Kate Izquierdo

Take your time


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In this age of instant gratification, it feels excruciating to wait six minutes for something. In the case of the Notwist, fans had to content themselves with waiting six years. It’s been that long since the German quartet were ready to unleash more of the cottony, mellow glitch-pop that put them on the map. Their new album, The Devil, You + Me (Domino), is the result of just over half a decade of ships passing in the night, two years of recording, and one very concerted effort to get every last wisp of romantic longing down for posterity.

So, Guns N’ Roses aside, who the hell takes this long to make a record? I caught up with keyboardist Martin Gretschmann on the eve of the Notwist’s North American appearance in Toronto. Before I could politely ask if they were big fans of say, MMORPG gaming, Gretschmann explained that it’s enthusiasm for side projects that caused the big delay. Along with founding brothers Markus and Micha Acher, Gretschmann and new drummer Andi Haber are the most overextended musicians around, contributing to roughly five other bands, most notably 13 and God and Lali Puna.

"That’s why it took quite a few years for us to make a new record," he mused. "All the bands make records and do touring, and then it took around two years to record the new album, and before you wake up, it’s six years."

What inevitably brings these very busy gentlemen back together is the lure of the Notwist’s essence: a politely sputtering amalgam of samples, love songs, and bits of string section to tie it together. The band spent the last 20 years and six albums evolving from post-hardcore punk (their 1990 debut Notwist EP [Subway]) to indie trip-hop jazz (1998’s Shrink [Zero Hour]) to their current state of introspective electronic perfection.

Where 2002’s critically acclaimed Neon Golden (Domino) was a beautiful bouquet of freshly cut schizophrenia — a banjo leads off one song, barely there keyboards pepper another, lyrics have noticeable emotional range — The Devil, You + Me hovers like a question mark over the listener, asking "Why not?" in a steady stream of cloudy grey guitar chords and hiccups of static. Gretschmann explained: "Neon Golden is like a collection of songs. This one is rather stream of consciousness — more homogenic in a way."

Those semiconscious recurring themes of isolation and introspection are never more present than in their video for "Boneless," a downtrodden skateboarder’s reverie shot in Valparaiso, Chile. Gretschmann reveals their inspiration for the clip was none other than infamous cult-hero Donnie Darko. "The lyrics deal with growing up in a little town and always feeling different," he said. "You just feel like an alien somehow."

"Boneless" displays typical Notwist ingenuity: a deceptively bouncy piano loop that succumbs to Markus Acher’s lonely, searching vocals. The song is light and airy, borne aloft by a trace of tambourines and pop chords, but the effect is one of unmistakable fragility, of thoughts almost too sad to think.

On their new song, "Gravity," there are lyrics like, "I see the planets spinning faster / or is my body too slow?" The last six years have brought great changes for Notwist. Gretschmann was clear in the appearance of deep-seated emotion, of "some really heavy moments and sad moments" that found their way onto The Devil, You + Me: "That’s definitely one reason why some people say it’s very dark." He tempered this by sharing the jubilant mood of the band, who haven’t toured this continent since 2004. "[Toronto] is the first concert." He sounded a bit awed by his words, then laughed. "We have to see what comes out!" *


With Jel and Odd Nosdam

Mon/27, 8 p.m., $20

Bimbo’s 365 Club

1025 Columbus, SF

(415) 474-0365


Please, Hammer, don’t hurt my bluegrass


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It’s a combination that raised more than a few eyebrows: MC Hammer performing at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 8. We have it in our hearts to get country, but is this show for real? As it turns out, the connection is a fairly straightforward one. "I thought it was a very good idea since I’ve always been a very positive artist and always embraced the kids," Hammer, born Stanley Burrell, explained when I spoke to him by phone recently.

Hammer became involved with Hardly Strictly when a mutual acquaintance introduced him to festival benefactor Warren Hellman. He performs Oct. 3 during an educational program for children that is part of Daniel Pearl World Music Days. Founded in 2002 by the Daniel Pearl Foundation, Hammer is enthusiastic about his involvement in celebrating the memory of Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter killed in 2002 in Pakistan. "It is an honor to participate in anything that uplifts [Pearl’s] sacrifice and his commitment," he said. Add Hammer’s interest in community programs for children — he has sponsored Little League teams for more than a decade — and his appearance at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass becomes too legit for him to quit.

Just in case you think this is the extent of Hammer’s forays into the entertainment industry, think again. While the rest of us were building pages on Geocities.com, the artist formerly seen with resplendently large trousers was amassing an arsenal of tech knowledge. "Very quietly I got involved with tech all the way back in 1994," he said. "I was trying to figure out how to get my videos on the Internet." He visited firms like Silicon Graphics and Apple Computer, keeping an eye on QuickTime and similar applications, and now feels that video is finally ready to take center stage, describing it as "the main component of Web 2.0."

Thus the man who tried to teach Arsenio Hall to do the Chinese Typewriter is no longer simply a hip-hop artist: he has fashioned himself into an entrepreneur in high demand. Hammer has delivered a keynote speech at an Intel CEO summit, appeared on one expert panel at the TechCrunch20 Conference and yet another at the AlwaysOn and STVP conference at Stanford University — this one in the company of Chamillionaire and Mistah FAB. His connection to TechCrunch is notable, since its founder, Michael Arrington, has invested in Hammer’s company, DanceJam, an online community based around all types of dance. Users can upload videos of themselves to participate in battles, learn new dances using tutorials, or browse performances uploaded by users. "The ideas that I’ve had the chance to crystallize, and come up with content for and build communities around, those are the things that people are looking to do today," Hammer opined.

Considering Hammer’s deep immersion in the possibilities of contemporary pop culture and modern music, you might think the hip-hop artist’s appearance at a bluegrass festival would faze him. He laughed. "That’s why it’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass," he said. "I’ve got a song called ‘Help the Children.’ This is not new territory for me."

MC Hammer performs Fri/3, 11:30 a.m., for local students and the public on the Star Stage.

An everywoman at war


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Erykah Badu disappeared for a bit, taking her musical incantations and majestic head wraps on a retreat into motherhood. In 2006, she flitted back onto the mainstream radar in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, a concert film that takes place in a Brooklyn neighborhood and includes the comedian’s closest muso pals. Badu’s appearance stops the hustle and bustle of the event cold with her tiny frame and a huge glorious Afro, which blows off during her duet with Jill Scott during the Roots number "You Got Me." The movie audience I was with that day gasped in admiration as Badu let her trademark locks sail away while she continued to sing, her head and soul apparent for all to see — a diva whose resplendence and power does not rest on borrowed plumage alone.

Back then searching out Badu’s whereabouts led to a stripped-down MySpace page with a selection of songs off her 2003 EP, Worldwide Underground (Motown/Island), and not much else. At one point an old press release showed up, but interjected between the normal publicist-speak were "additions" in block capital letters, which were gentle mockeries of her multiputf8um accomplishments and declarations about "paying bills" and other roadblocks appearing in her life. Her words had the feel of new life forcing its way up through the old. Two years on, that same page is a tricked-out site to behold: a dizzying pastiche of acid-rock tableaus and neo-propagandist political imagery that bears Badu’s likeness — many a result of an art contest held for her fans. It was here that she chose to debut many tracks from her new album, New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War (Universal/Motown).

The recording begins with an aural soup: the noise of a ghetto train ride and the booming voice of a marauder telling folks to drop off their valuables while backing vocals exhort the "Amerykahn Promise." Badu’s voice emerges from this cacophony asking for explanations, a metaphor for her own post-sabbatical rebirth. With a quick costume change and tinkling prayer bells, Badu becomes a prophet with "The Healer," a meditation on the restorative properties of hip-hop, which she describes as "bigger than religion / Bigger than my niggas / Bigger than government." Never one to shy away from her role as everywoman — cue those propaganda posters — Badu emerges amid the muted horns and mellow groove of "Me," underscoring an autobiographical letter to listeners explaining her hesitance to be in the spotlight, her life as a single mother of two, and her fears of martyrdom at the hands of the entertainment industry. Her resolve at the close of the song is evident as she proclaims, "They may try to erase my face / But millions spring up in my place."

Such resolve lies at the crux of Badu’s brilliance, her unerring ability to carry her vulnerability on a dais of steely resilience. Downtrodden tunes like "That Hump" offer funk-laced pipe dreams of a solo mom trying to break even: "We just need a little house / That comes with a spouse." But no matter how broken-down Badu’s New Amerykah gets, there is always an undercurrent fed by the missions for social justice that Badu feels she has been called upon to fight. "Soldier" is both an exhortation and rallying cry: "To my folks think they living sweet / They gonna fuck around and push delete," she warns. Expect the woman to bring this message and attitude to the stage with the help of longtime friends and collaborators the Roots during her "Vortex Tour 2008."


With the Roots

Sun/8–Mon/9, 7:30 p.m., $45.50–$83.50

Paramount Theatre

2025 Broadway, Oakl.

(510) 465-6400


Allen Oldies Band


PREVIEW The Allen Oldies Band delivers a reckless tornado of classic hits, a retro dance party of Sham-tastic proportions. But don’t make the mistake of considering this Austin, Texas, ensemble a mere cover band. The Oldies have amassed a cult following built on the strength of a talented group of classic session players, sprinkled with a heavy dose of punk-pit sensibility. They have punctuated the beginning of South by Southwest in their hometown with an infamous 9:30 a.m. breakfast shindig replete with French maids serving jalapeño pancakes. They will play literally anywhere — but they will not play just anything. From "Wooly Bully" to "It’s Not Unusual," the Oldies are resolute in their mission to bring the dance tunes of yesteryear to your doorstep.

Allen Hill dreamed up this raucous, plaid-blazer-clad army of fun. Hill is a bit of a musical raconteur, a de facto spokesperson for the retro Austin scene who fronts his own combo with feverish enthusiasm and wisecracks. Wearing a tuxedo and tennis shoes, Hill rushes from one end of the stage to the other, employing a tongue-in-cheek goofiness with the group and the audience, recalling Louis Prima at his best. Always looking to spread the message of party rock, the Oldies are no strangers to either the wedding or corporate event circuit — please book three months in advance — and have played backing ensemble to the likes of Chuck Berry and Archie Bell. Lest their paying gigs sound too staid, the Oldies have the indie cred of a live WMFU album, Live and Delirious (Freedom, 2006). While their trips outside the Lone Star State are not as frequent as their fans would like, they are finally set to grace our fair city with a dose of hyperactive twistin’ tunes.

ALLEN OLDIES BAND With the Barbary Coasters. Fri/16, 9:30 p.m., $6.
Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. (415) 923-0923, www.hemlocktavern.com

Elbow on the table


"Darling, is this love?" asks Elbow’s Guy Garvey quietly in the middle of "Starlings." He is answered by a deafening blast of horns, an apocalyptic brass rejoinder meant to warn the world of an oncoming storm of romantic uncertainty. What kind of universe renders the joys of love as equal parts worry and wonder? One that has fallen in and out of obsession — a planet of newly born babies, lost lovers, and fallen friends. Elbow brings this cast of characters and plots to life with Seldom Seen Kid (Polydor), its first album in three years, a study in carefully crafted atmospherics that intrigue without descending into melodrama.

Elbow began 17 years ago when the members met in college at Bury, England. They moved to Manchester and proceeded to release a series of critically lauded EPs before offering up 2001’s Asleep in the Back (V2) followed by Cast of Thousands (V2, 2004) and Leaders of the Free World (Fiction/Geffen) in 2005. Along the way, the group became famous for clever, multilayered orchestral pop music and the evocative storytelling of Garvey’s lyrics. For Seldom Seen Kid — a tribute to late singer-songwriter and friend of the band Brian Glancy — Elbow created the album on its own in a Salford, England, studio, giving production credits to keyboard player Craig Potter.

While the so-called concept album can easily be construed as pretentious endeavor, nowhere is it more appropriate than with Elbow. Using ambient noise between sweet lulls and stark melodic layers, Seldom Seen Kid invites listeners to poke around its aural library and browse for stories until they find one that suits them. On songs like "Grounds for Divorce," heavy, churning riffs buoy Garvey’s wary summation of the dangers embedded in a typical day of British life. "There’s a hole in my neighborhood down which of late I cannot help but fall," Garvey explains in the track, making pointed reference to a local pub and the lure of drowning daily concerns in a pint glass.

Not that Elbow’s world is a completely dark land: for every glum reminder, there are moments of bliss, domestic and otherwise. "Audience with the Pope" is a tongue-in-cheek litany of overstatement, during which Garvey attests that he’s "saving the world at eight / But if she says she needs me / Everybody’s gonna have to wait." Whether examining the victories and failures of life or swooning under the charms of love, Seldom Seen Kid spins a smartly crafted series of vignettes that keep Elbow in the upper eschelon of thinking-person’s rock.


With Air Traffic

Thurs/8, 8 p.m., $20

Bimbo’s 365 Club

1025 Columbus, SF

(415) 474-0365

Furries, for real


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Super Furry Animals are a mischievous lot. Having marked the universe with their tech-pop grandeur for 15 years, they must now keep the world wondering where their music will pop up next and in what form. For their new album, Hey Venus! (Rough Trade), the Welsh quintet maintain their love of vast, Donald Fagen–esque noodling but have stripped down into a craftily introspective niche. In keeping with their new sound, they have a secret weapon in the studio, and it isn’t bleeding-edge sonic wizardry or Timbaland at the desk. It’s a dulcimer — a hammer dulcimer, to be exact, and it’s wielded on some songs with as much aplomb as any siren, blip, or squawk that’s graced any of their previous seven full-lengths. What gives? "For some reason, [the album] has a ‘band playing in a room’ kind of mood," lead vocalist Gruff Rhys offers simply, speaking on the phone from Cardiff, Wales, in early January. "Nobody brought any samplers to the recording sessions."

Super Furry Animals emerged from the Welsh capital city amid a wave of other acts, effectively marking a movement that included bands like Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Catatonia. The core members of the group had originally come together as a techno outfit — a background that set them apart from their contemporaries. The group’s first album, Fuzzy Logic (Creation, 1996), saw the combo establish its mastery of cheekily strident pop tunes. Its next release, Radiator (Flydaddy, 1997), upped the ante with an inventive melodic complexity that the Furries had obviously already mastered.

The band made its mark by continuing to issue fearless, originally crafted indie rock that stemmed at least in part from Rhys’s schizoid musical background: he was in a jangle-pop band called Emily before moving on to noise ensemble Ffa Coffi Pawb. The Furries’ next release, Guerilla (Flydaddy, 1999), is a densely layered technorock symphony that ranges between the cheeky blips of songs like "Wherever I Lay My Phone (That’s My Home)" and the introspective balladeering of tracks like "Fire in My Heart." Each disc since has been notable for a particular reason, whether it’s an all-Welsh double album (2000’s Mwng [Placid Casual]), a special DVD with a video crafted for each song (2001’s Rings around the World [Sony]), or the quirky explorations into spaced-out country rock and überharmonic ruminating on recent albums Phantom Power (XL, 2003) and Love Kraft (XL/Beggars, 2005). Hey Venus!, Rhys explains, is partially based on the mellow mood he described earlier in our conversation. "In the past I wrote all the lyrics, and then the last two years [the band has become] more confident and has started to bring complete songs to the soup." He pauses, then confirms, "I suppose this was a songwriting kind of record."

Which brings us back to that dulcimer, most prominently used on the bittersweet "Carbon Dating." It’s a signature Furries multicultural hash: a kaleidoscopic ballad that begins as a carnival waltz before morphing into Motown–meets–Ennio Morricone doo-wop surrealism. Rhys credits its composer, keyboard player Cian Ciárán, calling it "the most beautiful song on the record" before explaining that Ciárán also played dulcimer on it. Demonstrating the band’s virtuosity and playfulness in the studio, the dulcimer is showcased like a sonic effect throughout Hey Venus!, echoing like a ghost as all other instruments drop away. Lest fans think the Furries have gone fully folk, Rhys laughs and explains the instrument’s lure: "Dulcimer for us represents a lot of the old Michael Caine cold war spy movies. He always had [it] going on in his soundtracks."

Cosmopolitan kitsch aside, Hey Venus! runs an emotional and socioeconomic gamut, albeit with a wink of the eye. On the Shangri-Las throwback "Runaway," lovers flee each other while wistfully recalling the other’s "banking details." (The video is an ’80s-inspired romp with Matt Berry of United Kingdom comedy series The Mighty Boosh.) There are also moments of quintessential SFA lyrical humor, as on "Baby Ate My Eightball," which offers the apologetic understatement of the decade, "See you on the other side / Sorry to cut your life so short." Equally acerbic is the track "Suckers!," which offers a straightforward litany of gripes concerning the world and its gullible inhabitants. Rhys wryly calls it a "miserable, complaint-rock song" that came to him at a dark moment on a rainy day in Cardiff: "Sometimes I sing that song tongue in cheek, and at other times I sing it and it’s absolutely sincere."

Rhys sounds like he’s still skating on that schizoid musical past. Yet while Hey Venus! seems to function as a musical exorcism of sorts, the frontman sees it as part of the natural order of the Super Furried Universe, with each recording a reaction to the last. He suggests that the next effort will depart from their current space age moodiness. "Maybe next time we’ll bring back the electronics," he says. He pauses and laughs before adding, "And I can start writing lyrics that are less exposed!"


With Holy Fuck and Here Here

Sat/9, 9 p.m., $20

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750


Under their black sun


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I have a fantasy that 100 years from now all formalized history as we know it will be lost. Museums will lose funding and fall by the wayside. Libraries will find their contents spontaneously dumped onto city streets. And those curious enough to wonder what came before will be left with the chunks of culture that have outlasted apartment moves and world wars: personal detritus and castaway junk. Eventually, this future generation will stumble upon faded photos of a queen in a tiara and a potato-sack dress. Her king had a pompadour, and their soldiers were regal. Her name was Exene Cervenka, and she was the queen of Los Angeles. Would it really be so bad for a band to be remembered as royalty?

X is usually remembered as the collaboration between vocalist Cervenka and bassist John Doe, but the band was actually founded by guitarist Billy Zoom. Already an accomplished musician who had toured with the likes of Gene Vincent and mastered his own special blend of elaborately structured punkabilly, Zoom placed an ad looking for musicians in the Los Angeles Recycler in 1977. The guitarist, in his typically wry fashion, is reluctant to sprinkle the golden dust of nostalgia over his initial meeting with Doe and merely cracks via e-mail that the latter "had really cool shoes, clever lyrics, and looked OK."

Doe brought more than his songs and his shoes to the table, though. He had met budding poet Exene Cervenka at a writing workshop and, impressed by her work, had encouraged her to join a band. Although the distance between poetry recitals and fronting a punk group might seem like a quantum leap, Cervenka soon realized that the two are quite similar. "It was more like punk poetry," she explains over the phone on her way to Milwaukee with the Knitters. "You would allow yourself to get really angry while you were reading. It wasn’t rigid sitting down. It was a free-for-all!" Cervenka exceeded the boundaries of her diminutive stature, evolving into a lyrical punk princess — a heady mix of tiaras, anger, and lipstick decades before the so-called kinderwhore girl bands of the ’90s aspired to do the same.

Cervenka and Doe forged the initial, inescapable hallmark of an X song: their vocal interplay. Untethered by formal training, Cervenka developed her plaintive counterpoint to Doe’s growling tenor: his smooth, cool bark had just enough glissando to sail up, through, and over their songs of love, barflies, and the politics in the sprawling metropolis they called home. Cervenka acknowledges that as collaborators, the couple — who married and divorced during the band’s lifetime — had a connection that surpassed the ordinary. "I was in the kitchen writing, and he was in living room playing the bass," she remembers. "I came into the living room and said, ‘I’ve got some lyrics here for a song,’ and he goes, ‘Well, that’s good, because I just wrote a song.’ And I swear to god that those words just fit that music." She laughs and reveals the rigors of a long, storied career. "I don’t even remember what song it was. That’s the kind of thing that can happen when you collaborate with someone for a long time."

Doe and Zoom had been on the lookout to complete their rhythm section and found X’s fourth member in the form of DJ Bonebrake (his real name, not a punk-inspired moniker), a drummer with local band the Eyes. His decision to join X proved fateful not just for him but also for Eyes bandmate Charlotte Caffey, who took his departure as the opportunity to join her next band, the Go-Go’s. The all-girl band was equally active in the early LA punk scene and would share a rehearsal space and several bills with X, while Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin even credits Zoom as a teacher of sorts. "He taught me my first bar chords and how to use an amplifier," she writes in an e-mail. "He was by far the best guitarist on the scene." Zoom’s finesse stood out during those early years, when disintegration and chaos were at times the status quo in the scene. Bonebrake recalls over the phone from the road that other legendary bands that weren’t so eager for polish: "Some bands would make a career or a show out of acting like they weren’t together. The Germs were a perfect example. Pat Smear would show up and go, ‘Hey, does anyone have some strings? I only have two strings.’<0x2009>"

What Zoom brought to X was a firebrand guitar — equal parts carefree rockabilly and complex melodic riffage — that came to represent X on each successive album until he left the band in 1985 and was replaced by Tony Gilkyson. "John wrote all of his songs with his bass, so there were no chords," Zoom explains. "That gave me a lot of freedom to experiment with more complex chords and unusual voicings." Although he has gone on record as being displeased with the production on almost all of the X albums he appeared on, he cites their first, Los Angeles (Slash, 1980), as his favorite because it was recorded almost entirely live and thus sounds the most like the group. Asked the same question, Cervenka chooses their third full-length, Under the Big Black Sun (Elektra, 1982), calling it "the purest X album. To me, it’s like the cover. It’s a very black-and-white album. That was a really weird time. My sister had died. The second album had come out, but I hadn’t really written about it. Wild Gift [Slash, 1981] came out, and then Under the Big Black Sun was more about death."

In the end, after eight studio albums and innumerous hiatuses, X still see fit to reunite and tour sporadically. Three decades on, Cervenka is still content to perform X’s catalog of love-stained, liquor-soaked rebellion — future libraries and galleries notwithstanding: "Life is doing something to be remembered for, whether it’s building your grandkids a tree house that they pass on to their kids or making a record that changes people’s lives." In my version of the future, those are the records that rise up to claim history, in a giant blazing X obscuring all else, symbols of a feisty queen with a wink and a cigarette and her court of angry, vagabond cavaliers. *


With the Hooks

Dec. 28–29, 9 p.m., $30


333 11th St., SF

(415) 255-0333


Hail “Conqueror”


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"Is that the venue? It looks like a shack!" Justin Broadrick says, and his bandmates laugh uproariously. They’ve just pulled up outside their venue in Austin, Texas, and it’s not looking good. "Sorry," he apologizes to me on his cell phone. "It looks like a shed!" Broadrick is only joking, in surprisingly good spirits for being sick and a man who has a reputation as the king of bombast, the creative force behind the grindcore of Napalm Death in the ’80s and the psychotic industrial blast beats of Godflesh in the ’90s. Instead, he is disturbingly good-natured and genuinely concerned about taking the ethereal doom of his latest musical incarnation, Jesu, on the road while being ill. "It’s infuriating," he confesses. "It’s not like we’re here every six months or anything." His words ring with a touch of wistful evangelism, as though there’s a message that needs delivering.

That new missive is Conqueror (Hydrahead), Jesu’s second full-length and a bleakly epic knight’s tale where melodies spiral upward into ominous gray clouds of static to create ingenious, thundering shoegaze. It’s a rude awakening for anyone expecting the tortured howls and demonic riffage of yore, but in many ways it’s the obvious next step, particularly for someone looking to introduce pop music, his long-harbored love, into previously uncharted terrain. Conqueror, Broadrick explains, was created with an aim of "extreme prettiness and extreme heaviness at the same time. I guess we’re taking melodies that are derived from popular culture and juxtaposing that with a sound which is basically rooted in extreme music." Where Jesu’s last EP, Silver (Hydrahead, 2006), offered a more straightforward dose of anthemic pop crushed under the weight of plodding beats, Conqueror crackles and glows like a low-pressure system, trapping its dirgelike sound before releasing it into crashing cymbals and Broadrick’s low, clear, mournful vocals. As pop music goes, it is nearly impenetrable, with hints of Broadrick’s earlier works readily apparent throughout.

Broadrick’s entry into the annals of music history came early, in the form of an invitation to join Napalm Death as a guitarist in 1985. Only 15 at the time, he would later find himself labeled something of a noise savant — with accolades from John Peel furthering the myth. Andee Connors, one of the owners of Aquarius Records, describes Napalm Death’s work as "intense, furious, forward-thinking heavy music. Short, sharp bursts of ripping, pounding, superpolitical, sort of lo-fi, crusty metallic grind. At the time nothing like it had been heard." It was Godflesh, however, that saw Broadrick truly take the reins as both composer and performer. In the same way that Napalm Death informed noise bands for the next decade, Godflesh were the architects of a now widespread unyielding morass of skull-pounding rhythms and guttural, scraping vocals.

But while Godflesh provided catharsis for a generation of noise-obsessed listeners, Broadrick is quick to point out the central irony of the band’s mythos: "I’m one of those people who are ultrahypersensitive. Godflesh was a defense. My weapon was the sound." Though appreciative of all of his musical accolades, Broadrick is firm in his distinction between past and present, explaining simply, "I don’t want to be confined by the genres that I helped create in some way." He sees Jesu’s marriage of oppressive guitar and sweet melodic loops as "more personal, more indulgent, and more honest" than any music he has composed before. On "Weightless and Horizontal" he ends by chanting, "Try not to lose yourself," repeatedly through an ever-approaching onslaught of beats. It is an impossible combination, a hymn of brutality wrapped with hope. "It’s the type of a song that is filled with despair, but it immerses itself in it so far that you can see the light and you can see the positive," he says. "And it’s your own light, obviously. It’s not man-made. It’s not religious."

Lyrically and personally, Broadrick is clearly on a solitary quest. He left city life behind 15 years ago, opting for the countryside of northern Wales, and laughs as he concedes that even with his grindcore days far behind him, his music is "still rooted in misanthropy." But there’s little or no time for introspection on a tour bus, and even less when you consider how many projects Broadrick has going. In addition to Conqueror, the EP Lifeline (Hydrahead), and a split album with Eluvium (Hydrahead/Temporary Residence), this year also saw Pale Sketches, a skittering electronic treatise of Jesu songs that didn’t fit on any previous discs, by way of Broadrick’s Avalanche label. Misanthrope or no, our errant knight of doom has found himself in a good place, as he explains with a shout-out to our local heroes: "There was a song by Flipper called ‘Life,’ and the chorus was ‘Life is the only thing worth living for.’ I really do feel like that." *


Tues/6, 8 p.m., $15

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF


Still freestyling at 30


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The workroom of KUSF, 90.3 FM, has always looked just this side of combustible. It’s a second home to the radio station’s new-music volunteers, a tightly packed DIY office space papered with band posters from top to bottom. Ancient desks are pinned against each wall, one holding a beat-down stereo. Two huge metal-hinged lockers loom in the corner, monoliths stickered beyond recognition with archeological layers of rock ‘n’ roll’s past. I stare at them and try to remember the exact location of a Barkmarket sticker I myself put up more than 15 years ago. No dice.

Down the hallway — KUSF is crammed into a lone walkway in the basement of Phelan Hall on the University of San Francisco campus — Program Director Trista Bernasconi is helping a cultural producer get his next show sorted out. Putf8um records hang on the walls behind her, a reminder of the respect the noncommercial station has commanded from the musical community since its inception in 1977.

But high-caliber programming was almost no match for the university’s management, which sought to sell its license in 2006.

"Last year the university tried to sell us, and their main thing was that we were not connected to the students," says Bernasconi, a 10-year station veteran and former USF student. "It’s hard because San Francisco is expensive and [students] have to work so many jobs, but there’s been a major push to get more involved."

Coming back from the edge of the FM grave is an excellent reason to party and one that happens to coincide with the station’s 30th anniversary. After four months of celebration, the most impressive event occurs when Yo La Tengo perform a benefit for the beleaguered institution. "We wanted to celebrate in a big way and started thinking about a band that represents what KUSF is about," co–<\d>music director Irwin Swirnoff explains. "Yo La Tengo came into our mind because they’re a band that always progresses." Bernasconi echoes Swirnoff’s enthusiasm, seeing the benefit as a big step in on-campus visibility. "We have an exclusive," she adds, smiling. "There are even a couple of professors who like Yo La Tengo and are really into KUSF now."

But indie popularity and the fact that Swirnoff praises the group’s last three albums as its "three best" played only a part in making Yo La Tengo the top choice. Since 1996 the band has participated in Jersey City, N.J., noncommercial station WFMU’s annual pledge drive to support local, poorly funded radio.

Running a radio station with extremely limited funding is possible only because of the thousands of hours of volunteer work by people from the different departments of KUSF. While the university contributes half of KUSF’s operating budget, there are capital expenses, such as replacing the busted transmitter suffered six years ago, that the station and its volunteers must absorb. Swirnoff feels it’s a crucial distinction to make: "Every day that music is getting played and tickets are being given away it’s amazing, because besides a couple of paid positions, we’re all volunteers and somehow we figure out a way to get it done."

Swirnoff splits his duties with three other music directors — Miguel Serra, DJ Schmeejay, and Lenode — in an effort to combat the sheer volume of music that the station is expected to absorb. Another KUSF veteran, fundraising coordinator Jet, who along with Bernasconi holds one of the station’s few paid positions, explains that volunteering means never really being off the clock. "I have taken a pay cut to take the job," she says with a laugh. "So it’s a labor of love. I put in my volunteer hours as well, so I’m not only an employee, I’m also a volunteer, and I’m not only a volunteer, I’m still also a listener."

But what about the listeners? According to Arbitron, KUSF’s 3,000-watt basement transmitter is able to reach an audience of about 50,000, and luckily the station has managed to allocate part of its shoestring budget to broadcasting via the Internet radio network Live365.com, enabling listeners worldwide to tune in even if they’re beyond the reach of the transmitter. Still, the consumer landscape has changed radically since the station debuted. From the erosion of the major-label hierarchy to the digital explosion of the past decade, people are now drowning in musical options ranging from iTunes to DIY podcasts to satellite radio.

What lures the KUSF faithful through this technological glut is the content and, ultimately, the DJs who provide it. The cultural programming alone is enough to intrigue: where else in the country does the Hamazkayin Armenian Hour run back-to-back with I Heart Organics? New-music programming is no less varied, as DJs are required to pull half of their shows from the "currents" section of the library. While listening to Jacob Felix Heule’s show, which runs Wednesdays from midnight to 3 a.m., I hear dub combo African Head Charge, ’60s pop chanteuse Lesley Gore, and local band Rubber O Cement within 30 minutes. It’s the kind of schizophrenic genre jumping that has created the reputation KUSF enjoys today.

The station’s history lives on in the current new-music staffers. Every volunteer with an air shift has a story about a predecessor who introduced them to band X or taught them how to perform board function Y. Swirnoff, for example, first learned of the station after Sonic Youth cut a record in memory of then-music director Jason Knuth, and he remembers thinking, "I gotta get on KUSF." Jet says her station hero is legendary Rampage Radio‘s Ron Quintana — the guy who named Metallica.

As a former DJ and ex–<\d>promotions director, I recall an on-air mentor who would gesture toward Slayer’s Decade of Aggression, admonishing me to "always end with something apocalyptic." I’d follow her advice right here, but with volunteers who give so selflessly to keep the station alive, there’s a good chance that — at least for now — KUSF will keep the end times at bay.<\!s>*


With Yo La Tengo, Citay, and KUSF DJ Irwin

Fri/3, 9 p.m., $25 (available through www.KUSF.org)

Bimbo’s 365 Club

1025 Columbus, SF

(415) 474-0365


Welcome to my pop nightmare


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Gazing disdainfully from the cover of their album Strange House (Loog), the Horrors greet listeners with the air of Edward Gorey characters on a smoke break. Together, they are a scarily beautiful organism: a slick plastic spider with 10 spindly legs and a penchant for manic, blood-soaked coffin rock. Their shows, in contrast, are short, riotous affairs that revolve around a schizoid brand of gothabilly and the shrieks and antics of lead vocalist Faris Badwan. The Horrors have graced the cover of NME, dumped garbage on industry bigwigs at South by Southwest, and amassed a throng of fans worldwide. They’ve also, of course, sent the pointy-shoe market skyrocketing.

The Horrors were born, appropriately enough, in the bowels of a rotting Victorian hotel, the home of the fashionable Junk Club in Southend-on-Sea in London’s neighboring Essex County, in the summer of 2005. Rhys "Spider" Webb, keyboardist for the Horrors, recalls that the transition from clubgoers to band was not a prolonged one. "We were actually sitting around a table, and it was, like, ‘Let’s go into the studio for rehearsal next week.’ Faris had a couple of cover versions he wanted to work on. We’ve been playing ever since, to be honest."

One of the covers that Badwan had chosen, Screaming Lord Sutch’s "Jack the Ripper," eventually became the Horrors’ debut single. It was paired with an original composition, "Sheena Is a Parasite," a bombastic microtune of a minute and 42 seconds, the tale of an enigmatically vile heroine set to a pulsating bass and a skittering, looped backbeat. The song attracted the attention of one Chris Cunningham, the creative force behind Aphex Twin’s infamous "Come to Daddy" and "Windowlicker" videos, who allegedly found it on MySpace. Cunningham had soured on videos and hadn’t made one in seven years when the Horrors caught his ear and sent him into a storyboarding frenzy. Webb remembers, "He contacted Polydor and said, ‘Who’s doing the video? I’d love to do it.’" The finished product shows Samantha Morton falling victim to her own exploding viscera amid a frenetic doomscape. Apparently not bothered by disemboweled women, MTV banned the video for its use of strobe lights, promptly creating more publicity for the piece — and the Horrors — than it would have otherwise garnered.

As heirs of death rock, the Horrors come across like the naughty grandchildren of the Birthday Party, with Badwan channeling bits of Nick Cave as he screams his ghoulish repertoire, his large frame weaving across the stage. (In fact, Bad Seed Jim Sclavunos appears in the credits for Strange House, having produced their single "Count in Fives.") But while blood pours out of their lyrics and violence peppers their shows, it is the Horrors’ love of music — all music — that grants them a sense of humor and keeps them from buying into their gloomy hype. A club DJ for many years, Webb explains that playfulness further, saying, "The music I like to buy could be Robert Johnson or the Sonics, the Contortions, or DNA." He recalls a group walking into the Horrors’ dressing room and getting a surprise: "I think they expected us to be listening to ’60s garage and punk and rhythm and blues, and they caught us all dancing to drum ‘n’ bass records."

In the song "Draw Japan," Badwan tackles manifest destiny as Bauhaus beats rush past and Webb’s organ hiccups away in counterpoint. "I will draw Japan with a ravenous pen / Hungry for oil and iron and tin," he barks. It’s almost more Christian death than the Cramps, a perfect example of the Horrors’ genre blend ‘n’ bend. The key to that meld is guitarist Joshua Third, a.k.a. Joshua Hayward, possessor of the Horrors’ hugest mane of hair and, coincidentally, a physics degree. Webb describes Third as "a bit of a mad scientist" who spends his free time "locked in his cupboard, building strange components." For a recent issue of the band’s fanzine, Horror Asparagus Stories, Third taught readers how to build their own effects pedal. Webb is already gearing up for the next edition, having created a compilation called "Top Tracks about the Unstable State of Human Minds."

For all their conceptual flourishes, the Horrors have encountered a backlash from people who take exception to their meticulously crafted aesthetic. Webb concedes, "If you see a band like us, it looks like this kind of package," but notes that their look is inspired by friends such as album artist Ciaran O’Shea, who worked with Webb before the Horrors existed. Detractors aside, the tacit test for the Horrors will be their upcoming US tour. Webb recounts being warned before their first transatlantic jaunt that crowds in the States would be anything but enthusiastic. Instead, he was happy that "we’ve never found that anywhere in the world. The music provokes the same kind of reaction wherever we are." *


Tues/19, 9 p.m., $13


330 Ritch, SF

(415) 541-9574


Soft machines


> a&eletters@sfbg.com

Electrifying a thumb piano sounds about as unlikely as, say, strapping a jet engine onto a surfboard. That very action, however, explains the central mystery behind Congo’s Konono No. 1. But don’t expect an esoteric creation myth from founder and likembe virtuoso Mawangu Mingiedi, who explains that his feedback-rich music exists simply "because it’s a very soft-sounding instrument and Kinshasa is a very noisy town."

The likembe has a gentle, waterlogged twang, like a mouth harp encased in Jell-O. It is as native to the Congolese sound as the ancestral hum of the Bazombo trance music brought to Kinshasa by Mingiedi when he left his hometown on the Angolan border after the death of his father. Answering questions with producer Vincent Kenis via e-mail, Mingiedi describes Bazombo as "the cradle of our music. There’s a little bit of it in whatever we play."

Konono No. 1 aspired to bring those ancient polyrhythms to urban gatherings, but how to rock the party with one of the quietest instruments going? As the likembe was hardly a match for the squall of city life in Congo’s capital, amplification of Mingiedi’s chosen instrument became the order of the day. This was to be no small feat, considering the resource-poor and occasionally violent setting he found himself in. "Bad things can happen in Kinshasa," Mingiedi explains. "Even when there’s peace in the streets, it’s certainly difficult to lead a peaceful life in a place where the most basic commodities are absent or intermittent at best."

While matter-of-fact about the hardships of life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mingiedi is far more forthcoming when describing the trial-and-error process that ultimately led to the creation of Konono No. 1’s wall of plucks and feedback: "I started with cassette recorder microphones, but the feedback was difficult to control. Only later did I try electric guitar pickups, then reverse engineered them, then started to design my own models."

Mingiedi’s likembe hack is now the stuff of DIY legend, and it extends to more than just his particular instrument. Konono No. 1 is an ensemble of recycling genius – of wood microphones crowned with salvaged magnets, of percussion rendered from pots and pans, of car battery-powered amplifiers. Onstage the band is also flanked by massive lance voix, or voice throwers, megaphones originally used by Belgian colonizers. Yet even accompanied by dancers and armed with piercing whistles, Konono No. 1 has its heart in the three likembes that bob across the waves of rhythm like fragile tin boats. Mingiedi says these too have been modified: "First it was hollow, like the traditionally built likembe – then to suppress feedback I used a solid block of mahogany."

As years went by, word of Konono No. 1 trickled out, eventually reaching the ears of Crammed Records cofounder Kenis in the form of a culture broadcast in 1979. He remained enraptured by Konono No. 1, actually traveling to Congo to find them. As he writes in a letter to the music blog the Suburbs Are Killing Us, he was able to interact with other "tradi-modern" bands yet was told that Konono No. 1 had ceased to exist. Finally, in 2000 he received word that they had reunited – using the same equipment they had played years before.

Fast-forward to 2007, and Konono No. 1 have traveled the world, performing at the Kennedy Center, opening for Dutch legends the Ex, and most recently contributing to the first single off Bjork’s latest record, Volta (One Little Indian/Atlantic), titled "Earth Intruders." When I ask if Konono No. 1 will perform with Bjork, Mingiedi answers with hints of Sun Ra, "I hope it will happen. If it does, watch out for our special Earth intruder stage outfits." *


Sat/28, 9 p.m., $20

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750

Failure, so thrive


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“Ever heard of Wisconsin Death Trip?” Jacob Heule asks. Ettrick’s alto sax–playing half and I are in my living room discussing the rigors of life in the Midwest as they pertain to the metal-listening youth of today. Heule, a Wisconsin native, has jokingly — or maybe not so jokingly — cited Michael Lesy’s book about the disintegration of the 19th-century town Black River Falls as we make loose connections between freezing cold weather, insanity, and locales that death metal and its fans call home. He’s certain of one thing: “Black metal is the perfect stuff when you don’t feel like a human anymore. When I was a receptionist at a medical center, I got really into it because I just felt terrible about certain things. It was a dehumanizing job. Cold, bleak black metal — I could relate to it.”
Ettrick are indeed a black metal duo, and their music harbors the telltale signs: ferocious blast-beats, gargantuan expanses of pitch-black noise, and drums like a self-propelled howitzer gone berserk. They also happen to be a free-jazz pairing as well, in which Heule and partner Jay Korber, both drummers and saxophonists, rotate between the two instruments to create a grueling improvisational skronk. A well-circulated YouTube video featuring their collaboration with Weasel Walter reveals a dimly lit scene of busted drum kits with the bleating screams of Korber’s tenor sax piercing the deafening cloud of beats raining down from the stage. For all its grandiose chaos, however, the players never lose track of each other in the din. Heule credits this to time spent practicing. “It’s difficult to improvise, but it’s a skill that you can work on,” he says. “We have developed certain patterns that we call on sometimes, but we don’t really discuss things ahead of time. We realized that it sounds a lot better if we don’t.”
Ettrick’s beginnings hark back to 2004, when Heule was looking to sublet his practice space and Korber answered his ad. Korber — a Pittsburgh native who shares his bandmate’s love of brutal music and calls Immortal’s Battles in the North “one of the best black metal albums ever made” — had coincidentally been playing sax for a few years as well. (Heule has played the instrument since age 10.) As it turned out, they were even recording Ettrick-style music independent of one another. “We both had recordings that we had made of ourselves, overdubbing all the instruments onto each other, drums and sax, but we were doing it all ourselves,” Heule explains with a laugh. “So then we found the ‘other guy.’ We could play live now!”
A year and a half later, Ettrick recorded their first self-released album, Infinite Horned Abomination, in their practice space. Though starkly minimalist (doom-laden atmospherics are largely restricted to the first track), Infinite Horned Abomination hints at the separate yet intertwined paths Heule and Korber have forged. Their second disc, Sudden Arrhythmic Death (American Grizzly, 2006), is an absolute must-have, a 15-minute live session recorded in Portland, Ore., that begins as an achingly radiant saxophone duet before it explodes into a maniacal barrage of beats that push the eardrum till white noise is the only sense the brain can make. It concludes with Ettrick’s signature: bloodcurdling screams and the sound of drum kits being destroyed.
Heule muses on the carnage during their recent tour: “The last show in LA was pretty destructive. I broke my snare stand in half. I dropped my kick drum. I wasn’t really thinking about what it would break if I just picked it up and dropped it.”
Korber amassed similar injuries, breaking both heads on his snare drum. He confesses that his sax is “a piece of shit to begin with” and is sure that his other band, Sergio Iglesias and the Latin Love Machine, isn’t helping matters: “Last time [Sergio played] I rolled over it a couple times.”
The improv community in the Bay Area is a tightly intermingled mass of weeds that entangles every act in its path. Ettrick are no exception, having collaborated not only with the aforementioned Weasel Walter but also with Moe! Staiano (Moe!kestra!, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), Mike Guarino of Oaxacan, and most recently, Tralphaz, a one-person pedal feedback assault.
Tralphaz embodies what Heule enjoys most about their chosen genre. “One of my favorite things seeing improvisers play is when things just start going totally wrong, and they bring it back,” says the saxophonist. “I’ve seen Tralphaz do that a couple of times.”
Ettrick follow that lead, constantly pushing their black cloud of noise into failure’s clutches. They hope to tempt even more sonic dissolution with their forthcoming album, Feeders of Ravens (Not Not Fun), which will be released on vinyl in early 2007. Korber is matter-of-fact about the strategy. “There’s always a chance that it’s going to fail,” he confesses.
Heule nods. “That’s one of the best reasons to do it.” SFBG
With darph/nader and Ant Lion
Luggage Store
1007 Market, SF
Call for time and price
(415) 255-9171

In bed with the Long Winters


It’s become popular to characterize the Long Winters’ John Roderick as an intellectual ronin of sorts: a librarian without master who travels the countryside lending his songs and wisdom to brainy 826 benefits. Others reject this stuffy veneer outright, preferring to embrace him as a lovable vaudevillian rogue of the “song, dance, seltzer down the pants” variety.
Still, Roderick is well aware of his reputation as a mysterious dude, explaining, “It’s never been clear, even to the people close to me, whether or not I might actually be an emotionally abusive, exploitative, drunken rapist posing as a sensitive singer-songwriter, and that’s an ambiguity that I cultivate.”
His band, the Long Winters, are back with their third album, Putting the Days to Bed (Barsuk), a sonic patchwork of lust, architecture, rock ’n’ roll love children, and memories of lovers past that defy destruction. Maybe. Roderick writes to ensure that his lyrics don’t bind the listener with logistical detail, preferring to provide softly focused emotional Polaroid photos. “What I’m shooting for is that the listener be able to recall their own stories — when they felt the same way,” he says. With mentions of everything from teaspoons to retired Air Force pilots, however, come fans usually seeking interpretational guidance. Why not indulge listeners with answers? “No one really wants me out in the parking lot after a show explaining my lyrics” he deadpans. “Even if a few people might think they do.”
The crazy thing is, it actually works. On “Teaspoon,” rituals of courtship, “the way that she smiles me down,” careen past as a horn section trumpets the start of a new relationship. Even if the lady in question “claims to be clowning,” the mood is clear, the butterflies in the stomach already swirling. Putting the Days to Bed’s best moment is the wistfully gorgeous “Seven,” a song that lies on its back in tall grass, staring at the sky and hoping against hope to see a lost lover’s face in the clouds. “Would you say that I/ Was the last thing you want to remember me by?” Roderick wonders aloud.
It’s this kind of masterfully eloquent longing that has built the Long Winters no small amount of indie fame. Yet while appreciative of the kudos, Roderick quickly reduces them to a digestible perspective: “I think the Long Winters fall somewhere between it being OK for us to sample some crackers from the deli tray of the Wrens without getting our hands slapped but not so far as to get drunk and spill guacamole on Sufjan Stevens’s pants.” (Kate Izquierdo)

More of Kate Izquierdo’s interview with Long Winters’ John Roderick.

With What Made Milwaukee Famous and the Vasco Era
Fri/13, 9 p.m.
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF
(415) 861-5016

Smile when you say “mockney”


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For those of you living in a cool-free cave out by the FM tower, Lily Allen is hot property. Her first single, the ska-tinged “Smile,” has topped Britain’s charts and has been oozing out of iPods and shopping malls alike as the song of the summer across Europe.
Allen’s album, Alright Still (Regal/Parlophone), is a collection of rocksteady pop that veers between sweet crooning and sassily blunt day-in-the-life raps à la “Cool for Cats.” (In fact, she covered Squeeze, citing “Up the Junction” as a favorite song.) Like Squeeze lyricist Chris Difford, Allen doesn’t shy away from the seedier side of London life, taking on would-be suitors in bars, catty girls in clubs, the occasional crack whore, and an obvious favorite, the loser ex-boyfriend. On “Smile” she laments, “When you first left me I was wanting more/ But you were fucking that girl next door/ What ya do that for.”
Humor is indeed one of the sharpest weapons in Allen’s arsenal, adding a layer of verboten wit to her otherwise radio-friendly dancehall beats. It’s not the first time that ska has infiltrated mainstream airspace, but where Gwen Stefani plays an edgy vixen of the runway, Allen comes across as the sexy, streetwise girl next door, more clubhouse than penthouse — an urban chanteuse with a penchant for strapless sundresses, throwback fly-girl gold ropes, and downtown kicks.
Shortly after signing her deal with Parlophone in September 2005, Allen started a MySpace account and began using the site to test her demos in front of the general public “just to see what people’s reaction was to them. And it was pretty good,” she explains on the phone from London. “I think that gave the record company more confidence in me than they probably would have without it.” “Pretty good” is an understatement, with her plays now exceeding four million, her “friends” nearing the 80,000 mark, and GQ calling her “the first lady of MySpace.” Followers also hit Allen’s account to read the brutally honest, sometimes hilarious blog updates that chronicle her ascent to pop stardom.
One such entry finds her attacking the bottle to calm her nerves before performing in front of 30,000 people at a festival — and getting so drunk that her management sends her home in a car, where she finds that she has no keys and must sit in a gold ball gown in the middle of her street. These tales of transformation — her gilded coach seems in constant danger of reverting to a pumpkin — endear her to a dedicated throng of fans who respond to her words with comments numbering in the hundreds and sent her single to the top of the charts for several weeks running.
But not everyone loves Allen. Speaking and singing in a decidedly unposh London accent on songs like “LDN,” a bouncy, carnival brass band romp, has caused her to be ridiculed as “mockney,” for fronting a ghetto background. (Her father is comic actor Keith Allen, and her mother is a successful film producer.)
Obviously tired of these accusations, she fires back, “My mum came to London with absolutely no money, a daughter at the age of 17 years old, no job, nothing. We lived in a council flat, which is like the projects in America, so I get a little insulted when people say, ‘Oh, she’s a middle-class girl who hasn’t experienced anything.’”
Allen has also been labeled a man hater for her lyrics about men, arrogant for her commentary on icons like Madonna, and overly vain for her choice of clothing. She thinks she knows why. “I’m a 21-year-old girl, and I speak my mind,” she retorts. “I’m not going to film premieres in revealing dresses and having my photo taken and giving [journalists] nice little sweet sound bites about how brilliant everything is.”
As formidable as her detractors would like to seem, however, they’re no match for the album-buying fans who, Allen is happy to report, have snapped up “300,000 already.”
One of the album’s tracks, “Friday Night,” is a rude-girl meeting in the ladies’ room in which horn blasts straight out of the Skatalites’ “Guns of Navarone” echo and obnoxious scenesters make Allen’s night out a living hell. She isn’t having it and informs the snotty girls, “Don’t try and test me cos you’ll get a reaction/ Another drink and I’m ready for action.” “It’s funny how people completely misunderstand that song and think it’s about me being aggressive towards others,” she says softly. “It’s actually about hating that kind of bravado in other people.” There’s little such cockiness when Allen confirms that she “can’t wait” to start her club tour of the States, where she has already surpassed mere Britpop buzz, poised to prove her worth as the lone jewel in the pawnshop of throwaway starlets. SFBG
Thurs/12, 9 p.m.
330 Ritch, SF
$12 (all tickets sold at the door; ticket vouchers will be distributed at 8:30 p.m.)
(415) 541-9574

Writing wrongs


› a&eletters@sfbg.com
If there’s one person you would expect to condemn the present state of America’s political affairs, it would be Billy Bragg, right? Surely Britain’s punk poet laureate should be grabbing every microphone within reaching distance to decry the evils of our current administration. But surprisingly, his reaction is quite the opposite. “I’m encouraged by the results of the last two elections, because I believe that America has not yet decided what kind of country it’s going to be in the 21st century,” he says on the phone from Winnepeg.
Bragg is currently on a bit of a multitasking tour to showcase his two latest works: Volume II (YepRoc), a box set, and The Progressive Patriot, a book. While Volume II is an expected retrospective that covers the second half of Bragg’s career from 1988 onward, The Progressive Patriot is uncharted territory for the singer-songwriter, a treatise that addresses Britain’s national identity, the emergence of organized racism, and the political road that weaves between the two.
Much as in Britain, Bragg sees battles of ideology as a key proving ground in the future of our country and agrees with the concept of “two Americas” as it pertains to the states’ political climate. “On one hand you’ve got the neoconservative Christian right, who are getting everybody to vote and still can’t get a majority,” he says, “and on the other side you’ve got the more compassionate idea of America as a multicultural society, which just can’t get everybody to vote.” Yet as bleak and insurmountable a problem as this may seem, Bragg takes the long view. “I’m in a fortunate position. I have the opportunity to travel around and meet people trying to manifest that ‘other’ America. Reading local newspapers in America, you see all sorts of things that are going completely against the neoconservative agenda in some states.” Volume II picks up at a crucial period of Bragg’s career, kicking off with his 1988 release, Workers Playtime (Go! Discs/Elektra). The album marked Bragg’s transition from punk iconoclast to, as he would later affectionately come to be known, the “Bard from Barking.” Instead of using just his guitar and a portable amp as on his earlier recordings, Bragg included bits of orchestration on Workers, plus a band to accompany his songs of law, love, and everything in between. “The album of lost love. It’s my great lost soul album!” he says with a wistful chuckle.
At the heart of that bittersweet collection is the amazing “Valentine’s Day Is Over,” a woman’s lament over her lover, rough economic times, and the beatings that result. “That economy and brutality are related / Now I understand,” the protagonist explains wearily. Bragg feels a particular satisfaction with that song and the topics it tackles. “I often cite that as the ideal Billy Bragg song because politics and ‘the love song’ overlap in that song. It’s a really hard thing to do, rather than being a ‘love song writer’ or a ‘political song writer.’ I hate it when people divide those two. Life isn’t divided like that.”
The ever-encircled worlds of life and politics also led Bragg to write the new book, with the ideas spurred by everything from recent elections in his hometown to raising his young son. “A far-right political party called the BNP earned a seat on the council in my hometown of Barking, East London,” the songwriter says. “That was a real shock to me because these were the people that I came into politics fighting. I realized that it needed something more than just writing a song.” Being a father further drives his desire for intelligent debate around the future of his country. His concerns about nationalism are expressed in the interest of cohesion, not the racist ideal of exclusion. He explains, “I’m interested to hear your background, but what is important to me is how my children and your children are going to get on with each other. Everything else is secondary to that.”
As you might expect, Bragg’s MySpace page also bears the mark of his beliefs and ideas. It also contains his songs: items that were conspicuously absent during his recent showdown with the networking Web site. Having successfully lobbied MySpace to retool their artist agreement so that the site doesn’t “own” any artist’s uploaded content, Bragg is now taking on MTV Flux, another networking site that features an upload ability similar to YouTube. A video featuring his challenge to Flux dots the page, along with archival footage of him at various events, such as a concert in Washington, DC, in 2002. That day he addressed the crowd and warned them of a greater looming evil — not of conservatives or imperialism but of cynicism.
He still stands behind that message. “I know from personal experience that cynicism eats away your soul,” Bragg says. “God knows Tony Blair’s been spreading cynicism around for the last few years. I’ve had to fight my own.” SFBG
Thurs/5, 8 and 10:30 p.m.
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
(415) 885-0750
Sat/7, 4:40 p.m.
Speedway Meadow
Golden Gate Park, SF

This tune’s for you


› a&eletters@sfbg.com
We’ve all been there. You’re entranced by some wonderful song that you can’t live without, only to buy the album, hunker down to listen, and find it full of duds. Your purchase … sucks. What a weird and wondrous experience, then, to cram What Made Milwaukee Famous into the stereo and be greeted with a crayon box full of pop, each song shaded a little differently than the last and highlighted with quite arguably some of the best pop vocals around.
Named for a line in a Jerry Lee Lewis song, Austin’s WMMF formed when vocalist-guitarist Michael Kingcaid put out ads in the Austin Chronicle. Kingcaid, having survived the demise of previous bands, eschewed live performances for a year, opting for an extended period of introduction. He explains, “I had the blueprints, at least in pencil, for a long time. None of us knew each other initially. We didn’t want to jump out and play any shows when we weren’t ready to sound our best.”
After WMMF played local clubs, 2005 heralded the band’s arrival in the form of high-profile opening gigs for the Arcade Fire and a slot performing on PBS’s Austin City Limits with Franz Ferdinand. Their status has recently been upgraded from underground to upwardly indie after signing with Seattle’s Barsuk Records. The new album, Trying to Never Catch Up, offers 12 doses of ingeniously potent pop rock. Trying to Never Catch Up is aptly named, never dallying in one genre long enough to get comfortable. The first song, “Idecide,” kicks off with a death rattle, spitting synths out of “Warm Leatherette,” and spazzy, arpegiatted keyboards that signal homage to Grandaddy before there’s even time to figure out what’s playing. Somewhere in the midst of all that music, WMMF braid in two of their secret weapons: dense, astutely written lyrics and Kingcaid’s big, brilliantly colored tenor. Time signatures shift nervously while the world’s lovers fall prey to “enough sting to be stung/ enough poison to choke/ enough rope to be hung.” Asked to explain, Kingcaid offers, “I think of that one as having three or four different narrators,” and points to a theme of “being beholden to someone or something.” In other hands, “Idecide” could fall flat, a cheesy new wave brood about failed relationships. In Kingcaid’s, it’s a slick, foreboding cautionary tale.
There is much about WMMF that harkens back to a time, say, the ’80s, when gimmick wasn’t enough. The age of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Squeeze, when good melodies and witty lyrics were par for the course. While the band recalls the breezier moments in that decade as well — “Selling Yourself Short” recalls Modern English’s “Melt with You” in three notes or less — there is an obsession with craftsmanship that sets their full-length above other recent releases. “Hellodrama,” a sweet, smart-alecky tribute to a girl who won’t quite go away, mixes “Candy-O” claps with exasperated entreaties — “You’re still lingering around the set/ trying to set me off” — managing to turn dating angst into a potential dance hit.
On the quietly strummed “Hopelist” we hear “I didn’t ever want/ I never thought I’d be/ in a situation that defies contingency.” Though writing about relationships can be heady stuff, Kingcaid maintains that he isn’t looking to glorify anyone’s emotional downward spiral. “I’m sure that I’m going to write things that are going to end tragically, but I don’t ever want to leave anybody in a pit, ’cause I’ve been there.” It’s that balance of light and dark that informs the entire What Made Milwaukee Famous experience: just enough lyrical darkness to lure you in — just enough melodic color to make you stay. SFBG
With French Kicks and Matt and Kim
Fri/18–Sat/19, 9 p.m.
Café du Nord
2170 Market, SF
(415) 861-5016