into the hour-and-a-half concert — too bad, ’cause they missed the malevolent and very unmerry “Burn in Hell” and a fist-punching sing-along “I Wanna Rock,” which had the remaining metal heads and rockers, 40-something dad-ish fans in polo shirts, wrestling team sprats, Sarah Palin look-alikes, table tennis conventioneers, and sundry other Vegas casino crawlers all hollering “Rock!” in unison. Let’s say it wasn’t the total madhouse the Ramones inspired at the Stone back in the late ’80s. But it brought back those chestnut-toasty, black-leather memories when French and guitarist Eddie Ojeda, now seemingly recovered from his recent back surgery thanks to “massive hallucinogens,” riffed off the Brudders by working “Ho! Ho! Let’s go” into “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

All of which inspired me to fantasize about other Christmas musical extravaganzas that oughta be on every music fan’s list. I’m not talking about Andy Williams and Wynonna, who filled the Hilton theater after Twisted Sister had moved their raucous NYC rawker selves along. And American Idol grads don’t count, being programmed to perform the cheesiest song on hand, on command. How about a little Christmas cheer from these pop types?

Beyonce “Baby Boy” is readymade for a rejiggered “Santa Baby,” or at least a nativity scene featuring “Ave Maria” and “Halo.”

Lady Gaga Her platinum tresses make her a natural Christmas angel. “Boys Boys Boys” must be reappropriated as “Toys Toys Toys.”

Justin Timberlake Picture the Timberlad poking around for a yule log in his “SexySack”.

Kanye West Embracing the chill of West’s last album with songs like “Coldest Winter,” this holiday should look ahead to the New Year by ringing it in KaNYE style. After the graduate gets in a scuffle with Santa, the show ends with a contrite, winged West delivering a bushel of MTV Video Music Awards to a virginal Taylor Swift.

Monster mash note



SONIC REDUCER "I’m from the underground. And I’m making pop music and I’m not a bit ashamed about it."

So sayeth Lady Gaga on the cellie last year on the way to a radio show at a Raging Waters in San Demos where she was dying to get wet. Alas, she forgot her Jellies at home and didn’t want to get her towering D Square pumps splashed ("I’ll find a private part of the park and just go in my birthday suit"). Yet I’m sure Christian Siriano could relate to this pop fashionista dilemma — regardless of whether he’d sniff at her taste-defying getups or not. After all Lady Gaga is the pantless, prep-school-bred amalgam of Carole King and Madonna reimagined as a hot tranny mess, a Gossip Girl turned Fame Monster.

OK, Gaga is no tranny, strictly speaking, though at the time she told me she was thrilled about appearing at SF’s Pride Fest ("I grew up in the dance and theater community — I’ve been surrounded by gay men and women and transgendered my whole life!"). Still, this bio queen’s obviously snatched more than a scrap of inspiration from clubland’s OTT drama kids, and she’s rough enough around the edges to make any sex bomb efforts an exercise in wise-ass deconstruction. From the gag of her "Radio Ga Ga" handle to her go-there way with the attraction-repulsion factor, Gaga is enough of a fabulous freak to embrace a gag-able frisson — I’ll be looking for that vomiting video vixen on the megascreen at her upcoming show at the newly reopened Bill Graham Dec. 14.

There’s more than a smudge of Her Dancefloor Madge-sty in the diva’s diamond-hard pop persona, wardrobe switch-ups, and workaholic drive. Lady Gaga impressed me at the time with a disarming sincerity and brusque sweetness: she was eager to be understood by serious music fans who might dismiss her as a throwaway popster. "The level of commitment and dedication it takes to put on a perfect pop show is very difficult," she exclaimed. "And I think some of the underground snobbery is fear and not understanding that discipline.

"Listen, I come from a party background and I used to party like crazy! That was a lot of my source of creativity," she continued. "But my life has changed a lot now, and I can’t do that shit. I got to go to bed, and I gotta wake up, I gotta work out, I gotta go to rehearsal. I got to pound, pound, pound, work, work, work hard so that every time I hit the stage it’s flawless. And if it isn’t flawless, I gotta work myself up to where it is — otherwise I’m just another pop chick with blonde hair."

But unlike Madonna, Gaga, like King, initially came from the flip side of the pop factory: as a songwriter, ghosting, she said, for Britney Spears and Pussycat Dolls. "I started to write pop songs mostly because I’m a classically trained pianist," she explained. "Beethoven and Bach and the structure of those classical pieces are really just rudimentary pop chord progressions. So it was something I understood." A vocal coach pointed out to her how easy it was to play a Mariah Carey tune by ear — "’It’s because you’ve been playing Bach inventions since you’ve been four, and it’s the same kind of idea’<0x2009>" — and she says, "That’s how I found out I had a knack for it, and I’ve been writing, writing, writing, since I was 13 years old."

Those skills came in handy when she started playing piano to beats in her undies at clubs in New York City’s Lower East Side, and had to come back to, for instance, a heckler who yelled, "Why don’t you play something serious?" Her response should be familiar to fans of "Beautiful, Dirty Rich"’s and "Poker Face"’s provocation: "I put my leg up onto the piano with my crotch pretty wide open to the audience, and then I did a very old school George Gershwin ragtime improv on the piano — pretty complicated. The whole idea was ‘Fuck you, I’m going to be sexy, sing about sex in my underwear, and then I’m going to do this really, really difficult piano virtuoso moment and show you it really doesn’t matter.’ People associate glamour and being female and being nude and being provocative with stupidity — there’s a great deal of intelligence and conceptualizing behind my work."


Sun/13–Mon/14, 7:30 p.m., $48

Bill Graham Civic Auditorium

99 Grove, SF


Answer me!


SONIC REDUCER As changeable, transformative chameleon year ’09 draws to a close, El Niño flurries sweep out the past, and all present plunge into the hassle and hustle of the holidays, I’m looking for answers — signposts if not certainties. Like so many others, I’m poking at the tea leaves and searching for clues to elemental queries, laying out the cards and reading into the arcana, listening to the muses and studying the alchemy generated by that admixture of human breath, reverberating strings, and sounds that make the air shiver and shimmer.
Q: Who are you?
A: Bend an ear to the recent past: namely Devendra Banhart’s What Will We Be (Warner Bros.), a release that likely never truly got its due. A lethally laid-back hybrid of ragged ragtime, weird new blues, and soak-in-the-rays beach music perfect for lounging in the hot sand, What Will We Be struck me at first as almost too amorphous, soft and shapeless, languorous and borderless to get a grip on. It’s as if Banhart has made the sonic equivalent of a slippery-slidey alien sock monkey.
But listen to it loud with headphones or earplugs, and you find plenty of earthly details and many off-kilter digressions to love — and recognize, like those Renaissance Faire carousers who live in the flat below on “Chin Chin and Muck Muck,” the young turks on the loose in “16th and Valencia, Roxy Music.” You’ll also discover a deep spiritual yearning (aphorisms and nuggets of wisdom stud the album) to break through the bounds of pop forms into something wholly else. Banhart has acquired some major industry projectors of late — Warner Bros., and Neil Young manager Elliot Roberts — but considering What Will We Be, a cunning, sprawling work that gently urges you to sink your feet into its mud and stay awhile, it’s clear he’s chosen a higher path.
Q: What do you want?
A: Parse “What Would I Want? Sky” and the petite, avidly recycling footprints of Animal Collective on the new five-track EP, Fall Be Kind (Domino), out digitally last week and physically Dec. 15. Marking the first time the Grateful Dead have ever licensed a sample — the exquisitely sweet, polyrhythmically complex “Unbroken Chain” — “What Would I Want? Sky” artfully entwines Animal Collective’s flirtations with dance music, washes of choral color, and a snippet of Phil Lesh’s tweaked “sky” cry.
The Dead’s blissed-out ode to the threads connecting the singer and the song of the western wind, lilac rain, and willow sky grows fresh, forceful tendrils and takes on new contours as Animal Collective chooses one beat (a levitating one) and one natural image and follows it. “Oh, grass is clinking/and new order’s blinking/and I should be footing/but I’m weighted by thinking,” goes the call to the natural world, as synthetic violins ripple like blades of grass. The woods of would-be “would”s and clanging metal percussion fall away, and the thicket of vocals unifies into a declarative, “What I want: Sky!” Just one gem among many within this a sparkling end-of-the-year grab bag.
Q: What shall we do?
A: We shall have a “Funky Funky Christmas,” according to Electric Jungle on In the Christmas Groove (Strut), a comp of rare soul, funk, and blues tracks. Bumping the brass and the organ vamp like the holiday party in some lost Blaxploitation flick of your dreams, “Funky Funky Christmas” pays tribute to mommy fixing food and daddy watching football, along with, oh, yeah, love and peace (“Pass that biscuits please”).
Gimme a piece of the shit-hot harp ’n’ bass interplay of In the Christmas Groove‘s Jimmy Reed opener, “Christmas Present Blues,” and the locked-down rhythm section, background screams, and jittery, shopping-damaged guitar solo of Funk Machine’s “Soul Santa” (“Wouldn’t it be so revealing if Santa had black janky hair?” the Machine asks). I’m irked that for whatever reason the reputedly super-soulful “Getting Down for Xmas” by Milly & Silly isn’t on my copy, but Strut has put together the best Christmas album in an age — and the perfect soundtrack for your next funky ’Mas massive.


The ex-Red Aunt garage-rock girl Kerry Davis ekes out the rage alongside the South Bay rockabilly fiend Legendary Stardust Cowboy. With Touch-Me-Nots. Fri/4, 9:30 p.m., $7. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, S.F. www.hemlocktavern.com
Succumb to real-deal righteousness as the SF legend breaks out the annual holiday show. Sun/6, 8 p.m., $15. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. www.gamh.com

Killer ‘Droids



SONIC REDUCER What is a Japandroid? Sure, it sounds like a mashup of two monikers (Pleasuredroids and Japanese Scream) hatched by guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse when the Vancouver, B.C., twosome were dreaming up a Yeah Yeah Yeahs-style power trio back in ’06. But I imagine it looks way cooler than your average Transformer, less like a toaster and more like an Astro Boy-style skin job. Or maybe it’s a less humanoid rock ‘n’ roll machine — picture a R2D2 jukebox — generating a battering flurry of distortion and bashed-at beats that’s less noisy, more melodic than No Age, and five times more buzz-saw aggro and dense than White Stripes.

But perhaps calling Japandroids machine-like goes too far. "That kind of indicates a certain efficiency that we don’t have," Prowse demurs sweetly by phone from Somewheresville, Ohio. "There are a lot of kinks in the rock ‘n’ roll machine, though we’re trying to get things done."

And right now the thing for Japandroids is a major drive south across the U.S. to St. Louis, Mo. "We’re just driving for days — it’s great, very scenic," Prowse observes. "We’re seeing every small town in America. It’s like a dream."

Apparently the two 27-year-olds are living the dream: they’ve made the break out of Vancouver, which Prowse describes as "not necessarily a musician-friendly city," despite the presence of, for instance, the New Pornographers. The ‘Droids got a major rocket-powered boost after some successful festival dates — one show at Pop Montreal led to the band signing with its current Canadian label Unfamiliar — and a rave review on Pitchfork.

"It’s a weird form of tourism. You kind of get to see places," Prowse — far from jaded and still marveling at the reception the band received — says of the twosome’s recent U.K. tour. "You get to see a bar in each city in the United Kingdom and then the spot where you get breakfast and few truck stops in between."

All this seems somewhat unexpected for the two friends, who met at the University of Victoria and formed the band post-college. At the risk of getting too reductionist, Post-Nothing (Unfamiliar/Polyvinyl) captures that moment of aimless fury, unbottled passion, and naked masculine innocence that comes after graduation, once you’ve fulfilled all your course requirements, done all that’s expected, had your heart broken, and wondered what’s next. It’s worth asking — when everyone, postcollegiate or otherwise, appears to be wondering what the 2010s will bring — what is "post-nothing" anyway?

"It’s kind of a long-running gag at the labels of musical genres," Prowse explains. "A long time ago Brian started referring to our band as post-nothing on our MySpace bios and other places." Just don’t lump them into the post-hardcore lot. "No, no," the drummer says almost apologetically. "We’re too wimpy to be associated with that moniker."

Japandroids, it turns out, aren’t easy to sum up — these ‘Droids are too unpretentious and/or smart to peg themselves with any tag. Neither will Prowse acknowledge certain 1990s alt-rock affiliations you can hear bristling at the edges of the combo’s sound — though both love the Sonics and Mclusky and went through a mid-to-late ’90s hip-hop phase. "Some songs sound like we’re ripping off one band and then another one," Prowse confesses good-naturedly. "There’s a bit of variety to our musical piracy."

Prowse, however, will cop to an anthemic quality in Japandroids’ songs. "I think part of that comes from the fact that neither of us are super-confident singers, so we kind of belt it out," he explains. "It comes back to being a two-piece band — one of the things is to make as much noise as we can between the two of us." *


With Surfer Blood and Downer Party

Sun/29, 7 p.m., $10–$12

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF.




Ready to get on down to N’awlins with these cajun music vets? Fri/27, 9 p.m., $20 Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. www.gamh.com


Ape must not kill ape yet must sometimes serve up a live set. With JDH and Dave P and Tenderlions. Fri/27, 9 p.m., $22.50. Mezzanine Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com


Classical and contemporary composition meets throbbing electronics. With Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble. Mon/30, 8 p.m., $10. Café Du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. www.cafedunord.com

Friends forever



SONIC REDUCER We can’t all cozy up like Plant and Krauss, Timberlake and Timbaland. Fantasy jam sessions sometimes remain just that, as Slash found out when Jack White rejected the ex-Guns slinger’s request for a guest turn, but, hey, you can dream: Animal Collective’s Panda Bear paired with Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste — bear with me — or Droste coupled with Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth. Sure, they’re friends now, but chums have been known to kill each other.

And sometimes the daydream turns into a tepid ho-hum — as is the case of Them Crooked Vultures, a very, very promising supergroup on paper, composed of guitarist-vocalist Josh Homme, Dave Grohl on drums and backing vocals, and John Paul Jones on bass, keyboards, and backing vocals. Instead, despite likable if ickily-titled jams like the Iron Maiden-ish "Caligulove," the power trio’s new self-titled Interscope long-player just comes off like vaguely North African-flavored, watered-down Queens of the Stone Age, feeding on freeze-dried corpses of Zep and other AOR kin. At least the Vultures have named themselves well. Can I get another flavor of crunchy guitar, p’weeze?

Then you have bandmates — names all up there in the marquee — who might not even know each other, really, yet somehow stick it out for a decade. Chalk it up to "Young Folks" — or Swedish stoicism.

Peter Bjorn and John sound like they’re pretty much adhered for life: the threesome celebrates its tenth birthday with two shows at Great American Music Hall, Nov. 19 and 20, just the latest in a series of special soirees that have included guests like Spank Rock and Andrew WK and whistling contests.

No, they’re not overnight wonders and, yes, Bjorn Yttling has known Peter Moren for 18 years. Still, Yttling sounds a bit shocked when I ask him if, say, the cunning, jittery, almost-Afropop-hued title track of this year’s minimal synthy Living Thing (Almost Gold) is about one, or more, of the Peter Bjorn and Johns coming out. How else to interpret: "We didn’t do it together, and now is it too late? /It’s pretty tight around the corners and I no longer have your taste /What is it about a friendship that always keeps the closet closed? /But I can tell it’s dusty in here /So I don’t even want to think about yours."

"Oh, wow," he says of Moren’s tune. "I’m not sure if that’s about that. I think it’s about the band, the way we are when we work together, so it becomes something more than three people — it’s something else."

Reading the song Yttling’s way uncovers those not-so-fantasy tensions — coupled with a gimlet-eyed honesty displayed on baldly anxious numbers like "It Don’t Move Me" and "Lay It Down" — that give the band a depth that perhaps other Swedish popsters lack. And really, Yttling, who has produced and written songs for Lykke Li, sees Living Thing overall as "about moving onto other things and not being so stuck in the past about stuff. ‘It Don’t Move Me’ is about stuff that touched you before and doesn’t move you at all, doesn’t affect you anymore, and you get scared about that, but you got to move on because there will be new stuff that will touch your heart later."

A few things, however, remain the same, opines Yttling by phone from Toronto:

(A) "Rock ‘n’ roll is better live than on album, and electronic music is better on album than live — if you’re not on pills maybe."

(B) "We’re not a jamming band. We don’t sit around the rehearsal space forever and smoke dope and bang out an E minor riff."

(C) As far as songwriting goes, "We try to be as dancey as possible and at same time make good narrative songs. It’s tricky when you like a lot of styles — you gotta try to do what you like."

(D) Constant touring isn’t an issue if "you’ve always got your Nintendo and passport. Always ask for Internet code when you check into hotel, otherwise you have to go down or call. Also use the in-dining service if you’re in a hurry," though, he observes, "it’s more of a Peter thing to walk around and almost miss the show."

(E) And as for Niagara Falls, which Yttling just eyeballed for the first time: "They’re on 24/7. It’s weird."


Thurs/19-Fri/20, 9 p.m., $21–$23

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF



Thurs/19, 8 p.m., $49.50

Fox Theater

1807 Telegraph, Oakl


Button pushers



SONIC REDUCER Bend an ear toward Fuck Buttons’ ecstatic second album, Tarot Sport (ATP), and you’re only a card flip away from shuffling the Rider-Waite deck of the mind and coming up with visual corollaries for the tracks. Frenetic opener "Surf Solar" obviously boogie-boards to the freedom-first of the major arcana’s card zero, the Fool, whereas "Rough Steez" burrows into the deep ‘n’ dirty low end of the Tower card, and "The Lisbon Maru" cozies down amid warmly glimmering Doppler synths, akin to the Sun image. The glorious polyrhythmic cluster-fuck of "Phantom Limb" sparkles hard, reading just like the Star, while finale "Flight of the Feathered Serpent" breaks into a mind-expanding, all-encompassing loop, à la the closing picture of the major arcana: a baton-twirling cosmic cheerleader dancing within a circle of completion, or the World. Bring it on.

The tarot of sport — see the Vangelis shout-out of "Olympians" — or the sport of tarot did inform the album, says Fuck Buttons’ Benjamin John Power, by phone from D.C. "We’re both kind of interested in the mystical world in some way," he confesses, referring to bandmate Andrew Hung. But perhaps I’m reading too hard between the cards. Power and Hung didn’t quite rifle through the deck and riff off those airy swords, energetic wands, emotional cups, and earthy pentacles. Rather, they were both intrigued by the idea of formalized competition between psychics, which Hung had been reading about. "I mean, first and foremost, the words themselves were quite resonant for us," Hung says. "They struck a chord — and it’s quite a funny concept."

Battling psychics might conjure thoughts of Criss Angel mind-freaking the ladies of the Psychic Friends Network in Paranormal Activity‘s haunted townhouse, crystals and dowsing rods in fists. But the notion also plugs into Fuck Buttons’ music-making process — as well as the image of Hung and Power hunched diligently over their gadgets, pedals, and toy instruments at their packed, steamy Independent show last year. The hardcore-schooled Power is more serious. Hung, who has an electronic music background, is more puckish and playful. ("We’re based in a car right now," he jokes when asked where the two 27-year-olds live. Ask him what a Fuck Button is, and he quips, "I guess you’re talking to one.")

The Bristol, England, natives started playing together in 2004. "When we converged at the same point, that’s when things started to get quite loud," says Hung. Fuck Buttons’ writing process hinges on a similar sense of give-and-take. "We’ve always written songs the same way," explains Power. "We’ll get together in a room and it’s quite important that we don’t have any ideas brought in, that we approach it like a blank canvas. We’re both messing around with sound together — it’s been very free in that sense."

The beat-driven, less aggro sound of Tarot Sport, informed by the more ambitious musicians once confined to the New Age aisle, was the direct result of the twosome’s new equipment acquisitions — various analog synths, pedals, and "bips and bobs," as Power puts it — since their debut, Street Horrrsing (ATP, 2008). "The sounds are quite a lot richer on this record because we had a lot more stuff to play with," notes Power. "One particular thing that did happen was we got rid of our laptop. When a lot of people see a laptop onstage, they assume you’re a laptop band and just playing things off your laptop, which isn’t the case at all."

That’s where the psychic ability comes in very handy, though Fuck Buttons don’t cop to those powers — or even a good grasp of the Vulcan mind meld. "We’re definitely working on that one," Power deadpans. "We haven’t quite perfected it yet, but it’s something we’ve been trying to do, yeah." *


With Growing and Chen Santa Maria

Fri/13, 10 p.m., $10

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF




Onetime Jay Reatard bandmate Rich Crook turns up the twang with the No Dreams Please EP (Big Legal Mess). With the Splinters and Bass Drum of Death. Fri/13, 9:30 p.m., $7. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com


Way disorderly in the new world and shit-hot to boot — that’s the Lisbon, Portugal, hybridized electro-kuduro party machine. Sun/14, 9 p.m., $16–$18. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com


Dusky SoCal fantasies meet Italian-American brutarian post-punk. Sun/15, 8 p.m., $15. Independent, 628 Divisadero, S.F. www.theindependentsf.com

Girls, girls, girls


SONIC REDUCER Ladies first. As pop’s lads rotate in and out of the dawg house — and Lil Wayne pleads guilty to gun possession and Chris Brown decides to "Crawl" — the time has come for the XX-chromosome set to rise to the occasion: Girls, girls, no pushing, shoving, or elbows to the knockers. Just kick it on record, all ye femme talents, past, present, and future.

Tomorrow — and yesterday — is the way for the all-girl Brilliant Colors. Spend a little quiet time with the SF threesome’s bracing, brief, brand-spanking Introducing (Slumberland), and let the Ramones-y distortion rumble and tumble till you’re completely prepped for the sweet-tart twee revolution in full effect with labelmates like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, the Mantles, and Summer Cats. Yes, Flying Nun’s twirling primitivism and an early punk naivete that tags both Half Japanese and Huggy Bear, as well as a purity of ultra-lo-fi sound and singularity of concept, will take BC far. It’s low key but brilliant in its own way: viva la Bay girl-band revolution.

"Aiiii!" That’s the sound of Madonna in the play zone, in full celebratory mode, on the now sorely dated-sounding "Ray of Light," smack in the center of the first disc of Celebration (Warner Bros.), the newly remastered greatest-hits comp cherry-picked by M’lady and her fans. Now that’s the cry of an icon. Project Runway‘s star-struck, untutored Christopher Straub was flying his freakily clueless flag when he recently raved of Christina Aguilera, "She’s an icon!" Despite "Beautiful," the petite ex-Mickey Mouser isn’t quite among the ranks of the veneration-worthy (especially after her Runway appearance in a cliché Halloween-ready putf8um wig).

Madonna, however, remains rich with symbolism, themes, and variations, worthy of dissection — she’s always striven for more than mere chart-topping ack-shun, and Celebration draws from a deep well of work, silly or no. You can trim a third of the tunes on the 36-track compilation, which sports a cover that brashly appropriates Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, and still have enough ear-teasers and ideas to qualify for canonization — even as a tiny-town chorus of itty-bitty backing robots bleat, "I heard it all before! I heard it all before! I heard it all before!" on "Sorry." Fifty-one years young — with arms that look alternately enviable, emancipated, and emaciated — Madonna is waving her label farewell with this nail in the coffers of the $408 million Sticky and Sweet Tour. Only two numbers, "4 Minutes" and "Miles Away," are culled from her most recent studio full-length, Hard Candy (Warner Bros., 2008). Tacked on are the new dancefloor-hailing "Celebration" and "Revolver," with Lil Wayne and its prescient references to the rapper’s gun charges and its vocal cribs from Rihanna.

How does Mad’s seemingly throwaway pop stand up so many years along? Why bother gathering these songs in one/two places for the third time? Celebration‘s first tracks — "Hung Up," "Music," and the surprisingly resilient "Vogue" — make a powerhouse aerobic class troika. "Like a Virgin" feels fun and faintly fresh, while "Into the Groove" suffers from oversaturation. "Like a Prayer" seems less subversive, sans video, and more overworked than one might recall, and "Ray of Light" rings especially awkward in its forced glee. Still, the synth-rocker "Burning Up" is delightfully cheesy-cool, and "Secret" and "Borderline" glow with unexpectedly solid pop craft — though, wait, did Madonna actually ask for "more tuna" — "mucho maguro" — on "Sorry"?

Speaking of Japanese morsels, pass the beat and throw in a slew of "Ai"’s, "Eya-eya"’s, and other assorted vocables while you’re at it, when it comes to OOIOO’s gloriously raucous ARMONICO HEWA (Thrill Jockey). The sixth album by the all-woman unit organized by the Boredoms’ Yoshimi is a dizzyingly deep swirl of tribal drumming and mechanistic guitar blurt ("Uda Hah"), awash with elastic synths ("Ulda") and leaping, lilting girlish vocals that point to the breath as the way of all things ("Konjo"). Here, OOIOO manage to be beautiful and wild at exactly the same time.



Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, This Song is a Mess But So Am I’s Freddy Ruppert and Zola Jesus’ Nika Roza join forces to make spectral synthpop. With White Hinterland and Common Eider King Eider. Wed/28, 9 p.m., $8. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com


Their business is ass-kicking, and business is … big. With Triclops! Mon/2, 10 p.m. $12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com

Northwestern soul



SONIC REDUCER No way to keep it like a secret: word got out about Gossip. And so the direct descendants of riot grrrl were snatched up by whip-smart production savant Rick Rubin to join MGMT as two of the newish crown jewels in Columbia’s auspicious yet aging catalog. Three years along from Gossip’s last studio LP, Standing in the Way of Control (Kill Rock Stars) — a Euro chart-topper that landed Ditto on the cover of NME as a plus-size nudie-cutie pinup girl — one has to ponder, what is the Gossip today? Did the band lose momentum, lose its way, lose control, and give itself over to forces intent on monetizing the fire-starting gospel of its sweaty ‘n’ soulful, sexily politicized dance-punk? Gossip has always be a truly great live band — that much you can be sure of when the threesome plays the Regency Ballroom. But is the promise of major-labe success standing in the way of what was so perfectly raw and real about Gossip?

Maybe it was just the fangirl in me, but it seemed like Beth Ditto, Bruce Paine, and Hannah Blilie took forever crafting the new Music for Men (Columbia), which they say they wrote mostly in the Band-built Shangri La Studios in Malibu. The resulting production sounds expensively immaculate, and Ditto’s soprano sounds as girlishly high and tight as any dance-floor diva’s — except she’s the gospel- and punk club-bred belter who can hold her own in rougher, sparer surroundings than Madonna, Britney, et al. With Music for Men, the petite powerhouse is clearly placed in a new wave-soul continuum that includes Alison Moyet and Martha Wash, though she’s not out of line with such kindred Northwestern souls as the Blow and YACHT, who have pledged their allegiance to the power of the pop-R&B hook. Like those groups, Gossip sees pop-chart penetration as not so much a necessary evil as an evangelical act, a way of further remaking and openly subverting culture, injecting lyrics ala, "Guilty of love in the first degree / Dance like there’s nobody looking … Men in love / Men in love with each other," into the mainstream in a way that would probably warm the lush, lesbian-ic corners of Dusty Springfield’s and Leslie Gore’s hearts.

As Ditto warbles on "For Keeps," "Disappointment is the final word / DEVOtion is back breaking work," so don’t depend on the trio to play for keeps and simply serve up more sinewy, archetypal tunes like "8th Wonder" and bonus track "Spare Me from the Mold." Instead Gossip tries out all manner of passing guises: disco, house, hair-band, electro — from Stevie Nicks-style ’80s AOR-dance chug ("Heavy Cross") to DFA-derived moderne synth-boogie complete with cowbell ("Pop Goes the World"). Does it work? The latter number teases the borders of OTT pop, and I could use bold yet radio-friendly experimentation akin to "Vertical Rhythm," an ear-teasing dance of shifting, synthetic night grooves and a tense, descending rhythm guitar line. "I ain’t no better man," Ditto shouts, before the tune breaks out a big, fat, hairy, ’80s-rock riff and the hook that dare you to dismiss it. The song trails off with the vocalist cooing, "Do the right thing" — words to remember, long after Barack and Michelle’s first date and Music for Men are done. Just as the cover plays off the title — flirting with appeasing that desirable music-buying male demographic while proffering a gender-tweaking portrait of drummer Blilie — the song points to the increasingly subtle tango Ditto and company are undertaking: the challenge of doing the right thing, with a shifting, shattered world at their disposal. *


With Men and We Are the World

Sun/25, 8 p.m., $20–<\d>$22

Regency Ballroom




SF’s resident garage-rock legends the Mummies dust it off, along with the seldom-seen Gris Gris, Necessary Evils, Thee Oh Sees, the Fevers, and so much mo’. Thurs/22-Sun/25, Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF, www.bottomofthehill.com; Eagle Tavern, 398 12th St., SF, www.sfeagle.com; Thee Parkside, 1600 17th St., SF, www.theeparkside.com. Check venue sites for times and prices.


Gimme more of that Diamonds-bright, hooktastic Vapors (Anti-). Fri/23, 9 p.m., $14. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com


Heading up the noise is Gowns high muck-amuck Ezra Buchla’s Compression of the Chest Cavity Miracle. With David Kendall, Sgt. Cobra Queef, Elise Baldwin, Horse Flesh, and VSLS. Sun/25, 8 p.m., $6. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com

Solar flair



SONIC REDUCER How to compare beat heads and pop pachyderms? Honestly, if I was given a buck for every time some discriminating music listener told me that this year’s Treasure Island Festival lineup looked much more exciting than Outside Lands’ bipolar program (Os Mutantes? M.I.A.? Was Dave Matthews’ mom-rock presence dampening your fiery fun?), I’d be buying a round of Tecate and bacon dogs for every Mission hoodie hovering near the 22nd Street cart.

Treasure Isle is still a bifurcated fest — but it’s a much more pleasing mixture than Outside Lands’ recent attempt to stir Deerhunter seriousity in with the breasts and boobies that casually tail Black Eyed Peas. Saturday remains devoted to dancier waters; Sunday, to rockier shores — a Coachella model harnessing the pleasures of the dancefloor as well as the ambition of art rock. This year’s slyest move is the way Treasure Isle has inextricably tangled up performers like Girl Talk and Dan Deacon — artists who tap the integrative energy of fans who wanna get in the act, climb onstage, and live the dream that once could only be gleaned at warehouse shows and small, sweaty underground spaces. MGMT is the only curious inclusion on Saturday’s bill: wouldn’t they feel more at home on Sunday, amid the twisted, folkier folk with a mangled psychedelic ‘n’ orchestral bent, à la Grizzly Bear, Vetiver, Beirut, and Yo La Tengo?

Not to take anything away from Flaming Lips, whose new double album, Embryonic (Warner Bros.) dovetails savagely yet sweetly with the noise-ier power-points of YLT’s Popular Songs (Matador). And by the way, the Lips have done it again. Namely they’ve found a way to get born once more, just as they have so many times before during their unexpectedly lengthy lifespan — one that vrooms from the indefinable psych-punk of Oh My Gawd!!! (Restless, 1987) and the Alternative Nation pop of Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (Warner Bros., 1993) to the sci-lab experiments of Zaireeka (Warner Bros., 1997) and the back-to-the-future head-space of Soft Parade (Warner Bros., 1999).

This time the Lips look to the planets, randomness, and ’60s utopian rock as their guides for a way to reformulate the old acid formulas, retexturize the beast, and rethink the punk, now finding its latest bright, blistering incarnation in raw blasts of in-the-red, zippered noise and bristling shit-fi grind ("Convinced of the Hex") and immaculate bachelor-pad space-rock decorated with Voyager-like transmissions of mathematician Thorsten Wormann holding forth on polynomial rings ("Gemini Syringes").

If At War With the Mystics (Warner Bros., 2006) went to battle against the forces of religious fundamentalism intent on waging a War on Terror without, Embryonic harnesses the struggle of the child within. Its rough, fragmented brilliance evokes the acid-laced forebears like 13th Floor Elevators, more polished proggists such as King Crimson, generational retro-futurist kin like Stereolab, and free-floating panic-rock innocents such as Deerhoof. Shh, don’t talk to me about the incoherence of Christmas on Mars, though Embryonic falls into the same continuum. It’s a dispatch from the outer edges of nightmares, where "Your Bats" wings its way into the jittery, shattered, shaky guitarism of "Powerless," before accelerating into the motor-psycho rev-ups and -downs of "The Ego’s Last Stand."

The combo continues to make a sonic spectacle of stumbling and falling with grace and gore, trailing bloody rags, hand puppets, balloons, star charts, and tinsel in its wake: "Aquarius Sabotage"’s fairy-dust power skronk and "See the Leaves" apocalypso crunch embody the perfectly incendiary collision between crap-fi with Pro Tool-y tweakery. Embryonic makes the rough endings and hard births embodied by ’09 more weirdly glorious, if not a little easier. *


With Flaming Lips, MGMT, Girl Talk, Yo La Tengo, and others

Sat/17-Sun/18, noon–10:40 p.m., $65–$249.99




Back from a collapsed long and quality time with Qui, sometime-chef David Yow steps away from the frying pan and into the fire. Sat/17, 9 p.m., $25. Fillmore, 1805 Geary, SF. www.livenation.com


It sounds like a joke — but it’s so not, when M. Ward, Conor Oberst, Jim James, and Mike Mogus, the dudes who aren’t afraid to reveal their soft, pale folkie underbelly, get together. Sat/17, 8 p.m., $39.50–$45.50. Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph, Oakl. www.apeconcerts.com


The so-called "loudest band in New York" takes it up a notch with their tasty Exploding Head (Mute). With These Are Powers, All the Saints, and Geographer. Sat/17, 9 p.m., $12–$14. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. www.theindependentsf.com

Ray of darkness


By Kimberly Chunarts@sfbg.comSONIC REDUCER We’ve got a fever for the flavor of sleep deprivation: everywhere I look, our proud ladies of the recession are pushing prams filled with spawn, swinging Baby Bjorns crammed with newborns. It’s baby time — the ideal way to fill the hours emptied by layoffs, buyouts, forced shut-downs, mandatory vaca. Severance packages ought to come with a bonus pack of Pampers, ’cause you can’t sever that 18-year-plus invisible umbilical cord to the most personal of side projects.

Karin Dreijer Andersson of electropop sensations the Knife and now Fever Ray knows of what I speak: she gestated this year’s Fever Ray (Mute) over eight months shortly after she had her second child. "I guess it’s a lot about being in the house, and the new ideas you get when you become a parent," Andersson, 34, explains by phone from her digs in Stockholm.

"When you give birth to something you also start to understand what life is — and you also start to understand the opposite, what death is about," she muses, carefully parsing out each word. "So for me, it was a very frightening time as well because it’s the first time you see the very thin line in-between. It’s a huge awakening in a way.

All of which explains the corpse paint Andersson sports in Fever Ray’s promo shots — and the folkish costumes designed by Andreas Nilsson for the tour. Together, Nilsson and Andersson hoped to evoke "the very primitive and primal elements in the music," while acknowledging Fever Ray’s digital and high-tech qualities — fashioning a kind of "laser-folk" look, if you will.

Fever Ray itself marked a major switch for Andersson: a return to making music on her own, something she did long before she started collaborating in 1999 with her brother Olof Dreijer. After gathering acclaim and awards for the Knife’s Silent Shout (Rabid, 2006), they decided to take a break, though they also recently collaborated on Tomorrow in a Year, an opera about Charles Darwin, which debuted this summer in Copenhagen. "It’s very fun to use pitch-shifting on a classically trained mezzo-soprano," Andersson says happily.

For Fever Ray, Andersson stirred together digital sonics, synths, and software with analog drums, guitar, handclaps, and piano, as well as her beloved pitch-shifter for vocals: it seemed apropos for beauteous, dark, and downtempo ruminations like "Concrete Waltz" and "Keep the Streets Empty for Me." "That mix between very digital instruments and the analog sound — I think it’s very important to get a good dynamic," Andersson notes. "It becomes very … flat if you just use digital. And I think the same when you just play with just analog — for me it sounds a bit boring."

FEVER RAY With VukMon/5, 8 p.m., $28–$30Regency Ballroom1290 Sutter, SF. www.goldenvoice.com



Cutbacks abound, but don’t expect many amid the free golden fields of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. This year brings unexpected couplings like comedian Steve Martin brandishing his banjo with the Steep Canyon Rangers; Booker T ganging up with the Drive-By Truckers; and Rage Against the Machine/Street Sweeper Social Club’s Tom Morello in the songwriter circle with Dar Williams and marrieds Steve Earle and Allison Moorer. I’m looking forward to relatively HSB newbs like Allen Toussaint, Marianne Faithfull, Mavis Staples, Okkervil River, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, and Amadou and Mariam, and I’m hoping to hop on the way-way-back machine for Little Feat and Malo (Carlos Santana broheim Jorge’s band, of "Suavacito" fame). For a primo education in the real dealie, install yourself at the Sunday’s Banjo Stage for Hazel Dickens, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley. *Fri/2-Sun/4, check site for times, free. Speedway Meadow, Golden Gate Park, SF. www.strictlybluegrass.com




SONIC REDUCER God Is Good, the name of Om’s new long-player on Drag City, may run the risk of landing the heavy, heavy drone dealers in the gospel section of your clueless big-box retailer, but founder-bassist Al Cisneros couldn’t help the tug of title: "To me, at this point, in the journey of my life, that’s really all I can say."

The soft-spoken, spectacled musician, all in black with his instrument tucked beside him, laughs a little — and who can blame him? The longtime Bay Area fixture has been tackling some major changes in the past year. I almost don’t recognize him, now shorn of his long, black tresses, amid the bustling throng and espresso-machine groan of Muddy Waters at 16th and Valencia streets. He waves goodbye to his wife, whom he followed last year to San Luis Obispo, close to where she’s attending graduate school. In ’08 he also said farewell to the drummer he’s played with since high school, Chris Haikus, who quit in the middle of the last Om tour and retired from music. And after our chat, Cisneros will drive up to Portland, Ore., a commute he now makes regularly in order to practice with Om’s new drummer Emil Amos. Cisneros, who, with Hakius, once made up two-thirds of the legendary doom/stoner metal trio Sleep, is fully awake and in motion — and everything appears to be falling effortlessly into place.

"I have to keep playing," he explains. "I have music all the time, and it has to come out." To that end, Amos, who’s also in Grails, slipped into the drummer’s seat perfectly. "His playing style spoke my language directly when I first saw him playing drums," Cisneros murmurs. "The specific lyricism that he puts into his drumming, aside from the flow itself — which is beautiful. It was absolutely what I’d hear inside in many riffs and many parts I have, the complement of what I hear. There are certain fills, the way he’ll sit in a beat, the way he’ll be with a beat — it felt so familiar."

So he called up Amos on the chance that he would be able to work on a scheduled Sub Pop single. The two had already bonded during late-night rock-philosophy jam sessions while Om and the Grails were on tour a few years ago. After each show, Cisneros, Amos, and Hakius would hang out and analyze everything from dub to Billy Cobham — "the extremely nerdy academic aspects of the records we grew up with," the amicable Amos recalls by phone, taking a break from his day job at a Portland homeless shelter. "We’d get into philosophical debates, almost Platonic dissections of, when a verse ends and you go into chorus, what do you do on drums in this specific situation, in 1971? It was just this weird way of talking about music as a metaphor for spiritual education. We’re obsessed to that level. I think Al’s brain just thought, who can I trust?"

Remarkably, Cisneros — a man who has a Sanskrit passage from the Bhagavad-Gita tattooed on the left hand he uses for fingering — was right on, and though the two had never played together, a three-day rehearsal in Amos’ basement yielded the 7-inch. The Steve Albini-recorded God bears out the partnership, picking up the tempo, folding in tamboura and flute, and coming close to realizing the sounds in Cisneros’ head — the only other instance, he says, occurred with Sleep’s Holy Mountain (Earache, 1993), and "in the best way, we didn’t know what we were doing. It happened to us." Still, he offers, chuckling, "I don’t want to be in Sleep for the rest of my life."

For metal monks, as well as spiritual disciples of any order, the key is to focus on the practice — not fixate on whether or not Amos has a beard, a discussion the drummer says he’s found on some online forums. "I’ve never seen another band that gets so much attention about changing one bass guitar pedal or overdubbing one extra tambourine," Amos observes. "Nobody would say anything if Men at Work switched out a bass, but in this band, there’s the sense of trust between an artist and audience. It’s a delicate thing."

And it sounds like Cisneros has found an understanding new foil in his ever-evolving dialogue. "It’s a joy to work with Emil," he says softly. "The interplay between the instruments — the very premise of having a duo is to have a conversation between the instruments, and it literally happens nonstop when we play."


With Lichens

Thurs/24, 8 p.m., $15


628 Divisadero, SF


Rock me, Amadeus



SONIC REDUCER How do you fluff up sagging ole demon rock in the 21st century? Break it down to just one dude with a laptop and free-floating mix of hip-hop and hesher, ho’-pulling and hoary? Take it up a couple jillion notches and set it free of verse, chorus, and bridge to nowhere, heading into noise’s bristling, gristly outerzone? Or just turn it around and send it through the filter of another country, another tongue, another cult-cha — and back. The latter is the case for French combo Phoenix and Israeli outfit Monotonix (see sidebar), two travelers in the rutted, wrecked roads of rock — both playing this week in this bobo bastion by the Bay.

"When we were young," says Phoenix guitarist Laurent "Branco" Brancowitz, 35, "we tried to sound like the Velvet Underground and tried to erase the Frenchness." He chuckles under his breath. He’s on the phone from Versailles, where Phoenix first rose up from old Europe’s antiquities. "But now that we’ve grown up, we don’t try to hide our accent. We love the fact that we had to admit we come from a different country than most rock musicians. We can’t talk about Cadillacs, but we talk about our own things: we talk about the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the things that are our Mississippi and cotton fields."

Tough to reenvision the Eiffel as a small-town Midwestern water tower — but Phoenix manages its own reinvention on the Parisian landmark on "1901," off Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Loyaute/Glassnote) — as well as, Brancowitz explains, "all these things that were so modern at the time, that are now so obvious and cliché. There was a moment when [the Eiffel was] scary, offering a new vision for the future. It was an idea we were fascinated by, the idea of modernity in the past and how you relate to that."

Phoenix has flown far since the days when it served as early Air’s live band and had a sleeper hit of sorts with "Too Young" via the Lost in Translation soundtrack. Vocalist Thomas Mars might have graduated to the gossip columns as director Sofia Coppola’s baby daddy, but Wolfgang can stand proudly on its own (with help from producer Philippe Zdar of Cassius), straddling the kingdom of Killers-ish dancefloor-friendly rock-pop with ethereal numbers like "Fences" and the more austere, ambitious ambient outskirts, as embodied by the lovely "Love Like a Sunset Part I."

Thanks to its old Versailles nest, the outfit is accustomed to both staring inward at the past and out. There, says Brancowitz, "the buildings were perfectly symmetrical. There’s the boredom — that’s important. We had all these dreams of escaping. The combination of boredom and beauty shaped us." The band members hid out in their basements listening to the Velvets and the Beatles and retreating to another kind of inspiring yet imposing past, while Mozart, Liszt, and the like blared in the background. As kids, Brancowitz recalls, "We had a lot of soccer matches with a soundtrack of classical music — very loud classical music."

That breed of bonding has led to the fact, as the guitarist puts it, "for some very strange reason, all the good French artists are friends." Brancowitz himself started out in a band called Darlin’ with Daft Punk’s Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, the pair who changed the world’s perception of French pop. The punk Beach Boys-inspired band crumbled when the other two "decided to go to a lot of rave parties, and I didn’t because I didn’t like the nightclub life. I’m a bit of a snob about it — I find it very vulgar." He laughs. "But we are friends. No issues." *


Thurs/17, 8 p.m., $30–$32


982 Market, SF



"Sit the fuck down! Sit the fuck down!" yelled Monotonix vocalist Levi "Ha Haziz" Elvis, né Ami Shalev, at this year’s Mess with Texas getdown during South by Southwest. An impressive display of crowd control, honed by somewhat unexpected circumstances. "I was trained in the Israeli Army," says Shalev. "They want you to be able to control people — just kidding!" But seriously, kids: "I must say every time the crowd does whatever I tell them to do, it’s kind of surprising." He’s on the phone in Jaffa, outside Tel Aviv, where the rock-out rage machine known as Monotonix is still based, despite the city’s (and country’s) small rock scene: "The only way for us to get bigger, develop, was to go outside Israel," he says. "There are a lot of good things in Israel, but not in rock music. Rock music is not in our culture." Nevertheless Monotonix’s first full-length, Where Were You When It Happened (Drag City), which the group recorded with Tim Green in SF, sounds like it’s running spectacularly well on the filthy fumes of stateside guitar-army conscripts like MC5. And word keeps spreading about Monotonix’s fiery shows. "I don’t want to sound arrogant," says Shalev, "but it keeps snowballing."

Thurs/17, 9 p.m., $15. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. www.theindependentsf.com

She’s a rebel



SONIC REDUCER Shop girls and Shop Assistants, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Mary Wells, "Da Doo Ron Ron" and Ronettes up-dos. All twirl, as if at a punk-rock sock-hop, around the rugged, vulnerable Vivian Girls. Girl-group songwriter Ellie Greenwich — tragically felled by a heart attack at 68 on Aug. 26 — might have scratched her head upon first hearing the Brooklyn trio’s new Everything Goes Wrong (In the Red), out just this week, but a few songs in, she would get it, fully.

Behind the buzzsaw guitars and lo-fi clatter lie those eternal heartaches, stress-outs, and boy (or girl) troubles that plague every girl, voiced in loose-knit choral togetherness in a way that the Crystals would recognize. The high-drama-mama beats of "Tension" — so reminiscent of "Be My Baby" — hammer the point home, while buttressed by a wall of distortion that Greenwich collaborator Phil Spector could claim as his own.

Onetime Spector client Joey Ramone would have also understood, though Vivian Girls are definitely fixed in a specific girly universe, one forged with the naïveté implied in the threesome’s Henry Darger-derived name as well as the band’s blunt force attack, fed by early punk’s reclaiming of pop. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and the Darlings — fellow New Yorkers and kindred spirits in twee and garage rock — have a more purposeful grasp of the hook. But Vivian Girls are more infatuated with a purely impure coupling of classic ’60s-derived songcraft — a love that finds its name in "Can’t Get Over You" amid blatantly Shangri-Las-style ooh-oohs — and the one-two-three-four overdrive of American hardcore. Musically they’re trying on the Peter Pan-collar of the tender-hearted Tess on the sidelines of "He’s a Rebel" and the black leather of the reckless tough referred to in the song’s title.

Taking note of perverse souls who have tried on those retro costumes in the past, Vivian Girls use hardcore’s louder-faster-harder heritage as a way to blitzkrieg the ballroom and navigate the storms of girlhood. So the band’s "I Have No Fun" is both more wistful and brisker than the Stooges’ "No Fun." Of course, any combo that has the audacity to pick up where Carole King-and-Gerry Goffin-penned "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" left off has much to account for: no one will be pushing around these lasses, swathed in a protective, propulsive whirlwind of thrashed-at guitars and primal drums. And Vivian Girls never let up till the closing track, "Before I Start to Cry," when the tempo slows and the thunder clouds tumble into view. It’s crying time. *


With the Beets and Grass Widow

Wed/9, 7:30 p.m., $12–$14

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF




Scott Blonde and Lisa Light of Oakland’s Lovemakers could give a fun, breezy university course in pop — or so I gathered hanging out with the friendly exes at Amoeba Music not long ago, on assignment for the late mag Venus. Michael Jackson had just passed, and the pair praised the Bad boy’s breed of pop — something the duo scrambled to bottle on its catchy new Let’s Be Friends. "There’s no guessing what it is and whether it works — that’s what I’m really striving for," Blonde says of Jackson’s chart-topping sound. "I think that’s the ultimate goal. I can dance to it and sing to it, and it’s stuck in my head. It’s hard to do, and there’s only a handful of bands that have done that." For the new album, which the Lovemakers decided to release themselves via Fontana distribution, Light explains, "We changed our attitude a lot, too. I feel like we always have to come back around and realized, Right. It’s about the music. It sounds stupid, but I think we really let go of the business side affecting us. It’s not that we’re not doing it — we’re still doing it all. But it doesn’t piss me off anymore: it’s just a process — it’s not personal anymore. Music is personal, and business isn’t."

With Jonas Reinhardt, Lisa Nola, and DJ Miles. Fri/11, 9 p.m., $15–<\d>$17. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. www.theindependentsf.com



Mark Lanegan growls malevolently on the alternately lyrical and brooding Broken (V2). With Jonneine Zapata and Redghost. Wed/9, 8 p.m., $18. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. www.theindependentsf.com


Michael Franti and Spearhead lay down the welcome mat for Sly and Robbie, an acoustic Alanis Morrissette, and Vieux Farka Toure, then take it indoors for a Saturday night afterparty at the Fillmore and some Sunday workshops. Sat/12, 9 a.m.–5 p.m., free. Speedway Meadow, Golden Gate Park, SF. powertothepeaceful.org


No breeding, just a Morlock-taking noise barrage when the East Bay four are in the nursery. With 2Up and Afternoon Brother. Tues/15, 9 p.m., $6. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com

Taxi cab confessions



SONIC REDUCER We all have fantasies, and considering the fact that he happily goes to the sick, hilarious places only you and your silliest, closest pals go, comedian Brent Weinbach’s is remarkably simple. He’d love to drive you … no, not insane, but around in a cab. Of course, when the dream sort of came true — he got to tool around with a cabbie-curator for "Where to," a 2007 art show of taxi-related art at the Lab — one bubble was brutally burst, spurring a joke, of sorts.

"Not a lot of people got it," confesses the longtime SF comedian, now based in his native Los Angeles and back in town for his Outside Lands fest performances. In the cab, he says, "I met a wide variety of people: I met two yuppie girls, a yuppie guy, and more yuppies — and a stripper. A yuppie stripper.

"The point was," Weinbach continues, "I thought it was going to be more like New York City, where all kinds of people take cabs. But that’s really what it was — a bunch of yuppies and a stripper. It turns out the only people who ride around in taxis in San Francisco are yuppies."

A disappointingly homogenous experience for a comic who has found plenty of very specific and strange black, queer, Chinese, Russian, Mexican, and just plain twisted voices to filter through his hilariously stiff, straight-guy comic persona — and despite the perk that, as a Travis Bickle manque, one would have a captive audience in the backseat. Still, cabbing it provided a theme of sorts for the wildly diverse array of live performance recordings, studio-recorded skits, and Weinbach-penned tunes and video game-inspired backing sounds making up the comedian’s second album, The Night Shift (Talent Moat), the focus of a release show at the Verdi Club on Sept. 11. Weinbach sib and comedy co-conspirator Laura of Foxtail Brigade opens, along with Moshe Kasher and Alex Koll.

The tunes on Night Shift are a new touch, setting me off on a daydream about Weinbach doing the duelin’ piano (and laughs) routine with Zach Galifianakis. (Weinbach once teased the ivories professionally in the lobby of Union Square hotels like the Mark Hopkins.) "Sometimes I close my set with one of those songs," Weinbach says. "After hearing the word ‘penis’ a bunch of times and talking about poo-poo, it’s kind of funny to end the set with a sweet old-fashioned song." He worries, though, about the track-by-track re-creation of the album at the Verdi Club: "I hope they don’t kill the momentum of the set."

Yet Weinbach is game — the ex-Oakland substitute teacher has had to be (memories of the letter from a student apologizing for calling him a "bitch" ghost-ride by). He dives into a rapid-fire, impassioned discussion of his comedy, which rarely discusses race directly, yet clearly emerges from the mashed-up, pop sensibility of a half-Filipino, half-Jewish Left Coast kid.

"The only time I’ve ever talked about race is right after the presidential election, when I wrote this: ‘On Nov. 4, 2008, history was made’ — I usually get a little applause here — ‘It was a remarkable thing to see so much of the black community come together and deny gay people their civil rights. So now that the black man is keeping the gay man down, that means gay is the new black. And that means suburban teenagers will have to get used to a whole new way of acting cool.’"

Weinbach pauses, then explains heatedly, "I was really upset that 70 percent of black voters in California voted against gay marriage, when this whole election was about getting a black president into office. It just blew my mind." As for the joke itself, well, "It gets a good response, though sometimes people think I’m making fun of gay people or black people. I don’t even know what’s going through their head, actually. I do remember doing the joke once and hearing people hissing. It was like, ‘What are you hissing at? Are you glad gay people were denied their rights or are you a snake?’ And if you’re a snake, that’s OK … ‘" *


Sept. 11, 8 p.m., $10–<\d>$12

Verdi Club

2424 Mariposa, SF




The cute couple loves their bubblegum and Casio-pop on Hi, We’re Jonesin’ (Telemarketer’s Worst Nightmare). Thurs/3, 9 p.m., $6. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com


The rev has his finger on the holy trigger. Wed/2, 8 p.m., $56–<\d>$85. Warfield, 982 Market, SF. www.goldenvoice.com


Literati party down at a book arts-zine exhibit, with dance sets by Vin Sol, Honey Soundsystem, and Pickpockit. Fri/4, 9 p.m., free before 9 p.m., $7–<\d>$10. 111 Minna Gallery, 111 Minna, SF. www.111minnagallery.com