Ari Messer

Bumping and thriving


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"Crazy be the knowledge of self." If you’re into conscious hip-hop, you might expect such an interpersonal refrain as this intro to Black Spade’s "Good Crazy" on his intricately self-produced debut, To Serve with Love, out last month on Om Hip Hop, an imprint of San Francisco’s Om Records. Still, there’s something new going on here, something hot that snags your mind and your kicks and refuses to let go.

Maybe it’s Spade’s technique. The rapper otherwise known as Veto Money easily shifts between samples from every genre imaginable, funked-out click tracks, alien blips reminiscent of delightfully geeky hip-hop producers such as Styrofoam, and choruses that sound like he’s singing to you personally. His tight flows simulate a head bobbing up and down and grinning by pushing syllables into full beats, with rhymes and emphases hitting on downbeats instead of more typical upbeat syncopation.

Or maybe it’s just a simple sense of freedom. Remember when freedom was fun? Om Hip Hop is doing for the experimental hip-hop community what they’ve become known for worldwide in the electronic music world: finding talented musicians who could be superstars but are more interested in the music than in superficial fame, connecting them with other mavericks, and giving them free reign to rock the house. It’s the hip-hop version of what the Los Angeles CityBeat has dubbed Om’s effective "anti-superstar-DJ music policy."

"I’ve never worked on a project I didn’t believe in 100 percent," said Jonathan McDonald, speaking in Om’s SoMa headquarters, surrounded by countless promo discs and magazines. McDonald, who started out as an intern at Om while he was working as the hip-hop buyer at Amoeba Music, is now in charge of A&R and publicity for Om Hip Hop. He was psyched two years ago when Om founder Chris Smith decided to create and devote resources to the new imprint. Hip-hop was integral to Smith’s original vision for Om in 1995, said McDonald. "But when dance culture really took off in the city, Om followed," he said. The phenomenal success of Mark Farina’s Mushroom Jazz Vol. 1 (1996)still Om’s bestselling record — outplayed early hip-hop projects such as People Under the Stairs.

With a stage name that plays on race, death, and the name of a ’70s New York street gang, Black Spade easily shifts between social critique ("Head Busters fightin’ security at the Mono / Should I sell dope or slave at McDonald’s?") and romanticism ("Excuse me miss, I know we’re fighting / But what is that smell? It’s so exciting"). Yet another Om Hip Hop artist, Crown City Rockers’ Raashan Ahmad, who now resides in Oakland, expands this sense of storytelling on The Push, which will be out in May. Considering everything from his mother’s battle with cancer to the birth of his son, Ahmad’s liquid lyricism takes us on a striking emotional ride, with stops for inspiration ("The linguist synonymous with soul power") and praise ("Hip-hop saved my life"). "I wanted to show all sides of hip-hop — and all sides of me," said Ahmad, on the phone from Los Angeles. By offering unprecedented support, Om let him create an album that even shows his "insecurities," he said. "Everything they said they’d do, they’ve done. They gave me complete creative freedom."

In June, Om will release the One’s Superpsychosexy. McDonald hopes that the Spade and Ahmad discs will help prep listeners for the Charlotte, N.C., artist’s "left field" sound, which includes hypnotic production and elastic, naughty-and-nice soul vocals. The One, né Geoffrey Edwards, would probably think of this pre-exposure as foreplay. "Superpsychosexy is music to make babies to. No, scratch that — it’s music to practice making babies to!" he said with a laugh, on the phone from his home. The One’s father is a minister. From a young age, his family was encouraged to create on multiple instruments, and on tracks such as "Drippin," and "Milkshake Thick," he summons some very hot demons.

The mixture of local and global artists has played a major role in Om Records’ success. Their Bay Area talent includes Zeph and Azeem; Zion I and the Grouch; and J Boogie’s Dubtronic Science, which has a new full-length coming later this year. Om has also formed a partnership with imeem, a San Francisco social networking site based around music, which McDonald believes will be a "driving force in new media."

It’s a perfect match. Om Hip Hop is all about community and shows no signs of slowing down. Colossus’s West Oaktown (2005), the first Om Hip Hop release, presented original funky tracks alongside hip-hop remixes, so you could feel the DJ at work. Om’s "Spring Sessions" show at the Mezzanine is bound to see some healthy human remixing, live and in the house. *


With Supreme Beings of Leisure, Turntables on the Hudson, Samantha James, and J Boogie’s Dubtronic Science

Fri/18, 10 p.m., $15


444 Jessie, SF

Gyan Riley


REVIEW I first heard Gyan Riley on the spectacular, otherworldly The Book of Abbeyozzud (New Albion, 1999), by his father, minimalist maestro Terry Riley. The younger Riley’s playing on "Zamorra," a guitar duet with David Tanenbaum, reached new heights of raging classical guitar intimacy.

In 1999, Gyan Riley was the first guitarist to receive a full scholarship to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Since then, he’s been around: he’s had major commissions from the Carnegie Hall Corp. and the New York Guitar Festival, given performances worldwide, and held an artistic directorship with the San Francisco Classical Guitar Society and a teaching gig at Humboldt State University. So the stakes are high for his new full-length, Melismantra (Agyanamus Music). With an almost preternatural sense of musical presence, it doesn’t disappoint.

The four-part "Progression of the Ancestors" suite showcases the range of Riley’s complex sensitivity as a guitarist and composer. He never rushes the moment unless an overwhelming musical force takes control of the song on its own. Tabla giant Zakir Hussain’s elegant pops and rolls and Scott Amendola’s persuasive drumming add texture to the mix. Tracy Silverman’s electric violin playing — introduced prior to "Progression of the Ancestors" on the epic title track — touches on everything I love about not just violin but sound itself. Throughout the album Silverman leaps and bounds in world-turning harmony with Riley.

Melismantra‘s opening three-song cycle, "Mobettabutta," recalls the fusion jazz and somewhat self-interested tone poems of guitarists Larry Coryell and Pat Martino — especially the latter’s odd 1976 album Starbright (Warner Bros.). This doesn’t quite jibe with the rest of the recording, but in a way "Mobettabutta" opens your mind to the delightful guitar perversions of "Herbie Moonshine’s Last Dance." Riley might make thinking people’s music, but he knows how to party.

GYAN RILEY With Tracy Silverman and Scott Amendola. Thurs/21, 8 p.m., $19.50. Freight and Salvage Coffee House, 1111 Addison, Berk. (510) 548-1761,

Thou shalt have icons


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DVD "I put John Coltrane up in my headphones." So said innovative producer Madlib’s sped-up alter ego, Quasimoto, on 2000’s breakthrough hip-hop album The Unseen (Stones Throw). Although the brave crate diggers of hip-hop are doing their best to bring forth the horns of yore, as on local duo Zeph and Azeem’s phenomenal 2007 album Rise Up (Om), these days jazz is too often relegated to the unseen background or exploited by marketing giants that find ways to slap a few select jazz masters onto dorm room posters and cheap best-of holiday gift CDs. They want to sell the idea of John Coltrane to your headphones, and that’s the end of it: there’s no incentive to get out and see some live shows, whether jazz ensembles or DJ-MC combos, or to make music yourself.

So thank the most high for seven recent releases in the ongoing Jazz Icons DVD series (Reelin’ in the Years Productions). The series’s recently released second round showcases Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery, and Charles Mingus in cleanly remastered, previously unreleased video recordings from the 1950s and ’60s. The vivid black-and-white images offer an almost palpable sense of communication among the musicians, partly because the studio and stage settings are so carefully arranged — many of these performances were for strikingly lit, modernist-looking European TV shows — and partly because those cats played with their entire bodies. The up-close shots emphasize this in beautiful, often artfully angled ways.

During the three performances included on Montgomery’s disc, Live in ’65, the guitarist’s brain seems to be solidly in his right thumb, which he uses like a huge guitar pick with eyes as he feels out new rhythms on "Here’s That Rainy Day" and kicks out some unparalleled octave soloing on "Twisted Blues," evidence of what Carlos Santana, in his brief afterword to the liner notes, labels Montgomery’s "ability to transform thought into music." During Ruud Jacobs’s bass solo on "The End of a Love Affair," you can only see his right hand plucking the strings, not his left hand creating the notes, and it’s as if the entire group he’s playing with is moving the missing left hand together. Pianist Harold Mabern’s contributions to the Montgomery disc, on "Here’s That Rainy Day" and "Jingles," both recorded in Belgium with Arthur Harper on bass and Jimmy Lovelace on drums, typify his talent for leaping back and forth between waterfall chord clusters and bluesy droplet lines that dance intimately with Montgomery’s chordal romps. When I worked at the Stanford Jazz Workshop with an almost 40 years older Mabern, he was known as a man whose stories were as entertaining as his musical tutorials. The Belgium session captures his sense of musical storytelling before the music and the storytelling separated.

The Coltrane disc, Live in ’60, ’61 and ’65, consists of recordings from Germany in 1960 and ’61 and Belgium in ’65. The Belgian water must have been terrific. The DVD includes three tunes performed during Coltrane’s last appearance in Europe (he died in 1967), with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums; they sound — and look — like a release and cleansing of demons. "Naima" presents especially transcendent musical communication. You can’t call it a comeback, but put on a Jazz Icons DVD at a holiday party and watch as the room illuminates and people start to play together.

Seeing other people



WISH LIST When I give a book as a present, I like to have a good story to tell about where it came from — about the author’s travels or secret family life or public stunts. Many of 2007’s best bets for worthy literary gifts tell such stories on their own. Curated, compiled, and translated, they have the marks of an outside force, concerning themselves with how other people — an author’s child, a lover from another culture, eccentrics from California’s Central Valley — secretly see the world.

Sexy, contemplative, elusive, and addictive, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear (New Directions, 400 pages, $15.95 paper), translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is the first installment in Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow detective trilogy. Marías maps the sharpness and strange beauty of interpersonal relationships onto a larger relationship between Spain and England. The narrator’s intense observations of people expose the spooky ways in which we read our lives: "those who catch or capture or, rather, absorb the image before them gain a great deal, especially as regards knowledge and the things that knowledge permits."

Orhan Pamuk’s Other Colors (Knopf, 448 pages, $27.95), a collection of essays and one story, translated by Maureen Freely, is similarly a book that anyone interested in literature or love or cities or sounds or writers’ families will return to. "When Rüya Is Sad," one of several snippets about Pamuk’s daughter, ends so touchingly that the richly detailed worlds evoked in the Nobel Prize–winning Turkish author’s novels become more intimate, less imagined: "The two of us gazed out the window without speaking for the longest time, I in my chair and Rüya on the divan, and we both — Rüya sadly and I with joy — thought about how beautiful it was."

When Pamuk spoke in Berkeley in October, he noted that it can take him a long time to warm up to even the best translations of his work. New World/New Words: Recent Writing from the Americas (Center for the Art of Translation, 266 pages, $18.95), edited by Thomas Christensen, is a continuously exciting Spanish-English exploration of the passion of translation. "O body, love and Lord, / Show me a tree made in your image," poet Pura López-Colomé writes in "Prisma/Prism," translated by Forrest Gander.

The characters in the new edition of Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley (Heyday/Great Valley Books, 592 pages, $18.95 paper) also ask the land to reveal divinity. Editors Stan Yogi, Gayle Mak, and Patricia Wakida present a fantastic stable of story makers, from Yokuts California Indians to Joan Didion. The resulting read is hot, dry, wet, and, ultimately, mythic — something hard to achieve on a road trip through Fresno. In "The Underground Gardens," Robert Mezey writes hauntingly of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere’s underground gardens in Fresno (still maintained), remembering that Forestiere "clawed at the earth forty years / But it answered nothing." In the poem, the gardener becomes both Christ and seeker.

I wish that cultural critic Antonio Monda had trod similar earth-meets-human ground in Do You Believe? Conversations on God and Religion (Vintage, 192 pages, $12.95 paper), or at least asked his famous interviewees (Spike Lee, Grace Paley, David Lynch, and 15 others) to do what they do best: create something that more fully tells the story of their views of the divine. Either the editors cut out a lot to fit in so many interviews, or Monda was often in a rush; it’s hard to imagine the subjects really responded with one or two brief sentences to provocative questions and statements such as "What does death mean to you?" and "Religion teaches us to defend life to the last breath." Nonetheless, there are moments of clarity here. The book’s symphony of voices reaches a climax when Toni Morrison, pressed about her belief in an "intelligent entity," replies that when she thinks "of the infiniteness of time, I get lost in a mixture of dismay and excitement. I sense the order and harmony that suggest an intelligence, and I discover, with a slight shiver, that my own language becomes evangelical."

Of course, there are ways to be excited without being evangelical. Harold Bloom’s close reading of the gospels in Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine (Riverhead, 256 pages, $15 paper) renews our faith in the value and spirit of the critic. A trio of photography books also transcend theological back-and-forth: The Black Hole, by Anouk Kruithof and Jaap Scheeren (Episode, 102 pages, $32 paper), is a delightful response to a series of newspaper articles of the same name about the future of art school graduates. Reading Jeff Wall, a collaboration between the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Modern Art (168 pages, $50), is like strolling down the block with an old friend who happens to have curated the wide-eyed Canadian artist’s current retrospective at SFMOMA (through Jan. 27, 2008). Ghosts Caught on Film, by Melvyn Willin (David and Charles Publishers, 160 pages, $16.99), is a foray into the world of double-exposed — I mean paranormal — photography, more fun than a game of Balderdash in which you’ve already looked up all the words beforehand. And one last idea: Give everyone on your list the same book and you’ll feel like a City Arts and Lectures moderator, or maybe even the contented curator at an invite-only museum of life.

Cemetery days



REVIEW A smaller selection of the poems in A Wall of Two would have been easier to take. Presented here in more than 50 bone-shaking adaptations by poet Fanny Howe, the devastating early works by sisters Henia and Ilona Karmel, survivors of the German concentration camp Buchenwald, are so harrowing I could read only a few at a time. But a lighter load would have detracted from their representation of a horrific captivity and possibly kept us from looking at suffering as the Karmel sisters do: directly in its dirty, doomed face.

When they were sent from Kraków, Poland, to forced labor camps in 1943, Ilona was 17 years old, Henia 20. Amid brutal work shifts behind barbed wire in Germany and Poland, the determined women, bordering on starvation but inspired by an education rich in literature and verse, scribbled poems on stolen work sheets. They sewed them into the hems of their dresses, and Henia, believing that her death was imminent, managed to hand them off, during a forced march near the end of the war, to a cousin, who in turn got them to Henia’s husband, Leon Wolfe. By the time the sisters were reunited with Wolfe, they had suffered mutiutf8g injuries by German tanks and, oddly, had each had one leg amputated.

Smuggled away from such darkness, the poems in A Wall of Two are intimate, physical, sometimes clumsy observations of a dire reality. They home in on a sense of looming threat, evoking the state of captivity as relentlessly as Jacobo Timerman did in sections of Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, his 1981 masterpiece of human rights literature. In "A Child’s Vision of Peace," Ilona, who would later win acclaim for her 1986 novel An Estate of Memory (set in the concentration camps), envisions two boys cautiously standing face-to-face. They "grasp hands and hang on / As if they held a hammer and sickle," then suddenly lash out at each other: "Take that, and that." In "The Land of Germany," Henia is surrounded by wires "Barbed and bright / Like mad-dog teeth."

In many of her bleak little songlike poems, Henia scratches lines as stark as etchings on a prison wall: "Cemetery days / One after the other"; "You don’t believe what’s happening here, / Do you, my poor horrified brothers?"; "Sometimes a dream stupidly hangs on" — her verse rendered in Howe’s minimalist adaptations of literal translations from the Polish. Howe writes that she often chose to prune back "dangling clauses" or "excess adjectives" in order to bring forth the essential images in the poems, and such scaled-back lines cast a light on Henia’s brutal irony in "Snapshots":

And do you want to know

what I do for a living?

I’m not joking.

I sort shell casings

It’s the best job

because killing is good

and time passes fast

when the work has a purpose.

Cunning and immediate, poems such as this are sandwiched between remarkable letters and essays, stories and acknowledgements, reminders that if any of the little twists of fate hadn’t occurred, everything could have quickly disappeared — not just the wall of words, but the women fighting behind it. *


By Henia Karmel and Ilona Karmel

Adaptations by Fanny Howe

Translated by Arie A. Galles and Warren Niesluchowski

University of California Press

158 pages; $45 hardcover, $16.95 paper

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: Charlie Louvin


A duet is a delicate thing, often recognized as romantic exhibitionism, rapport spilling forth. In classic Americana arrangements, in which verses are traded back and forth and choruses framed by intricate harmonies, the duet possesses a trippy if not schizophrenic grace: a singer begins the story, then it’s suddenly someone else’s. We hear of a brother’s death, and then that brother is heard harmonizing on the chorus.

While such magic is snide but joyful on albums such as Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens’s Just Between the Two of Us (Capitol, 1966), for Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Louvin, who lost his brother Ira, the other half of the legendary Louvin Brothers, to a car crash in 1965, the very idea of a duet is forever haunting. Yet he has continued to pursue it, with his rolling twang and sparkling eyes, well into his 80th year. Louvin has never lost his knack for the unique type of "shape-note singing" he and Ira developed, a blend of gospel harmonies and Appalachian musical forms inspired by other early bluegrass troubadours.

For his self-titled release on Tompkins Square earlier this year, Louvin cast spells with some younger collaborators. Clem Snide’s Eef Barzelay adds compelling, indecipherable emotion to "The Christian Life," originally on the Louvin Brothers’ remarkable Satan Is Real (Capitol, 1960). Alex McManus of Bright Eyes paints careful vocal touches on the Carter Family tune "The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea." Amid a lyrical landscape of graveyards, bloodied rivers, and ill-fated lovers, Louvin continues to light up the shadows, with a few yelps from friends old and new. (Ari Messer)


Sat/6, 2 p.m., free

Amoeba Music

1855 Haight, SF

Sun/7, 12:55 p.m., free

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Rooster Stage


The free festival happens Oct. 5, beginning at 3 p.m., and Oct. 6 to 7, starting at 11 a.m., at Speedway, Lindley, and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. For more information on all of the performers and events, go to

What comes around


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PREVIEW Until stumbling on The Wishing Bone Cycle some years back, I hadn’t wondered why owls die with wings outspread or how a man wearing antlers on his head can be tricked into thinking that real moose are after him. Yet Howard Norman’s eye-opening transcription-translations of Swampy Cree narrative poems are so arresting that I still find new questions in my life just to bring them to the stories. The tales invariably answer with bigger inquiries of their own. In the transformations they detail, animals — moose, lynx, frogs, bears — are adept shape-shifters, this being their key to survival, while humans change forms clumsily, afraid to be themselves.

When Theatre of Yugen presents The Cycle Plays in a daylong, one-time-only performance on 7/7/07, those present for the free event will be entranced by the resonant questing onstage. Our minds might even grow new antlers and roots at the same time. The Cycle Plays, connected to The Wishing Bone Cycle only in my head, was written by the hugely imaginative local playwright Erik Ehn, dean of theater at the California Institute of the Arts and an artistic associate with Yugen.

The Cycle Plays‘ five plays and opening dance have been in collaborative development for more than two years. They are an offering on a large scale, channeling the smaller, focused gestures of cleansing and growing closer that make up the company’s rich repertoire of movement. "Like many of Erik’s ideas, we just couldn’t bear to see a world without it," explained Lluis Valls, one of the three co–<\d>artistic directors who received the torch from founder Yuriko Doi in 2001.

A ritual dance play created with Doi, 10,000, opens the cycle. It features Doi, who is now in her 60s, alongside two of the company’s founding members, Brenda Wong Aoki and Helen Morgenrath. Based around a pulsating triangulation of three older women, it is an adaptation of the traditional Okina opening form. The plays that follow, interspersed with performances by guest comedy artists, represent the five traditional categories of Noh plays: Deity, Warrior, Woman, Madness, and Demon. They include Winterland, in which two teenage girls venture to see the Sex Pistols at the title club in San Francisco, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, a refiguring of Eugene O’Neill’s intense masterpiece. The company describes its Long Day’s Journey as "a ghost within a ghost within a variation of O’Neill’s fourth act."

Theatre of Yugen thrives on discipline and openness. Founded in 1978, the devoted troupe combines classical Japanese forms such as Noh theater and Kyogen comedy with cross-genre soundscapes and a willingness to reach into the heart of stories. Penetrating the psychology at the root of human actions, actors play ghosts and demons who are the embodiment of destructive attachments. The resulting unrest of the haunted characters stems from their not knowing whether they or the illusions are meant to disappear.

Lead composers and musicians Allen Whitman and Suki O’Kane help manifest this sense of being on the edge of great loss. Joined by the Yugen Orchestra on common and obscure instruments, they make music that is by turns postmodern and incantatory and harmonizes well with co–<\d>artistic director Jubilith Moore’s stunning performance in Winterland. Moore plays a leper, a beekeeper, and a milkman, all the ghosts of John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten), who appears to the overwhelmed girls as they try to reach the concert that turned out to be the Sex Pistols’ final show. Who hasn’t had a night like that in San Francisco? And who doesn’t replay it endlessly, searching for the point of no return?<\!s>*


Sat/7, first sitting 9 a.m., free (reservations are full; call to be put on waiting list)

Project Artaud Theater

450 Florida, SF

(415) 621-7978

Prints charming


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PREVIEW If only it were prix fixe. The lamb curry wrapped in crystallized mint leaves sounds delectable, but the butternut squash ravioli catch your eye first. Then you notice that one of the items on the menu is made entirely with ingredients from the chef’s garden. The choice is obvious. As you munch on homegrown multicolored heirloom tomatoes, conversation turns to how much is in our own backyards. Electric Works isn’t a restaurant, but if artists’ creative moods are seasons and we the adventurous diners, then this new incarnation of formerly Brisbane-based Trillium Press is the most seasonal print studio around.

Sitting in a brick-lined meeting room in the historic Buzzell Electric Works building on Eighth Street at Mission, Noah Lang recalls an article on the differences between cooking in New York and California. "In many ways, we’re closer to Chez Panisse than we are to Paulson or Crown Point Press," he says. "We’re more concerned with what we come up with at the end of the day than how we came up with it."

Noah’s father, the visionary printer Richard Lang, who serves as the president of Electric Works, invokes Adam Gopnik’s statement that the last artists in the world who really care about their patrons are the chefs. "I was trained in the art world, where the whole thing is ‘it’s my vision — you’re a loser if you don’t get it.’ That always struck me as dumb, because people have willing hearts if you’ll just step forward," Richard explains, imagining Electric Works as a chef saying, "Taste this! It’s a little funny at first, but it’s really good!"

In 1980, when Proposition 13 lost him his teaching job, Richard started doing lithographs with David Salgado, who had founded Trillium the year before. They eventually forged a 10-year formal partnership that dissolved in 2006. "We were in a boxer relationship, punching and counterpunching, and we really learned a lot about collaboration — that you really push hard and expect somebody to push back," Richard says of those early projects.

Deep collaboration became Trillium’s theme. After originally only doing contract work, the press started running a publishing program around 2000. "It’s a traditional system, headed by the artist, who comes in to collaborate. What we make, however, is totally untraditional," says Noah, who joined the studio in 1996 to spearhead the digital printmaking program. Electric Works’ high-tech scanning and printing devices allow the shop to scan anything, and it’s always eager to explore technology in order to realize and often expand an artist’s vision. Electric Works partner and art collector Anthony Luzi calls this an entrepreneurial practice because the creative process always trumps protocol.

Marcel Dzama’s The Cabin of Count Dracula and Stephanie Syjuco’s Future Shock Nesting Boxes (both 2005) show why the print shop has become known as the Land of Yes. Dzama started by imagining Count Dracula in the artist’s hometown, Winnipeg. His whimsical, bestial lithographs seemed to scream for appropriate housing, so Trillium, with considerable research, helped create a miniature log cabin complete with faux-beaver-fur rugs. The cabin simulates both hypersensitive isolation — remember Richard Barnes’s Unabomber photos? — and a playful sense of rapture. Syjuco’s boxes, slightly blurry folded replicas of stereo equipment, made of archival inks on laminated board, trigger similarly quirky states of mind: Is this touching me? How do you read it? Is it real? Yes.

Or nay? Working in the Land of Yes seems to tap into artists’ capacity for answering questions with questions, allowing them to ask "yes" in their own way. William T. Wiley’s illustrious postmodern hieroglyphics gain new life. Sandow Birk, in his Inferno projects, morphs Dante’s rich anxieties into our own, using urban überconsumer environments. Though those who don’t like these sorts of inquiries might freak out at the inaugural exhibition, which features new work from Tucker Nichols and Katherine Sherwood, their absence will just mean more room for those who want reality’s unreal underpinnings to open their wide eyes wider.

Electric Works weds the powers of curatorship and accessibility. As part of the print shop’s "venture philanthropy" program, artists develop unique editions to support nonprofits, and the new digs will include an alternative museum store with affordable art items, a natural art-for-the-people progression from a successful scholarship program offered through the California College of the Arts.

"The gatekeepers of the art world really want the world to be pyramidal," Richard says. "But the truth is that the world is spherical and everything is talking to everything else."

Is that true? Are you reading this as if it weren’t a dream? I’ll offer one hint: the answer isn’t no. *


May 11–June 23

Opens Fri/11, 5:30–7:30 p.m., free

Runs Tues.–Fri., 10 a.m.–6 p.m.;
Sat., 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Electric Works

130 Eighth St., SF

(415) 626-5496

MCMAF: Collective hip noises


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Should you take this life seriously enough to listen to it, I would suggest you head to local electro-organic thinkers I Am Spoonbender’s Web site right now, before you read this story, and download the trailer for their latest self-released album, Buy Hidden Persuaders (IAS, 2006), another three-sided disc (their gorgeous Teletwin 12-inch had concurrent grooves on one side, allowing for a randomly asserted listening experience) from the wizards of esoteric musical realism. Sure, the aesthetically thorough trailer’s bricolage of images and texts deals with everything from hypnosis to Illuminati-style dollar-bill machinations and just happens to act as a manifesto, art show, music preview, and persuasive cinematic display all at once.

But don’t fret. Dutifully check the "I Agree" button when the site lets you know that "IASBHP [I Am Spoonbender’s Buy Hidden Persuaders] is a subliminal advertisement for itself … produced by control, and is an album of ‘engineered outcomes.’ " Grin and download, watch and get ready to strangely rock, because you will surely make use of the free album download in WAV format and proceed to share these pulsing soundscapes with everyone you encounter, whether you intend to or not. William S. Burroughs’s notion that language is a virus was tied to his ideas about time as a sort of viral petri dish, and that makes sense here, in reverse. Persuaders is a soundtrack to its own propagation.

"I firmly believe that after spending three and a half years working on this album, there’s no way to hear it all in less than that time," Dustin Donaldson said recently on the phone from his San Francisco home. The mastermind behind IAS’s infectious, rhythmic stylings knows sound inside and out. "It’s designed to be encountered repeatedly and to reveal itself over time," he continued. "The longer you listen to it, the more you’re going to hear recurring musical themes, say, in different registers on different sounds, lyrical themes reflecting on themselves."

The entire Persuaders project – which includes the album, their first performance in three years, the succulent Web site, the Shown Actual Size EP (Gold Standard Laboratories), the book that will soon accompany the new album, and even the band’s dreams as they go to bed at dawn in San Francisco after nights of channeling and creating – is aimed at balancing out and exposing as a fraud the harm done by advertising and the like to our very beings. If we envision corruption and mind control as diseases, then Persuaders is an equally potent and uniquely celebratory vaccine – a careful dosage bordering the illuminating and the lethal. It’s celebratory because it co-opts subliminal and similar techniques in order to start a conversation, rather than to sell or speak about any one thing in particular. It’s potent because it refuses to double back on itself without adding more meaning. The three sides, or collages – "You Have Been Suggested," "Penetrate to Deeper Levels," and "Slowly Replaced in Mirrors" – seldom ring the same bells twice. And yes, there are hidden messages: don’t be afraid to slow things down, speed them up, listen from afar …

The thing is, you’ve already heard Persuaders, sizzling through your mind just before or after media stimulation. When Cup, the other core half of IAS, sings, "We all need mirrors to know / Who we are now," over surprisingly guttural organ sounds, her expressive vocals and multi-instrumental prowess, here as throughout, lend a sense of flight to Donaldson’s Middle Earthy rhythms and organic mechanics. Imagine Laurie Anderson playing tag with Robert Ashley.

The material for Persuaders came from everywhere and nowhere. After years watching "thousands of films" but no television, Donaldson was shocked when a friend moved in and they got cable. "I just was absolutely unprepared for … the aggression in marketing tactics," he said. "Drug company television ads became a big source of, well, I guess it’s inspiration in some sense, something to create a mirror-state protest record around. We attempt, through this record, to send the same amount of energy back toward these sources. For every action there’s a reaction, and at some level there’s a neutralization, hopefully – in audio terms, phase cancellation.

"For me, specifically, there was about a year of experiments in sensory deprivation," Donaldson continued. "Sleep deprivation … also, going into the studio often late at night and turning off all the lights and turning on huge, 750-watt strobes … setting them at different tempos and playing drums to that and just getting out – open to receive." There was even a resulting side project, yet to be released, where nothing could be recorded until the entire group had been up for 30 hours. Of course, the results were carefully edited for clarity.

Excited, you should now flock to the Mezzanine prepared to buy whatever IAS chooses to sell. If you print your own money, make sure the paper sparkles, and don’t forget to record the sounds the bills make when they leap, calmly, into flames. *


With Steven Stapleton, Ariel Pink, and Phase Chancellor

May 11, 9 p.m., $15 advance


444 Jessie, SF

(415) 625-8880

Noise Pop: Midlake of the storm


It makes sense that Denton, Texas, quintet Midlake will be giving an afternoon performance at Noise Pop. Not only do their music videos, which often feature strange creature masks and nightmarish situations just on the edge of reality, stay with me well into the next day’s daydreams, but their music deserves our full attention. After they were signed by the United Kingdom’s Bella Union, they started playing Europe, and the castles-and-robbers imagery in their "Bandits" video may come from sneaking into the hills while on tour. Wherever it comes from, it doesn’t let up, and neither does the spell cast by their dreamy sounds.

Their Milkmaid Grand Army EP (Basement Front), put out by the band while attending the North Texas School of Music and reissued last year by Basement Front, isn’t very good. It’s rock. It’s fine. But it doesn’t simmer and shine like The Trials of Van Occupanther (Bella Union, 2006), which is nothing short of awesome. From recreating the majesty of falling snow on "It Covers the Hillside" to testing the world on "Van Occupanther" ("They told me I wouldn’t / But I found an answer"), the ensemble finds an elegant niche between CSNY-style harmonies and the deeply affecting use of textured layers of sound, reminiscent of the Flaming Lips at the turn of the century. They may be in the middle of the lake, but their light refracts in crazy constellations, far and wide. (Ari Messer)


With Minipop, Ester Drang, and Minmae

March 4, 1 p.m., $10

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

Noise Pop: Cats have nine lives


Few numbers are as loaded as three. From the Holy Trinity to the three main spiritual channels in our bodies described by kabbalists and yogis alike, spiritual triads exist alongside musical forms of threeness: the exponential sound of the power trio, great albums named III, and, indeed, Loudon Wainwright III.

The trio Sebadoh, early harbingers of indie rock, had their own III back in 1991, trading off instruments and artistic wills to make 23 wonderfully unpredictable tracks of folk-core meanderings and spastic noise rock shape-shifting. It’s pretty much universally acknowledged that this record rocked in ways previously unknown. But what really went on between the three original members, Eric Gaffney, Lou Barlow, and Jason Loewenstein? They had all gone on to solo careers before announcing last year both the reissue of III on Domino and a gig at the Great American Music Hall for Noise Pop, an early stop on the Sebadoh "reunion" tour from the West Coast to Toronto and back again.

But Sebadoh’s members aren’t surprised to find themselves together again. "Sebadoh have never reissued anything," Barlow said recently on the phone from his house in Los Angeles, while his young daughter seemed to be taking a noise rock solo in the background. "I think Pavement were reissuing things within two years of being together. The question is, actually, why didn’t we ever reissue things before?"

The new III is fantastic, complete with a bonus disc including the prescient Gimme Indie Rock! EP, the original four-track demo of "The Freed Pig," and "Showtape ’91," a noise and word collage that’s a flashback to the original supporting tour for III. The reissue process was typically strenuous but also cathartic. It was partly to deal with Homestead Records, the album’s original label, Gaffney explained in a recent e-mail. "Signing to Homestead turned out to be a bad idea, so years later I filed a lawsuit … to try to get paid and get the masters back."

Sebadoh never got them back. So how did a reissue happen? "We worked on the bonus disc, and then it was remastered at Abbey Road from a store-bought III CD and the vinyl," Gaffney wrote. "I found a lot of old band tapes for the ‘bonus’ CD. Good stuff."

Barlow agreed, sort of. "A few years ago, Eric and I had an e-mail conversation … an e-mail war … where we just basically went point-by-point through every misunderstanding we had between us, and it all culminated in the reissue. I really just kind of had to let Eric choose what went on the extras disc. But it was totally worth it just to get the record out." They both got what they needed out of the process, Barlow said. "And then it just kind of came up that, well, I guess we could play some shows. Let’s up the ante here! What’s the next logical challenge?" III is an important Sebadoh disc partly because the clash of wills and styles made the music sound so driven. If their accomplished solo projects are any indication, the tour should rock hard and sweet, and that’s all that matters. They plan to play off the crowd, Barlow said, and sets may include material from any time in Sebadoh’s history. "It’s when we get lost in the moment and enjoy the music and drop the phony power plays, that’s when it’s happening," wrote Gaffney, who lives and breathes right here in San Francisco. In other words, the third time — Sebadoh with Gaffney, without, and now again with — is a charm. (Ari Messer)


With the Bent Mustache, Love of Diagrams, and the New Trust

Feb. 28, 8 p.m., $18–$20

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750


Robe of glory


› a&

"The Jim Kweskin Jug Band was sort of the first group of goofballs who didn’t wear uniforms, who didn’t have set patter. It was the acoustic precursor of the Grateful Dead," Geoff Muldaur says on the phone from Los Angeles. "Bob Weir got our first album and ran over to Jerry and said, ‘We’ve gotta form a jug band. You’ve gotta hear this shit!’ "

Before iTunes and, getting your hands on a new record was sometimes like receiving a password to a part of your spirit you didn’t know existed. Since Muldaur’s early days with Kweskin and blues integrator Paul Butterfield, his vocal chops have become legendary at the very least. "There are only three white blues singers," Richard Thompson once said. "Geoff Muldaur is at least two of them." Muldaur has been an equally powerful force in the interpretation and expansion of the American songbook.

On "Wait ‘Til I Put On My Robe," one of the most moving songs on Muldaur’s 2000 solo album, Password (Hightone), there is an immediate feeling of ascension as Muldaur’s sings, "Going up the river so chilly and cold / Chills the body but not the soul." The stunning arrangement of this traditional gospel tune comes from Clarence Clay and William Scott, two blind African American street musicians recorded in Philadelphia in 1961. It sounds like Muldaur’s back in ’61 joining in on what he describes as the "weird, modal, wonderful, jumping" harmonies.

Although he was an essential part of the exponential surge that happened in the folk and blues scene in the ’60s, Muldaur is still in awe of the musical movement. He assures me that no matter what I’ve heard about those times in Cambridge, Mass.; Woodstock, NY; San Francisco; and beyond, "it’s all true! When I was hanging out with Jim Kweskin, Fritz Richmond, Bill Keith, and Maria [Muldaur, his wife at the time], I just assumed that’s how life was and that we were just sort of good. But the combination of those people was unmatchable. Bill Keith left Bill Monroe to join the jug band. Maria was shocking — she was so good."

With the exceptions of a quickie gig at the Lincoln Center in 2001 and a tribute concert in Japan for Fritz Richmond after the king of the jug and washtub bass died in 2005, Muldaur and Kweskin haven’t had a chance to really sit down and play together for many years. Muldaur is as excited as anybody for their reunion at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse. "Just playing with Kweskin, man — it’s magic," he says. "Look, I go to the gym so I can keep this shit up!"

Playing in Berkeley will be a metaphysical homecoming. Muldaur lived in Mill Valley from 1988 to ’89 and would sneak across the bridge to revisit places where he had jammed in the ’60s. "When [the Jim Kweskin Jug Band] came out to the West Coast at first, to LA, it was like oil and water," Muldaur says. "But when we came to San Francisco and Berkeley, we were right at home because there were already freaks like us. The jug band and the scene in Cambridge was very much like in Berkeley, but Berkeley stayed that way."

Terry Gilliam told Muldaur his crew members used to get on their knees every morning and pray to Muldaur’s version of "Brazil," which gave the 1985 film its name. "It represented this insane, wacky, other place in reality," Muldaur says. With a major jug band documentary and an immense CD set charting Muldaur’s influences in the works, that other place in reality will soon be here to stay. *


With Jim Kweskin

Fri/16, 8 p.m., $19.50

Freight and Salvage Coffee House

1111 Addison, Berk.

(510) 548-1761


Believe the buzz


› a&

Signed to Frenetic Records and publicized by Fanatic Promotion, local boys–made–groovy the Makes Nice are surprisingly mellow. Perhaps they’ve been consorting with a resurrected British freakbeat muse — it’s been "more relaxed than you’d think, given the name and all," vocalist-guitarist Josh Smith writes via e-mail, discussing the group’s deal with Frenetic. The San Francisco label — also home to releases by one of Smith’s previous bands, the Fucking Champs — is proving an ideal base for these kind and raucous rockers. Their debut, Candy Wrapper and 12 Other Songs, is a head rush without the dizziness. Think honey versus synthetic sweeteners, Tartine Bakery’s shimmering morning buns versus Costco’s limp croissants.

Throughout Candy Wrapper there’s a certain calm — call it the clarity that comes with good ole musicianship. Phil Manley of Trans Am expertly engineered the album at Lucky Cat, and he emphasized how the jazzlike rapport among the players helps the ripping guitar solos become play-it-again hooks, while the drum beats groove like funky piano solos. "I always know that your opinions are stale / When you say fresh, I know it’s fucking stale / And it don’t mean nothing at all," the boys harmonize smoothly over staccato syncopation on the title track. On "As Long As I Can" a crowded drumbeat that could throw off lesser percussionists dances in the agile hands of Jack Matthew (also a member of Harold Ray Live in Concert). When I compare the vocals on "Anna Karina" to those of punk groups on Fat Wreck Chords, Smith responds, "They were supposed to have been stolen from Les Fleur de Lys, Powder, SRC, and maybe the Everly Brothers." The members of the Makes Nice don’t have SRC’s fantastic hair, but the Mothballs’ Aaron Burnham plays bass that would stand strong in any decade of rock.

But how to describe the nature of this superfun trio? A mandolin is subtle and effective because of its double strings. So maybe we could label the Makes Nice a double trio, though they would prefer either a ragingly ridiculous moniker or none at all. "If it’s cool, I would prefer to call my songs post-techstep neofreakbeat," Smith jokes. "I’d call Aaron’s songs anachronistic Spartacus watchband croon-wop. I’d consider Jack’s songs to be hybrid vapor-wetware tragicomedy…." Maybe they play un–surf rock for those who don’t like genre surf rock and don’t know how to surf. "I wish we could play surf music," Burnham writes, pretending to brood. "We sorta tried and failed."

I like to blame the vicious surf gangs in Santa Cruz for stymieing my surfing education. But honestly, I was just as happy to bodysurf in safer spots and then — sunned, exhausted, and deliriously happy (remember that time before laptops?) — find a big smooth rock and rest on it, reading comics. Eventually, I added a Walkman to this scene, then a lover. The Makes Nice capture such windswept feelings in the tunes "She Don’t Ever Let Go" and "California Sun."

Talented local artist Hellen Jo ( — that’s five l’s) designed Candy Wrapper ‘s cover, an eye-grabbing minicomic depicting a terrible car accident. "I met Hellen about five years ago while we were both students at UC Berkeley, and we’ve pretty much been friends and mutual fans ever since," Burnham writes. "We sent her a few songs with lyrics and asked her to choose one to depict with a minicomic for the cover. And she did, exceeding all of our expectations. We emptied out the band piggy bank for her, of course."

Likewise, Candy Wrapper speaks clearly to a graphic-novel generation that sees stories in everything. Along with such similar punky doo-woppers as the Tralala, the Makes Nice are building a bridge recalling the missing link that the original freakbeat bands provided to psych rock in the 1960s. A bridge to what? Duh, to whatever is next. *


With the Moore Brothers and Miguel Zelaya

Feb. 14, 9 p.m., $8

Make-Out Room

3225 22nd St., SF

(415) 647-2888


Rock between wars: Ecstatic Sunshine


Vocalless but intensely lyrical electric-guitar duo Ecstatic Sunshine take risks on their first non-CD-R release, Freckle Wars (Carpark) — namely by eschewing a drummer or even a drum machine despite a tendency to craft manic post-rock buildups that seem to predict explosive toms and thundering cymbals. But these happy rockers are more interested in preparing sunshine than predicting rain. For two guys with guitars, they make remarkably unindulgent music.
“Most of the songs took us months to write,” Ecstatic Sunshiner Dustin Wong said on the phone from the group’s Baltimore practice space. It’s no accident that the second guitar — or one of them anyway; they’re well blended — seems to speak with a witty, melodic voice on tunes like the cascading “Power Ring,” which sounds like a deconstructed Kaki King tune, and “Beetle,” which resonates like an early Nintendo soundtrack made with an open guitar tuning on a beat-up Strat. When the Japan-raised Wong went back to Tokyo for a summer, co-Sunshiner Matthew Papich “sent e-mails with MP3s of new ideas,” Wong said. “He would record one part of the song at a time — an intro, for example — then I would record another track and send it back.” “Power Ring” is one such song. It’s as if they’ve boiled their musical ideas down to their essence.
Next on the phone, Papich told the same story, audibly excited about the musical friendship, which has only grown stronger since they signed to Carpark Records after founder Todd Hyman found out about them through Baltimore City Paper. Both musicians feel supported by the local scene. “For me, what distinguishes the scene in Baltimore — at least the one that we’re a part of — is its sense of humor and whimsy. It’s very positive, and everyone has a good time at shows,” Wong explained.
Papich and Wong met in art school when Wong, after completing two years at the California College of the Arts, transferred to the Maryland Institute College of Art. Papich had only played in grindcore bands — and not much since high school — before he started jamming with Wong for a friend’s art project.
They saw a similar spark in each other — perhaps the drive to make music with the wild vision and focused craft required by the visual arts world. “We were working with more abstract structures where we don’t repeat things,” Wong said.
There isn’t a boring moment on Freckle War’s 12 zippy, bittersweet tunes, though some sound raw — as in scratchy and frenetic — for the sake of getting someone’s attention. But so what? Wong left the CCA and San Francisco behind for no particular reason — if only we can listen with the same abandon.
Leaving San Francisco meant leaving old musical ideas behind. “Sometimes we get too comfortable with a certain structure, and then we break through that comfort zone,” he said. “To be comfortable is to be boring, and that’s not a place that I want to be in for writing music.” (Ari Messer)
Wed/1, 9 p.m.
Hotel Utah Saloon
500 Fourth St., SF
(415) 546-6300

Air Americana


› a&
Madonna and her scantily-clad kabbalah practice may have been ousted by the Russian Orthodox Church, but rest assured, oh ye faithful, the Silver Jews are finally coming to San Francisco. The band, often mislabeled as a Pavement side project, actually coalesced before Pavement, though the two backstories share a history of caustic revelation.
David Berman, guitarist-vocalist Stephen Malkmus, and drummer Bob Nastanovich formed the Silver Jews in 1989 while students at the University of Virginia. After graduation, they took the budding project with them to New York. Their music thrived in that city’s frenetic air. The band’s roster has changed continuously, but Berman, a heartbreaking writer and constant innovator, has always been at the helm. It’s his project, his voice.
Berman will be turning 40 in January. Four awe-inspiring full-lengths, a host of smaller projects, and a well-received poetry book (1999’s Actual Air) have placed him firmly in the cultural spotlight, often against his will. Berman is a recluse in some ways, a natural wordsmith — and instantly demanding performer — in others. He’s given the Bay Area numerous poetry readings but never a rock show.
Until now. Berman has been through some tough, emotionally trying shit lately, but he’s back, with the eloquent deadpan that has made him the envy of songwriters, indie philosophes, and music junkies everywhere. Longtime fans may call this unprecedented tour a resurrection, but Berman laughs it off. “I’d always planned to be a middle-aged performer,” he jokes via an e-mail interview. “This year has just been the run-up to the start of my contract with the Missouri River Blues Barge’s Menthol Topaz Casino.”
Waiting for a new Silver Jews album is like waiting for John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats to take the stage: everyone is ready to be shattered and jubilant, lyric by lyric, tune by tune. On 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers, the first Silver Jews effort since 2001’s Tennessee (both Drag City), Berman’s voice sounds deeper than ever, as if it might break at any moment and never come back.
The Tanglewood crew is rather big — 13 folks including Malkmus and Will Oldham — but that’s just how they do it in Nashville, where the record was recorded and mixed. Other Nashville-ized albums by the likes of Cat Power and Oldham these past years have taken some getting used to. Tanglewood hits the heart instantly.
Berman’s vocal duos and duals with his wife, Cassie, who plays a variety of old-timey instruments on Tanglewood, are organic and intensely personal. “Humans have been failing Human Relationships 101 for half a million semesters straight now,” writes Berman. The ability to perform back-and-forth vocal lines is “one of the many things you can do more easily under a band name than as a solo artist,” he notes. “Different souls are in the music.”
On “I’m Getting Back into Getting Back into You,” the Jews sound trapped in a psychedelic small-town roller-skating rink, needing to raise their voices to be saved. But maybe we’re all trapped. “I’ve been working in an airport bar/ It’s like Christmas in a submarine,” Berman croons. An ominous “om” sneaks in at the end of the tune.
Since their first recordings, made on answering machines and Walkmans, Berman and the Jews have been proving that our main roads are really back roads and vice versa. He writes of those early days: “Getting the tape back after a good performance was hell — first the breaking and entering …” Americana, broadly defined, is sustained by such neighborhood trickery. When Lucinda Williams revisits childhood gravel roads or Darnielle sings about hearing the screams of football season, particularly American landscapes reveal what we had always thought were private obsessions. Such artists gain a universal appeal by taking local scenes and spraying themselves all over them. It’s sound graffiti and it feels so good.
Berman’s current plan is deceptively simple: “To keep making these different versions of the master Silver Jews album in the sky.” On Tanglewood, “How Can I Love You If You Won’t Lie Down?” rocks hard but also highlights Berman’s tragicomedy: “Time is a game only children play well/ How can I love you if you won’t lie down?”
The Mezzanine performance will feature Peyton Pinkerton and William Tyler on guitars — Pinkerton played on 1996’s The Natural Bridge, Tyler on 2001’s Bright Flight (both Drag City) — Brian Kotzur on drums, Tony Crow on keyboards, and Cassie Berman on bass. Even the lineup gets Berman going. “Peyton is a descendent of William Henry Harrison…. I’m convinced that many of our country’s best electric guitarists are the far-flung descendents of mediocre 19th-century American presidents.” SFBG
With Monotonix and Continuous Peasant
Sun/10, 8 p.m.
444 Jessie, SF
(415) 625-8880

Northern composure


› a&
Four years ago, a high school junior named Britney Gallivan managed to fold a piece of paper in half 12 times, surpassing the eight-fold limit with a 4,000-foot-long piece of special toilet paper. For this girl, origami became more than paper frogs, cootie catchers, and hope-giving cranes. But those cranes are still essential. The four sprightly members of Shapes and Sizes do a lot of musical origami and showy unfolding on their self-titled debut. They make cranes with at least two heads, constantly pulling in multiple directions: toward fairy tales and woodsy rock, unexpected bursts and clap-along accents.
Shapes and Sizes fit on the energetic Asthmatic Kitty roster, but I wouldn’t have expected it. Neither did the band. “We sent out around 50 demos, and three or four labels responded. Asthmatic Kitty got back to us quickly and were excited,” said vocalist-guitarist Rory Seydel and vocalist-keyboardist Caila Thompson-Hannant, speaking at the same time on a conference call from Victoria, British Columbia.
“It took a while, though, to get to where we are now with them,” Seydel added. “We met up with the heads of the label while we were on tour, and they agreed to produce the album.”
“The whole process took a year,” Thompson-Hannant chimed in.
The full-length is the demo, unchanged. Some of the songs had been living in their heads for years. Old high school friends, Thompson-Hannant and Seydel wrote the first Shapes and Sizes ditties when they were only 18. “It’s a long departure. I think we’ve grown up a little,” laughed Seydel, who just turned 22.
When they headed into Victoria’s Lucky Mouse Studios — also home to Frog Eyes — Shapes and Sizes planned on recording a seven-song EP. But, said Thompson-Hannant, they decided to “really go to town,” laying down some tunes that they’d never even practiced and adding a cavalcade of other instruments, from saxophones to vibraphones, trumpets to violas. With the help of Frog Eyes engineer Tolan McNeil, they achieved a panoramic sound.
They will not be touring with a horn section, said Seydel, but that’s fine, since they can just turn up their guitars “really loud.”
He’s only half kidding. Their show tunes–influenced melodies are designed to expand in the live environment, a giddy indie-rock cabaret. The youthful duo cuts, collages, and boldly displays myriad shapes of stories and sizes of sounds, as drummer Jon Crellin and bassist Nathan Gage add rhythmic color to this melodic union. Because they play almost exclusively originals (save for a cover of the Magnetic Fields’ “Come Back from San Francisco” last Valentine’s Day), their songs continue to morph in front of their eyes and they are constantly working on new material.
“It seems like the songs are always changing,” said Thompson-Hannant with the same sense of awe that lifts her singing. “I’ve come undone … another wire linked up to my heart,” she croons on “Northern Lights.” Seydel joins this dramatic unraveling on the Pavement-influenced “Rory’s Bleeding,” singing a cappella at the start: “Why is Rory bleeding?/ Placed between black and white/ Phew, I was dreaming/ I couldn’t see his eyes.”
Shapes and Sizes inhabit a delightfully brisk and very bright way-Northern version of Architecture in Helsinki’s Australia. A deeply collective energy is present on both bands’ debuts, but it’s only in hearing Architecture’s greatest achievement, In Case We Die (Bar/None, 2005), that their earlier efforts appear as the treasure maps that they are, diagrams on origami paper about to become 3-D unicorns. It’s a sure bet that Shapes and Sizes too will continue to expand. Inside their paper cranes are the scribbled notes of castaways happily ignoring borders and ready to hitch a ride. SFBG
With Oh No! Oh My!
Tues/22, 8 p.m.
628 Divisadero, SF
(415) 771-1422

Come in from the cold



These days, folks make records faster than nervous singer-songwriters forget the words to their own tunes.

Jenny Lewis forged the delectable, bite-size Rabbit Fur Coat in the time between hairdos I mean, between Rilo Kiley’s increasing obligations finishing lyrics on the plane. Will Oldham churns out projects faster than I can spot them. And that’s all well and good. These people have their voices and they’re sticking with them. But, luckily, San Francisco’s Michael Talbott and the Wolfkings took their sweet time constructing Freeze–Die–Come to Life (Antenna Farm), a panoramic realization of earthy songs that have been floating around in the gentle, gifted Talbott’s head for years.

The resulting depth is fantastic. Underneath sonic icebergs freezing and melting and taking form again, there are oceans upon oceans, dark worlds within illuminate worlds. The many life-forms on this record swirl around us like the icy but essential winds in the opener, "Winter Streets."

"I’d been kicking these songs around for a while," Talbott says, speaking in a Mission District café on a break from his work in film restoration. The record would probably not have manifested but for the encouragement of Court and Spark’s M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsch, good friends of Talbott’s. They’d heard his tunes over the years and believed in his vision. "They offered to be my backing band, and we started playing. Then they offered to make a record for me," he says with gratitude.

Taylor and Hirsch are the producers and a definitive part of the extensive backup band. "We didn’t have any financial constraints. I had as much time as they were willing to put in," Talbott acknowledges. They tweaked different parts over time, recording much of the album at Alabama Street Station, in San Francisco, throughout a one-year period. Oakland’s Antenna Farm Records is becoming a major indie folk club for the young and clear. It makes an excellent, publike home for this project.

There is certainly a lack of constraint here, recalling the egoless, mystic lake and hilltop murder ballads passed from singer to singer in the British folk tradition. None of the stories feel forced. Like many old tales, Freeze–Die–Come to Life flirts with darkness, caresses it, and then looks it considerately in the face. The record is modern in its focus on the fate of our hearts in often chilling, contemporary urban life, but ancient and, dare I say, traditional in its spaciousness. Keep it on for a day or two, and you’re bound to think you just saw wispy wolves scurrying around the edges of Dolores Park.

The wolfking was a mythical creature said to roam the hills of Southern California, transforming painful realities into glowing amber stones, which it then spit onto the hillside. Hard work, but easy and effective when these particular Wolfkings pace it so well. In the making of the album, one song, "The Passenger," naturally split into two, which, Talbott says, act as interludes. In "Passenger II," which comes first and is enlivened by unexpected chordal resolutions, Talbott sounds like a more grounded Leonard Cohen: "I will watch you start a revolution / But I will not take a side … I am the passenger / Leaving something behind." Tender harmonies abound throughout the disc, whether painting a picture of angelic abduction, on "Angel of Light," or brewing a potent cup of twilight tea, on "Goodnight." I shudder with delight every time "Angel of Light" reaches the trembling vocal climax: "Will you regret / Each pirouette / That you’ve turned?"

"The record is hushed and acoustic," Talbott confesses when I ask about the upcoming record-release show. "It’s good to listen to by yourself. But that doesn’t always translate when you play bars." Gathering from the talented local flock that plays on the album, Talbott formed an electric six-piece. The live shows are "louder and more aggressive," he declares, adding that no one in the audience will "get bored." And neither will the musicians, the tricksters, or the wolf-eyed shape-shifters, because each song has been specially reworked to thrive in the live environment.

In a nation where every viewpoint is clearly marked and where Mark Twain’s early take on the budding tourist industry, Innocents Abroad, is quickly losing its humor because we’re all like that these days, it’s refreshing to see Talbott and his brethren inhabiting the musical landscape so fully, not content to be tourists. It’s like, well, freezing, dying, and, while doing nothing but listening, coming to life. SFBG

Michael Talbott and the Wolfkings CD release party

With Last of the Blacksmiths, Citay, Broker/Dealer, Jeffrodisiac,
and artwork by Isota Records’ Nathaniel Russell

Thurs/27, 8 p.m.


119 Utah, SF


(415) 626-7001