Sleeper cells

Pub date March 18, 2009
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer

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SONIC REDUCER Pop monoliths come and go, but these days they mostly seem to be going: tumblin’ down quietly, as with the soon-to-be-shuttered Virgin Megastore on Market Street, or crumbling — and grumbling — noisily, as with the war of words accompanying Radiohead’s reputed snub of Miley Cyrus and Kanye West at this year’s Grammys. So it’s heartening to see that we can all agree on one thing: we want to glimpse an ever-morphing, perkily pageboy-ed pop maestro in the pasty, ghostly flesh.

The last monolith standing, Michael Jackson can continue to claim his King of Pop title with the speedy sell-out of his 50-show London residency, dramatically titled "This Is It!" Neverland does too exist, Mikey: in Londontown, with more than 1 million ticket-buyers gripped by the HIStory-making, get-it-now-or-never pop-consumer frenzy that accompanies reunions and comebacks undertaken by Led Zeppelin, My Bloody Valentine, and a certain half-century-old superstar — and pure brilliant and twisted product of the entertainment biz — who hasn’t tackled a major tour since 1997 or made a studio long-player since 2001. Is this deprivation anxiety, or a sign that pop can once again mean popular for a music industry nervously scanning the tea leaves of ticket sales for a brighter, sparkly-gloved future?

But we can’t all be monsters of pop. Witness that other little combo hitting its chart-topping stride around the same time as Jacko’s Off the Wall (Epic, 1979): the Bee Gees. Down-market lulls are an ace time to revisit past beauties like the group’s stunning two-LP Odessa (Polydor, 1969), later abbreviated to a single disc and leached of its pomped-out, once-toxic red-flocked packaging; and recently reissued, in all its completist glory, with stereo and mono mixes of the entire recording, a disc of previously unreleased demos, sketches, and alternate versions, a poster of lyric notes and reel labels, and a booklet breaking down each track. Sure to be a revelatory sunken treasure for fans of the Decemberists, Okkervil River, and other chamber/indie rock literati, the concept album marked an intense period of creativity for the bros Gibb, and nearly shipwrecked the band. Guitarist Vince Melouney departed for bluesier waters, while Robin bickered with Barry over the choice of a first single and left the group in 1968, only to return two years later (after mending his broken heart, no doubt). We’re left with an opulent, astonishingly deep concept album concerning a lost British ship, Veronica, at the turn of the 20th century. Odessa is marked by lovely flamenco guitar and Mellotron work by Maurice, a miniature symphony, moments of Bands-y rusticism, a forelock tug to Thomas Edison, and those Doppler vibrato vocals — all worth diving into, again and again.

The derring-do with which the Bee Gees once charted the risky seas of baroque pop excess should be a lesson to other music-makers. And strangely, Seattle’s Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band brings to mind an adenoidal indie-rock incarnation of the sibs Gibbs. Could it be the buzz band’s over-the-top AOR and early ’00s new-rock interludes that spurred pals to describe a recent Noise Pop turn as "awful"? The press literature for its self-titled Dead Oceans debut draws a line of descent from Wolf Parade through Modest Mouse and the Pixies, but I sense that MSHVB’s breed of over-the-top, kitchen-sink rock is just the latest wrinkle in an increasingly orchestral Northwest sound, which is skipping from grunge to grrrls to baroque ‘n’ roll.

I’ll bust out my conductor’s tales after listening to Portland, Ore., songwriter Mirah’s delectable (a)spera (K). Björk, Beth Orton, and Julie Doiron would be dang proud of Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn’s successful forays into the wilderness of mutable forms, remixes on Joyride: Remixes (K, 2006), and meditations on the secret lives of insects with Spectratone International on Share This Place: Stories and Observations (K, 2007). Working with certified Mt. Eerie/Microphones genius Phil Elverum, Mirah defies her old lo-fi rep with this full-blown sleeper gem of a CD, gamboling from the string-dappled opening gut-punch of "Generosity" to the shimmering snare and delicate guitar coloration of "Education." (a)spera grabs for classic pop beauty standards and succeeds on its own terms — hurdy gurdy, bongos, kalimba, kora, and all.

And speaking of Malian kora, one mustn’t neglect that country’s Amadou and Mariam — departing for the more futuristic, less folkloric reaches of pop with Welcome to Mali (Because Music/Nonesuch). The only ship the blind couple will be wrecking is that of pop purists expecting another Dimanche a Bamako (Because Music/Nonesuch, 2005). The subtly tweaked Afro-futurist soundscapes — littered with appearances by performers like K’Naan and Toumani Diabate — hew closer to a digitized, disco-ball-glittered, cosmopolitan Paris than a more rustic, impoverished Mali. Amadou and Mariam narrow the divide between the two with the sparkling, Damon Albarn-produced rave-up "Sabali," the wah-wah-wailing kora-laced slo-funk of "Djuru," and the rump-shaking Afro-rock sizzle of "Masiteladi." I’m absolutely besotted with the balafon plonk mashed up with electric guitar twang on the palm-wine-‘n’-spaghetti-Western(-African) "Ce N’Est Pas Bon." Congotronics and ethnotronicans, welcome to A&M’s mothership connection — wake up, shake it up, and get ready for takeoff. Can’t wait to see where it takes us next.


with Bishop Allen and Miniature Tigers

Tues/24, 7:30 p.m., $15

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF


with Tender Forever and Leyna Noel

April 7, 8 p.m., $16

Bimbo’s 365 Club

1025 Columbus, SF