Taylor Kaplan

Good things, small packages



MUSIC In 2004, shortly following the Napster-fueled revolution of file-sharing, the preeminence of the album as popular music’s default narrative device was endangered. And forget vinyl; the medium had been left for dead a generation earlier. That year, though, David Barker had an idea.

In his capacity as an editor at Continuum, a modestly sized academic publisher in London, Barker launched 33 1/3: a proposed series of portable, novella-sized volumes, named for the speed of a record album, with the purpose of giving writers of all stripes an outlet with which to ruminate on an LP of personal significance, allowing plenty of room for experimentation and creative freedom.

Fast-forward to 2014, and Bloomsbury — the imprint that bought Continuum in 2011 — is celebrating 33 1/3’s 10th anniversary. Coinciding with the publication of its 100th volume, Susan Fast’s take on Dangerous by Michael Jackson, a big party at Brooklyn’s Powerhouse Arena on Oct. 2 will feature discussions with past writers, all to commemorate the series’ now-sweeping archive of critical analyses, making-of’s, memoirs, and even fiction.

In a musical landscape that has learned to embrace vinyl all over again (sales have more than quadrupled in the last decade), the series has single-handedly built a market for long-form music journalism that hadn’t existed before its arrival.

The impetus for 33 1/3’s creation came shortly after Barker, who “grew up in the 1980s on a hardcore diet of the NME and Melody Maker,” moved to NYC from London, and found himself deeply underwhelmed by the music sections at even the most world-class independent bookstores.

“There seemed to be such a lack of anything approaching interesting analysis,” Barker told the Bay Guardian. “Lots of decent biographies, lots of mediocre ones, and not much else. So the series was really an attempt to create a space where writers and readers who love music could meet to express and share opinions and try out different ways of writing about music.”

Reaching far beyond the dry, biographical style of most music-oriented bookstore fare, and mass-market publishers’ tendencies towards major artists like U2 and Jimi Hendrix, Barker set out to address canonized albums (The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds; James Brown’s Live at the Apollo) and niche classics (Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats) alike, written with a rabid fervor that the record-collector contingency could get behind.

It’s worth noting that although Continuum and now Bloomsbury have thrived on a scholarly reputation, the selection process for new volumes in the 33 1/3 series — an annual, monthlong open call for proposals — is quite egalitarian in its approach.

“It’s just amazing to read proposals from such a massive range of people,” Barker said. “High school students in the US, scholars in Australia, musicians in Scotland, journalists in Canada, and so on.”

Encompassing critics, superfans, and musicians such as The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy (who dissected the Replacements’ Let It Be) and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (who took on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality), 33 1/3’s base of writers has come to resemble a group of music-lovers more than a pack of scholars. In addition to producing some first-rate accounts of crucial albums and their respective recording processes, this approach has resulted in some volumes that’ve ventured off the deep-end of “criticism” into something else entirely.

Kevin Dettmar used Gang of Four’s Entertainment! as a springboard from which to explore Marxist theory, while Darnielle took his favorite Black Sabbath album into fictional territory, with the account of a 15-year-old boy trapped in a mental institution. LD Beghtol responded to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs with an encyclopedic, alphabetical rundown of paragraph-long snippets, while Douglas Wolk framed James Brown’s Live at the Apollo with Cold War politics, flipping between that legendary night in Harlem, and the peak of the Cuban Missle Crisis.

“It was always intended to be experimental,” Barker said, “and for the pool of writers to include journalists, novelists, musicians, broadcasters, and anyone else who had a story to tell about a record they loved.”

However, according to Ally Jane Grossan, who assumed the duty of series editor after Barker moved back across the pond, the 33 1/3 series is set to take on its first non-album entry, opening the door for a whole new set of possibilities.

“Andrew Schartmann proposed a volume on the ‘Super Mario Bros.’ soundtrack (yes, the video game) during the last open call,” Grossan said, “and my first thought was ‘That’s not exactly an album.’ I quickly banished that thought and replaced it with, ‘Actually, this book is going to be amazing. Here’s a musicologist and passionate composer writing about one of the most important and revolutionary pieces of music in the 20th century.’ If that’s not a ’33 1/3,’ I don’t know what is!”

Thanks to the relative success of independent booksellers (with large chains disappearing), and the new resurgence of vinyl heightening the cult appeal of small record stores, the 33 1/3 series has found a proprietary niche in between the musical and literary worlds over the past 10 years, delivering a level of in-depth analysis and reflection that Internet-based writing has mostly failed to reach.

Just as Barker and now Grossan have approached the series as a love letter to the ritual of record collecting, and to the narrative cohesion of the album format, a certain breed of music-lover has come to fetishize the 33 1/3 brand in a similar way — stacking the sleekly packaged volumes on his or her bookshelf with the same care and sentimentality that defines a lovingly curated record collection. In a culture of music driven by the immediate, if ultimately insubstantial, delivery system of the Internet, 33 1/3’s arrival at the 10-year mark is a testament to the collector in us all.

Outside Lands 2014: It’s Yeezy season


Were you there? Were you among the approximately 200,000 human bodies smashed together for warmth at Golden Gate Park this past weekend, because you somehow couldn’t stand the idea of wearing anything but your midriff-baring tube top with your whimsical animal hat and/or flower crown?

Whether you’re recuperating today from 72 hours of partying at Outside Lands or patting yourself on the back from steering clear of the whole thing — here’s our critic’s take on the weekend’s best five sets…and the rest. Check this week’s paper (on stands Wednesday) for more live shots.

 5. Mikal Cronin

Local boy Mikal Cronin. Photo by Brittany Powell.

If 28-year-old Mikal Cronin had signed a recording contract three decades ago, his breakthrough LP, MCII, just might have coexisted peacefully with Kiss’ Alive in “Freaks & Geeks”-y record crates across America. Arguably the greatest contributor to California’s recent wave of late-’70s power-pop revivalism, Cronin assuredly challenges 2014’s largely tongue-in-cheek fascination with the “me decade,” recalling arena bombast and dank basement charm with great conviction. Lead guitarist Chad Ubovich’s high-flying, joyously unironic guitar theatrics sealed the deal at the Panhandle stage on Friday afternoon, as Cronin and his three-piece backing band delivered the festival’s most wholesome slice of straightforward rock.

4. Jonathan Wilson

Saddled with the unenviable noon opening slot at the Sutro stage on Sunday, LA’s Jonathan Wilson treated a criminally small audience to another set of California rock revivalism with great strength of purpose. Evoking something in between late-’60s acid idealism and early-’70s comedown disillusionment, Wilson and his four-piece backing ensemble delivered a quietly confident, elegantly restrained set of swirly, jam-based rock headiness, devoid of the excessive noodling and uptight baroqueness that plagues so much of the competition. It takes serious talent to make such complex musical interplay sound so natural and relaxed. My favorite new discovery of 2014’s Outside Lands.

3. Haim

Two of three sisters Haim. Photo by Matthew Reamer.

If there’s one complaint to level at Haim’s live show, it’s that the Phoenix-y Botox-pop production of last year’s Days Are Gone is so immaculate and superhuman that replicating those songs onstage, in their recorded form, is damn near impossible. However, the sisterly trio has come a long way after a year of touring, and as Saturday’s main stage appearance triumphantly showed, Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim’s live approach is closer than ever to reproducing these Fleetwood Mac-indebted pop gems with the glossy sheen intact. From “The Wire,” to “If I Could Change Your Mind,” to ” My Song 5,” Haim delivered an hour-long hit parade, and a masterclass in guitar rock via R&B viscosity. Bonus points to Este’s rabble-rousing stage banter and uninhibited rubber-face while plucking the strings, and the generous thump supplied by Alana’s freestanding bass drum.

2. Jagwar Ma

Given the sheer amount of music-circa-2014 that exists in the gaps between genres, and electric/acoustic/electronic approaches, one might expect a zeitgeist-y festival like Outside Lands to reflect this sense of fusion onstage. For the most part, though, we were given the same old binary of traditionally outfitted rock bands on one hand, and laptop-driven hip-hop and electronica on the other. Australia’s Jagwar Ma, however, bucked that trend by supplying the biggest patch of middle-ground at the entire festival. Indebted to the Ecstacy-addled dance-rock hybridization of Primal Scream, Happy Mondays, and other mainstays of the UK’s Madchester scene, the three-piece’s Saturday afternoon set at the Twin Peaks stage perfectly combined guitars, synths, and other gadgets to reflect the sugary hookiness of ’60s psychedelia and the four-on-the-floor thump of acid house, without the slightest hint of awkwardness or contrivance. Performing sequencer-based music onstage, that’s also tactile and involving, is arguably the great challenge of modern live music, and Jagwar Ma effortlessly rose to the occasion.

1. Kanye West

Kanye, who wouldn’t let photographers shoot from anywhere but the sound booth, and who performed as a silhouette for a good chunk of the set, because he is Kanye. Photo by Matthew Reamer. 

Whether you think of him as a mad-truth-speaking shepherd of pop culture, a vapid, window-dressing egomaniac, a bizarro performance artist, or a world-class troll, no one in the Grammy/VMA tier of the music world thrives on the ambiguity of their persona like Kanye West. In a landscape of major-label artists with carefully maintained PR images, delivering live shows akin to a federally regulated product, there’s a sense of uncertainty and precariousness about a Kanye performance that makes every moment captivating. Whether he was instructing the audience to “make circles!” and mosh during one of three playthroughs of “Blood on the Leaves,” freestyle-autotuning for 10 minutes over a bare piano track with video of a waterfall in the background, slipping his Robocop helmet/mirrorball mask on and off, or stopping midway through “Clique” for an impromptu rant aimed at the media that scrutinizes his every move, one couldn’t shake the palpable feeling that this train just might derail at any moment. Both tightly curated, and seemingly hanging by a thread, Friday night’s headlining set was bewildering and exhilarating in equal measure. In other words: pure, unfiltered Kanye.

“This ain’t no radio shit. This ain’t no shit made to please motherfuckers. This ain’t no concierge, maitre d’ music and shit trying to sound smooth as possible,” West declared during one of numerous manifesto-ish rants between songs, presumably referring to the lean, grating electro-thrash of last year’s hugely divisive Yeezus. That record made its mark with renditions of “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” and “Bound 2,” and largely defined the show’s aesthetic, to the chagrin of many a festival-bro pining for “that 2007 shit” circa Graduation. Crowd-pleasers like “Good Life,” “Jesus Walks,” and “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” acted as a welcome counterweight to Yeezus’ radical aggression while putting that album’s adventurousness in perspective. As suggested by the solid, monumental blocks of color on the projection screens, Kanye’s presence was commanding and singular when the fragility of his ego didn’t get the best of him.

Explaining the reasoning behind his continued use of autotune, Kanye declared, “Same thing as Andy Warhol said: it’s easier.” Much like Warhol, or punk rock, the cultural import of Kanye’s current output lies more in the values and attitudes it represents, and the debate it generates, than its actual content. His set certainly wasn’t the festival’s most competent, nor its strongest on purely musical terms. But as pure spectacle, and as a launching pad for contemplation and discussion about the value of “art” and where it’s going, Kanye’s set reigned supreme. “It’s Yeezy season,” whether you like it or not.


Honorable mentions

Flaming Lips. Photo by Brittany Powell.

Despite recent rumors of intra-member infighting, and allegations of Wayne Coyne being a racist asshole in the midst of a druggy midlife crisis, the Flaming Lips put on a stellar, perfectly charming show. Their signature, jerry-rigged stage theatrics were as gloriously gimmicky as ever, and their musicianship onstage has rarely been tighter. Their closing cover of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” brought out SF’s fearlessly freaky vibes like nothing else at the festival.

Petty, bein’ Petty. Photo by Brittany Powell.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers delivered two hours of faithful takes on 40-ish years worth of rock anthems. So faithful, in fact, that the whole set seemed weirdly copied and pasted from an FM station at some dad’s backyard barbecue. A solid set, nothing more or less; lthough, the high standard set in years past by headliners like Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder left a bit of star-power to be desired in the headlining slot.

Disclosure. Photo by Matthew Reamer.

Disclosure, the UK house revivalists whose hugely successful debut, Settle, can be heard over intercoms in Apple stores and Uniqlo franchises across America, drew an uncommonly huge crowd to the main stage for a Friday afternoon. Despite the undeniable quality of anthems like “When a Fire Starts to Burn” and “Help Me Lose My Mind,” the lack of live vocals and the inherent dullness of watching two dudes mess with laptops made for a slightly underwhelming set.

The Queen of Bounce herself, Big Freedia. Photo by Matthew Reamer.

Big Freedia lent her party-rap talents to the GastroMagic stage, while Brenda’s French Soul Food made beignets for a handful of hungry, twerking audience members. A low-key but surreal collaboration that resembled a wacko “happening” more than a standard festival show, hinting at the new food-centric stage’s full potential.

Stray observations:

Described as a “gourmet” festival like no other, Outside Lands had some shockingly tasty food options to offer this year. Wise Sons’ Deli’s “Pastrami Cheese Fries” and Michelin-starred AQ’s “Highbrow Spaghetti Sloppy Joes” were prime examples of smartly, expertly crafted dishes that still felt unpretentious and festival-ready.

Beer, beer, and more beer! Given the Bay Area’s distinction as one of the world’s epicenters of quality and invention in craft beer, the polo field’s Beer Lands station rose to the occasion admirably. A good selection of highly drinkable, floral “session IPAs” (from Sierra Nevada, Firestone Walker, and Stone), robust porters and stouts (most notably High Water’s s’mores-flavored Campfire Stout), and even barrel-aged brews (Fort Point’s Westfalia, a complexly funky take on an amber ale) presented just a few of many options.

Outside Lands detritus, after the storm. Photo by Matthew Reamer.

Too bad Ireland’s CHVRCHES had to C@NC€L after getting stuck at customs in Vancouver. I was excited to see what all the fuss was about.

One of Kanye’s many rants touched on the poison of negative criticism, and the press’ fixation on identifying the flaws in well-intentioned art. Going into Outside Lands, I promised myself to focus on the positive, to give each and every band the benefit of the doubt. However, the Killers gave me no choice but to break that rule.

What is this, 2004? What business do the Killers (a band that’s spent over a decade coasting on the fumes of its debut LP) have headlining a festival that prides itself on the relevancy of its lineup? We don’t see the Pitchfork Festival giving its premier slot to the likes of Interpol anymore. Also, how has this band (surely Las Vegas’ least hedonistic export) earned headlining power with its brand of aggressively “inspirational” secular Christian rock with no undertow of mischief, adventure, or much of anything? They couldn’t even cover Creedence’s “Bad Moon Rising” without giving off a big whiff of American Idol sterility. Sure, the synthesizers in the background make for some nicely textured rock music, but U2, even Coldplay, deliver the same goods far more substantially.

If the Killers were the “best choice” for Sunday night’s headliner, either 100 more worthy bands were busy, or the Outside Lands booking department could use some fresh blood. It’s 2014. There are bigger, fresher fish to fry.

Photo by Matthew Reamer.

Disagree? Have at us in the comments. We didn’t mean to insult your whimsical animal hat.

Find some poetry



In a world populated by all too many singer-songwriters, where guitar ballads seem to have exhausted all their possibilities, Mark Kozelek continues to confound and disarm audiences. From his harmonically rich open-tunings, to his spacious, deeply resonant vocals, there’s a lush quality to Kozelek’s recorded output that’s rarely found in such unadorned, acoustically driven music. It’s no wonder, then, that his formative recordings with Red House Painters in the ’90s made room for a singer-songwriter’s approach on the 4AD label, defined by its densely-layered, heavily electronic atmospherics.

Kozelek’s subsequent recordings as Sun Kil Moon have gradually pared the layers down further. Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003) traded the dreamy, slowcore tendencies of the Red House Painters’ discography for a more physical, earthbound approach, reflected in its overarching theme of boxers throughout history. Its 14-minute opus, “Duk Koo Kim” remains Kozelek’s most full-bodied, musically vibrant work to date. April (2008) leaned more heavily on extended compositions, maintaining the luminous, shimmering quality of his previous work, despite its starker instrumentation. With the introduction of his own label, Caldo Verde Records, Kozelek — who’ll be performing at Noise Pop March 1 — was given the leeway to pursue other avenues, from full albums of AC/DC and Modest Mouse covers to a collection of live releases that continues to grow with jam band-worthy prolificacy.

The release of Admiral Fell Promises (2010) marked a significant turning point in Kozelek’s career, with a nylon-string acoustic guitar providing its sole instrumentation, while 2012’s Among the Leaves announced a jarring shift in his lyrical style, finding inspiration in an off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness approach, a focus on the mundane, and a tendency towards blunt honesty: most infamously, deriding his audience as a bunch of “guys in tennis shoes.” These past couple records have found Kozelek in a transitional period, grasping for something slightly beyond his reach and, as a result, they weren’t as deeply satisfying or rewarding as his best work.

With the release of this year’s Benji, however, all is forgiven. Here, the desolate instrumentation and frank lyricism of his recent output is instilled with a greater sense of purpose. It’s Kozelek’s most autobiographical work to date, as well as his saddest. Death looms over each song. Good people die in freak accidents before their time, while criminals die of old age. Despite his determination to “find some poetry to make some sense of this, and give some deeper meaning,” as stated on the record’s opening track “Carissa,” the banalities found on Among the Leaves continue to show themselves. Panera Bread is mentioned at least twice, while a trip to Berkeley’s Greek Theatre can’t be recounted without a reference to the back pain-inducing walk up that steep hill.

This thematic balance between tragedy, profundity, and the utterly mundane brings the listener into Kozelek’s thought process in the rawest, most unrefined way imaginable. His lyrical style here is jarringly straightforward, approaching character studies with blunt language, and little need for metaphor. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is an obvious comparison, in its bleakly worded yet ultimately dignified portrayals of humanity at its messiest and most desperate.

“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” tells the story of the California serial killer dying on his own terms, while “Pray for Newtown” eulogizes shooting victims who met their ends too soon. “Dogs” explores the dark side of young love, in all its humiliation and emotional turmoil, with startling intimacy and brutal honesty. The boomer-rock of “I Love My Dad” mercifully, yet briefly, lightens the mood, while the record’s 10-minute centerpiece, “I Saw the Film the Song Remains the Same” strikes a gorgeous balance between the central themes of brooding meditations on death, and casual observations of life.


“The way this song drifts in and out of different realities and memories is a lot like the movies,” Kozelek wrote in a recent piece for the New York Times, “weaving documentary, imagination and memory throughout, always coming back to the music.”

“I loved the thunder of John Bonham’s drums,” Kozelek sings, describing his experience watching Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same at the theater as a teenager, “but even more I liked ‘No Quarter”s low Fender Rhodes hum.” In reflecting upon his preference for Zeppelin’s balladry over its rock pyrotechnics, he draws a connection to the melancholy that has defined his life from a young age. From the deaths of relatives and mere acquaintances that continue to haunt him, to his first record deal, with the similarly downcast 4AD label that helped reinforce his identity, Kozelek expands on one small anecdote to encompass the profundities of life, with a deftness of prose that his entire career has seemingly been working toward.

In spite of occasional contributions from singer-songwriter Will Oldham, former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, and Advance Base keyboardist Owen Ashworth, Kozelek’s nylon-string fingerpicking remains squarely at the heart of this record, along with the ever-increasing rasp of his voice. More than any album in Kozelek’s deep catalog, Benji lends itself intuitively to his solo live strategy, making this coming Saturday’s Noise Pop appearance at the Great American Music Hall absolutely essential to understanding the inspiration and motivation behind one of the Bay Area’s finest living songwriters.

Noise Pop: An Evening with Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon & Red House Painters

Sat/1, 8pm, $28

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF



Pixies 2.0


There’s something to be said for recording four great, distinctive albums, and quitting while you’re ahead. This live-fast/die-fast approach worked wonders for the Velvet Underground’s legacy and influence, and one might say it served the Pixies’ notoriously frenetic rock explorations equally well.

While the renowned Boston group has been on the reunion circuit for nearly a decade now, coasting on the fumes of its brief, yet potent, back-catalogue, the prospect of new material has always seemed like an improbable dream of overeager fans. (After all, their last record, Trompe Le Monde, saw its release on the same day as Nirvana’s earthshaking Nevermind in 1991.)

But then, out of nowhere, one day last September, came EP-1, a self-released, digitally distributed four-song set that the blogosphere proceeded to pounce on and dissect instantaneously. While Pitchfork, among other tastemakers, complained of dubious quality, it was clear: With one bold move, the Pixies were no longer mere revivalists, but a full-on band once again.

Next Friday, at Oakland’s Fox Theater, will mark the Pixies’ first Bay Area show in support of fresh material in over two decades, in a performance that should test the band’s ability to blend the old and the new convincingly.

Characterized by the erratic vocals and twisty songwriting of bandleader Black Francis, the angular guitar-work of Joey Santiago, the rock-solid drumming of David Lovering, and the alternately sweet and snarly backing vocals of bassist Kim Deal (who left the band last year, without warning, during the EP-1 sessions), the Pixies remain one of the most impactful, singular groups from the transitional period between rock’s punk and indie movements.

From the initial jolt of the Come On Pilgrim EP (1987), to the devastating four-album punch of Surfer Rosa (1988), Doolittle (1989), Bossanova (1990), and Trompe Le Monde (1991), the band’s signature balance of abrasion and tenderness continues to permeate the rock world incalculably. Radiohead has repeatedly admitted their indebtedness to the Pixies’ sound, while Kurt Cobain contended that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” might not have been written without it. As Deerhunter, TV on the Radio, and the end credits to Fight Club continue to prove, the Pixies’ influence remains powerful as ever.

After calling it quits in ’92, the band regrouped in 2004 (to many a fan’s surprise) for a reunion tour that was only to last a year. After one year turned to five, and a front-to-back Doolittle tour stretched the revival to the seven-year mark, the four members came to a realization.

“We all looked at ourselves and said, ‘Wait a minute, hold on. We’ve been a band longer during this reunion than we were initially,'” Lovering told the Bay Guardian from a tour stop in Washington, D.C.

“There was talk of doing new material, but with all this nonstop touring, nothing came to fruition until maybe about two years ago. We stopped touring, started writing stuff, and then we went and did it.”

Just last month, the Pixies landed another sucker punch with EP-2, the band’s second release since last September, while rumors of an impending EP-3 have begun to circulate since then. Produced by Gil Norton, who’s worked on every Pixies release since Surfer Rosa, the newly released EPs bear a fuller, rounder, warmer sound than any of the band’s past work, while leaving Francis’ erratic songwriting and the group’s off-kilter dynamics largely intact.

“Blue Eyed Hexe” strongly recalls the cowbell-addled thump of “U-Mass,” while “Greens and Blues” brings to mind the zigzagging chord progressions of “Where Is My Mind?”. “What Goes Boom” evokes the surfy explorations of Bossanova, while “Indie Cindy” and “Andro Queen” approach the jangly sensibility of “Here Comes Your Man,” before going unpredictably down their respective paths.

“We just like to drop surprises, I guess,” Santiago explains, while on tour in Durham, N.C. “We just try and do something different out there. And I think we might be one of the first ones to do this…you know, doing a series of EPs.”

Speaking of surprises, the band was dealt a serious blow during the sessions for the EP series, when Deal left the band unexpectedly, for reasons she has declined to elaborate on in the months since. The former bandleader of the Breeders, whose bass lines and soft backing vocals proved integral to the Pixies equation in their contrast to Francis’ manic wail, Deal left a sizable void behind upon departing the group.

“When Kim did leave, we didn’t know what to do,” Lovering explains. “We were in a lurch, and we were thinking, should we get a guy bass player? Or should we quit the band? Or whatever. But, what the Pixies is is a masculine/feminine thing. It’s always been that yin and yang, especially with the vocals. That’s just part of the Pixies. So that’s what we had to do. We had to get a female, you know? We’re keeping with that.”

After hiring Kim Shattuck of the Muffs to assume Deal’s spot for a brief European tour, the three core members made the decision to move forward with Paz Lenchantin, the former bassist for A Perfect Circle.

“Paz is fantastic,” Lovering mentions. “She’s so good, she’s making me play better. I really have to watch how I’m playing, and keep it up. But it’s wonderful; it just sounds very powerful and precise. And her vocals are incredible, as well.”

“Not to diminish Kim,” Santiago says. “We miss her very dearly, but after a while, you know, life goes on. The hard reality is, good is good, and Paz is a real bass player. She’s a pro.” So how might Lenchantin approach Deal’s signature tracks like “Gigantic,” “Silver,” and “Havalina”? How keenly will Deal’s absence be felt? Aside from the prospect of hearing new material played live, Lenchantin’s introduction to the Pixies leaves more questions to be answered than any other element surrounding next Friday’s show.

Faced with a lineup change that smacks of uncertainty and transition, and the mixed critical response to their first new music in 22 years, Francis, Lovering, and Santiago have more to prove this time around than ever before. Yet Lovering contends that this unstable territory is just what the Pixies need after a decade of celebrating  past glories.

“I don’t think we could’ve toured anymore, just going on this reunion kind of stuff. We just needed to do something new.”

Fri/21: Pixies

With Best Coast

8pm, $55 (sold out)

Fox Theater

1807 Telegraph, Oak.

(510) 302-2250


The worst music beats the best bomb: A conversation with legendary composer Van Dyke Parks


“Yours falsely!” Van Dyke Parks chimes, as he picks up the phone at home in Pasadena, where the weather is “room temperature.” He adds, “all we have is the attorneys. Get rid of them, and we can have another perfect day.”

Right away, the veteran composer’s way with words resembles his musical sensibility: whimsical, scattered with detail, and liable to make left turns at a moment’s notice. From his lyrics for Brian Wilson’s legendary SMiLE project, to his orchestral arrangements that have served generations of artists (Ry Cooder, Harry Nilsson, Little Feat, Medicine, Joanna Newsom, and Skrillex, to name a few), to his quietly revolutionary solo records that balance Americana and cosmopolitanism, with panoramic scope and whiplash dynamics, Parks’ nonlinear, all-embracing approach to sound has extended pop and rock’s self-imposed limitations as facelessly, yet unmistakably, as that of any American musician alive.

With the release of last year’s wonderful Songs Cycled (his first LP of new material since 1989’s Tokyo Rose) Parks is as focused and driven as ever before, even at age 71. This Sunday, Parks will add to his ever-growing list of collaborators, with a one-off performance at Oakland’s Malonga Casquelord Center featuring LA musician-composer Matt Montgomery, and the Bay Area’s joyfully independent Awesöme Orchestra.

Montgomery, a young musician, whose first exposure to Parks’ arrangements came in the form of Silverchair’s Diorama (2002), has also taken a multifaceted approach to his career, supplying vocals and guitar for the pop punk-tinged three-piece Versus Them, arranging and composing scores for television and film, and developing software (most recently Rocksmith 2014 by Ubisoft) centered around guitar instruction. This weekend’s show will celebrate the release of Montgomery’s debut EP, Petty Troubles: a set of McCartney-esque pop songs recorded in a single day with 30 Bay Area musicians, and accompanied by a documentary film chronicling the zippy creative process.

“I’m really excited to have a package to hand someone, and say, ‘this is me,’” Montgomery tells the Bay Guardian from his parents’ home in San Rafael, where he’s staying during a week of rehearsals leading up to Sunday’s concert, describing the rapidly produced EP as “homemade, but slick at the same time.”

Similarly homemade/slick, casually organized, yet seriously proficient, the Awesöme Orchestra’s approach fits intuitively with those of Montgomery and Parks. A volunteer ensemble with monthly rehearsals, and a repertoire ranging from Mozart, to Terry Riley, to Daft Punk, the group has crossed genre boundaries consistently since its formation last spring, challenging orchestral music’s inherent elitism at every juncture. Sunday’s show will begin with a set from Parks, with Montgomery on guitar, followed by a performance of Montgomery’s Petty Troubles in its entirety. The Awesöme Orchestra will back both musicians, in a lineup that can be expected to deliver maximalist results. “Big is back!” Parks declares. “This is not going to be a ‘think small’ concert. It’s gonna be ‘think big.’”

How did Parks, a living legend among composers, come to join forces with a relatively low-key figure like Montgomery, and a joyfully unorthodox ensemble like the Awesöme Orchestra? I spoke at length with Parks earlier this week about this project’s inception, his return to solo work on Songs Cycled, 50 years of arrangements for pop’s finest, and why he doesn’t like to hear guitar solos while traveling in Czechoslovakia.

SFBG What’s your role in this upcoming performance?

VDP I’m trying to blow some wind in the sails of a youth symphony. That’s a euphemism I use. I’m 71, so anything is youthful. [Laughs.] I will be the oldest thing in the room, I promise you. But, the idea is to bring attention to [the Awesöme Orchestra]. I love the way they spelled… you know the way they spell their name?

SFBG Yeah! With the umlaut over the “ö”, there.

VDP Yeah! The conductor is Dave Möschler. I’m not sure there will be a mosh pit, but at any rate, I’m very impressed with their umlaut.

SFBG What’s your experience with the Awesöme Orchestra, as well as [Montgomery], and how did this collaboration get off the ground?

VDP Well, I’ll tell you something. I met Matt Montgomery at my daughter’s wedding reception in Berkeley. This is maybe five years ago. I know his dad, who’s a celebrated Bay Area musician. So, I was already sold on him. But, I was impressed with the fact that he… reaches out to this acoustic world of instruments that I like to celebrate, in the rock arena, or with pop music. He referred me to [Möschler], and pointed out that its a hard-scrabble thing for musicians. These people, they get together once a month, to just celebrate the fact that they can all play their asses off. Everything from Beethoven, to John Williams… I know they do the overture to Candide, which is one of my favorite pieces.

So he said, “Hey man, let’s get together. What do you need?” I said, I don’t know. I could use a stand-up bassist, five french horns, four trombones. And then he says, “no, how many musicians would you like?” I say, “what do you want? I’ve got the music.” And so, we’re going for, “big”. Big is back. [Laughs.] This is not going to be a “think small” concert. It’s gonna be “think big.” And yeah, I’m delighted. I’m excited. I get to bring a lot of music out of my trunk, bring it up there, and they can blow their brains out. Man, this’ll be great. I don’t know what this set will be… 40 minutes or so, I guess. I have all the music in the world. I have some charts I’ve done for orchestras in Europe, and most recently Australia for a much larger group. But, the point is, I have the charts. Most of them come from the charts that I have in my musical library. Most of it comes from the opportunities I’ve had in film scoring, or in doing albums. And that’s when there was such a thing called “patronage.” There is no patronage now. But, a lot of it, I have simply done for performances, and reconfiguring things that I have recorded, or want to. It’ll be ear candy. It’ll be a fine show.

SFBG Have you had much experience in the past, working with ensembles that are a bit more loosely organized, or less traditional in their approach, like the Awesöme Orchestra? How do you feel ensembles like that facilitate your compositions differently?

VDP That’s an incisive question, because it’s true: most orchestras, let’s call them “legit” orchestras, when they do stuff with pop, or popular musicians, usually it’s wallpaper. Orchestral wallpaper. It’s very ho-hum. But there are some groups that I’ve worked with (the Metropole Orkest in Holland, the Britten Sinfonia in London, I just worked with the Adelaide Symphony) that have a much more inquiring, loose-knit approach, and I like that a lot. I like the idea that they’re trying to bring real interest, and with no fear of what we think of as lowbrow. I think that’s an important ingredient.

I just worked in a Beck concert. I had heightened expectations, and I don’t know for sure that I was any happier about it than the L.A. Philharmonic, who was playing the work. It’s a hit-or-miss thing, but I sense with this group, because of what they’ve tackled, they have a real appetite for real music that matters, and there’s no elitism about it. It’s not elite. And so, to me, they’re like quality folk, and I want to go that way. Matt told me, it’s pro-bono, and I thought, you know, maybe I’ll get a chance to meet Cher, even if her husband isn’t there. [Laughs.] I was making a joke, but it turns out Sonny will not be there, but it is pro-bono. Anyway, I’m very happy about it.


SFBG What about [Montgomery’s] approach to music, or his compositions, really caught your attention initially?

VDP To me, he’s somebody who has the ability to keep reinventing himself. I think this is his first invention, but I suspect that he will make many more. So, you know, I have great respect for him. And, he’s modest. That’s a very desirable rarity. [Also], it’s what he has done with the song form. I feel like I’m in flight formation with him. We both approach that same chamber music sensibility. He likes all kinds of instruments, and I think that shows. And there’s no big taboo about eclecticism. He’s got a big sense of adventure, and I think there are a lot of people that have that now, that I respect.

Yesterday, Rufus Wainwright was over here. I’ve met a young kid, much younger, called Gabriel Kahane, who’s also done a lot of exploration. [I’ve worked] for Joanna Newsom… and a guy by the name of Sondre Lerche: I did an arrangement for him last month. And then, Efterklang, a group you can’t pronounce over here, but they’re very fine. So I kind of gravitate toward people of a new generation, who really aren’t afraid of acoustics, and to mash them up with electronica sometimes. You know, I think it just shows a great deal of inquiry and freethinking, and I like that.

SFBG Your music has an omnivorous quality to it, eating up everything in its path, appropriating the highbrow, the lowbrow, and a lot in between. Are there some people you’ve heard recently who you admire for having a similar perspective?

VDP I think every artist has a primary obligation, and that is to be true to the self. Anything of artistic merit is self-revelatory. It reveals the self; that’s what it does. I’ve heard a whole bunch of stuff. I didn’t just grow up listening to music post-Elvis Presley. I’ve listened to music from the ages, and that’s reflected in who I am. But, the work I’ve done as a recording artist has been a training ground for me, and it has trained me how to serve others, and I’m happy in both those worlds.

Right now, I’m writing an arrangement for Kimbra. She’s 23, and one of the smartest musicians I’ve ever met. That music, it must be seamless, and serve her, and my role in that must be invisible, and yet somehow very pivotal to how she sounds. It’s decidedly an arena that I don’t appear in, myself, in my own works. It’s… techno. Super laptop info comes out of that woman, and I’m so happy with it. I love it all. I love every bit of it. My favorite songwriter is entirely different from me. His name is Paolo Conte. He is, to me, the greatest songwriter of my time, and he’s Italian. I don’t speak a word of Italian, but somehow, I get it.

You mentioned the collaborative aspect with Kimbra. When it comes to arranging or producing music for other people, do you ever experience tension between accentuating someone’s work, and imposing a certain brand on it? Do you try to approach your collaborations with a consistent balance between those two?

VDP I don’t come to the conclusion that I’ve imprinted, or put my brand, on anyone else. I think, at best, I’ve magnified who they were, or perhaps sharpened the image they were trying to present. I think that’s the job of an arranger. It’s a matter of immersion in the work. I don’t like to call it collaboration. I think that arranging frames a work, if anything. At best, it brings a proscenium to the work, without imposing any further brand. I like that idea, of recognizing each artist as a maverick, somehow unbranded, and maintaining that. That’s a hard job.

It’s like working for a director who says, “this picture needs a lot of music,” rather than a director who says, “it’s about the flutes in bar 43.” It’s almost like being given complete freedom, and suffering the burden that puts on you. I mean, to be given liberty to arrange is, like, somebody’s handing you a hand in a birthing process, almost. It’s like, “here’s my baby.” So that’s the way I feel about it. Some people think they know when I’ve been in the room with a songwriter. But, I don’t think that’s because I have a brand. I think that’s because there’s very little work being done in arranging, anymore. And, the reason for that is that there aren’t that many people that can afford a few strings. I think that’s the truth.

SFBG Are there any arrangements you’ve done for musicians in the past, where you really saw your sensibility gelling with theirs, and something really nice resulting from that?

VDP Well, I loved working for Ry Cooder on his first record. That was pioneering work, you know, to put a mandolin (that’s a very soft instrument) in a room full of brass and strings, and so forth, and to have it heard. That was when we were just learning those possibilities in recording existed. So, I’m real happy with that. I’m happy that I worked for five weeks on arranging an album for Inara George [An Invitation, 2008], and it took us nine hours to record it. And then, once again, she gave me a voice and a guitar, and then when I did the orchestra, she threw the guitar away.

One person, I think a dear heart from the San Francisco Chronicle, thought it was a very confusing… he said, listening to a Van Dyke Parks arrangement is like being, oh, tossed out to sea. Because, it was highly syncopated. I forget who insulted me, [Aidin Vaziri, for the record] but he forgot to pay attention to the artist, Inara. So, win some, lose some. Make some up in double-headers. You know, to me, it’s the most glorious way I could spend a life, and I have no complaints. I’ve been very fortunate. I know so many people, far more talented than I am, who haven’t had the opportunity to hear what they write, and, my heart… I can’t express my gratitude for this, and for the opportunity to end up someplace like with the Awesöme Orchestra.

There’s a group in Holland. Actually, it’s a nation filled with small groups like this: volunteer, young groups from teens to 30s, and really able players. It’s called the Ricciotti Ensemble, and they’ve done several of my arrangements, and they are totally off the wall, out of the park, inventive. And, you know, to be among the people they have played… they’ve played Zappa, they’ve played Stravinsky, and they’ve played me. Just to say, you know, I could never go back and recover or change a note that I’ve written, that is splayed publicly, but you know, it just makes me feel more like moving forward, and pursuing this thing called arranging.


SFBG You were just in Australia. Are you familiar with an outfit called the Avalanches, by chance?

VDP Oh, yes! I love them. Darren Seltmann: I’ve had some good social time with him down there. Very bright, wonderful people. Why did you bring them up?

SFBG I’ve always noticed a little parallel between your work and theirs. There’s a panoramic way that their music moves, and the way it shifts between music you’d classify as highbrow and lowbrow… this really democratic approach to different forms of music. I think electronic, sample-based music in general has a way of facilitating the impulse to use everything, but on the other hand, you have a focus on rapid production, and doing things quickly, and maybe not arranging things as meticulously…

VDP I’m very honored that you would even make that comparison, as I think a lot of them. But, I’ll tell you: there’s a case in point. Two great arrangements that I’ve done that I’m really happy with, and somehow, in spite of myself, I just sailed right through them: one was a trio for Sam Phillips, called “Wasting My Time.” Three cellos… I added three cellos to her basic track. Then, she threw out the basic track, and all you can hear is three cellos. Never done a better job. Another one, for a fellow by the name of Peter Case… He did a song once, called “Small Town Spree,” a quartet. Somehow or another, hot as a whore’s dream, this thing really sailed.

I can’t say that about all the work I’ve done. There’ve been some pieces of smaller consequence to me, that’ve been giant orchestrations. But, somehow or another, if you weigh an arrangement as if, instead of thinking of it as simple or complex, but if you think of an arrangement as an instrument to bring out some truth, and also to somehow add plausibility to the emotional content in the song, that, to me, that’s something of value. Don’t put it in terms of, complexity as just to be able to use every instrument as economically as possible, to get to the target, which is, of course, the heart of some casual observer.

SFBG Is there anyone you dream of arranging for, or think you’d work especially well with?

VDP There’s nobody that I’d exclude. I did enjoy the Skrillex situation. I enjoy the improbabilities. There’s some Brazilian artists that I would like to work for. I just… they called me the curator of a record called Bamboula by Tom McDermott (2013), and I introduced him to Jules Selwan. He’s really my favorite New Orleans pianist, and I’d like to adorn his work orchestrally. But there are many directions to go in, and a lot of things in discussion, and among them, theater. I have an unfulfilled fascination with musical theater. Not like any theater that I’ve heard, really, but I’m pursuing that. Hey, the rent’s paid this month. What could be wrong?

SFBG About Songs Cycled, and some of your newer material: I was reading an interview you did after working on Ys (2006), by Joanna Newsom. Back then you maybe seemed surprised that she’d have pursued you based on a real fascination with Song Cycle in particular. Now, in 2014, your debut album enjoys its best reputation maybe ever; you have two new issues of SMiLE by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys; and now there’s this new record: your first of new material since the late ’80s, being discussed as a companion piece to your debut. Would you say you might have more confidence in your early material, or its reception, than you did 10 years ago?

VDP Well, no. I don’t think I have any more confidence. I think I’m more decidedly deer-in-the-headlights than ever before. I’m 71 years old, and I think a lot of reporters would ask…it’s the nature of their event in journalism…“What’s new?” they say. Well, I like what’s old, too, and nobody asks what’s old. But, I’m here to tell you: what’s old begins with me. [Laughs.]

There is an element in what I do…I’m trying to prove to myself that I can do everything I could do, with the athleticism of my youth. For me to move my fingers… and I do move my fingers, unlike a lot of pianists who are famous. I actually move my fingers. It is athletic. This year, I had hand surgery for trigger finger. I was on a table for two hours, in San Francisco. I came up to San Francisco to find the best doctor, and I got him. And I want to tell you something: it was a major event in my life, and so just going out and playing what’s old is obviously very novel, very frightening, and very confirming, too. As far as the record is concerned, the album I just put out last year… to me, a lot of that invention was born of things which have appeared post-9/11. These songs are darker, and I’m not so obsessed with keeping it light, but to admitting what is dark. I made every effort to make it beautiful, but this is not the world I wanted to come out of the ‘60s. I wanted a better world.

If King had lived, if Kennedy had lived, I really feel we would be in a less materialistic, less racially polarized, and economically polarized country. So, there is a tremendous obligation to move forward, and to get pushy with lyrics, and to shake people up, and I attempt to do that. I don’t think it should be obtuse. I still try to maintain a little bit of decorum, you know. I don’t want to get anybody mad But, I like to think we are moving forward, and that my work helps illuminate.

SFBG Would you say you feel a similar disillusionment with the state of affairs now, culturally and politically, to what you might have back then?

VDP Well, there’s an admission of dashed expectations. I have come to learn that people are born to disappoint, and so often meet that expectation. For example, I did a song, and I was criticized for it, for revisiting a song called “The All Golden,” I did on my first record. I stripped it down on this album. But, I think an underpinning consideration to this recent work is, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And I think in many ways, certainly sociopolitically, we have descended.

I think that we’re still a democracy, but we’re a wounded democracy in the face of the plutocracy: the incredible wealth that is centralized among so few. It’s funny, my answers to any question you might have seem tremendously, maybe, mannered or arrogant in a way. You have to accept that I believe that the song form is that important, and that is job one: to make songs that matter. One time, I wrote a song called “Out of Love.” It was an affectionate salute to my wife. She said, “when are you gonna write a love song?” [Laughs.] So, I have come as close as I could to love songs… but now, you see, there’s something else that I have to prioritize, because time is my only enemy. There’s only so much time.

SFBG You mentioned the importance of the song form. Do you feel like there are lots of missed opportunities to aspire to something bigger in modern music artistically, politically, etc.?

VDP I’ll tell you something. I like all kinds of songs. They don’t have to meet my expectations. I try to keep an open heart about what I hear. Honestly, I listen to a lot of music that cannot be branded first-world-pop-culture. I don’t really pay too much attention to folks who theorize from positions of privilege. I don’t listen to a lot of rock ’n’ roll. When I’m in Czechoslovakia, the last thing I want to do is hear a guitar solo by a man who maybe loves Mick Jagger. This is not the world I inhabit, musically. But the worst music, to me, beats the best bomb. The dumbest music is better than the smartest bomb. And, when I start to feel critical of some musician, I try to remind myself: “At least these people are not in munition. They’re not making bombs.” And I try to be merciful. I have a great respect for all kinds of music, as long as it’s well designed.

SFBG Is there any advice you’d like to offer to young people making music right now?

VDP Yeah, I would. Always remember, your best work is ahead of you. It must be. Don’t seek immediate praise. Don’t be crippled by condemnation. It may teach something. So basically, the fundamentals apply: be true to yourself. That’s been enough for me. It hasn’t made me a corporate wonder, but it’s satisfied our family, and it’s easier than the alternative, as telling the truth is easier than trying to remember which lie you told. I’m very happy with the result so far. I’m just petrified about what mayhem could take place on Sunday. To me, live performance is very much like that. The stakes are high. It is, to me, like aerial ballet, without a net, and it’s not safe. There’s nothing safe about it. But, I’m a tough old bird; I can take it.

Sun/26: Van Dyke Parks with Matt Montgomery and Awesome Orchestra
4pm, $15-45
Malonga Casquelord Center
1428 Alice, Oak.
(510) 238-7526

Year in Music 2013: Taylor Kaplan’s top 10s



1. My Bloody Valentine: m b v

2. Dean Blunt: The Redeemer

3. Julia Holter: Loud City Song

4. No Joy: Wait to Pleasure

5. Oneohtrix Point Never: R Plus Seven

6. Boards of Canada: Tomorrow’s Harvest

7. Kanye West: Yeezus

8. David Bowie: The Next Day

9. inc: no world

10. Yatha Bhuta Jazz Combo: s/t


1. My Bloody Valentine: “who sees you”

2. Bibio: “A tout a l’heure”

3. Hannah Diamond: “Pink and Blue”


4. No Joy: “Hare Tarot Lies”

5. The Knife: “Raging Lung”

6. Oneohtrix Point Never: “Zebra”

7. Machinedrum: “Center Your Love”

8. Disclosure: “Defeated No More”

9. Dutch Uncles: “Nometo”


10. Justin Timberlake: “Spaceship Coupe”

Blitzkrieg what?



MUSIC The progression of party-rock champion Andrew W.K.’s career reads less like a linear trajectory than a whirlwind of bizarre, hilarious, and downright enviable undertakings. After he started out as a keyboardist in New York’s avant-garde circles, and built his reputation with a handful of ecstatic butt-rock records (most notably 2001’s I Get Wet, featuring that iconic nosebleed on its cover), W.K.’s biography plunged into full-on chaos mode.

From new-age piano improviser on 2009’s 55 Cadillac, to kids’ game-show host on Cartoon Network’s Destroy Build Destroy, to celebrity ambassador of Playtex Fresh + Sexy Wipes, to valiant record-setter for Longest Drum Session in a Retail Store after this year’s much-blogged 24 Hour Drum Marathon, predicting W.K.’s next move over the past decade has proved futile. Yet, his latest gig might be the most wonderfully surprising of all: assuming the bandleader role in the latest incarnation of punk-rock legends, the Ramones.

Marky Ramone’s Blitzkrieg, featuring W.K. on lead vocals, will hit the Independent this Saturday night, introducing a new twist in the Ramones’ storied legacy.

Speaking to the Bay Guardian over the phone from St. Louis, on his second US tour stop as the band’s de-facto Joey figure, W.K. sets his zany, carefree party persona aside, revealing himself as both humbled and starstruck at the reality of leading the band he’s idolized for so many years.

“It’s a combination of feeling on top of the world, because dreams just keep coming true, and terrified by the magnitude of how fantastic the opportunity is, and also, not embarrassed, but just aware, of how many other people would like to have this chance to sing these songs with Marky. Why do I get it?” W.K. ponders.

“I feel very, very lucky, like I want to represent all my friends and all the people around the world that love this music so much. I feel like I’m doing this on [their] behalf, and that this opportunity is to be shared as much as possible, at least in spirit.”

Most famously led by Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy, the most iconic quadfecta of first names in rock since the Beatles, the Ramones forever changed the course of pop music, as one of the formative outfits of the punk rock movement. The songs, from “Blitzkrieg Bop,” to “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” to “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” were hedonistic in their intent, and radically economical in their structure and duration, feeding directly into the party mindset W.K. would adopt decades afterward.

Their records, from the skeletal beginnings of Leave Home and Rocket to Russia in 1977, to the Phil Spector-produced technicolor pop of End of the Century in 1980, certainly marked an artistic progression, but W.K. thinks of it differently.

“All the albums are just this big explosion of inspired genius. It’s hard to even break it apart. I don’t want to break it apart, actually. I just like thinking of the whole thing as just this one phenomenon.

“[The Ramones are] so singular. They’re so completely self-actualized, that just them standing there screams this certain feeling, and no one else has it… When we play live, it almost feels as if the show is one song.”

While Marky Ramone didn’t join the band until partway through its creative explosion (he took over for Tommy on drums in ’78, after several stints with the Misfits and Richard Hell & the Voidoids), he continues to keep the Ramones legacy alive, as its last remaining member after the deaths of Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee, from lymphoma, prostate cancer, and a heroin overdose, respectively. W.K. is clearly inspired by Marky’s resilience, through tumultuous times that would’ve rendered positive, joyful music a near impossibility for many musicians moving forward.

“One of the most inspiring parts is his conviction to keep on going and doing all that he can to do this music, which is a cheerful kind of music,” W.K. explains. “No matter how dark aspects of the whole adventure have been, or how challenging, or how sad, or how frustrating, there was always a cheerful effort. The end result was to feel good, not bad.”

W.K. might not be the most intuitive choice to assume Joey’s position as lead singer, yet he contends that his feel-good reputation, and outspoken promotion of partying as way of life, is what captured Marky’s attention, eventually resulting in the current touring lineup.

“Marky, right away when we first met, had done some amount of research into my vibe, or whatever, and said he definitely enjoyed and appreciated the party philosophy,” W.K. says. “[However], at our first dinner together, he explained that he doesn’t want someone who would even attempt to replicate [Joey’s persona]. The shoes are impossible to fill.”

“The thing is, the music is so good, that as long as you sing the best you can, it takes care of itself. No one could ever sing like Joey, even if they tried. It’s futile. There’s no singer like him. But, the songs, as Marky says, deserve to still be played. I just serve him, serve the legacy, and most of all, the music, as best I can.”

On Saturday night, Ramones fans can expect a 30+ song set, borrowing from each of the band’s albums, from its 1976 self-titled debut, to 1995’s farewell effort, ¡Adios Amigos!. Upon W.K.’s request, Marky agreed to include a rendition of “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” from 1986’s Animal Boy, a song he heard in a NYC record store as a teenager, in the moment that cemented his Ramones fandom.

“That’s the moment during the show when I can connect all these different times,” W.K. explains, “from the first time I ever saw the Ramones, to the first time I ever heard that song, and now I’m singing it with Marky onstage. Those are the kind of moments that make life worth living. Even if you just get a few of them in your life, you’re lucky.”


With FIGO, the Meat Sluts

Sat/12, 9pm, $25


628 Divisadero, SF

(415) 771-1421



Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order altered the course of pop music, go see him live


Three decades after its initial release, New Order’s Power, Corruption, & Lies (1982) might sound deceptively ordinary. From the early ’90s successes of Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, to more recent outfits like LCD Soundsystem and Cut Copy, it’s easy to take for granted just how completely the Manchester band’s hybrid of guitar rock and sequenced dance music has permeated the modern musical landscape. Yet, as bassist and co-songwriter Peter Hook would have you believe, that fateful LP was the moment that started it all.

“New Order [was] one of the first rock bands that used dance elements, and now everybody does it,” Hook tells the Bay Guardian over the phone from a hotel room in Vancouver.

In continuation of a recent tour that featured song-for-song replications of both Unknown Pleasures (1979) and Closer (1980) by Hook’s previous band, the equally revelatory post-punk outfit Joy Division, his current ensemble, Peter Hook & the Light, is set to grace the Mezzanine stage on Fri/27 with front-to-back covers of New Order’s first two LPs, 1981’s Movement, and of course, Power, Corruption, & Lies.

Citing fellow Manchester band Primal Scream’s recent tour of its seminal 1991 LP, Screamadelica as inspiration,Hook waxed enthusiastic about the potential of front-to-back interpretations of records in the live setting.

“The idea for playing the LPs in full — which these days is a very underrated art-form, especially amongst the young — came from [Primal Scream bandleader] Bobby Gillespie… [who] simply said the reason they were playing Screamadelica in full, was because he felt that over the path of his career, he had ignored songs that were fantastic, because they were of a different mood on the album than how they played them live,” Hook explains.

“It comes down to the fact that when you play an album live, it is more challenging to listen to than a greatest hits set. I must admit, like picking at a scab on your arm or on your knee, it appeals to you for an insane reason.”

However, while many musicians revisit their back-catalogues with the intention of embellishing or refining their past work, Hook seems intent on replicating his formative LPs as faithfully as possible, right down to the production sound of Factory Records legend Martin Hannett, whose esteemed work on Unknown Pleasures, Closer, and finally Movement, bridged Joy Division and New Order as significantly as any official member of either band.

“The interesting thing about the Joy Division recordings and the first New Order recording,” Hook contends, “is that Martin Hannett actually had a lot of input on the sound and the ambience and the feel, shall we say, of the music… I [strive to be] truthful to the way the records were put together, and the little tricks that Martin used, and the sound that Martin used to immortalize those records.”

Hannett’s radical use of reverb, echo, and empty space, equally suggestive of Lee “Scratch” Perry and Berlin-era David Bowie, saturated “I.C.B,” “Senses,” and other tracks on Movement with the same sense of brittle gloom that defined signature Joy Division cuts like “She’s Lost Control,” and “Disorder.” Yet, Joy Division bandleader Ian Curtis’ suicide in 1980 (whose death motivated bandmates Hook, Bernard Sumner, and Stephen Morris to reform under the New Order moniker) left the band in a state of crisis, unable to escape Curtis’ shadow, but desperate to move on.

Movement, to me, seems like a Joy Division musical record, with New Order vocals,” Hook observes. “There is a struggle on that record, between the two bands. Now unfortunately, the biggest struggle was with Martin Hannett, [who] was very badly affected by Ian’s death, and I think the music reminded him of what he’d lost… When we came to sing, he fucking hated it. It was a real frustration for him, to have this wonderful music, and yet these… in his words, these three idiots singing.” Hook laughs.

“Because it had coincided with a rather heavy drug addiction, it was a pretty bad time for Martin, and Bernard and I did make the conscious decision that we would have to get rid of him, or he was going to have to get out on his own. That was the feeling. But, because of those feelings, and because of Martin’s attitude, the vocals on Movement were really removed, and sound very shy, very reluctant, and very distant. And that’s one thing that’s very nice about playing the album now, is that finally, you’re able to relish the music, to give the vocal a bit of oomph that only 30 years’ experience can get you.”

Aching to start afresh, Hook, Sumner, and Morris fired Hannett, whose reputation began to wane once the Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, and other bands on the Factory Records roster opted to self-produce as well. This shakeup, introduced on Power, Corruption, & Lies would result in New Order establishing its identity and purpose, as Sumner and Morris’ affinity for electronics and Hook’s penchant for rock conventions would coincide to irreversibly alter the course of pop music.

“There was a certain confidence in us [on Power, Corruption, & Lies.],” Hook says. “Bernard and Steven, in particular, threw themselves into the drum machines and the sequencers with great aplomb, and really did take it as far as they possibly could go. Them two were like kids in a toy shop. I can’t say that the approval was 100 percent on my part, because I preferred to be in a group that rocked…as opposed to waiting for the ‘click, click, click’ of the sequencers to begin. So, there was a battle between us all, but that battle actually resulted in you getting that perfect melding of rock and sequencers that now is taken for absolute granted in music.”

“Age of Consent,” “The Village,” and “Blue Monday,” (still the UK’s bestselling 12″ single of all time) rejected Hannett’s creative influence, with their seminal blend of candy pop hooks and the relentless drive of club music, while Sumner’s introduction as lead singer abandoned Curtis’ doomy, gloomy lyrics and vocal stylings in favor of a sunnier, more optimistic approach.

“The whole feel of life, after you got over the grief of Ian dying… the ’80s were much more optimistic, a much lighter period than the ’70s. And, I think you can hear that in our approach to the lyrics,” Hook says. “Other than that, Ian’s [voice] is a baritone, and it sort of leads to gravity, whereas Bernard is much more of an alto, which leads to levity.”

Livelier by nature than Joy Division, New Order’s records would find a devoted following of musicians, rock fans, and ravers alike. Yet, the band arguably made a deeper cultural impact with its creative and financial support of Factory Records’ Manchester nightclub, the Haçienda, and its subsequent curation of UK club culture.

“The Haçienda became, in itself, a marriage of rock, with very many live groups performing, and dance in the way that you started to see the rise of the DJ, and the rise of sequenced dance music. So, we were in the right place, in I suppose you have to say the right time,” Hook says. “People of Manchester responded very well. The gigs were very well attended. But, once ecstasy and acid house hit in ’87, you had a completely different complexion, and then the Haçienda became the most important place in Manchester.”

Inspired by New Order’s brand of sequenced pop, as well as the sexy, druggy hedonism of rave culture, bands like Primal Scream and Happy Mondays emerged in the late ’80s and early ’90s to form the Madchester scene, resulting in a more ecstatic synthesis of rock and electronic elements than ever before.

“Madchester was the bastard offspring, shall we say, of what do they call it… a one night stand New Order had with [club culture.] I just might put that in my book,” Hook says, with a hearty laugh.
After 25 years as a band, having continued its trajectory on records like 1985’s Lowlife and 1986’s Brotherhood (both of which Hook plans to tackle on his next tour), New Order’s balance of rock and electronic elements began to veer further into sequencer territory, resulting in personal and creative differences that would lead to the group’s disbandment in 2006. Tensions reached an all-time high, though, in 2011, when Sumner and Morris reunited under the New Order moniker, leaving Hook behind.

While he denied forming Peter Hook & the Light as a response to his bandmates’ betrayal, Hook was quick to criticize New-Order-circa-2013’s “greatest hits” treatment of the group’s back catalogue, scorning the new lineup with the dreaded “tribute band” tag, and making the case for his full-album method as a better approach.

“I think playing albums live brings with it its own set of difficulties,” Hook says. “In albums, you put light and shade quite a lot, and the mood is constructed like someone would construct a piece of art, like a painting, where you put shadows in the corner, and something bright in the middle. Whereas, when normal bands play, if we’re gonna reference it to, say, New Order, you just play the hits, so that you get a sugar high.

“If I just went onstage and played ‘Bizarre Love Triangle,’ ‘Krafty,’ ‘Round & Round,’ ‘True Faith,’ ‘Blue Monday,’ and ‘Temptation,’ everyone would just go mental at the start and mental at the end. But, I don’t think it would’ve satisfied me. I think I would’ve found that too easy.”

In opposition to nu-New Order’s mishmashed approach to the band’s repertoire, Peter Hook & the Light (whose lineup consists of Hook’s son, Jack Bates, on bass, in addition to several members of his retired Monaco project) seek to focus on one specified chunk of the discography at a time; Movement and Power, Corruption, & Lies arguably present the most revealing succession of albums in the New Order catalogue, offering Friday’s audience a glimpse into the creative and emotional process that transformed a sullen, introverted post-punk outfit into an effervescent explosion of guitars and sequencers.

“It actually appeals to me that we’re going through a list, ticking everything off,” Hook says. “Maybe Bernard’s aim is to throw legal letters at me, as my aim in life would be to play every track that I’d ever written and recorded, once, before I go and shuffle off this mortal coil.”

Peter Hook & the Light
With Slaves of Venus, DJ Omar
Fri/27, 9pm, $25
444 Jessie, SF
(415) 625-8880

Gary Numan: dark music done right at the Oakland Metro


From Metallica to This Mortal Coil, there’s a sense of canned melodrama about most “dark” music that I’ve long found goofy and unconvincing. On that note, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine has always struck me as dark music done right, leaving the angsty ostentation behind, in favor of casually luring the listener downward into its imposing dungeon of groove.

As Gary Numan took the stage in Oakland last Tuesday night, the British artist displayed a similarly nuanced sensibility of what makes dark music work, delivering a relentlessly groove-based set of songs that brooded and seethed with total conviction.

Setting foot inside the Oakland Metro Operahouse (a dimly-lit, converted warehouse with the vibe of a joint operation between the Addams Family and a pack of steampunk welders) I felt the same tinge of skepticism that I did before Nine Inch Nails took the stage at Outside Lands last month; does Numan really have a purpose at this point in his career, aside from reliving old times and peddling out the reliable hit(s)? Surely enough, Numan took the stage with disarming panache, writhing up and down the stage with deft control as he treated the crowd to a stunning 90 minutes of punishing industrial rock.

Despite Numan’s one-hit-wonder status (his 1979 single “Cars” topped the charts in both the UK and the US) the British artist is revered in smaller circles for bridging many seemingly isolated developments in the pop world, from Kraftwerk’s stiff electronic propulsions, to Prince’s new-wave synthpop experiments, to Nine Inch Nails’ consolidation of industrial music with the rock mainstream.

Those mainly familiar with Numan’s early, synth-driven work, though, might’ve been taken aback by the physicality of Tuesday night’s set, in its commitment to the guitar-heavy, riff-based, Trent Reznor-indebted approach he initiated on records like Exile (1997) and Pure (2000).

Dressed in black, head to toe, like a sizable chunk of the enraptured audience, Numan and his four-piece backing band delivered forceful renditions of some recent tracks, namely “Haunted,” “The Fall,” and “Everything Comes Down to This,” dominated by relentlessly fuzzed-out guitars, as those reliably frosty synths provided rich textures and filled in the empty spaces.

“I Am Dust,” from the forthcoming LP Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind) fit seamlessly into the surrounding material, making a strong case for Numan’s creative future, while beefed-up, modernized variations of older songs, like “Films,” and “Down in the Park,” were impressive in their unpredictability and ambition, refusing to merely replicate their studio counterparts.

Numan’s career has taken many twists and turns, from prickly, proto-synthpop, to industrial filth-rock, yet his touring band refracted it all through their single-minded, distortion-laden aesthetic, intuitively connecting the old and the new.

Numan might be 55 now, with nearly 20 albums under his belt, but his stage presence and vocal delivery were remarkably vitalic, never once suggesting the washed-up burnout illustrated by those VH1-hit-wonder specials. Few AARP qualifiers can rock eyeliner and spiky black hair convincingly, yet Numan completely pulled it off, prancing across the stage with yogic control, and a glammy flair for presentation.

More importantly, his vocal ability hasn’t diminished in the slightest since the late ’70s, as he hit all the high notes on “Cars,” and “Are ‘Friends’ Electric,” without hesitation.

Numan’s voice, strongly reminiscent of David Bowie’s, fit harmoniously with the backing instrumentals, letting the band do most of the heavy lifting, as he deftly avoided the whiny/screamy/growly vocal contrivances that end up derailing so much “dark” music into self-parody mode.

The restraint of Numan’s vocals, combined with the dubby, trip-hoppy, disco-inflected headiness of his backing band’s grooves, resulted in a tightly controlled balancing act; much like Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Numan’s set succeeded by keeping things at a constant simmer, yet never boiling over. Dark music done right, indeed.

Judging by his seasoned stage presence, and his undeniable influence on the greater music world, it seems that in an alternate universe, Numan could’ve become one of those Prince-y household names, shaping pop culture as well as the music within.

Yet, unlike Prince, who’s lately found himself grasping beyond his reach in hopes of channeling past glories, or countless other new wavers who were relegated to novelty status long ago, Numan has maintained his relevance by powering forward creatively, and smartly avoiding any attempts to relive the ’70s and ’80s over again.

It might’ve been reasonable to expect a phoned-in performance this deep into his career, yet as Numan authoritatively proved on Tuesday night, his icy grooves remain as fresh and involving as ever.

Live Review: My Bloody Valentine’s SF show feels like something beamed in from another decade


Swirling guitars… cooing vocals… that all-engulfing wall of noise. It’s difficult to describe My Bloody Valentine‘s sound without veering into borderline erotica, and understandably so; in the guitar rock landscape, few bands make music that’s so tactile and exhilarating.

For many of its devoted fans, the band’s seminal 1991 LP, Loveless, is inextricably tethered to private moments of introspection and sexuality. Its delicate balance between loud and quiet, menace and seduction, resulted in a sense of emotional ambiguity, allowing the listener to project their own perspectives and yearnings onto those immaculate pop songs.

Fresh off the heels of this year’s long-awaited Loveless followup, simply titled mbv, My Bloody Valentine stopped by SF this past Friday for its first Bay Area appearance since 2008, on its first tour in support of new material since the early ’90s.

By the looks of the crowd, the band’s overwhelming paralysis was in full force. As wary as I am of audiences too “cool” or self-conscious to dance at live shows, this crowd’s stillness felt wholly appropriate. The band’s output rarely feels conducive to dancing, or jamming out; it’s music to surrender to, and My Bloody Valentine had the crowd in the palm of its hand.

Given My Bloody Valentine’s inconsistent production sound, from the tinny Jesus-and-Mary-Chaininess of Isn’t Anything (1988), to the fuller, more tactile Loveless, to the thuddy brawn of mbv, one of the highlights of last Friday night’s show was hearing a career-spanning set of songs, all delivered with similar depth and richness. It was quite the thrill to hear older material, like “Feed Me With Your Kiss,” and “Only Shallow,” delivered with the generous low-end of MBV circa 2013.

As new songs like “only tomorrow” and “who sees you” suggest, the band’s dynamics have grown more boomy and forceful, yet alternately, groovier and more relaxed. Much of the credit goes to the rhythm section of Deb Googe and Colm Ó Cíosóig, who plucked and smacked their instruments ferociously, providing much of the backbone that defines My Bloody Valentine’s second wave. It all makes sense, considering Googe’s muscular bass-lines on this year’s excellent Primal Scream LP, More Light, and Ó Cíosóig’s recent move to the Bay Area, and subsequent role as drummer for his wife Hope Sandoval’s post-Mazzy Star project, the Warm Inventions.

Otherwise, it seems things haven’t changed much, and thankfully so. Ever the recluse, bandleader Kevin Shields stood calmly on stage left, away from the spotlights, equipped with some heavy-duty Marshall stacks, and an arsenal of guitars and pedals. Abusing the whammy bars on his Fender Jaguars and Jazzmasters, Shields delivered beautifully on the queasy tremolo of his signature “glide guitar” technique. Alternately, Bilinda Butcher occupied center stage, supplying the soft-as-snow vocals that contrast so harmoniously with Shields’ outpouring of sound and feeling.

“Honey Power,” “Come In Alone,” and “Soon,” were wonderfully performed, delivering especially well on the loud/quiet, sweet/snarly binaries of My Bloody Valentine’s sound, and those hugely dense progressions that create an itch with one chord, and scratch it with the next. There’s a reason why the band’s influence has gone so far beyond rock music, into electronic and industrial realms; the live renditions of these songs were a masterclass in My Bloody Valentine’s ability to warp genre boundaries with standard rock instrumentation.

Seeing “Cigarette In Your Bed” performed live was a treat, as it allowed Shields to bust out the acoustic guitar for once, while “new you” offered a glimpse of My Bloody Valentine in full-on pop mode. “wonder 2,” the band’s experiment with Jungle music, was suffocating in its blend of reverb-soaked drum’n’bass beats and jet-engine guitars, while “You Never Should” offered the same claustrophobia in a rock setting. Perhaps most impressively, though, was the noisy, chaotic “holocaust section” of the band’s infamous closer, “You Made Me Realize.” What started out as a cacophony of guitars, bass, and drums, slowly hypnotized the listener, gradually resembling a monolithic, industrial roar, like cruising the Transbay Tube with the windows down.

My Bloody Valentine is one of the last great rock bands of the album era, and as such, every gesture at Friday night’s show was a big one: from handing out free earplugs at the door, to the giant Marshall stacks onstage, to the band’s decision to book the overly big/beige/bloated Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Much like mbv’s total disconnection from the modern musical landscape, the band’s live show felt like a concert-going experience beamed in from another decade.

The audience, consisting of everyone from metalheads, to ravers, to garden-variety hipsters, might’ve been a bit perplexing, but made total sense, given My Bloody Valentine’s inability to fit comfortably into any one scene. Given its dense, borderline-electronic chords, abrasive guitar squalls, and overriding sense of calm, the band’s sound offers practically any subcategory of listener something to cling onto, providing a gateway to new musical realms.

For those skeptical about My Bloody Valentine’s ability to recapture the singular wonder of Loveless after a two-decade hiatus, mbv was a wonderful surprise, in its insistence on picking up right where the band’s first era left off. Last weekend’s show felt like an extension of this “new” strategy, with the band’s four members commanding the stage as if the past 22 years never happened. Countless groups have tried their hand at pushing the shoegaze genre forward in the post-Loveless wake, but as Shields and Co. resoundingly proved on Friday night, My Bloody Valentine remains the undefeated champion of “swirling guitars.”




MUSIC This is the reunion for which we dared not hope. Until this year, My Bloody Valentine’s genre-defining masterstroke of the shoegaze movement, 1991’s Loveless, was the last we had heard from the Irish-English band, and as a result, it was canonized as one of those pristine, “perfect” albums, frozen in time and untainted by inferior follow-ups.

And then, this past Groundhog Day, the unthinkable happened: after an excruciating, 22-year wait, and countless broken promises, bandleader Kevin Shields casually posted a new record, mbv, on the web, In Rainbows style, surprising his diehard fans with the legendary third album they had been hopelessly fantasizing about only a week before.

This Friday, My Bloody Valentine will pay a visit to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for its first SF show since the release of mbv.

Headed up by Shields (the band’s mastermind, principal guitarist, and sometimes-vocalist), and backed by Bilinda Butcher on guitars and vocals, Deb Googe on bass, and Colm Ó Ciosóig on drums, My Bloody Valentine kicked off its career in 1983 as a rather inconsequential, punk-ish pop band, before moving on to bigger things.

The You Made Me Realize EP and the group’s first full-length, Isn’t Anything, (both released in 1988) showed great promise, layering Jesus and Mary Chain-ish guitar squalls atop tender pop songs, with androgynous, barely intelligible vocals submerged in the surrounding fuzz. Equally seductive and menacing, this was the sound of the shoegaze genre taking form.

The subsequent release of Loveless presented a vivid realization of Shields’ musical vision, full enough to put him in a state of creative paralysis for the next two decades, unsure of where to go next. The songs were more harmonious this time around, often reminiscent of Brian Wilson in their structures and chord progressions. Also, the guitar sound was more rounded and hypnotic than ever before; songs like “Loomer” and “Come In Alone” found Kevin Shields using his “glide guitar” method to great effect, constantly pushing and pulling on the tremolo arm of his Fender Jaguar for a woozy, undulating sound, inviting the listener to get blissfully lost in the midst of it all. Upon its release, and even to this day, Loveless presented some of the most tactile, emotionally complex guitar rock ever committed to tape.

With the exception of a cover for a Wire tribute album, some soundtrack work for Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, the occasional collaboration with Primal Scream or Patti Smith, and a brief reunion tour in 2009, Shields and My Bloody Valentine remained stagnant from’91 to February of this year. Over the course of those two decades, Loveless has built the kind of reputation normally reserved for recordings of the Beatles era; even Phish’s Trey Anstasio has proclaimed it the greatest album of the ’90s. Loveless‘ seminal blend of pop purity and uncompromising noise has spawned a thousand imitators, but no worthy successor, rendering the release of mbv an uncommonly big deal in the music world, even in a year dominated by comeback efforts, from David Bowie to Boards of Canada.

Despite the skeptical fans, who doubted Shields’ ability to recapture his singular sound or take it into new realms, the response to mbv was resoundingly positive. Tracks like “who sees you” and “only tomorrow” found Shields and Co. approaching the monolithically woozy Loveless aesthetic with a fuller, beefier production sound. Halfway through the record, “new you” blindsided the listener as the cleanest, poppiest song of My Bloody Valentine’s career, seemingly lifted from a party scene in a ’90s teen movie. “in another way” found the band channeling the angular jolt of the Isn’t Anything era, while “wonder 2” suggested a new path forward, blending drum’n’bass-y electronics with Shield’s famed “jet-engine” guitar sound.

Part of mbv‘s appeal stems from its utter disregard for modern trends and developments in the music world. This isn’t the sound of My Bloody Valentine recalibrated for the new millennium; the entire album sounds like it could’ve been recorded and produced in ’96, and as a result, we listeners have no idea what was recorded in the mid-’90s, and what was made last year. The listening experience, especially in that first week after its release, was poignant and affecting, like reuniting with a friend you haven’t seen in two decades, and picking up right where you left off. Few records can make you feel 15 again the first time you press play, and mbv was one of them.

While the band’s recent live dates have incorporated new songs into the mix, many things have remained the same: namely, its infamous closer “You Made Me Realize,” the title track from its first great EP, with a 20-minute, endurance-testing wall of noise tacked on the end. The song’s live rendition has made ears bleed around the world, and remains a hallmark of My Bloody Valentine’s live shows.

Now, in 2013, it’s back, with a followup to Loveless in tow, befitting of that album’s legendary reputation. It’s been a long time coming, but My Bloody Valentine has reemerged to save rock ‘n’ roll all over again. Bring earplugs; it’ll get loud.


With Beachwood Sparks, Lumerians

Fri/23, 8pm, $45

Bill Graham Civic Auditorium

99 Grove, SF

(415) 624-8900



Outside Lands 2013 winners (Paul McCartney, Chic, Bombino) and losers


Hall & Oates, or Trombone Shorty? Willie Nelson, or Vampire Weekend? This year’s Outside Lands presented its 65,000 attendees with some perplexing choices, resulting in what might’ve been the festival’s most eclectic lineup of its now six-year run. As always, Golden Gate Park was a most picturesque venue, with patches of sunlight punctuating the heavy fog, great nighttime atmosphere provided by the purply-lit trees, and a generous smattering of what Grizzly Bear’s Edward Droste called, “the bougiest food stands I’ve ever seen at a festival.”

Now, without further adieu, here’s a rundown of several acts that’ve left me beaming in the days since Outside Lands came to a close:


Paul McCartney
“How many people have learned to play that one on guitar?” Paul McCartney asked his enraptured audience after a beautiful solo performance of “Blackbird.” (A sea of hands went up, of course.) Watching the crowd’s reactions to McCartney’s most indelible songs, ranging from ecstatic to reflective, it was obvious: this music really means things to people.

Much like Stevie Wonder last year, Sir Paul delivered an unrelenting hit parade on Friday night, delving into the Beatles and Wings back-catalogues for three hours (!) of immediately recognizable songs, pulled directly from the audience’s collective consciousness, and relayed back again. Sure, McCartney’s stadium-ready backing band has largely sterilized the exploratory wildness of the Beatles’ post-mop-top sound, but what a joy it was to be serenaded by the elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll, giving it his all at the ripe old age of 71.

McCartney was shrewd to forgo his newer material (honestly, who came to hear that anyway?), in favor of Beatles and Wings songs, ranging from black-tie pop ditties like “Eight Days a Week,” and “Paperback Writer,” (performed on the very guitar he wrote it on), to the explosive, technicolor invention of “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and “Magical Mystery Tour,” to wistful ballads like “Yesterday,” (which featured the Kronos Quartet on strings, no less) to the giddy excess of “Helter Skelter” and “Live and Let Die.”

It was surreal to be in the presence of such a towering cultural figure, especially as he rattled off casual anecdotes about hanging with Hendrix and Clapton. Despite his stature, though, McCartney’s stage presence was utterly charming, and the rousing singalong he initiated to his ultimate anthem, “Hey Jude,” was the festival’s most communal moment.

Faced with the unenviable task of filling a D’Angelo sized void (the neo-soul comeback king cancelled his Friday night appearance at the last minute for unspecified health reasons), Chic hopped onstage with an arsenal of disco-funk party jams, and drove the crowd wild. On any Outside Lands bill before this one, Chic might’ve been disregarded as a throwback novelty act, but considering bandleader Nile Rodgers’ high-profile rhythm guitar work on “Get Lucky,” Daft Punk’s “anthem of the summer,” the entire crowd, young and old, had something to be excited about.

Dressed in white, head to toe, Rodgers’ impeccably tight backing band ripped through a number of Chic originals (“Good Times,” “Le Freak”) as well as a handful of his productions for other artists: most notably Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” and David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” Rodgers’ ultra-syncopated rhythm guitar cut through the fabric of each song, and fascinatingly, the looming shadow of “Get Lucky” seemed to place his ever-modular approach to the instrument in a new, fashionable context.

Much like Tinariwen, another group from the Tuareg region of West Africa that’s garnered intercontinental attention, Bombino of Niger injects the skipping rhythms and flickering melodies of their homeland’s folk music with a dose of unmistakably Western groove: namely, psychedelic rock and American blues. Bandleader Omara Mochtar hardly spoke a word to the audience, but his lively, smiley stage presence was endearing, especially as he delivered flaming guitar licks that would perk up Hendrix’s ears.

While Bombino’s hooks and melodies were certainly involving, the real magic was in those woozy, hypnotic grooves, often suggestive of the Grateful Dead at its most transportive. Dressed in traditional garb, and reveling in the power of extended jams, Bombino’s set was a welcome departure from the indie rock/EDM same-yness Outside Lands is prone to suffer from.

Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor is totally buff now. He looks like the kind of gym-rat who might bully the creator of Pretty Hate Machine for his lunch money. But more notably, he’s sober, happily married, and seems invigorated by the prospect of revisiting his ’90s project that introduced industrial music to the pop mainstream. Reznor and Co. took the stage with great conviction on Saturday night, making an assertive case for NIN 2.0’s relevance in the restructured music world of 2013.

Sure, Reznor’s dream-team touring lineup didn’t quite materialize (King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew and Eric Avery, the bassist of Jane’s Addiction dropped out early on, citing creative differences), yet his backing band was airtight and incredibly versatile, folding marimbas and even Chinese violins into the usual rock band instrumentation, and resulting in some of the most compelling sonics of the whole weekend. With computer guru Josh Eustis (formerly of Telefon Tel Aviv) on board, NIN’s electronics were richer in detail than ever.

The band’s forceful renditions of bangers such as “Head Like a Hole,” “The Hand That Feeds,” and “Closer” channeled the catharsis that runs through Reznor’s music like a freight train. “Something I Can Never Have,” was the subdued ballad of the night: dramatic and moodily lit, but never contrived or unintentionally goofy. “Hurt,” put the entire audience in singalong mode, suggesting a twisted spin on Pink Floyd’s communal anthem, “Wish You Were Here.” New songs, “Copy of A” and “Come Back Haunted,” were engaging and strong, portraying a band too inspired to lean on its past achievements.                   

As far as spectacle goes, NIN trounced any and all competition. Constantly wheeling instruments and projection screens around, the band utilized the depth of the stage unlike any festival band I’ve ever seen.

It’s always inspiring to see a band return to form with such strength of purpose; between the fantastic visuals, the band’s versatility, and Reznor’s newfound vigor, NIN initiated an astounding return on Saturday night, maybe even turning a new generation of EDM kids on to their brand of industrial menace.


Jurassic 5 made an explosive comeback after more than five years off the radar. Rappers Chali 2na, Akil, Zaakir, and Mark 7even laid down verses that bounced effortlessly off each other, with DJs Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist providing a thick, but minimal, backbone. The LA-based group delivered one of the most downright fun sets of the entire festival, filling Outside Lands’ glaring hip-hop void with boundless energy.

Willie Nelson was warm and welcoming as ever, with his family band in tow, and a rasp to his Lou Reed-ish speak-singing delivery that’s only grown more endearing with age. “Always On My Mind,” was especially tender, and made me want to give the ponytailed icon a big hug.

Grizzly Bear has a tendency to take the stage with an off-putting sense of self-importance, like the fastidious pastel-wearers their critics accuse them of sounding like. Unlike their uptight performance at the Fox Theater in Oakland last year, the Brooklyn quartet seemed to let loose in the festival environment. The results were fiery, especially on Shields’ dynamic closer, “Sun In Your Eyes.”

Hall & Oates took the stage authoritatively with their signature brand of agreeable soft rock, but more interesting was the crowd’s reaction: many older audience members seemed to take their music at face value, while younger attendees seemed torn between sincere and ironic appreciation.

Jessie Ware‘s vocal prowess, and the quality of her nu-R&B productions, suggest a self-serious performer, but her jokey, self-deprecating stage persona resulted in a disarming, hugely engaging set. A cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” thrown in the middle of her groove-laden “No To Love” was an especially nice surprise.


The National delivered some heartfelt ballads on rust-belt hopelessness, and alcoholism, among other things, and went so far as to bring the Kronos Quartet and Bob Weir on stage. While their set might’ve been incredibly involving in a smaller, indoor venue, something about the band’s intimate songs being performed in the social-media-playground environment of the Lands End stage felt very off.

Vampire Weekend has noticeably beefed up its sound, and grown less insufferably twee since debuting in 2009, but the cutesy, Ivy-League preppiness that continues to draw fans to Ezra Koenig and his Columbia brethren still repels me. Like this year’s much lauded LP Modern Vampires of the City, their set wasn’t exactly “bad,” but that’s the most I have to say for it.

Rudimental surely meant well. The nine-piece, UK based, drum ‘n’ bass-inflected pop ensemble brought infectious energy to the stage, but the result was overwrought and heavy-handed, resembling a busy plate of fusion food with too many sparring elements to result in anything coherent.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs aren’t a low quality band by any means, and songs like “Heads Will Roll” and “Maps” were smartly written, and well delivered, but vocalist Karen O’s incendiary presence made her backing musicians come across as expendable, by comparison.

Red Hot Chili Peppers certainly amped the audience up with their signature Cali vibes, but my overall impression was of a band whose brand-name status has far surpassed its creative potency. Chad Smith and Flea provided a blistering funk-punk rhythm section, especially on bangers like “Higher Ground,” their iconic Stevie Wonder cover, but vocalist Anthony Kedis looked withdrawn, and not quite stoked to be doing his job. The band can certainly fill stadiums in 2013 (and hey, more power to ’em), but at this point, the Chili Pep empire seems to have lapsed into the zone of diminishing returns.




MUSIC “That’s it, I’m done. In love.” This is what Erykah Badu had to say, late last year, upon discovering Hiatus Kaiyote: an unsigned “future soul” ensemble from Melbourne, Australia, with a Bandcamp page, a single EP to its name, no marketing budget, and everything to prove.

Now, less than a year later, the band has found itself reissuing its self-released debut LP via Sony (with a newly added guest spot from Q-Tip, no less) and co-headlining a highly anticipated bill with D’Angelo and Badu herself, in Detroit later this summer.

This Sunday, Hiatus Kaiyote will grace the Independent, in its first ever SF appearance, with local R&B powerhouse, the Seshen, featured in the opening slot.

So, how does an unassuming four-piece band, from halfway across the world, find itself on the radar of America’s neo-soul elite?

The answer to that question lies almost entirely in the strength of Tawk Tomahawk: Hiatus Kaiyote’s inaugural statement as a group, which rips through its 30-minute runtime with incendiary force, and a mind-boggling flair for invention and appropriation.

West African polyrhythms intermingle with sludgy, offbeat grooves á la J Dilla. And 1970s electric piano-washes bounce off harsher, synth textures resembling IDM and the LA beat scene as led by Flying Lotus. All the while, the production sound switches between clean lushness, and uncompromising rawness, at the drop of a hat.

Hiatus Kaiyote might identify as a “future soul” ensemble, and Nai Palm’s impassioned, show-stopping vocals surely establish a strong R&B foundation, but in the end, Tawk Tomahawk sounds less like a soul LP than an unfiltered rush of creative energy, heaping countless ideas and influences into an ecstatic vision of musical possibility.

This anything-goes approach is largely the result of all four members’ divergent musical backgrounds, and the varying influences they bring to the table. Vocalist and guitarist Nai Palm is the band’s principal songwriter, whose intricately layered, shapeshifting compositions move with Jeff Buckley-esque vertigo.

Drummer Perrin Moss is an accomplished MC, whose hip-hop background is evident in the lumbering chug of his grooves, often recalling Questlove’s work on D’Angelo’s Voodoo.

Bassist Paul Bender, a former student of University of Miami’s jazz program, lays down basslines as intricately fingerpicked as they are viciously slapped and primally funky.

Keyboardist Simon Mavin has found himself inhabiting a range of scenes, from Latin, to soul, to dub-reggae, which comes through in the lush, diversely textured tonal layering he brings to Hiatus Kaiyote’s sound.

“I think if you listen to our music enough, you sort of start to realize that it’s not just a soul band, or a jazz band… Our influences are pretty vast,” Mavin told the Guardian via Skype, from a hotel room in Mulhouse, France, the night before an eagerly anticipated appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. “We’re all in it because we want to be creatively intense, and stimulate each other through our ideas.”

This potency of ideas, and resistance to categorization, is likely what caught the ear of BBC’s tastemaker-in-chief Gilles Peterson, the famed radio DJ and musical ambassador who first brought Hiatus Kaiyote’s sound to international attention.

Not long after, the Twittersphere went abuzz; when everyone from Badu to the Roots’ indispensable Questlove began singing its praises, Palm, Mavin, Bender, and Moss were vindicated (in small circles, anyway) as saviors of soul music, transitioning it from a largely revivalist, wheel-spinning art-form, into a musical attitude with the ability to transcend genres as freely as it consumes them.

After its first American tour this spring, (including stops at SXSW and Questlove’s big-deal club night at Brooklyn Bowl), Hiatus Kaiyote signed a contract with Flying Buddha records, a subsidiary of Sony, which re-released Tawk Tomahawk last week, featuring a guest spot from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip added to their breakthrough track, “Nakamarra.” A sophomore LP is in the works as well; however, the band doesn’t plan on significantly altering its homegrown, independent recording process.

“Sonically, the reason we signed this record deal is because it enables us 100 percent creative freedom, even down to the point of mixing it,” Palm explained. “So, we’re gonna be recording it in our own setup… same home studio vibe.”

The magic of Hiatus Kaiyote can be found in this balance between the otherworldly thrust of its music, and its insistence on this humble, DIY approach to songcraft. By rejecting the interference of producers, engineers, and other outside forces, Palm, Mavin, Bender, and Moss have generated a sound that bears the single-minded vision of a great auteur, yet with the richness of ideas allowed by the collaboration of harmonious minds.

If Hiatus Kaiyote’s ascent continues, Erykah Badu could end up with some serious competition atop the soul pyramid.


With the Seshen, Bells Atlas

Sun/28, 9pm, $22


628 Divisadero, SF

(415) 771-1421



So fresh, so clean


MUSIC In 1992, when Pavement released its seminally crusty, DIY masterstroke Slanted and Enchanted, tape hiss and low fidelity were inherent, unavoidable side-effects of recording on the cheap. As much as that fuzzy production sound complemented the band’s shambolic, punk sensibility, clean recording techniques were only attainable through studios, spendy gear, and other resources unavailable to most garage slackers in Stockton.

Since then, home recording standards have improved dramatically. Professional-quality software like Ableton is easily obtainable via piracy, as is an infinite sea of music-as-source-material, waiting to be lifted, sampled, and recontextualized. in 2013, this increased accessibility has rendered lo-fi recording an aesthetic choice, and no longer an intrinsic property of DIY-ism.

Yet, despite the advent of clean, sterile recording as the “default mode” of DIY music in the age of the laptop-as-recording-studio, a sizable chunk of modern, computer-based music is still permeated by the cultural signifiers and trappings of tape-based lo-fi, from the warped perversion of Ariel Pink, to the fuzzy obfuscation of Dirty Beaches, to the chillwave movement’s heavy-handed reliance on effects and filters. Ostensibly, this lo-fi aesthetic is kept intact partially in order to communicate the sort of subversion-from-the-margins that we associate with punk-rock, and other dissenting art-forms, but over the past few years, a new approach has developed, which not only embraces the stylistic properties of clean recording, but uses that sterility in a fringe context, subverting the order of the music-world similarly to the lowest of lo-fi.

James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual (2011) was a watershed moment in this marriage of anemic production qualities, and the left-field approach of the DIY movement. Whereas Ferraro’s previous albums, such as On Air (2010), presented a fairly standard, Ariel Pink-indebted take on hypnagogic pop, (refracting a broad palette of samples from both high-art and trash-culture through a reverberatious, dreamlike haze of outmoded recording sensibilities), Far Side Virtual opted for a brighter, cleaner more limited set of source material, keeping the dryness of those samples intact. By co-opting stock commercial muzak, cheesy MIDI synths, and a jumble of ringtones, startup chimes, and Siri robot-speak, Ferraro was able to place these sounds into a new cultural framework, without significantly altering their sonic integrity, resulting in an approach now known as vaporwave.

What might resemble generic, innocuous, (yet tastelessly compiled) stock-music, when presented without context, sounds like a scathing attack on the vapidity of techno-capitalism, and our docile complicity as consumers, given the knowledge of Ferraro’s outsider status, and the subversive reputation of the Hippos In Tanks label to which he is signed. The vaporwave trend has expanded since the release of Far Side Virtual, birthing #HDBoyz (a Mountain Dew chugging, Best Buy-patronizing boy-band whose cultural position is complicated by having performed at MoMA in NYC), and even Dis Magazine, a self-described “post-Internet lifestyle” publication that embraces and/or lampoons fashion, commerce, and garish product placement.

Vaporwave, however, is a mere component of the larger, comparatively apolitical movement towards clean, dry textures and production techniques in the DIY context. Laurel Halo’s Quarantine (2012) staged dry, unadorned vocals against a dense, muddled wall of electronica, forcing two sound-worlds to compete for the same space. Ariel Pink’s Mature Themes (2012) marked a Ween-like jump from the murkiness of his earlier work to an unsettlingly arid production aesthetic. This year’s Don’t Look Back, That’s Not Where You’re Going, from Inga Copeland (half of hypnagogic pop duo Hype Williams) rejected the messy, fuzzy jumble of her previous output in favor of a streamlined, Madonna-esque pop approach. Halo, Pink, and Copeland, like Ferraro, are known for operating from the margins of culture and taste, and that’s precisely what renders their use of clean, dry sounds so provocative.

Dean Blunt, the other half of Hype Williams, made an especially striking statement with this year’s debut solo endeavor,The Redeemer, an LP that maintained the scattershot, indiscriminate sampling tactics of Hype Williams’ One Nation (2011) and Blunt and Copeland’s Black is Beautiful (2012), while doing away with the grimy, resinous sonic impurities that permeated those records. Just as Black is Beautiful jumped impulsively between snippets of free-jazz drumming, inept MIDI-flute noodling, underwater video-game music, and other disparate ideas, The Redeemer trades off between K-Ci & JoJo string samples, John Fahey-esque guitar impressionism, intimate voicemail messages, and theatrical piano hammering a la Tori Amos. However, the absence of sonic fuzz presents a novel tension between the album’s haphazard composition, and its clarity of presentation, deeming Blunt’s intentions far more ambiguous this time around.

Whereas Black is Beautiful‘s lo-fi approach placed its component samples squarely in the domain of weirdo art, fulfilling expectations of what DIY music “should” sound like,The Redeemer forces its listeners to consider each snippet at face value. “Imperial Gold,” a twee, brightly produced folk tune towards the end of the album, would fit comfortably in a Portlandia episode, but what are we supposed to make of it, coming from Dean Blunt, the outsider? Does it present a moment of sincerity, a tongue-in-cheek jab against the art-world, or both? Much like Ferraro with Far Side Virtual, Blunt subverts the meaning of his musical gestures with simple shifts of context.

Similarly to Pavement’s initiation of the lo-fi movement,using the limited resources at their disposal, this emerging trend of cleanly-produced laptop music represents the confluence of modest means and radical ideas. If anyone in the ’90s could start a three-chord garage band, surely anyone in 2013 with a laptop can compose original music from the scraps of their sample library. However, like punk, the lo-fi approach has lost much of its potency in the last 20 years, and simply cannot provoke the same bewilderment that it used to. By using sterile, dry sounds for subversive effect, provocateurs like Blunt and Ferraro have inflamed the art-world all over again. This is the punk rock of the Internet age.

Philip Glass at 75: an intoxicating series, live scores to ‘La Belle et la Bête’ and more


Last June, legendary composer Philip Glass treated our fair city to a one-off collaborative performance with indie-folk visionary Joanna Newsom. Just two months ago, he made a joint appearance with Beach Boys collaborator and eccentric songsmith Van Dyke Parks, in NYC. Last weekend, Glass paid SF another visit with a career retrospective festival, featuring live productions of two original, highly influential film scores. Glass is no ordinary composer, and even at the age of 75, his prolificacy and flair for innovation challenge that of any working musician.

With the official Philip Glass Ensemble in tow, the Glass at 75 festival featured live performances of two of the composer’s most celebrated movie scores, played in conjunction with screenings of their respective films: Godfrey Reggio’s influential audiovisual spectacular, Koyaanisqatsi (1983), and Jean Cocteau’s early “Beauty and the Beast” adaptation, La Belle et la Betê. (1947/1994).

After studying music in Paris, and transcribing Ravi Shankar’s compositions into Western notation to make a living, Glass would go on to assemble one of the most mind-bogglingly diverse back-catalogues of any composer in history, ranging from early explorations of classical minimalism, to collaborations with David Bowie and Allen Ginsberg, to stacks of operas, symphonies, ballets, and film scores.

Yet, in a career defined by resistance to classification, Glass’ wildly revisionist soundtrack for La Belle et la Betê remains his most categorically ambiguous work, and an anomaly in the world of composition. After gaining permission from the Cocteau estate in ’93, Glass superimposed an opera atop the entire length of the film, revamping the music completely, and replacing each line of spoken dialogue with operatic vocals. An international tour followed, featuring silent screenings of the film, accompanied live by the Philip Glass Ensemble on synthesizers, woodwinds, and vocals.

The ensemble’s three performances of La Belle this past weekend put Glass’ radical act of synchronization on full display, and the result was intoxicating. Unusually immediate and approachable for a Glass production, “La Belle” sported greater melodic range than the composer’s more aggressively minimalist works (see Koyaanisqatsi), with the dynamic jolt of live vocals cutting through the music’s often meandering flow. Dominated by richly atmospheric, intertwining synth arpeggios, Glass’ score effortlessly mirrored the film’s emotional complexity, its lushness accentuated by comparison to the antiquity of Cocteau’s black-and-white production aesthetic.

With the film projected up high, the ensemble playing below, and four plainclothes opera singers situated on either side of the stage, the result was a meta-opera of sorts, rejecting the pageantry of your average stage production in favor of displaying a raw, unadorned creative process. Yet, despite the austerity of the presentation, and the impulse to passively observe the creative process in action, there was no shortage of musical sublimity to be swept up by: from the pillowy synth tones, to the added texture of flutes, clarinets, and saxes, to the synchronization of singers onstage and actors onscreen that, at times, bordered on transcendence. The final product was as novel, transportive, and involving as any stage production I’ve seen in recent years.

While it didn’t quite live up to the standard set by La Belle, the Glass Ensemble’s production of Koyaanisqatsi was incredibly stimulating, as well. The result of a collaboration with experimental filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi term for “unbalanced life”) made a huge cultural impact upon its release in ’81, weaving disparate film footage and Glass’ signature minimalism into a multimedia experience, whose impressionistic, plotless structure would prove highly influential in the years ahead.

As with La Belle, the Glass Ensemble performed the score live onstage, with identical instrumentation, and the film projected overhead. Most notably different was Glass’ presence onstage; while absent from La Belle, he operated one of five synths during Koyaanisqatsi, primarily hitting bass tones that brought a nice, visceral thump to the proceedings.

The score, while synth-heavy like La Belle, was far more characteristic of Glass’ minimalistic period, opting for mantraic vocals and emphasizing repetition, as opposed to the fiery energy of the opera format. Alternately free-flowing and mechanical, Glass’ minimalist structures provided a fitting musical context for the film’s central theme of nature vs. industry, emulating the roaring waves of the ocean in one section, and the unrelenting automation of a hot-dog factory in another. Apart from a few misplaced vocal phrases, the Glass ensemble performed the score flawlessly, making the ultimate experience of a film designed to be “experienced” in the first place.

While no two compositions could appropriately encapsulate Glass’ wildly diverse career, his ensemble’s productions of La Belle and Koyaanisqatsi were masterfully performed, giving insight into the mind of a vividly imaginative composer, with little regard for genre boundaries or classical traditionalism. He might be 75 now, but with a new opera opening in London next month, a collaboration with Joanna Newsom in the rearview mirror, and a triumphant festival of film scores under his belt, Glass shows no signs of slowing down.

Yo La Tengo plays the hits at the Fillmore, covers Black Flag


The last time I saw Yo La Tengo, on its fabulously gimmicky Spinning Wheel tour, the trio delivered an abrasive, garage-y opening set under an alter-ego, Dump, and closed with a Jackson Browne cover. This past Friday, the band took the Fillmore stage with a loose, meditative acoustic set, before eventually closing with an incendiary rendition of a Black Flag song. There’s no predicting the content, or structure of a Yo La Tengo show; yet, no matter how vigorously it flips from one genre to the next, it sounds unmistakably like Yo La Tengo.

From its yearly run of Hanukkah shows, to its infamously vast archive of cover songs, the Hoboken, NJ trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew has cultivated a rich mythology over nearly three decades as a band. It’s also maintained remarkable consistency and prolificacy within its recorded material, which, like Stereolab, has caused many a fan to take its casual greatness for granted. Alternating between insistently bouncy pop songs, blissfully droned-out jams, and cozy ballads to wear your autumn sweater by, Yo La Tengo has assembled a wildly eclectic back-catalogue that continues to pleasantly surprise, and occasionally confound live audiences.

At Friday’s show, the band threw out a curveball right away, with an understated, acoustic rendition of “Ohm,” the decidedly electric opening track from this year’s Fade: its 13th LP, and arguably its most muted, direct work to date. Kaplan and McNew powered through the drony, hypnotic guitar riff at the song’s center with a quiet, chugging insistence, reinforced by Hubley’s understated, yet undeniably groovy drum brushing. It was a captivating opener, and a shining example of Yo La Tengo’s penchant for elegant simplicity.

The remainder of the opening set showed similar restraint, shuffling through several other new songs (the Beach House-y “Two Trains,” Hubley’s gorgeously vocalized “Cornelia & Jane,” the raga-ish “I’ll Be Around”) intermixed with material from the band’s back-catalogue. One definite highlight was a stripped-down rendition of “Decora” (from 1995’s Electr-o-pura), while “No Water” (from its second LP, 1987’s New Wave Hot Dogs) was easily the night’s most unexpected selection.

After a short break, during which many bespectacled audience members pined for a louder, freakier closing set, Yo La Tengo retook the stage with a full drum kit, and an arsenal of electric guitars, providing a jolt that the first half was missing. “Beanbag Chair” (from 2006’s curiously titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass) delivered on the band’s talent for effervescently hooky pop songcraft, while “Deeper Into Movies” (a high point from 1997’s seminal I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One) set a darker, angstier mood, foregrounding Kaplan’s fuzzed-out guitar sensibility.

However, a Yo La Tengo show wouldn’t be complete without a sprawling, 10+ minute epic, and the band delivered handsomely with “The Story of Yo La Tengo.” Beginning with ambient washes of guitar and synth, the sprawling jam morphed slowly into a devastating guitar freakout, complete with Hendrix-esque stage theatrics. Given Kaplan’s soft-spoken, dryly funny live persona, watching him attack his fretboard with prog-like dexterity and ferocity was incredibly endearing, in a brain-melting sort of way. Although Hubley and McNew both took turns fronting the band, proving Yo La Tengo as one of the more democratic ensembles around, Kaplan absolutely stole the show.

In true Yo La Tengo tradition, the band came back for an encore set of cover songs: in this case, Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown,” and the Scene is Now’s “Yellow Sarong.” Following an uncompromisingly pissy, noisy punk number with a kinder, gentler pop selection, the pairing was perfectly symbolic of the trio’s stylistic range.

Few ensembles can claim Yo La Tengo’s dependability while remaining so utterly unpredictable, and fewer can sustain such a balancing act so unpretentiously. Even after three decades and 13 albums together, Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew continue to record and perform as vitally and infectiously as many bands on the first leg of their journey. If Sonic Youth’s dissolution is for real, we can officially claim Yo La Tengo as the reigning champions of the autumn-sweatered indie set.

TNGHT whips the Mezzanine’s 420 crowd into a frenzy


Like a microcosm of our ever-morphing music culture, electronic duo TNGHT stands squarely between the traditions of EDM and hip-hop, reaping the benefits of both musical forms, and generating something new in the process. Comprised of Lunice (from Montreal), and Hudson Mohawke (from Glasgow), the pair stopped by the Mezzanine this past Saturday after a two-weekend Coachella run, bringing their shiny, brassy, bass-loaded grooves to a sold-out crowd of ecstatic 420ers.

On paper, Lunice and Hudson Mohawke seem like natural collaborators. Both musicians specialize in an oversaturated, hypermelodic brand of electronica, often resembling the glossy tones of the Sonic the Hedgehog soundtrack, if it were layered atop big, punchy drum loops. However, the pair’s self-titled debut EP as TNGHT is impressive in its lack of melodic drive, relying on huge bass and punishing hip-hop beats to do most of the heavy lifting. Although the lack ear-candy melodies left something to be desired, this groove-based approach resulted in the danciest output of either artist’s career so far: five songs, waiting for a hyped-up audience to whip into a frenzy.

Saturday’s show got off to a rocky start with two sets from DJ Dials and DJ Bogl. While both DJs spun a decent, eclectic selection of tracks (ranging from trap music to Flying Lotus-esque wonkiness), neither of them displayed the showmanship necessary to justify a combined four hours of stage time. Watching someone stand in front of their MacBook is only engaging for so long.

However, when it took the stage at 1am, TNGHT made up for the enthusiasm deficit, and then some. For two guys poking at electronics from behind a desk, their crowd-pleasing skills were extraordinary, with Lunice leaving his workstation every five minutes or so to run to the front of the stage and rev up the audience, crowd-surfing twice before the night was over. His infectious stage presence, combined with the duo’s relentlessly thumping beats, and seizure-inducing, strobe-laden lightshow, made for a vitalic, completely immersive performance.

For a duo with just one EP under its belt, TNGHT churned out a remarkably fluid, hour-long set, alternating between original tracks (“Higher Ground,” “Bugg’n”), a few Hudson Mohawke numbers (most memorably, “Cbat” from 2010’s Satin Panthers EP), and a number of hip-hop songs from the likes of OutKast and Rick Ross, with original productions layered on top. The sequencing of the set was basically perfect, with no dull moments to be found.

The crowd was befitting of TNGHT’s crossover appeal, ranging from snappily dressed urban professionals, to 420 bros, to hip-hop heads, to hipsters resembling the guy on the Zig Zag logo. Everyone seemed equally intent on dancing their ass off, though: a welcome alternative to the stiff, self-conscious audiences that populate all too many shows in this town.

As long as the musical landscape remains in its current state of flux and uncertainty, we should be thankful for projects like TNGHT, bent on exploring the grey area between disparate genres. The fact that Lunice and Hudson Mohawke can contribute so meaningfully to the conversation, while remaining so effortlessly, viscerally likable, is no small achievement.

Snap Sounds: Justin Timberlake



It’s 10 songs, seven minutes apiece. A quick look at the track-listing to Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience reveals a giant slice of pop ambition; a brazen comeback effort that practically dares the rest of the Grammy-elite to catch up.

Timberlake’s third solo LP, his first since 2006’s Futuresex/Lovesounds, finds the former *NSync’er and TRL-heartthrob confronting the pop landscape from within, railing against an industry bent on delivering quick sugar fixes, and little more.

The opening track, “Pusher Love Girl,” stands tall as the album’s boldest pop construction, ripping through an airtight, hook-filled R&B tune in its first half, then veering into a loose, funky, jammy section, as welcome as it is superfluous. Another highlight, “Spaceship Coupe,” makes a cosmic, seven-minute slow-jam work convincingly in a capital-P Pop context, thanks to Timberlake’s cool confidence, and veteran producer Timbaland’s deft balance of experimentation and approachability.

Occasionally, though, the songs buckle under their own weight: “Let the Groove Get In” and “Mirrors” begin spinning their wheels after a while, blurring the line between grand ambition and lazy editing. Thankfully, “Suit & Tie” and “That Girl” provide a nice pop-jolt to cut through the surrounding richness, when it threatens to overwhelm.

Sure, the album has its structural flaws, and its tracks occasionally fail to justify their extended runtimes; yet, it’s rather thrilling to hear Timberlake and Timbaland messing with extended song-structures, when a bunch of four-minute edits would’ve completely satisfied the bottom line.

Hopefully, The 20/20 Experience will come as a wake-up call to the record industry, pressuring the Rihannas of the world to quit catering to the lowest common denominator, and take their audience on a wild ride instead.

Unexplored terrain



MUSIC From David Bowie and Brian Eno’s forays into ambience, to the unrelenting pulse of trance and house, minimalist icon Steve Reich’s propulsive compositions have irreversibly shaped the pop world’s development since the 1970s. Now, four decades into his career, Reich is reversing the formula with “Radio Rewrite:” a new piece adapted from and inspired by the recordings of alt-rock institution Radiohead.

This Saturday, Stanford University is set to host the US premiere of “Radio Rewrite,” performed by acclaimed new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, in a program comprised entirely of Reich’s works.

Credited alongside Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and LaMonte Young for introducing minimalism to classical music, Reich is often cited as the most influential living composer. After moving west from his native NYC to study composition at Mills College in Oakland, and finding his voice with a series of groundbreaking, spoken-word tape loops (’65’s “It’s Gonna Rain” ’66’s “Come Out,”), he headed back east to form his own large ensemble: Steve Reich and Musicians.

The sound Reich achieved with this group was refreshing and unprecedented, combining pianos, strings and mallet instruments to create glassy, resonant textures, and mechanical rhythms that mirrored NYC’s industrial, caffeinated soul. His flagship composition, “Music for 18 Musicians,” (1976) showed a remarkable ability to breathe life into rigid structures, resulting in, arguably, the richest, lushest, most approachable recording of the Minimalist era.

Reich is noted for cutting against the grain of classical traditionalism. The percussive drive of his music reflects his beginnings as a bebop drummer, as well his time spent studying West African percussion and Indonesian gamelan. “Music for 18 Musicians” was released in ’76 by ECM, the esteemed jazz label, earning him cultural capital far beyond the confines of the so-called “new-music ghetto.” And, in 2008, Reich premiered “2×5,” his first piece written for rock-band instrumentation, electric guitars and all. Though Reich might be classified as a classical composer, he remains a musical omnivore.

Similarly, guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood has built a reputation over the past decade as Radiohead’s experimenter-in-chief, by employing exotic instruments (Ondes Martenot, anyone?) and imaginative guitar techniques, as well as delving into the classical world with compositions of his own. After testing the waters with “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” in 2006, and penning the acclaimed score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, (2007) Greenwood flew to Krakow, Poland in 2011 to take part in Sacrum Profanum: a festival dedicated to Reich’s music, where the two musicians would first meet.

Before Greenwood caught his ear with a solo rendition of 1987’s “Electric Counterpoint,” (a piece written for 14 guitarists), Reich had been unaware of Radiohead. “It was a great performance and we began talking,” Reich told the Independent (UK) recently, in anticipation of “Radio Rewrite”‘s world premiere in London.

“I found his background as a violinist and his present active role as a composer extremely interesting when added to his major role in such an important and innovative rock group,” Reich continues in the Independent article. “When I returned home I made it a point to go online and listen to Radiohead, and the songs ‘Everything in its Right Place’ and ‘Jigsaw Falling into Place’ stuck in my mind.”

In an interview with the Herald Scotland, Reich described his affinity for the two pieces, explaining, “‘Everything’ is a very rich song. It’s very simple and very complex at the same time. What does it mean? Maybe it’s about a relationship, maybe I should ask (Radiohead bandleader) Thom Yorke, but he wouldn’t tell me, I wouldn’t get anywhere with that… For ‘Jigsaw,’ it’s the harmonic jumps of the piece, it’s a beautiful tune.”

Two years later, Reich has re-interpreted both songs as the foundation for “Radio Rewrite.” The five-movement piece takes significant creative liberties, barely resembling the source material at times, Reich explains.

“It was not my intention to make anything like ‘variations’ on these songs, but rather to draw on their harmonies and sometimes melodic fragments and work them into my own piece. This is what I have done. As to whether you actually hear the original songs, the truth is — sometimes you hear them and sometimes you don’t.”

Instrumentation for “Radio Rewrite” consists of flute, clarinet, two vibes, two pianos, electric bass, and a string quartet. Other works included in the all-Reich program are “Clapping Music,” (featuring Mr. Reich, himself) “Piano Counterpoint,” (1985) “City Life,” (1995), “Four Genesis Settings from The Cave,” (1993) and “New York Counterpoint.” (1985)

Debuting the piece is NYC’s Alarm Will Sound, one of the most aggressively modern classical ensembles currently working. Having performed works by Aphex Twin, and collaborated with Dirty Projectors, the 20-piece seems aptly chosen to tackle “Radio Rewrite”‘s inherent genre-ambiguity.

Considering Reich’s enormous influence, the opportunity to witness him approach a younger generation’s music for the first time is a significant one. Implied within “Radio Rewrite” is a collision between two musical worlds, and the exploration of new, unpredictable terrain. Live music rarely seems so promising.


Performed by Alarm Will Sound

Sat/16, 8pm, $25–$60

Bing Concert Hall

327 Lausen, Stanford

650) 725-2787


Noise Pop 2013: Califone, ‘Scene Unseen,’ and DIIV


Will 2013 be the year that Noise Pop began downsizing? Or, is the festival simply adjusting its focus towards smaller, rising acts? Either way, this year’s lineup was surprising from the get-go, eschewing the name-brand, Flaming Lips-y headliners in favor of rising, blog-friendly outfits like Toro Y Moi and DIIV. Sadly, I couldn’t occupy nine venues at a time, so here’s a rundown of the Noise Pop shows I did see this past weekend.

Having listened to Califone‘s records for over a decade, yet never seen it live, I was curious about the band’s strategy in translating its studio material to the stage. From its introductory statement, Roomsound (2001), to the extended freakout-jams of Heron King Blues (2004), to last year’s Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People, Califone’s sound has always been production-oriented, augmenting the rustic twang of blues and roots music with an equally faded, rusted, precarious palette of electronic sound. No one merges the old and the new quite like Califone in the studio; the band’s records are visionary, but sadly, its live show didn’t quite measure up.

My first impression: no electronics. Frontperson Tim Rutili’s four-piece band consisted simply of two guitars, bass, and drums, leaving behind a significant part of the Califone identity. While this stripped-down approach isn’t necessarily a bad move, it requires a batch of songs strong enough to resonate after being whittled down to their skeletal forms.

While certain pieces thrived under the minimal treatment (“The Orchids,” “Electric Fence,” “Bottles and Bones”) others began spinning their wheels after a while (“Ape-Like,” “All Tied,” by Rutili’s side project Red Red Meat), without electronic ornamentation to keep the dynamics compelling. Yet, whenever the instrumentation was lacking, Rutili’s raspy voice and slide guitar came to the rescue, and picked up most of the slack.

While I would’ve liked to see them approach their studio material with more ambition and imagination, Rutili and Co. certainly made the trip to Cafe Du Nord worthwhile.

After Califone, I headed to 1015 Folsom to catch the last two sets of Scene Unseen, the club’s attempt to piece together the remnants of the “chillwave” scene of summer 2010. NYC’s Washed Out and recent Bay-Area transplant Toro Y Moi played DJ sets, one after the other, both of which seemed to amount to little more than standing in front of a MacBook, and pushing play. So, those seeking a “performance” were likely disappointed. However, both musicians put on competent, engaging sets, showing a deft understanding of flow and dynamics, and putting the crowd into a well-controlled frenzy.

Washed Out‘s crowd-pleasing-est moment was likely Todd Terje’s “Inspector Norse,” the space-disco extravaganza that every critic seemed to embrace in 2012. The best thing I heard for the first time was “Holding On” by Classixx, a house anthem that played like a poor-man’s “Digital Love” by Daft Punk, yet trounced most of the competition.

Toro Y Moi’s set was more diverse, and less reliant on four-on-the-floor percussion than Washed Out’s. Jumping from a Larry Levan remix of Positive Force’s “We Got the Funk,” to Daphni, Purity Ring, Mariah Carey, and most memorably, Ginuwine’s “Pony,” the lack of genre-specificity was reminiscent of Anything in Return, Toro Y Moi’s new LP that rejects the notion of chillwave for something warmer, more personable, and harder to classify.

It seems that Washed Out and Toro Y Moi have differing priorities at this point, with one staying comfortably within the confines of chillwave, and the other exploring beyond its boundaries. As a result, there wasn’t much of a unifying scene to be found at Scene Unseen, but it was a treat to see both artists, in a one-two punch.

One of the most promising groups within the current revival of shimmery, glassy dream-pop, NYC’s DIIV put on a truly impressive show for a one-album band. While it simply doesn’t have enough material at this point for an all-killer-no-filler, hour-long set, the band showed a great ability to adapt its recordings for the stage. Upping the tempos on a handful of songs, and veering into some extended jams, it managed to subvert expectations constantly, however slightly, making for a way more compelling show than a note-for-note playthrough of its 2012 debut Oshin would have been.

“Air Conditioning” was a big highlight, rejecting the laid-back swagger of the studio version, for a fast, propulsive, borderline-motorik groove that recalled the Velvet Underground and Ride. “Wait” and “How Long Have You Known?” were similarly impressive, rounding out the slam-dunk middle section of Oshin. The big surprise of the night came with a cover of Stereolab’s “Blue Milk,” (Bradford Cox’ favorite song, perhaps), a number that fit in seamlessly with the band’s glassy, shiny guitar sound, yet pushed its penchant for droney, chugging dynamics to a new extreme.

However, the elephant in the room: a lot of DIIV’s material sounds the same. Tracks like “Past Lives,” “Earthboy,” and “Sometime,” feature slight variations on the same guitar melody, and I’m still not sure how that makes me feel.

Whether its music is modular, lazy, or just underdeveloped this early in the game, there’s no doubt the band has a lot of room for refinement. Despite that, it was pretty thrilling to witness DIIV at (hopefully) the start of its lifespan, hungry to put its potential on display.

Fanboy ruminations on the new My Bloody Valentine


Here I am, listening to m b v for the umpteenth time since Saturday night, and I still can’t believe it exists. Up until last week, I had grown used to “the Loveless follow-up” as a punchline in hipster water-cooler conversation, a tall tale in the canon of guitar-rock mythology. But now, after two decades of broken promises, My Bloody Valentine’s fabled third LP is here. And I can dance to it. And it shows up on iTunes like everything else. This can’t be happening.

After he nearly bankrupted his label, striving to recreate the reverberacious sounds swirling around in his head, MBV’s guitarist and production mastermind Kevin Shields exited the studio with 1991’s seminal Loveless, an album that re-imagined the textural possibilities of guitars and vocals within the pop framework. The effect was equally seductive and menacing: a record swarming with haze and fuzz, yet with an undercurrent of Pet Sounds pop purity cutting straight down the middle. This ethereal, borderline-electronic approach to guitar-rock, and its use of androgynous, vaguely intelligible vocals as a background instrument, has spawned a thousand imitators, but no worthy successor, resulting in one of the modern era’s few truly legendary recordings.

That said, it’s hard to overstate the cultural baggage attached to m b v from the get-go. Seriously, if you’re Shields, how do you move on from what everyone from Brian Eno to Phish has embraced as the the greatest musical achievement of the ‘90s? The band’s third full-length presents several answers to that question, with a mixed bag of laid-back meanderings, abrasive left-field experiments, and a handful of vintage MBV anthems to feed that long-neglected Loveless fix.

Although it continues to open up and reveal itself with each listen, here are some observations from my first weekend with this incredibly unlikely album.

“she found now”
My Bloody Valentine’s first statement of the new millennium is a quiet, low-key one, without drums, that leaves Shields’ fuzzy, undulating guitars to support his and Bilinda Butcher’s entangled, hushed vocals. First time around, I was underwhelmed. Comebacks should start with a bang, right? After a few listens, though, it all made sense; this is the sound of Shields and Co. waking up after a two-decade hibernation, collecting their bearings, and taking a moment to reflect before getting on with the show. A poignant gesture, after 22 years of silence.

“only tomorrow”
And we’re rolling. I can’t remember the last time the band sounded this funky. Shields’ guitar has an earthly, familiar crunch to it, paring down from the otherworldly pink-noise that defined Loveless, and Colm Ó Cíosóig’s shuffly drums sound fuller, boomier, and more dynamic than ever before. Yet, it’s unmistakably MBV, from the complex, angular chord changes, to the sound of Butcher’s vocals succumbing to Shields’ towers of distortion.

“who sees you”
This is the jewel of the album, the track that delivers on all the expectations I had convinced myself were unreasonable. All of Loveless’ trademark qualities are right upfront, from the emphasis on heady, impressionistic texture, to the inextricable pop DNA at its core. The chord changes are as seductive as ever, and Shields’ guitars haven’t skipped a beat since ‘91. Most amazingly, though: we’re finally hearing a Loveless-caliber MBV song, approached with a muscular, dynamic, 21st century production sensibility. This is too good to be true.

“is this and yes”
Loveless’ brief, Final Fantasy-esque intro, “Touched” suggested an alternate direction for the band, which “is this and yes” explores in depth for the first time. Guitars are absent, and drums are minimal; the wispy synth tones coalesce with Butcher’s soft vocals to resemble the relaxed, samba-ish lilt of a Stereolab ballad. Simple and repetitive, but always engaging and never tedious, it offers a new perspective on MBV’s crafty songwriting abilities, and a nice moment of calm between thick slabs of pop/noise.

“if i am”
Relatively open and uncluttered by MBV standards, yet permeated by the band’s signature vertigo, “if i am” is a nice reminder that Shields’ aesthetic isn’t all smoke and mirrors, distortion, layering, and plain old big noises. If the two previous pop songs felt a bit formulaic and deconstructable, this track emphasizes the mystery and vagueness of MBV’s squirmy, seasick sound. Also, Shields on a wah-pedal is a nice surprise.

“new you”
The most melodic, bubbly, and downright fun song MBV has ever committed to tape, “new you” is like a window into an alternate universe, where MBV revved back up in ’96 and took the charts by storm. Recalling the work of Garbage, Chapterhouse, and other bands who carried the shoegaze-baton in more populist directions in the post-Loveless wake, it’s essentially a vintage MBV song, with all the noise peeled away. From the upfront vocals, to that irresistible synth melody, to the generous low-end that practically dares you not to dance like a fool… it’s a real treat.

“in another way”
While the first two-thirds of m b v, and all of Loveless, are largely held together by a strong harmonic undertow, “in another way” finds the band ripping that foundation out from under our feet, and playing with colder, spikier textures. The harsh, punky guitar squalls, and discordant vocals, resemble Isn’t Anything at its crudest, while the skipping, hopping drums and weirdly anthemic synths feel like an extension of their foray into dance territory on “Soon.” It’s a compelling experiment, and it’s neat to hear MBV hinting at new directions for their second act, but the lack of harmonic warmth keeps me from embracing it entirely.

“nothing is”
Ever repeat a word over and over, until it becomes a meaningless mishmash of sound? “nothing is” achieves the same sort of minor transcendence through repetition, looping a one-second stab of guitars and drums up and down a sine wave for over three minutes. It’s an easy space to get lost in, and fairly un-tedious, despite the odds. Similarly to “in another way”, though, I’m not finding a visceral connection to this one. I like it; it’s captivating; but love? Not quite.

“wonder 2”
Given the number of rock-band reunions defined by a disappointing sense of by-the-numbers conservatism, m b v’s final third sounds especially brave. “wonder 2” is the album’s boldest experiment: an uninhibited, atonal blur of a semi-pop song, laid atop a reverb-soaked drum and bass beat, and set inside that metaphorical “jet engine” that MBV fans are always talking about. Like most of their songs, it combines dissonance with pop structure. Yet, unlike the “great” ones (“Only Shallow,”“When You Sleep,” “Honey Power,” etc.), the pop warmth is missing. This one might take awhile to sink in though, as new layers of metallic noise continue to reveal themselves upon each listen.

In the long-run, m b v’s reputation will likely depend on where Shields and Co. choose to go from here. If they call it quits again, experiments like “nothing is” could ultimately be seen as vaguely disappointing, in their failure to completely justify a 22-year wait. Yet, if the band continues to create and explore, m b v’s third act in particular might wind up as another signpost on their weird, wonderful journey as an ensemble, leading to bigger rewards down the stretch.

If this is indeed the band’s closing statement, we’re incredibly fortunate to have a new handful of vintage MBV songs, like “who sees you” and “new you,” to live and love by for decades to come. At this point, m b v sounds too scattered and impulsive to compete head-to-head with Loveless’ obsessive commitment to pink noise, but were we really expecting that? The fact that in 2013, a new My Bloody Valentine album manages to reach those glorious heights, even on occasion, leaves us with so much to be thankful for.

Live Shots: Jessie Ware at the Rickshaw Stop


It’s only a matter of time before British R&B-pop sensation Jessie Ware outgrows the small, cozy Rickshaw Stops of the music world. Last Thursday, at her first-ever SF show, Ware’s commanding, poised performance showed massive potential, more befitting of a full-on diva for the 21st century than a blog-popster du jour.

While her stateside popularity hasn’t yet caught up to her reputation across the pond, Ware captured the full attention of the indie-music press with her debut LP, Devotion, released last year. Influenced by her earlier work with producers like SBTRKT, the album demonstrated a level of artfulness and musical nuance, atypical of your average vocal pop album. Much like Katy B and AlunaGeorge, Ware has raised eyebrows by integrating big, upfront, Sade-esque vocals into the music-first world of bloggy electronica.

The integrity of Ware’s productions calls for a solid touring band to bring them to life onstage, which her live ensemble delivered in full. With real drums, guitars, and bass added to her synth-dominated textures, live renditions of “Still Love Me” and “Devotion” were noticeably groovier, funkier, and harder-hitting than their studio counterparts. Vigorous cuts like “Running” and “No to Love” lent themselves perfectly to the live treatment, with robust drum kicks, bass slaps, and guitar stabs punctuating Ware’s soaring vocals to great effect.

“Wildest Moments” and “If You’re Never Gonna Move” (titled “110%” before a recent legal dispute) were slightly less successful, if only due to their live interpretations not deviating much from the originals. Still, they were the biggest crowd-pleasers of the night, working the sold-out crowd into a frenzy.

A cover of Bobby Caldwell’s soul ballad “What You Won’t Do For Love” came about halfway through the set, performed solely by Ware and her guitarist, while Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” made an appearance, right smack in the middle of her own “No to Love.” Though her hour-long set was never in danger of going stale, these little surprises and dynamic shifts made it all the more engaging.

Despite the steely professionalism of her musical output, and the elegance of her public image, Ware’s stage presence was completely disarming. She seemed awestruck by her success, approaching the audience with endearing modesty and self-deprecation, while never failing to make a compelling case for her talent.

Ware’s vocal delivery was impressive and magnetic, but not the least bit showy, revealing a level of restraint and refinement beyond her years. This, coupled with her engaging persona, and her backing band’s cool competence, resulted in a wholly captivating hour of music, which left little room for criticism or deduction.

It’s quite amazing that Ware has arrived on the scene so fully formed, and with such a righteous vision of pop music’s potential. She is clearly going places, and on Thursday night, 350 lucky fans likely witnessed the start of something big.

YEAR IN MUSIC 2012: Digital scraps and analog curiosities



YEAR IN MUSIC Are we being punked? Is this all some kind of stupid joke?

Upon first listen, the sound-world of Berlin-London duo Hype Williams (not the music-video director, mind you) is practically guaranteed to provoke a bewildered response. Incorporating half-baked hooks, brutishly cut-and-pasted samples, apathetic vocals, inept musicianship, crude effects, and grainy production into a gnarled, genreless mishmash, its approach gives off a superficial whiff of laziness and inconsequence.

After further inspection, however, Hype Williams reveals itself as a vital, innovative force in modern music, paving the way for a new form of artistic synthesis in an age when information flows like unchecked tap water.

The impulse to pillage the art-world for scraps and fragments, and reassemble them within a new framework, (see: postmodernism) has a diverse history, from The White Album to the writings of Thomas Pynchon; yet, it was once widely perceived as a snooty, elitist activity reserved for outsider artists, avant-gardists, and other seemingly unreachable, black turtleneck-wearers.

Hype Williams operates at the forefront of what I like to call “new postmodernism,” recycling musical idioms as a kneejerk response to the Internet’s constant outpouring of accessible information. Whereas pre-Internet postmodernism required relative effort, calculation, and resources to connect the dots between musical forms, anyone in 2012 with a laptop, a WiFi connection, a pirated copy of Ableton or Logic, and a Bandcamp account, was a legitimate artist, granted easy access to an infinite sea of musical possibilities.


You know how Brian Eno said his instrument of choice is the recording studio? In 2012, the people’s instrument was the iTunes library/MIDI keyboard combo: easier, and cheaper, to learn than the guitar, with a wider sonic range, to boot.

Given the declining relevance of record labels, studios, expensive gear, marketing campaigns, and other barriers preventing would-be artists from crafting and distributing their work, it was easier and cheaper to be a recording artist/collagist in 2012 than ever before. Hype Williams explored the potential of this new musical landscape more relentlessly, and enthusiastically, than perhaps anyone else this past year, rendering it, in my view, 2012’s most essential musical entity.

Within the context of new postmodernism, Hype Williams’ 2012 output sounds less like goofy amateurism than an unfiltered current of creative energy. On this year’s Black is Beautiful LP, released by Hyperdub under the pseudonym Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland (which may, or may not, be their real names), haphazard beats and keyboard melodies are seemingly recorded in one take, prioritizing creative flow and forward movement over the refinement of previously committed ideas.

The tracks are generically titled (“Track 2,” “Track 8”), opting to skip ahead to the next project in lieu of assigning an identity to the last one. Each of the album’s 15 pieces is a non sequitur to the one before it, evoking the scatterbrained impatience brought on by the Internet age.

“Venice Dreamway” (the only properly titled track of the bunch) slaps a rollicking, free-jazz drum solo over an ominous synth drone, while “Track 8” strongly resembles an underwater level from Super Mario Bros.; “Track 10” is an extended, weed-addled dub workout, spilling over the 9-minute mark, while the 35-second “Track 6” consists of little more than a shambolic MIDI flute melody. “Track 5” is a reckless, sloppily executed take on an otherwise competent vocal pop song; and, interestingly enough, “Track 2” is a cover of Bobby and Joe Emerson’s “Baby,” a ’70s R&B obscurity that Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti also reinterpreted on this year’s Mature Themes.

Highly regarded among DIY enthusiasts, Ariel Pink is often credited for rescuing postmodernism from the artistic elite, and thus providing the roadmap to Hype Williams’ aesthetic. In an interview this past September, I asked Pink to rattle off a list of favorite books, albums, films, and visual artists: a request he (politely) declined. “Favorites? No,” he explained. “My aesthetic is too all-inclusive. That’s the best part, and the worst part about it. It doesn’t make me a very loyal fan of any one thing in particular. But, at the same time, I love everything.”

Aside from fuzzy, queasy texture, this “all-inclusive” philosophy is the primary link between Hype Williams’ and Ariel Pink’s output. Just as Pink’s kaleidoscopic lo-fi pop makes no judgments between “good” and “bad” musical influences, forcing the entire art-world through his sonic meat grinder, one can picture Hype Williams hoarding digital scraps and analog curiosities, recycling them indiscriminately into new forms.

United by a simultaneous love for, and indifference to, all forms of art, both Pink and Hype Williams seem motivated not by ironic detachment or hipster posturing, (see: Hippos In Tanks, Not Not Fun) but by the pure joy and freedom of using everything available.

Another proponent of the all-inclusive strategy, SF party curator Marco de la Vega, orchestrated a club night at Public Works this past April, headlined by Hype Williams, with additional sets by Gatekeeper, Teengirl Fantasy, and Total Accomplishment.

De la Vega described his aesthetic to the Guardian as “the embodiment of this idea that there is such a huge cross-section between various musical genres, and particular production styles of music, so rap, electronic… post-dubstep, post-anything. There’s this huge intersection between all these scenes that doesn’t actually have, strangely, its own outlet.”

Named “Public Access,” the event set an ideal context for Hype Williams’ art, recognizing its position at the crossroads of musical approaches. The duo’s performance (its second US appearance, ever) was a wild success, the most engaging “laptop set” I’ve ever witnessed, and perhaps the best live show I saw in all of 2012.

With strobe lights flashing, and the stage enshrouded in fog, Blunt and Copeland were rendered completely invisible, reinforcing their mysterious public image, and keeping the specifics of their musical process under wraps.

Making full use of the club environment, and its thumping, punishing sonic capabilities, they delivered a seamless, hour-long barrage of heavy, industrial beats, cavernous drones, mysterious field recordings, and characteristically skewed melodies, with the occasional, approachable pop hook thrown in to provide a grounding influence.

With all too many live bands churning out unimaginative replications of their own studio output, Hype Williams’ set was striking, immersive, and wholly refreshing. Ear-splittingly loud, and physically exhausting, it exposed the dark underbelly of the post-everything, all-inclusive approach, daring the audience to submit to its overwhelming, cacophonous potential.

If Black is Beautiful exhibited the joyful liberation of new postmodernism, Blunt and Copeland’s live set was the equivalent of a system overload: inclusive to the point of devastation.

Between an LP for Hyperdub, a handful of web-only mixtapes, and a live SF performance for the ages, Hype Williams spent 2012 re-evaluating the significance, and egalitarian capacity, of postmodernism, in an age when anyone with a WiFi connection can go digital-dumpster-diving for musical scraps to quilt together as they please. As long as casual musicians keep on harnessing the vast creative potential at their fingertips, and “professionals” like Blunt and Copeland continue to expose the waning relevance of the art-world’s precious institutions, our culture of musicianship is bound to inch closer and closer towards democracy.




1. Hiatus Kaiyote: Tawk Tomahawk (self-released)

2. Lone: Galaxy Garden (R&S)

3. Scott Walker: Bish Bosch (4AD)

4. Zammuto: s/t (Temporary Residence)

5. Tame Impala: Lonerism (Modular)

6. Laurel Halo: Quarantine (Hyperdub)

7. Field Music: Plumb (Memphis Industries)

8. THEESatisfaction: awE naturalE (Sub Pop)

9. Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Live (ECM) 10. d’Eon: LP (Hippos In Tanks)

Snap Sounds: Scott Walker



When pop crooner Scott Walker plunged into the abyss on 1995’s Tilt, he initiated one of the most radical transformations in the history of recorded music, rejecting the tuneful chamber pop of his ’60s-’70s output for a pitch-black sludge of musique concrète, avant-classical, and industrial art-rock. Walker hasn’t looked back since, doubling down with 2005’s The Drift, and now Bish Bosch: an album as erratic, scary, unhinged, darkly hilarious, and wildly imaginative as any in recent memory.

Replacing The Drift’s murky, viscous slog with rapid-fire sequences of tension and release, Bish Bosch is defined by its jarring contrasts between musical extremes. Ominous electronic and orchestral drones barely establish themselves, before giving way to noisy, abrasive blocks of punishing drums and brawny guitar stabs.

Exotic instrumentation (harpsichords, Samba percussion, zithers, ukuleles), textural shifts, and lyrical themes (Julius Caesar, fart noises, Polynesia, Yo Mama jokes) pop up and recede impulsively, building an array of musical possibilities as dense, thorny, and encyclopedic as a Pynchon novel, with Walker’s quivering, operatic baritone as its sole, anchoring force.

Difficult as it is to proclaim Bish Bosch 2012’s best album, (its hulking weight and unyielding grimness renders casual listening a near impossibility) no LP this year has matched its gutsiness and sonic adventurousness, or consolidated so many ideas into a single musical statement.

With everyone from from McCartney to Rod Stewart sacrificing their integrity to fill arenas and Christmas stockings, Walker remains an anomaly among 70-year-olds in the music biz. May he continue on his long, strange trip down the rabbit hole.