Todd Lavoie

Sweet symphony


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Has the Parenthetical Girls’ extreme makeover reached completion, or are their collective sleeves still hoarding hidden tricks to be revealed in future remakes/remodels?

The Portland, Ore., avant-popsters — formed in 2002 and originally calling themselves Swastika Girls after a Brian Eno/Robert Fripp song — first grabbed the ears of the listening public three years ago with a double-dose of fractured melodies and droning lo-fi noise. Pivoted around leader Zac Pennington’s preening, twirling vocals, 2006’s Parenthetical Girls and Safe as Houses (both Slender Means Society) jumbled childlike whimsy with bit-lip sexuality, electronic glitchery, and dizzying song structures.

Glockenspiels mingle with unnamable blips and squelches, quivering confessions shove up against tense, volatile arrangements — unabashedly fraught with drama, these recordings inevitably garnered more than a few comparisons to the work of fellow art-damaged experimentalists Xiu Xiu. Still, both discs offer plenty of testimony to Pennington’s distinctive vision. Strip away the songs’ tendencies to scratch and scrape, and one can’t help but notice his fondness for playful, extravagant composition.

That said, few could have predicted the baroque gleam-and-shine of last year’s sumptuous orchestral-pop oddity, Entanglements (Tomlab). Having teamed up with a rotating crew of collaborators in the past, Pennington at last finds his ideal partnership with a quintet of like-minded string-lovers. Additionally, more than a dozen classically trained musicians are brought into the studio: the result is a twisted, trilling naughty-boy stepson to Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle (Warner Bros., 1968)

Entanglements‘ title couldn’t be more fitting: flitted out in borderline-Shakespearean verse, a tale of young, doomed love unfolds as body parts and fluids are exchanged fitfully and freely among the heaving rise-and-fall of cellos and violins. Pennington’s vocal pirouettes remain as enchantingly fey as ever, particularly when dishing out pearls as snappy as this couplet from "Young Eucharists": "And what such fates we two betray, as your sacred legs gave way?"


with No Kids

Fri/27, 9 p.m., $10

Cafe du Nord

2170 Market, SF

(415) 861-5016

Feel-good sounds


DENT MAY AND HIS MAGNIFICENT UKULELE What we have here, to get right down to it, is a perfect case of truth in advertising. The cover of The Good Feeling Music of Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele (Paw Tracks) — the just-released debut from the eponymous uke-strumming, street-corner-serenading smooth operator — spells out its primary objective in impish scrawl, rainbow-and-curlicue-festooned illustrations, and a photo of the showman getting swanky in tuxedo finery. It’s an eye-catching introduction, to be sure, but May is more than ready and willing to deliver on such promises. Having pinpointed the rarely-visited sonic intersection between Dean Martin and Jonathan Richman, the crooner extols the virtues of girls and parties with a fetching blend of exuberance and sincerity. Just in case the witty, bookish lyrics aren’t enough to crack a smile on listeners’ faces, the accompanying musical cocktail should do the trick: one part ’60s pop, one part breezy Tropicalia, two parts nightclub lounge act. Quite the recipe for feeling good. Some of the credit for May’s grinning inspiration must be given to the beloved instrument of the disc’s title. “I’d been stuck in a bit of a rut, songwriting-wise, before I bought the ukulele from a friend,” he explains over the phone from his Taylor, Miss., home. “I was actually working on a country and western rock opera beforehand — pretty downbeat stuff. It all changed once I picked up the ukulele.” Asked whether the title could be considered a mission statement for himself and the band, May says, laughing in agreement, “Sure, I wanted this to be a celebration of what music means to me.” The disc feels very much like a celebration: of crooning vocals — comparisons to Morrissey or Jens Lekman are not off base, though May cites Prince and Lee Hazlewood as his favorite singers — but also of the notion of music as communal experience. Much like Lekman or Richman, May specializes in clever, audience-engaging songs about life’s essentials: love, friends, having fun. “I’ll make you see/ it ain’t so bad in Mississippi,” he jokes on the buoyant “You Can’t Force a Dance Party,” and the song’s evolving chronicle of throwing a bash for a visiting sweetheart is all charm, swung along by giddy ukulele and hard-shaking tambourine. “At the Academic Conference” — “smart people everywhere … but do they know what love is?” — sways with argyle-sweater romanticism, pairing glee club vocals and sunny Parisian café pop in a snappy reminder to not lose sight of what’s truly important. The tune also offers one of the finest self-deprecating zingers I’ve seen in a while: “Joyce, Whitman, and Camus/ Well, no, I’ve never read them/ I’m here just for the booze.” (Todd Lavoie) A.C. NEWMAN Carl “A.C.” Newman’s 2004 solo debut, The Slow Wonder (Matador), sits atop many a pop enthusiast’s iTunes playlist, and not merely for alphabetical reasons. Alongside the considerable quality of Newman’s output as chief songwriter for the New Pornographers and Zumpano, Wonder was a delightful, scaled-down showcase of his talents, boasting such jubilant instant classics as “On the Table” and “The Town Halo.” Get Guilty (Matador), Newman’s recently released second solo disc, is nowhere near as immediate a thrill as his first, nor is it as cheery — a not-unexpected turn given the shades of melancholy that color the two New Pornographers albums that have come out since then, 2005’s Twin Cinema and 2007’s Challengers (both Matador). It takes several listens for Get Guilty’s songs to settle in, but when they do, they stick with industrial strength: for instance, “The Heartbreak Rides” has a sneaky chord-change hook that gradually swells to a grand, fife-inflected breakdown, and the chugging acoustic guitar propelling lead single “The Palace at 4 AM” lays a frantic bed for Newman’s bouncy, infectious narrative. In one line from “Submarines of Stockholm,” he refers to the submarine’s Swedish stop as “one in a series of highlights and holy lows” — a clever turn of phrase applicable to this record, a terrific new addition to Newman’s brilliant corner of the pop canon. We’ll see how his new numbers go down live when he performs at the Independent. (Michael Harkin) A.C. NEWMAN With Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele and Devon Williams Feb. 28, 8 p.m., $15 Independent 628 Divisadero, SF (415) 771-1421

Hungry for Lee Hazlewood


Imposing baritones, orchestral sweeps, and curious couplings of drama and whimsy — honestly, could we ask for better components to soundtrack a year of such 11th-hour intensity, a year of struggle and strife and the unspeakably surreal, mercifully offset by glimmers of giddiness at the prospect of something altogether new? The gift of hope delivered to us on Nov. 4 was a lovely early Christmas treat, but let’s face it: all of that waiting made 2008 a year of epic proportions. How fitting, then, that I ticked off the months with a steady stereo stream of theatrics, and that guiding most of them was the spirit of an Oklahoma Dust Bowl refugee who subverted pop music by embracing the machine while still trying to tear it down and start anew. The godfather of cowboy psychedelia, the architect of the saccharine underground, the original pop iconoclast himself: Lee Hazlewood.

Hazlewood’s greatest gift — both as a solo artist and as the cranky-baritoned foil to the sugary Nancy Sinatra — was his ability to take the supposedly disparate genres of pop, country, and lounge music and rub them against one another to riveting, highly cinematic effect. Heaped in heavy echo and bolstered by gushing string arrangements, delivered with the skill of a raconteur and bristling with unexpected juxtapositions, his music remains as head-swimmingly oddball as ever.

This year saw the return of three leading carriers of Hazlewood’s quixotic torch. Lambchop’s OH (Ohio) (Merge) offers more cryptic, disheveled elegance from the Nashville band, while the twisted lounge and heavy-ballad wooziness of Tindersticks’ The Hungry Saw (Constellation) gives a worthy update to Hazlewood’s signature tearjerker "My Autumn’s Done Come" — vibraphone and all. Not to be outdone, Nick Cave temporarily tables his more-recent chest thumping for big-screen melodrama on a few moments of Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (Anti-): on "Jesus of the Moon," in particular, he and his Bad Seeds serve up Hazlewood-worthy western-skied balladry.

Cue the strings! With its sumptuously reverb-steeped production, punchy brass, and colossal orchestrations, the Last Shadow Puppets’ The Age of the Understatement (Domino) proves to be just as indebted to Hazlewood’s studio wizardry as it is to its obvious Swinging London signifiers. Local chanteuse Kira Lynn Cain floats out haunted refrains of the legend’s twang-cabaret on her billowing beauty The Ideal Hunter (Evangeline), while the desert panoramas of Calexico’s Carried to Dust (Quarterstick) provide a testimonial to the power of Hazlewood’s beloved mariachi horns. Seekers of the heir apparent to the vocalist’s wry, croaking country wordsmithery should look no further than the parallel honky-tonk universe of the Silver Jews’ Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (Drag City). Lastly, Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan pick up the familiar Nancy and Lee story line and flip the script: on their Sunday at Devil Dirt (Fontana International), Campbell assumes the male, Svengali role of Hazlewood, writing all of the words and arrangements, and Lanegan becomes the gravel-diva counterpart to Sinatra. The result is ravishingly weepy orchestral pop and off-kilter country-blues rambles. Would Hazlewood approve? Total-Lee. (Todd Lavoie)


Spiritualized, Songs in A & E (Fontana International)

Goldfrapp, Seventh Tree (Mute)

M83, Saturdays = Youth (Mute)

Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight (Fat Cat)

DeVotchKa, A Mad and Faithful Telling (Anti-)

Sigur Rós, Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (XL)

Elbow, The Seldom Seen Kid (Fiction/Polydor UK/Geffen)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (Anti-)

The Last Shadow Puppets, The Age of the Understatement (Domino)

Hot Chip, Made in the Dark (DFA/Astralwerks)


Child’s play


It can’t be easy, capturing the spirit of childhood and distilling all that wondrous essence into effective, life-affirming art. First, there’s the pile-up of cynicism we tend to amass over the years. Sure, we grown-ups might call this protective shield "realism," but it doesn’t exactly lend itself to fostering the same wide-eyed exuberance we felt as youngsters. On the opposite end of the spectrum: over-sentimentality. Simply put, schmaltz can kill a mood in no time — so let’s keep it away from the kiddies, shall we? There’s the dilemma: how to convey the innocence and excitement of youth without succumbing to corniness. We can’t all be Brian Wilson, after all.

Volker Bertelmann must have had a wonderful childhood. The Dusseldorf pianist and composer — known in the record shops simply as Hauschka — recently released an album’s worth of meditations and reminiscences about growing up in a small, woodsy German town, and I’d be hard-pressed to cite a more touching instrumental recording from this year. Ferndorf (130701/Fat Cat) — named after Bertelmann’s hometown village — glides along in a delicate dance between impish and introspective, evoking images of little boys and girls lost in playtime but also conjuring moments of quiet contemplation.

It’s an enormously engaging listen, made all the more magnetic by its unsentimental depiction of the emotional lives of children. Joined by a string duo, an occasional trombonist, and a grab bag of subtle electronic textures, Bertelmann’s comforting — but challenging — piano minimalism could very well be the new working definition for cinematic music. Ultimately, however, the 12 songs contained here should send listeners back to recreating scenes from their own childhoods. No movie required.

Hauschka live at Mutek 2007, Montreal

A classically trained pianist, Bertelmann has worked largely in the past as an exponent of John Cage’s "prepared piano" technique, in which items such as corks, straps of leather, and scraps of metal are attached to the instrument’s hammers and strings to create an endless array of clicks and rattles. With such a battery of odds and ends set in place, the piano can be transformed into a one-man percussion section of sorts. Earlier Hauschka works such as 2004’s Substantial and 2005’s The Prepared Piano (both Karaoke Kalk) were manifestos celebrating the possibilities of the technique. As one might guess, Cage’s presence could be spotted on both discs, as well as those of several other modern composers: Arvo Part, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich.

Last year’s Room to Expand (130701/Fat Cat) showed Bertelmann broadening his palette and introducing strings and electronics into the mix. Given that the pianist is also a member of synth-tweaking experimentalists Music A.M. and Tonetraeger, the addition of electronics to enhance the piano’s versatility was perhaps a natural extension of lessons learned from Cage.

Much of Ferndorfs playfulness emerges from the prepared-piano technique. "Barfuss Durch Gras" is a sputtering, plonking hydraulics-overdrive containing as many as 10 different piano textures at once, while the twitching waltz of "Heimat" derives much of its spunk from the curious union of a quasi-ragtime melody with a soft-footed pit-er-pat rhythm and disembodied horn sounds, all of which have been somehow generated by the same instrument. The Michael Nyman-esque "Blue Bicycle" has all the breeziness of a spring afternoon, but is pushed along urgently by pulsing circular piano patterns and the rush of two cellos, played marvelously by Insa Schirmer and Donja Djember. The string-drenched autumn tones of "Morgenrot" recall moments of Ryuichi Sakamoto or avant-chamber experimentalists Rachel’s, but also spotlight Bertelmann’s flair for bittersweet nostalgia.

In what might be the disc’s finest moment, "Schones Madchen" — a memory of young, innocent flirtation — imagines Amelie composer Yann Tiersen interpreting Reich. Delicate repetitions of piano flutters curve around lush curls of strings, clock-spring clicks and tics tap away underneath, and the wonders of early infatuation are compressed into less than four minutes.


With Tom Brosseau and Magik*Magik Orchestra

Sun/23, 8:30 p.m., $10

Hotel Utah Saloon

500 Fourth St., SF

(415) 546-6300

Warming to cold fact


Now that we’re deep into November, I can safely announce my choice for 2008’s top reissue: Sixto Rodriguez’s scrumptiously echo-rippled psychedelic folk-soul delight Cold Fact (Sussex/Light in the Attic). Originally released in 1970 by Sussex, the album never made a big dent in the American countercultural consciousness. Though it feels like an underground classic on par with the finest from such visionaries as Love, relatively few got a chance to hear it when it first emerged. Based on what I’ve read, Sussex didn’t have much pull with FM underground radio — the try-anything format for which Rodriguez was best suited — and thus the singer-songwriter was never exposed to his greatest potential audience.

Sixto Rodriguez, “Sugarman” (video by Yellowcatz)

That’s a damn shame considering that Cold Fact‘s riveting combination of barbed social commentary, blazing stream-of-consciousness delivery, and shiver-down-the-spine vocal testimonials — often heightened by understated studio freak-out-ery — would have connected with listeners seeking another voice tapping into the darker side of the hippie dream. While very much a product of the ’60s, the recording speaks directly to the rising levels of disillusionment in America at the decade’s turn. For last-name-only Rodriguez, a reconciliation of the bright-eyed optimism of Flower Power with the grim realities of the late ’60s takes place in the form of teeth-gritting folk spiels and soul-stirring calls for social change that barely conceal a seething rage. To seal the deal, he delivers his lyrics with infinite cool, coming across as both aloof and strident within the turn of a phrase.

As for those songs, the immediacy of numbers like "Crucify Your Mind" and "Sugar Man" pulls your ears the quickest. For all of their psychedelic embellishments, these tunes are essentially the sound of one man laying it out over the simple strums of an acoustic guitar. Even decades into the folk-rock phenomenon, many of Rodriguez’s songs will likely hit first-time listeners with that revelatory "Wow, how come I’ve never heard this before?" feeling.

RODRIGUEZ Sun/23, 2 p.m., free. Amoeba Music, 2455 Telegraph, Berk. Sun/23, 8 p.m., $17–$19. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF.

Welcome to my dreamscape


Here’s the curse of deep sleepers: they never remembers their dreams. As someone who snaps out of bed in the morning without one recollection of what happened behind shut eyes, I’ve always been envious of folks who can recount the vivid details of their dreams. Instead, I’ve taken to filling my awake time with art that sends my neurons firing in similarly seemingly random configurations. If I can’t do it myself, I might as well find people who can help do it for me.

This is where local singer-songwriter Michael Zapruder comes in. As a champion of blurring the lines between the banal and bizarre, of sticking the unexpected into the most familiar settings, the smooth-baritoned storyteller has more than a few dreams to spare for the rest of us. His most recent disc, the appropriately wobbly-monikered Dragon Chinese Cocktail Horoscope (SideCho), thrives on spinning long-lingering images — spiders on ice cream cones, lovers transformed into pieces of hay — into songs that remain rather confessional in tone. At their core, these could be considered folk numbers, but Zapruder adorns them with not only with psychedelic wordplay, but with glowing electronics and an indie-rock-spirited willingness for experimentation. It’s a balancing act of tremendous agility, reutf8g tales at once earthy and strangely disorienting.

"My goal is to write songs that work as extended hypnotic vignettes. That’s my realm," Zapruder explains over the phone from Mojave, en route to the next stop of his cross-country tour. After completing the much-publicized "52 Songs" project at the end of 1999 — he wrote, recorded, and posted online one tune per week for an entire year — the vocalist realized that these dream-state compositions were among his most successful. Several projects have followed, but Horoscope could be his finest expression of erasing the lines between sleep and wakefulness.

Opener "New Year," with its twinkling atmospherics and rolling brushed-drum rhythm, joined by Zapruder’s intimate hushes at the mic, feels like some of the more recent output from art-popper David Sylvian. The song has all the hallmarks of a late-night confessional, but a closer listen reveals a fever-rush of paper dragons, broken beds, and cowboys. "Ads for Feelings" carefully, steadily mesmerizes with a light pulsating tempo, soft-spoken keyboard sighs, and a recited vocal melody — only to shake the listener from the trance with delirious twirls of flute. Zapruder hardly sounds like he’s among the ranks of the awake, yet he insists, "I couldn’t sleep, I was watching the night / It was throwing little pebbles at the back of my head."

The album’s focal point is the nine-minute "Black Wine," a spellbinding torrent of interwoven images of family gatherings and ugly mayhem, coolly and methodically delivered over a slow blues. Here, otherwise-benign references to bread and wine commingle with blood and bones while a pair of wraithlike female voices warn of impending doom. The dreamlike whimsies of elsewhere have instead been replaced with something considerably more nightmarish in spirit. Asked about the origins of the song, Zapruder lets out a hearty laugh: "I just wanted to juxtapose the idea of a normal holiday meal with a monster story. So I stepped into that world and looked around for a while."

With 1090 Club and the R&B Freejazz Gospel Supreme 80
Nov. 5, 9 p.m., $8
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF
(415) 621-4455

High Places


New York — you never cease to surprise me. For all these years, I’ve been completely convinced that Brooklyn was a continuous swath of pavement, brownstones, and ironic T-shirts. Apparently there’s an altogether different, little-known ecosystem hiding in Hipster’s Paradise. Tucked in the darkest pocket of the borough sits a teeming rainforest, a sea of green in which rainbow-bedazzled birds shake their hot pink plumage while chattering monkeys swing through the lush canopy.

Or so Brooklyn electro-primitives High Places would have us believe. The duo — vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Mary Pearson and percussionist Rob Barber — embrace the notion of geography as a driving force in music, but it’s not their New York surroundings that inspire. Rather, they get their spark from environments far removed from the urban landscape — namely, jungles, of both the terrestrial and the mental variety. As the name would suggest, the pair concern themselves with elevated states — not only do they wish to take us climbing to the top of the tallest trees, but the journey also involves clearing one’s head with a luxuriant tangle of interwoven rhythms.

Vocals are drenched in reverb, guitars buzz as reconfigured insectoid samples, and keyboard melodies whir in unexpected patterns — yet it all feels wondrously organic. High Places have their antecedents — look to Brian Eno’s ambient "fourth world" explorations and the rainforest-dub of The Slits’ Return of the Giant Slits (CBS/Sony International, 1981) for touchstones — but ultimately, they arrive sounding like emissaries from a world yet to be surveyed.

High Places’ just-released self-titled Thrill Jockey debut — not counting the label’s summer-issued singles compilation 03/07–09/07feels tailor-made for swooping among the tippy-tops of the Amazon jungle, having meshed Pearson’s carefree, birdlike melodies with curious rhythmic tics, tribal polyrhythms, and the cicada-buzz of treated electronics. Many of the disc’s primeval shuffles, bumps, and thumps come from a full shelf of wood blocks, mixing bowls, and rattles. "The Tree with the Lights in It," for example, fashions an alluring rhythmic undercurrent from what sounds like sandpaper scratches and water sloshing in a bowl.

Elsewhere, the ricocheting electro pings and the clip-clop twitch of "A Field Guide" offers a sun-soaked tropical counterpart to Burial’s haunted dubstep, while "The Storm" tosses disembodied banjo into a slithery gamelan groove punctuated by echo-steeped synth chirps. Far away from her Brooklyn home, Pearson’s winsome flutter beckons from the tallest trees, where she makes the sweetest of observations: "Now my clothes are stained with pitch … it was worth it." Who could say no to such great heights?


Oct. 8, 9 p.m.

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

Horn dogs unite


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Lately I’ve been thinking about buying a trumpet. I had one once, though my mom sold it back to an instrument shop years ago — long after I’d ditched it and jumped the fence to a cappella choir about midway through high school. By that point I couldn’t have cared less, but more recently I’ve found myself daydreaming about it, its gleaming shine, its sleek curves. Mostly, though, I reminisce about its power — roaring and robust and showy as hell, that trumpet gave my mild-mannered little self a shot at being loud and free. And yet somehow, incredibly, I gave it up: too uncool, I’d told myself. Damn fool, what was I thinking? I take a mental inventory of my favorite songs — trumpets everywhere. I scan my record collection — yep, brass galore. I recall the new artists who are getting me the most hot ‘n’ bothered — can you guess the common thread? So, anyone want to sell me a trumpet?

As much as the current brass boom appears to be in full flourish from coast to coast, we here in the Bay Area are particularly spoiled for choice when it comes to horn-driven delights: rapturous Balkan brass bands, wickedly deep Afro-funk, and sweet soul music are all solid fixtures on the local menu for lovers of trumpets, trombones, and beyond. Still, the range of flavors extends even further than this quick list. As the longstanding booking agent for San Francisco’s Amnesia Bar, Sol Crawford, can attest: "I was thinking about all of these amazing bands we have in our area, when it occurred to me — so many of them feature brass! So, I decided, why not put together a festival to spotlight brass in all its diversity?"

And what a spotlight it will be. Boasting 11 days’ worth of brass-tastic revelry involving 30-plus artists and 21 shows, Crawford’s showcase offers thrilling testimony to the endless taste combinations proffered by local horn players — and the bands who love ’em. The festival’s name was inevitable. "As I began organizing this festival, I thought of it as a feast," he elaborates over iced tea at a Mission District café. "Then I pictured a cornucopia — this great big horn-shape with food spilling out. Perfect. A hornucopia, then!"

With a roster as impressive as this, the Hornucopia Festival is a veritable bounty deserving of the food analogy. Consider the sweet-and-savory possibilities of any given evening, and you’ll have rung Pavlov’s bell and set your mouth a-salivating: there’s the hot-pepper punch of Afrobeat powerhouse Aphrodesia, the hard bop/hip-hop grease of the Realistic Orchestra, the crisp crunch of punk-rock march-brigade Extra Action Marching Band, and the corn whiskey–marinated Dixieland delirium of the Gomorran Social Aid and Pleasure Club, for a start. Floor-burning Balkan brass band bacchanalians Brass Menazeri will elevate heart rates with a release party to herald the arrival of their latest self-released CD, Vranjski San. Lord Loves a Working Man’s heavy-soul workouts should keep crowds feeling limber … and so on. Add them all up, and that’s some serious Bay-representing horn love. One last coup: Crawford also enlisted the help of eminent New York klezmer daredevil Frank London, who will debut a sure-to-electrify ensemble: the SF Klezmer Brass Allstars.

Asked about the drive behind orchestrating such an enormous event that not only includes shows but workshops and panel discussions, Crawford’s answer is simple. "It’s about connecting," he explains. "There’s a great return to acoustic-based music happening right now, and a lot of these artists are mixing and melding genres in fascinating ways. And I want to bring them to a larger audience." My eyes continue to widen in awe upon hearing the full extent of what it has taken to put together this colossal labor of love, but he returns my sense of wow with an easy smile. "My friends have been great in helping out," the organizer adds. "So have the bands. It’s the scrappy brassy little festival that could."


Sept. 4–14. Includes Frank London’s SF Klezmer Brass Allstars Sept. 5 at Café Du Nord; Brass Menazeri, Aphrodesia, and bellydance Sept. 12 at Great American Music Hall; and Polkacide Sept. 13 at Café Du Nord. For more information, go to

No borders!


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For all the criticism we could justifiably plop down on the mighty feet of globalization, perhaps one of the few upsides worth positing as the world keeps shrinking is that cross-cultural exchange in the arts is at an all-time high. Purists can grumble at the arrival of the "world music" phenomenon and even accuse some of its Western practitioners of engaging in Colonialism 2.0, but how about a counter-argument: hasn’t the rise of the global groove fostered a greater understanding between cultures? Isn’t this what Bob Marley meant when he sang "One World, One Love"?

Singer-songwriter Rupa Marya makes a compelling case for such counter-arguments as the leader of local — but thoroughly global — culture-jumping, genre-colliding fusionists Rupa and the April Fishes. Switching gracefully between English, French, Spanish, and Hindi vocals while leading her bandmates on breathless journeys from Parisian chanson to Indian ragas, Marya offers a thrilling vision of globalization-gone-good. On their debut, XtraOrdinary rendition — originally self-issued but recently remastered and rereleased by Cumbancha — the nature of boundaries is called into question, not just in terms of nations but also in terms of musical traditions. By drawing upon so many influences — in addition to the aforementioned, we can also add Latin alternative, polka, Romani dance, tango, and American folk into the mix — they share the same mix-it-up mettle as such intrepid travelers as Manu Chao. Hardcore traditionalists they are not.

Over lunch at a Castro teahouse, Marya expresses her dual embrace of and resistance to the oft-used world music tag applied to her band’s sound. "Someone at the label came up with ‘global agit-pop’ — I kind of like that," she offers, chuckling. "’World music’ sounds meaningless, whereas at least ‘global’ is more inviting, more inclusive, to me. After all, we are playing music from all over the world! Really, though, ‘folk music’ makes the most sense to me."

Certainly the folk description does ring true. Their sound sports a distinctly populist bent, and the bulk of the songs originally started off as solo compositions — Marya alone on her acoustic guitar. Peel away the Left Bank accordion waltzes and the sweltering trumpet fanfares, and at their core these are singer-songwriter compositions designed to inspire, motivate, and comfort. This singularly folksy concept — the healing capacity of music — segues with Marya’s other profession, as a doctor. Having deftly orchestrated a schedule that allows her to concentrate on music for part of the year and on her medical practice for the other, she has realized that the seemingly disparate careers are ultimately compatible. "I’ve definitely seen how my work in one setting inspires what I do in the other," she says. "My drive to help and empower my patients often finds its way into my songwriting."

Yet the music goes beyond healing balms. EXtraOrdinary rendition‘s title should be a tip-off that Marya knows how to lead a battle cry: it refers to the torture-by-proxy tactics employed by the current administration in its so-called War on Terror. The ensemble is also passionate about raising awareness of the dubious acts perpetrated by our government in its other ongoing fixation: the US-Mexico border. "Poder," for example — a rousing Spanish-language thumper peppered by clicking castanets and a sprightly trumpet melody — meditates on the arbitrary essence of borders. "In spite of this border," Marya sings, "life is like water / It must run."

The songwriter became acutely political aware at an early age. Marya was born and raised in the Bay Area, but at age 10, moved with her family to the south of France, where she lived for a few years before returning home. The experience left a lasting impression: in addition to cultivating a love for Gallic culture, the relocation brought up issues of cultural identity and prejudice. As someone of Punjabi Indian heritage in a country with relatively few South Asians but sizable populations of largely marginalized Roma and Arab immigrants, Marya found herself on the receiving end of plenty of preconceived notions: "It was then that I began thinking more about race, about inequality, about people treating each other differently over such things. About people creating borders between each other."

Asked about the significance of borders to the band’s platform, Marya observes: "You know, I think the best comments we can get from listeners are when they tell us, ‘When I hear your stuff, I don’t know where I am.’ That’s exactly what we’re trying to do here. We want to get rid of time and space! We want them to be lost for a little while. No borders!" It’s a feat the two-year-old group — which includes Marcus Cohen on trumpet, Isabel Douglass on accordion, Aaron Kierbel on drums, Safa Shokrai on upright bass, and Pawel Walerowski on cello — manages to pull off seamlessly, whether by pairing French tales of longing with a sultry Southwestern desert groove ("La Pecheuse") or evoking sepia-toned photos of ships and sailors in a swaying folk ballad ("Wishful Thinking").

Such versatility is vital to a defiantly non-purist point of view. "This is deliberately a mélange, a smashing of things and ideas. In order to impart a feeling of freshness — and hopefully create a little confusion along the way — we don’t want to simply do what’s expected," Marya explains. "That’s what’s so great about being here in San Francisco, why we identify so closely with here. This city encourages people to get rid of their mental borders." As Rupa and the April Fishes hit the Outside Lands stage this week, their message will surely connect with a new batch of listeners, with new sets of eyes and ears willing to temporarily lose themselves among the tangos and the waltzes.

Rupa and the April Fishes play at 1:40 p.m., Sat/23, at Outside Lands Panhandle stage, Speedway Meadow.

Back to the land


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I hold no truck with keeping too firmly tethered to the here and now. A little let-go does the soul a world of good, and nothing beats floating off on a cloud of question marks as time and place melt from view. I already have the perfect soundtrack for the occasion: Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop), the debut by the Seattle band of the same name, could very well offer the deepest decade-leaps and blurriest geographic-muddles you’re likely to encounter this year.

In their quest to fuse pre-rock ‘n’ roll sounds with indie-rock sensibilities, Fleet Foxes don’t simply settle for 20th-century American Music 101. Rather, their time-travel extends all the way back to the Black Plague. Along with offering fresh takes on the smooth sounds of ’70s SoCal pop; the baroque folk whimsies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash; and the hillbilly twang of your great-great-grandpappy’s barn dances, the quintet is also more than willing to get medieval on your unsuspecting ears. Listen closely, and the odd madrigal flutters forth now and again. Little wonder, then, that the Pieter Bruegel painting on the album cover hardly feels like an anachronism. Instead, it arrives thoughtfully recontextualized, much like the pan-decade musical explorations the group pulls off so effortlessly.

Mountains, rivers, birds, and forests — these are the main signifiers of Fleet Foxes’ pastoral, pre–Industrial Age mood-making, along with plenty of references to family and death. On paper, most of their lyrics could pass for traditional folk songs. Translated to plastic, however, the words take on a different character. Wafting and drifting in goose bump–raising harmonies and vocal rounds cloaked in hilltop echo, they at times evoke an agrarian Beach Boys or a less lustful My Morning Jacket. Vocalist Robin Pecknold is endowed with an equally hall-filling tenor as that of MMJ’s Jim James, and fluent in a full range of ghostly falsettos, tear-jerking howls, and sweet rally cries — each has been steeped in delicious reverb by producer Phil Ek (Built to Spill). Combined with the remaining members’ soaring vocal arrangements and deft instrumentation, Fleet Foxes manages to somehow feel comfortingly familiar yet bracingly fresh and new.

From its wordless sighs-from-country-heaven introduction to the heartbreaking Ronettes melodrama of its chorus, "He Doesn’t Know Why" might be the band’s most immediately persuasive pairing of otherwise perfect strangers, musically speaking. It’s also the recording’s most full-blown rock moment, along with "Ragged Wood," a transcendent country-rock shuffle powered by Pecknold’s exhilarating mountain cries of "You should come back home, back on your own now."

Lest they leave us too anchored to the modern age, Fleet Foxes peel back the centuries without a hitch on the spectral lilt of "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," a spooky madrigal in which Pecknold ponders, "Dear shadow alive and well, how can the body die?" in harrowing echoes while a single acoustic guitar mournfully picks away in agreement. Elsewhere, in their boldest brain-rattle of century-confusion, Fleet Foxes weld ancient Andean flute melodies to furious Led Zeppelin folk-stomp on "Your Protector," a heavier-than-heavy meditation on death hoisted aloft by wide-eyed shouts of "You run with the devil!" Fierce words, but I’ll lose myself in Fleet Foxes’ fractured tableaus any ole time, thanks.


Thurs/26, 9 p.m., $10

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

The Explorers Club


REVIEW There have been a fair number of artists over the years who have tried to channel the classic Wall of Sound orchestral-pop of mid-1960s Beach Boys recordings, but the number of success stories is considerably shorter. Far too often, imitators have sacrificed songwriting in their fixation to replicate the Pet Sounds vibe. Enter the Charleston, S.C., septet the Explorers Club, which focuses without apology or irony on recapturing the essence of Brian Wilson’s so-called "teenage symphonies to God." Everything on their debut, Freedom Wind (Dead Oceans), has been faithfully rendered, from its lush, four-part harmonies to its evocative timpani-rolls to the CD booklet’s resemblance to a well-worn record sleeve with the vinyl edges showing through. The good news? No mere mimickers, these young romantics pen instantly hummable soda-fountain swooners that truly deserve the comparisons they seek.

Awash with sleighbells, cascading drum fills, and intricately arranged falsetto harmonies, Freedom Wind<0x2009>‘s odes to girls and summer fun throb with a sense of teenage elation. Witness the blood-rush chorus that sends "Do You Love Me?" into senior-prom melodrama, or the now-or-never urgency of "Last Kiss," tempered slightly by the rueful acknowledgment, "Summer dreams don’t last." "Forever," with its soaring Brian Wilson–esque confession, "Every time I think of her, I cry," should make more than a few girls weak in the knees, while the sublime "If You Go" — billowed by pillow-soft sighs puffing away against a keyboard-twinkling backdrop — points to the Explorers Club’s equally impressive absorption of ’70s AM-gold motifs.

THE EXPLORERS CLUB With Lightspeed Champion, Flowers Forever, and DJ Aaron Axelsen. Fri/20, 9 p.m., $12–$14. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. (415) 771-1422,

The Long Blondes


PREVIEW When the Long Blondes arrived in November 2006 in fits of preening twirls and smoldering pouts with the decadent disco/new wave revamps of Someone to Drive You Home (Rough Trade), we’d at last found worthy successors to Pulp’s lip-gloss-and-sweat–smeared velvet crown. Fronted by the risky, romantic Kate Jackson, the Sheffield, England, quintet proved to be just as adept at intertwining the tawdry with the chic as their hometown forerunners, delivering laser-precise details of the dating scene while making the blood rush with every dirty dalliance and morning-after sound. Amid the snappy glam guitars, ice-sparkling synths, and jitter-pop rhythms, Jackson peered into the dance floors and singles bars and narrated back with a furious mix of exhilaration, lasciviousness, and cool detachment. Love’s a dangerous game with the Long Blondes, but pity the poor fool who doesn’t join in the frantic romp. When they sang promises of "Giddy Stratospheres" on the disc’s unstoppable Blondie-esque highlight, who could deny themselves such steamy, limb-tingling rapture?

Having recently re-emerged with the darker, rougher-edged Couples (Rough Trade), the Long Blondes remain just as committed to the hot-‘n’-flustered/couldn’t-be-bothered dynamic as they were before, and the Pulp/Blondie parallels hold true as well. On this go-round, however, there’s more menace to their nightclub trawling. Tracks such as "Round The Hairpin" skulk and creep with post-punk hypnotics recalling the likes of the Au Pairs, while the skeletal throb of "Too Clever By Half" offers spooky minimalist-disco deserving of the Italians Do It Better label. But for all their newfound experimentalism, the group has kept its flair for penning liberating live-wire pop anthems firmly tucked in its front pockets. "Falling in love is hard," Jackson reveals on "The Couples." "Writing a love song is even harder." Perhaps, but the Long Blondes have the lust-song thing down.

THE LONG BLONDES With Social Studies. Mon/2, 8 p.m., $15. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. (415) 885-0750,

Unlock your Sons and Daughters


Raw, skin-glistening sensuality and brooding, lip-curled menace — ah, what a combination at the club. There’s something to be said for straddling the edge of a knife like that, simultaneously titilutf8g and unsettling those witnessing the spectacle onstage. When my partner and I first caught the fearsomely hot ‘n’ bothered Scottish quartet Sons and Daughters at a music-shop appearance in their hometown of Glasgow back in 2005, we were spellbound, rendered immobile in a mighty glue of arousal and trepidation. It felt wonderful.

Despite the bright lights and merchandise displays, the foursome had cloaked the room in lurid, late-night basement ambience: nothing but broken bottles and dark-corner encounters to be regretted the morning after. Force-of-nature vocalist Adele Bethel brandished the mic cord like a whip, lashing away at the floor like a bedroom punisher as her bandmates stoked rockabilly wildfires behind her. The powder keg at their core, shrapnel-blues guitarist Scott Paterson, provided the perfect sparring partner for Bethel’s tales of scary love and lusty violence, his soulful baritone bellow and spiked riffs further elevating the drama. Then there were the rhythms of drummer David Gow and bassist and occasional mandolinist Ailidh Lennon — alternating between deathly lurches and full-blown Sun Records shuffles on speed, their purely primal, low-end grind hit squarely between the gut and the groin. We were transfixed. And so the love affair — sordidness and all — began.

To locate the first strokes of desire, one must consult Sons and Daughters’ 2003 debut, Love the Cup (Domino), for answers. A seven-song collection of murderous urges and dirty romances, the mandolin-blazing mini-album threw fevered glances in the direction of X, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and as the song title "Johnny Cash" would suggest, the Man in Black himself. Offering both sweltering come-ons and skin-burrowing creep-outs, the highlight arrived with the ominous chug of "La Lune," in which Bethel offered some small comfort for listeners’ inevitable sneaking feelings: "The fear’s making sense."

The courtship blossomed with 2005’s The Repulsion Box (Domino), a continuation of the Glaswegians’ frenzied rockabilly trawls through id territory. But my head officially tumbled over my heels with the arrival of the recently released This Gift (Domino). Produced by former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, this third outing is an immense leap forward, heaping compellingly glamorous levels of reverb-heavy drama to the band’s more tightly focused explorations of the dark side of the pleasure principle. "Living’s so dangerous / Try to conduct yourself," Bethel counsels on the twisted soul rave-up "Darling." But somehow I have to wonder whether Sons and Daughters follow their own advice. Meanwhile, I seem to have fallen a bit deeper.


With Bodies of Water

Fri/2, 9 p.m., $15

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750

Talking ’bout pop


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Ah, to be young and in love. Or out of love, for that matter. Or maybe even charting the leaps and wobbles of the heart up and down the romantic continuum, wondering all the while if this romance thing ever gets any easier. The drama, the pure blazing surge and spark of it all. Every smile, every stumble, every stuttered confession and misinterpreted admission consumes the entire universe with its deafening acknowledgment of what you knew all along: each emotional episode between you and your special one is the most earth-shattering event in all of human history.

Therein lies the pulsing, burning, white-hot core of any good old-fashioned no-nonsense pop song. It’s no secret. Take a trawl through the annals of ear-sticking melodies and you’ll follow Cupid’s arrow, soaring in a straight line from the Brill Building to the Beatles all the way to Natalie Portman’s starry-eyed assertion, "The Shins will change your life," in Garden State (2004). Follow that arrow a bit further, and you’ll find your heart racing to the love-is-all indie-pop of Berkeley’s Morning Benders.

The Morning Benders, “Waiting for a War”

The quartet’s debut, Talking Through Tin Cans (+1), chronicles the highs and lows of young romance in exuberant three-minute bursts bubbling with guitar jangles and winsome harmonies. Largely indebted to the sunny sounds of 1960s songwriting, the Morning Benders craft teenage anthems dedicated to the giddy wonders and tongue-tied stammers of the heart. Recalling moments of the Shins and Sloan in its indebtedness to classic pop, Talking is a remarkably confident debut, especially for a bunch of guys barely in their 20s.

"It’s the stuff we were raised on," says vocalist-songwriter Chris Chu of the Phil Spector, Beach Boys, and Beatles references that appear so boyishly and exhilaratingly updated on Talking. Chu, along with drummer Julian Harmon, met me at the Mission District studio where the disc was recorded. Sitting across from me, both positively vibrate with youthful optimism and boundless enthusiasm, not just for their latest accomplishment but for music in general.

For all of their cheeky grins and waggish humor, this is a band that takes its work seriously: during the past two years, the Morning Benders self-released two EPs (2006’s Loose Change and 2007’s Boarded Doors) and played extensively in the Bay Area, opening for everyone from Yo La Tengo to MGMT. While Chu was rushing to finish his degree at the University of California at Berkeley — "school was getting in the way of what I really wanted to do," he confesses — he orchestrated a work/share arrangement with the studio, thus learning the ropes of engineering and production. It was time well spent, as evidenced by the Chu’s thoughtful reappropriation of the group’s beloved decade on Talking. Throw in the bonus of an upcoming nationwide tour as the openers for the Kooks, and we’ve got pretty compelling proof that the Morning Benders carry much more spark than their layabout moniker implies.

Speaking of sparks, Talking creates plenty of them, thanks largely to Chu’s impressive whisper-to-yelp acrobatics and Joe Ferrell’s frisky guitar work. "Loose Change," with its soaring, sweet-release cries of "Why can’t you say what you mean?" over Harmon’s and bassist Tom Or’s rumbling, tumbling rhythm, will surely connect with fans of the Shins, while the melancholic double-punch of "Wasted Time" and "Chasing a Ghost" bristle with guitar bluster worthy of Built to Spill. Mostly, though, the disc revels in the sweeping melodrama of young love with playful arrangements laden with tambourines, piano twinkles, and room-warming organ whirs.

"We were listening to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited [Columbia, 1965] a lot at the time," Harmon explains of the homage, and the addition lends tremendous intimacy to the confident cover with which Chu frequently masks vulnerable confessions. "Patient Patient," for example — a fetching doctor-prescribing-love metaphor sprung along by a boing-boing rhythm — pairs soulful Rhodes with earnest pleas of "All it takes is a little commitment / I’m a patient patient." Then there’s the elegantly understated "Crosseyed," a simple construction of strummed guitars and tambourine in which Chu ruefully observes that "our empty promises keep us from bearing our hearts" over the subtlest black-and-white-keyed sighs of agreement.

The kicker, of course, is being able to make all these admissions of weakness and fess-ups of lovesick anxiety connect with listeners — and the Morning Benders have done exactly that, having amassed a devoted following in relatively little time. Mercifully, with so much else in the world constantly in flux, there’s still comfort to be taken in tightly written, hook-loaded pop songs. And personally, I can think of few acts better prepared to provide the comforting than this outfit.


Tues/6, 7 p.m., free


2 Stockton, SF

(415) 397-4525

Also May 9, 9 p.m., call for price

330 Ritch

330 Ritch, SF

(415) 541-9574

One ear to the ground



REVIEW Ah, the morality police — you’ve gotta love ’em. At least artists who get free publicity from the overzealous watchdogs should. With freedom of speech still miraculously in decent shape in this country, one might be forgiven for forgetting the unique dilemma of the banned book: once branded immoral, it automatically becomes sought after.

Such is the case with Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s Wolves of the Crescent Moon (Penguin, 192 pages, $14), which was banned in Saudi Arabia by theocratic thought-cops for casting too many spotlights on societal problems that the authorities insist don’t exist. Upon being labeled dangerous and sinful, the book gained a large audience throughout the Arabic-speaking world. It has since been translated into French, and now, into English by Anthony Calderbank. While hardly as inflammatory as Saudi authorities might lead one to believe, the novel paints a troubling portrait of a traditional society embracing and fighting modernity. Government claims notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia is not free from abuse, prejudice, racism, and religious hypocrisy, and the author minces no words in giving voice to the marginalized, the abandoned, and the otherwise ignored. While the titular animal does figure prominently in the story, the main wolves appear to be of the human variety.

Wolves of the Crescent Moon reveals itself in fevered rushes of storytelling that concern three characters: a one-eared bedouin, a eunuch, and a one-eyed orphan. Turad, the one-eared tribesman who has tolerated an endless run of degrading jobs since leaving the desert for the city, arrives at a Riyadh bus station without a plan. Paralyzed by indecision, he finds himself trapped in nightmarish reminiscence and speculation; thus, we are introduced to Tawfiq, Turad’s elderly eunuch coworker, whose life of misery is retold by the bedouin. While trying to decide which bus ticket to buy, Turad discovers a discarded government file involving an abandoned one-eyed baby; from there, the experimental narrative expands to include anecdotes about the orphan’s distressing childhood, as well as reveries imagined by Turad in an effort to fill in the gaps left by the impersonal official documents. His inability to inject even the briefest respite into the child’s conjectured history speaks volumes. For Turad, life is an endless chain of pain and suffering.

Told over the course of an evening, and engulfed by mental fatigue, Al-Mohaimeed’s novel presents a variant of the existential dread found in works by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, albeit with more violence. The spellbinding narrative rarely feels anchored to its chief time and place, but instead hangs suspended within a hellish realm governed by fear, agony, and resentment.

In volleying between carefully recalled memories of his own suffering, detailed anecdotes about Tawfiq’s forced slavery and eventual castration, and embellishments about the abused orphan he never knew, Turad takes the role of a downtrodden Scheherazade. He’s capable of spinning 1,001 tales without the faintest hope of saving a single life. But his creator — at least until he was censored — speaks directly to those huddled in the margins of a secretive society. Wolves of the Crescent Moon might remain banned in Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future; for now, Al-Mohaimeed will receive his well-deserved audience elsewhere in the world.

Noise Pop: Up from under


Salvation can come to us in the strangest of places, but it takes a special person to search it out in the sordid, cigarette butt-cluttered back alleys where the daylight never creeps in. While most of us might cower in the darkness, vocalists Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan have each built careers from reveling in it, offering contrasting – but curiously compatible – dissections of life in the shadows. As frontman for the Afghan Whigs and the Twilight Singers, Dulli has waxed romantic about tortured love and shady midnight dealings. Meanwhile, Lanegan has focused on matters of mortality and addiction, blowing a ghostly rumble into his former band the Screaming Trees and myriad solo albums and collaborations (Isobel Campbell, Queens of the Stone Age). Somewhere in the murk these two after-hours explorers crossed paths, and from there they walked side by side in search of redemption. A new name for the venture was needed, of course, and the christening was inevitable: the Gutter Twins.

The union has yielded fascinating results: their new disc, Saturnalia (Sub Pop), while still bearing occasional similarities to previous works by Dulli and Lanegan, offers distinctive, dirty-fingered gospel theatrics not found elsewhere in their catalogs. "That was the whole point," Dulli explains by phone from Los Angeles. "We didn’t want to sound like just the two of us put together. We wanted to sound like something new." In lieu of Dulli’s familiar sensitive-lothario stylings and soulful film noir expositions and in place of Lanegan’s inner-demon warfare, the language of the Gutter Twins is one of angels, chariots, and even rapture.

Salvation doesn’t come easy, however: Saturnalia offers glimmers of hope, but reaching them still requires the navigation of a late-night sleazescape studded with dense atmospherics and prickly instrumentation. "God’s Children" opens with an unsettling Nico-recalling harmonium drone, whereas the creeping violin swells at the start of "Circle the Fringes" make for an ominous portent of the twin-guitar melodrama that soon follows. Paradise might be within sight, but it don’t come cheap. Or, as Lanegan puts it on "Seven Stories Underground," "Ooh, heaven – it’s quite a climb."

As if one evocative moniker weren’t enough, Dulli has also referred to the project as "the Satanic Everly Brothers," a tag that fits with velvet-glove snugness once you’ve soaked up the dusky harmonies and bristling vocal interplay of the duo’s feedback-and-folk-driven voodoo. Lanegan’s seismic-rumble baritone finds its perfect foil in Dulli’s leering, sneering rasp, lending a nervy intensity to their declaration "I hear the Rapture’s coming / They say He’ll be here soon" on "The Stations." Elsewhere, particularly over the mellow electro sputter of "The Body," the paired voices exude a soothing soulfulness suited for a spiritual journey.

How, pray tell, did these two larger-than-life figures manage to work together to unleash such devastating beauty on Saturnalia? For Dulli, the answer comes quickly: "Lanegan is the easiest guy to work with, no doubt about it. I think we balanced each other out, and we definitely brought out elements in each other which we hadn’t really used much before this." Maybe the gutter isn’t such a bad place after all….


March 1, 8 p.m., $18

Bimbo’s 365 Club

1025 Columbus, SF

(415) 474-0365

>>Back to Noise Pop page

Your cassette pet


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REVIEW How’s this for a universal truth: if you’ve ever given a good goddamn about music and you’ve ever been touched by someone in your life (or wanted to be touched, as the case may be), you’ve surely sat yourself down and made a mixtape to put all of those feelings into 90 minutes or less. It’s a rite of passage for any music freak who dares to live beyond the safe confines of his or her headphones; many of us revisit that breathless, nerve-racked experience over and over again, freezing our latest crushes in little plastic time capsules, hoping they’ll build to something bigger. The messenger may have changed — we’ve gone from tape to disc and now maybe to the playlist — but the message remains the same: "I like you. Do you like me?"

Rock journalist Rob Sheffield is an expert on such matters, as Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time (Three Rivers Press, 224 pages, $13) clearly demonstrates. Taking the reader on a song- and swoon-studded travelogue through the inner workings of his heart, the memoirist begins with the wince-along bumblings of a gangly adolescent mixtaper and continues through to the instant click of meeting his similarly tune-centric wife and eventually to — and here I am not giving away anything that isn’t already mentioned on the book’s cover — her sudden death from a pulmonary embolism. It’s a genuinely moving, thoughtful, and frequently cackle-inducing work, and — perhaps best of all — it bounces as much as a book can with boundless verve about songs that have soundtracked every blunder, triumph, and openhearted, weak-kneed moment of falling in love.

For every smile and nod of appreciation at the mention of particularly meaningful musical moments — Sheffield’s anecdote about Gladys Knight and the Pips’ legendary "Midnight Train to Georgia" resonates so effectively in part because everyone knows the song in the first place — there’s a delightful story about an obscure songwriting gem just waiting to be found, thanks to the enthusiasm with which Sheffield conveys his household’s eclectic tastes. His bright-eyed declaration of love for "In a World Without Heroes" — a fey 1992 glam ballad from a short-lived Mark Robinson one-off named Grenadine — could very well send a few readers scurrying to the record shop.

Love Is a Mix Tape isn’t just a collection of musings about favorite songs from a rock critic; Sheffield celebrates the music by placing it in the context of finding his soul mate and thus allows the tunes to help tell the story of their relationship. Whether capturing the endorphin rush of being introduced to a new all-time classic, grinning unapologetically over so-bad-it’s-good radio cheese, or seeking solace from a country weeper, he offers music lovers a sympathetic reflection of their emotional lives, bumps and all. Readers, in turn, will laugh, shout, and cry — not solely because of the experiences detailed by Sheffield, but also in reaction to the author’s pinpoint prose. At its best, this book is a glowing little wonder that reminds us never to dismiss the joy or comfort we receive from a simple song.



The name should tip you off right from the get-go: the Pine Box Boys. Now, I don’t want to venture any guesses about your mama, but my mama didn’t raise any fools, so when I hear the words pine box, I see the words dead body. Then I shudder: caskets creep me out.

Not so for the San Francisco foursome. These long-haired death defiers give the Grim Reaper a nipple twist or two with their waggishly pitch-black tales of murder, misery, and mayhem, and we shouldn’t want it any other way. Gallows humor has been around just as long as we as a species have been able to tell our stories, and this raggle-taggle band of bluegrass ne’er-do-wells is a bold keeper of the tradition, knowing exactly how to spin a dark and bloody yarn and still bust a gut while doing it.

So let’s consider the pine box: basic, humble, and nothing highfalutin compared to the mind-dizzying, bankroll-sapping array of caskets out there nowadays. It’s strictly old-school: no fancy modern gilded inlays or polished brass handles here but rather a nice, solid vintage construction ready for getting the job done. Much like the Pine Box Boys, who — well, they don’t do fancy, from what I’ve seen.

There are no state-of-the-art production techniques on either 2005’s Arkansas Killing Time or 2006’s Stab! (both Hi Horse), nor are there nods in the direction of any recent, decidedly rockist musical trends. Instead, this largely acoustic quartet wreak unholy havoc from the sounds of their grandpappies’ era — and probably even that of their grandpappies’ grandpappies. All those banjos and strummed guitars might conjure images of barn dances, but underneath the floorboards lays a trail of dead.

The band — fronted by hillbilly-twanged, wide-eyed maniac Lester Raww — has referred to its singular strain of mockingly malevolent roots music as "darkgrass." I’ve also seen it described as "Southern horrorbilly," a tag that makes sense in view of the Pine Box Boys’ thrilling, ante-upping delivery on subjects such as murder, cannibalism, and necrophilia. Supported by banjo thwacker Possum Carvidi’s hot-wired backing vocals, Raww’s chronicling of the most sordid of transgressions gives the same sort of glorious release as a slasher flick, assuming one is willing to suspend disbelief. Not that this requires much effort: Raww’s whoppers are tautly constructed and often brimming with chuckleworthy turns of phrase, and the frenzied rhythm section of Col. Timothy Leather on bass and "Your Uncle" Dodds on drums provides a rollicking, engaging backdrop for surrendering to such giddy, grisly fictions.

"One look into my eyes, and a wise man would lock up his daughters," Raww sings with devilish charm on Arkansas Killing Time‘s "When the Moon Moves the Waters," before going on to explain his blood thirst with all of the juicy detailed satisfaction of a Clive Barker or, hell, Nick Cave. The specifics of the beginnings and middles vary from song to song, but they all end the same: someone dies. And someone laughs — at the ridiculous brilliance of it all. The easily offended will miss out on the point of the Pine Box Boys, but hey, they’ll miss out on all the fun too.


Feb. 9, 8 p.m., $13

Cafe du Nord

2170 Market, SF

(415) 861-5016

Adrift and lovin’ it


It couldn’t have happened any other way, really: Ray Raposa, the wise-beyond-his-years voice behind the Castanets moniker, is chatting with me by phone from a motel room. As a chronicler of the wandering spirit and a champion of the blue highways who has spent many of his days on the road — ever since completing high school at 15 in order to roam the country by bus — Raposa is entirely qualified to discuss his latest disc, In the Vines (Asthmatic Kitty), from such familiar turf. Inevitable, even, if we’re willing to talk about such heady fare as fate — a subject about which, judging from In the Vines, Raposa has more than a few ideas. The album was inspired in part by a Hindu fable about being the victim of an unavoidable destiny, and it’s a theme that drifts specterlike among the ripples of pedal steel and squalls of electronic treatments that hover at the edges of Raposa’s troubled rasp. Look no further than the slowly unsettling opener, "Rain Will Come": "So it’s going to be sad, and it’s going to be long / And we already know the end of this song," he portends with the gravest of emphasis over a mesmerizing blues-folk acoustic guitar line before, in confirmation of such claims, the song explodes in shrieking, devastating electronic white-noise chaos.

And the other inspiration for In the Vines? Wandering, of course, and so a motel room it must be, then — in Portland, Ore., specifically — while Raposa assembles a new backing band for his upcoming West Coast tour. "You know, one day I sat down and counted," the songwriter says, chuckling. "And the number of places I mention on that album runs in the double digits, easily."

It’s a telling comment, but not without its complications: much of the Castanets catalog feels like a tug-of-war between the lure of the road and the desire to put down roots and build a community. Take "Three Months Paid," an intimate confessional on which Raposa reveals, "I was ready to settle down" — and even lists a few possible locales — over a plodding drum track while synths whirr and bleep in hesitation at the mention of domesticity. Above it all, an aching pedal steel floats onward and upward, much like the song’s narrator, who, intriguingly, manages to sound both relieved and rueful about his decision to keep moving on. Or perhaps neither emotion is involved and the singer merely acknowledges his fate.

"It’s a tough one — I get more writing done when I’m at home than on the road, but I get so much inspiration from roaming," Raposa explains. Having recently given up his Brooklyn, NY, apartment to accommodate a rigorous touring schedule, the former San Diego resident — "I can’t survive too long without seeing the ocean," he jokes of his bicoastal tendencies — sounds energized by his newfound freedom. After all, so much of the Castanets journey has been guided by a spontaneous, largely improvisational attitude, which has ushered in an impressive cast of collaborators over the years — ranging from labelmate Sufjan Stevens to kindred spirit Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent — and encouraged a willingness to incorporate elements of electronic ambience, free jazz, and noise rock into the spooky-country framework.

Such fearlessness also extends to the Castanets live experience. "I can’t imagine doing the same thing every night," Raposa asserts in explanation of his largely unscripted approach to performance. "For me, to do so would mean there’d be no authenticity, no spontaneity. No, I’d rather just let things go where they may."


With Sholi and El Olio Wolof

Mon/21, 9 p.m., $10

Cafe du Nord

2170 Market, SF

(415) 861-5016

Year in Music: Bling


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There’s no getting around it: for me, 2007 was the year of the vibes, case closed. But before anyone gets the wrong idea and paints me as a hacky sack–thwacking trustafarian slathered in sandalwood oil and picking chunks of crusted hummus from my beard, let me qualify: those ain’t the kind of vibes I’m a-grooving on. Nah, we’re talking vibraphones here. You know, aluminum bars, mallets, the whole bit, just like Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, and Cal Tjader used to rock. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in xylophones, glockenspiels, and marimbas too. Basically, if you hit it with a couple of sticks and it chimes out a sunny-day "ping," "bling," "blong," or "pong" in response, you’ve got my undivided attention. I’m a hopeless sucker for percussion with pitch, and this year has heaped a veritable bounty of warm, mellow tones into my headphones.

Oh, the twinkles and sparkles of the ceaselessly charming, thrillingly cheeky Gruff Rhys. The title track of the Super Furry Animals vocalist’s sophomore release, Candylion (Team Love), rolls along like an ice cream van from a subversive children’s television show, thanks to its misleadingly bright, singsong xylophone patterns, trilling away while Rhys plays the part of the medicated host, informing the kiddies, "Dreams can come true. Nightmares can also." Delicious! Then there’s the Brunettes. The Kiwi duo lay down a mighty double assault of lush glock action on their Structure and Cosmetics (Sub Pop) with "Her Hairagami Set" and "Credit Card Mail Order." The former picks up the mallets to plunk down an OMD-inspired round of ’80s romanticism, while the latter evokes images of poodle skirts and beehives with a glock melody beamed down from Buddy Holly.

How about Midnight Movies, whose glorious, Mazzy Star–like "Ribbons" billows and whirls heavenward with its elegiac xylophone line? The Barbarella-isms of Dean and Britta’s Back Numbers (Zoë) just wouldn’t be the same without the orbit-seeking wooziness of those space-jazz vibraphones. And where would I be without Welsh xylophone abusers Los Campesinos!, whose breathless pummeling of the metal bars on "You! Me! Dancing!" approaches levels of rapture? Finally, I bow to my icon as I revel once more in the mesmerizing marimba rumbles of Siouxsie’s captivating solo debut, Mantaray (Universal). Honestly, what could possibly beat a rhythm that’s also hummable? Good vibes are flowing, indeed.


<0x0007>The National, Boxer (Beggars Banquet)

<0x0007>Beirut, The Flying Club Cup (Ba Da Bing)

<0x0007>Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge)

<0x0007>Blonde Redhead, 23 (4AD)

<0x0007>Bettye LaVette, The Scene of the Crime (Anti-)

<0x0007>Bat for Lashes, Fur and Gold (Echo/Caroline)

<0x0007>Grinderman, Grinderman (Anti-)

<0x0007>Celebration, The Modern Tribe (4AD)

<\!s><0x0007>Jens Lekman, Night Falls on Kortedala (Secretly Canadian)

<\!s><0x0007>Gruff Rhys, Candylion (Team Love)

Take Dap


Take it from me: with our purist hearts and crate-digging proclivities, we true-blue soul believers and bright-eyed funk freaks tend to be a pretty devoted lot, but Brooklyn Stax-Motown revivalists Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings inspire a level of commitment that would make even Dr. Phil blush. A friend of mine loves to tell me about the time she spent her last $15 to get into their show in Austin, Texas. There she was, penniless, thirsty, and without a paycheck in sight for another week, and none of it mattered. "Why would it?" she whoops and grins as she recalls that night of empty pockets and high spirits. "I danced my ass off, honey! Money — who cares?"

It’s a story worth mentioning, since so much of what makes Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings such an electrifying force comes from their ability to whisk listeners away from their day-to-day worries while delivering glorious emotional, hip-loosening release. Man problems, woman problems, cash flow problems — these headaches happen to everybody, and Jones and her eight partners in greasy-groove know-how are no exception, as such songs as "My Man Is a Mean Man" attest. Still, soul music’s all about catharsis through a band’s connection with its audience on a feel-it-in-the-gut level, and what better way to make that communion than with the inarguably simple message "There ain’t no troubles we can’t dance away!"

This declaration has resonated with so many listeners because it has been articulated flawlessly. Never mind that the Dap-Kings have been catching new fans since they were tapped to back Amy Winehouse on her Back to Black (Island, 2006). Every chicken-scratch guitar, every fat-bottom bass line, every popping horn arrangement is a triple-take-inducing transmission from a predisco soul universe — a rare event in today’s more technology-driven neosoul market. The Dap-Kings — led by bassist-producer Bosco Mann — have clearly ingested every ounce of ’60s and ’70s R&B and funk, and their authenticity-prizing take on the sweat-soaked rhythms of James Brown’s beloved house band, the JB’s, has yielded a righteously old-school backdrop for Jones’s mighty pipes. In a live setting, the JB’s comparison is tough to miss. Swiss-clock precise but blazing with passion, these workhorses are unstoppable and a joy to behold.

And those mighty pipes I mentioned? Jones can do it all, whether she’s snapping and snarling like Etta James, giving the gospel lowdown à la Aretha Franklin, or sassing away like the second coming of Lyn Collins, and she rightfully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Bettye LaVette and Irma Thomas, while we’re at it. Endowed with a full-throated, bottomless-lunged attention grabber of a voice, Jones can slide effortlessly from tender, sweet-lipped supplications to tougher-than-nails put-downs — the latter ability possibly stemming from her years of employment as a prison guard — often within the same song. A master interpreter, she has not only reconfigured the Woody Guthrie folk ditty "This Land Is Your Land" into a slinky call for social equality but also scraped away the cheesy gloss of Janet Jackson’s "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" to reveal the stinging nettles lying underneath.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ recently released third album, 100 Days, 100 Nights (Daptone), is a stirring document from a band at the height of its powers. All of the familiar funk and fire are there, and the addition of bluesier elements on tracks such as "Humble Me" and "Let Them Knock" demonstrates that they still have plenty of ideas to kick around. Best of all, they’ve never sounded as smoky, as sultry, as they do on this disc. If you haven’t yet offered up your heart to these folks, here’s your chance.


Wed/5, 8 p.m., $18–$20

Bimbo’s 365 Club

1025 Columbus, SF

(415) 474-0365

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: The Mekons


I used to think this was such a self-deprecating title — The Curse of The Mekons — but over the years I’ve come to a much different conclusion about the declaration being made by these punk–post-punk–posteverything spark plugs on their landmark 1991 Blast First album. Now celebrating their third decade together as a band, the Mekons do indeed suffer from a curse: their ability to switch effortlessly from style to style, sometimes even within the same song, without a single slip. Oh, affliction of afflictions! What a curse it must be, having to decide whether to blow listeners’ minds with a punk, a reggae, or a country song or a tune in any of the myriad other forms they’ve mastered….

With their latest, Natural (Quarterstick), the infinitely charming Jon Langford and Sally Timms — purveyors of some of the finest concert banter you’ll ever hope to hear — lead the rest of the scrappy brigade through a dozen distinctively skewed takes on rootsy campfire folk. Timms gets flat-out spooky on "White Stone Door," a drifting specter of a song heightened by sobs of violin. Meanwhile, Langford’s Brian Jones–referencing folk-reggae rouser "Cockermouth" is sure to be an instant crowd favorite, an ode to roamers and wanderers that speaks volumes about the anything-goes spirit that makes the Mekons so extraordinary. (Todd Lavoie)


Fri/5, 7:30 p.m., $15

Swedish American Hall

2170 Market, SF

Also Sun/7, 2:05 p.m., free

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Star Stage


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

Moving out …


Imagine this: You’re enrolled in an educational program that requires you to move around from city to city, taking short-term jobs related to your field. Within a span of two years, you bump around between New York, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and San Francisco, subletting rooms and taking on bizarro living arrangements, never staying in one place long enough ever to feel settled in. Due to these circumstances, you rarely have a moment’s peace. Amid all the bustling, your number-one goal remains the same: record an entire album by yourself at home — wherever that may be. And while you’re at it, how about making sure it sounds like a fully realized studio creation?

Impossible, you say? Not so, says Joe Williams, the twentysomething visionary behind the White Williams moniker. The ’70s- and ’80s-flavored one-man band recorded the entirety of the forthcoming debut Smoke — out Nov. 6 on Tigerbeat6 — in exactly those conditions, digitally laying down tracks whenever he had an empty apartment. "Because of the situation, I’d say probably 80 percent of the material was done quite quickly and decisively," Williams explains over the phone from a New York City coffeehouse. "It had to be. The remaining 20 percent was where I had a chance to be more objective, to look at what I’d done."

A heap of credit should be given to that 20 percent. Williams’s aim was to deliver a studio-as-instrument aesthetic — similar to the spirit of David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy and the early Iggy Pop solo albums — and Smoke is a rousing success, especially given the absence of a traditional recording studio. Many of the vocals and guitars have been repitched or drastically edited, and the odd whirs and blips of synths bring to mind a modern take on his heroes’ fertile mid- to late-’70s period. If this sounds like damaged art pop to you, you’re right. "Danger" wobbles with a mind-altering tang of 3 a.m. funk, while "Fleetwood Crack" is the less-troubled cousin to Pop’s "Nightclubbing," opting for similar sparse atmospherics but sparkled with warmer keyboards and the faintest hint of rockabilly guitar. Then there’s my favorite, "In the Club," which answers the question "What would have happened if T.Rex had teamed up with Brian Eno?" Laptop swagger rock, that’s what.

In the end, the limitations of such an itinerant lifestyle proved to be a blessing in disguise. "I discovered that I really enjoy having to solve things entirely by myself … just my mind and the computer," Williams confesses. "And despite the bit-by-bit nature of recording, I’d say it was pretty smooth sailing from start to finish."


With Girl Talk and Dan Deacon

Sat/29, 9 p.m., $19.50


1805 Geary Blvd., SF

(415) 346-6000