Wednesday, February 11, 2009
are you sitting down? as christopher lee so memorably said in the wicker man, "shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent." so are you sitting down?
i hope you're sitting down, because what i'm about to tell you will shock you.
i. went. out. last. night.
i know, i know. of course maybe there's one or two of you out there in the cyberspace who, unaware of my irritating social phobias and anxieties, are all like, "okey, you went out big deal, right?" right? no.
it should allay any major surprise if i qualify the above statement with the additional information that i went to a show at a venue which lies almost perfectly across the circumference of my little daily neighborhood walk. so that was easier then. wasn't it.
where (oh, where), you must be saying, was this place? well that's what i'm here to tell you. i only recently discovered that the nearby fremont abbey arts center plays frequent host to musical programs of the indie nature, and though it had occurred to me that i should investigate, it being a whole six blocks from my house, i had not yet found a bait significant to lure me from my hole. then i noticed that a performer i had a desire to see live, karl blau whom i've mentioned before, was going to be down from anacortes in a panel-type threeway performance (not nearly as dirty as it sounds) with led to sea and jason webley, neither of whom had i heard of.
and so, last night, a bitterly fucking cold tuesday, as jeopardy wound down, i thought, "y'know, i should go over there and check things out."
i was trepedatious, because i have been very sick lately, even missing work (a highly uncommon occurence, to be sure), and i was a little shaky still, but on went the hoodie and the gloves and the heavy coat and the converse low-tops and the little indie knit hood cap head-wear thing from south america (that everyone has, i know, but hey! WARM!). over i walked.
and then i saw more bearded young men than i have seen since lancaster, pa. many of them had glasses too, and i began to feel, if not at home at least invisible amongst the peoples. like that last page in "where's waldo" where there are hundreds of waldoes, and only one real one.
after a litany of arty introductions from the abbey's major-domo, my pockets already bulging with home-made merch, the performers came up to the stage. it should be mentioned before we get further that the space is really neat. it is the basement. the space is low and wide, with massive old-growth beams framing the intimate stage. scads of folding chairs arched around before the performers, but there was ample space for the standing others (among whom i was one), and, being that it was in a (former?) church, there was not the usual raucousness and there were no beverages stronger than cocoa. that and the all-ages made me feel very old, although not as old as the "trendy" grandads who are still looking for the sequel to the sixties. when their lives meant something, i suppose...
so the way this concert ended up working out was that the three performers, led to sea, hereafter known as alex (since her name is liz alex guy), karl blau, and jason webley, from stage right, in that order, would each play one solo song. then, a poet would come up and (sloppily, loudly, over-emotionally, and in one case with a sad case of "i'm a nerdy white guy, but i read my poems like samuel l jackson" way) read a(n ironically well-written) poem. then, alex would start a song, and karl and jason would (purportedly without having heard the song before, which actually was an inaccurate illusion, since alex and jason tour/record together, and at least one of them has shared a bill with blau; whatever) then accompany her, improvisational-like. then karl would start one, then jason, and the others would follow, et cetera. punctuated by more of the poetry (sigh).
a totally interesting (if, as i said, totally corrupt) concept.
i forgot to mention that, on stage behind the musicians, a painter was quickly painting a picture on an old cabinet door.
now, i had heard karl blau in his collaboration with bret lunsford and phil elvrum on bret's d+ project, and if he records with laura veirs as well as tours with her then i've heard him there too. in fact, if you are doing any looking into the anacortes scene, he is in every single photo, more zelig than waldo. i eventually got around to his myspace page to check him out for his own sake, and the first of his solo songs i heard was "mockingbird diet," from his k records release nature's got away (the title of which puns on a line from that song actually), which i reallyreallyREALLY liked (then i bought the record), then i saw the listing for this show and thought, oh yeah, maybe next month i'll go see that.
so that was why i went. and he was really good. it was a very interesting way to see a noted muliti-instrument and prolific musician like blau, and he played "mockingbird diet" which made me even happier, and i was glad i went. as i stood at the merch table before the show, i was informed by a small and attractive, but incredibly earnest, young lady volunteering there that many people were there to see this jason webley fellow. despite her insistence that this was the case, i decided to wait to buy some of his (massive pile of) records until afterwards. in retrospect, this was wise.
now i don't wanna be a hater or anything, and i will state right now that webley was not a bad musician, he just rubbed me a little against the grain. it may have simply been that he seemed so goddamned happy, which, if you know me, is excuse enough for me to be alienated. i found his schtick (he's got one, even if it's honest) a little weary and his songs a little hackneyed. everyone there was totally into him though, so this is most likely a personal thing, so no offense to him or his clearly numerous fan base. it's like michael jackson, to throw the metaphor out of proportion: clearly a star, but one i can't stand.
what i will also say about webley is that he was a phenomenally sensitive and generous accompanyist for the other two players, which i recognize and respect as being a hallmark of a really skilled and aware musician. major props to him for that.
of course he was already familiar with alex's songs *cough-cough* but whatever the artifice, the sound these three musicians made was truly fucking awesome. an unholy blend of gypsy, russian, indie, emo and minimalist tendencies.
also, he played a massive old accordian and a cool vintage guitar that sounded fantastic.
so i went to see karl blau, and karl blau rocked.
but what i did not expect was to be so blown away by led to sea, whom, as i said, i had not ever heard of.
so this woman comes out on stage with her viola and sits down, and, not knowing already how the evening would progress, there she was on blau's right, and there sat jason webley on blau's left with his big-ass accordian, and for all the world they looked like blau's back-up band. but then they were given the cue to start and alex starts hammering out this pizzicato rhythm, simple and penetrating and seductive, and then she bends down and i realize "oh, holy shit, she's got a looper down there" and as the rhythm continues to permeate the room she starts bowing out this haunting legato melody and then she leans into the mic and starts whispering the most gorgeous song. the song, btw, is "this moment," which is on her live ep fear of flight (i *heart* alliteration), but not on her self-titled eleven records release.
she used every trick in the book with that viola, scraping, keening, hammering out a percussion on the body, with the looper and the (either pick-ups or) mics shoving these fantastic sounds into our ears.
her songs are really stand-out too, and since i picked up both the ep and the full-length last night, i've been listening to them this morning, and they're all really good.
i look forward to hearing more from her.
so all in all, it was that (almost)rarest of rare things (the rarest is a good date) in my life: a good night out. woot.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
a few years ago, when i started writing my little poems and ur-songs, when i didn't have a guitar yet, i was just starting to open up to the idea that, on the cusp of my thirties, i might be able to expand my creative life, for years dominated by painting and other visual artistic processes, to accept the inclusion of music. it was a little scary. i can't read music, and had no musical skills to speak of.* i was writing things though, for the first time in over a decade, and the idea that i could expand, in my maturity, into other fields that had previously cowed me into the role of mere spectator. i could play songs? i could make my own (tiny, modest) records? i was wholly seduced.
of course every band and "band" faces the existential hurdle of the infamous "band-name" question. and of course, i was no exception. even those who know me well will not bother to deny my gloominess, my greyness, my moodiness. it occurred to me that "the clouds" would be the perfect name for my endevours, and for months i photographed cloud formations from seattle to hawaii, with the intent of building up an archive to use for various album art compositions. i had pencilled in "by the clouds" on my lyric sheets. i was excited. i then realized that no less (and likely many more) than four other bands had already assumed this mantle. one of whom, the australian incarnation from the nineties (which morphed, in this decade, into "the girls from the clouds") i became quite fond of. damn damn damn. so i briefly considered another name before settling on "the black lines"
the name i considered was "cumulus."
i am now glad i didn't use it, because recently i discovered the music of a young woman up to the northern musical enclave of anacortes, washington, who performs under that name.
when one listens to cumulus' music, one can understand why a very minimal amount of information is available about her. apparently she is a small twenty-year old named alex, and her songs are quiet, beautiful, as bitter as burnt coffee and as angry as hell. she channels the eyes-wide-open indignation and what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-the-world rage of your average sensitive and intelligent college student into songs that are anything but generically angsty or tritely simplistic.
in a voice tentative yet strong, and whispery yet full throated and melodic, with an unobstrusive infusion of reverb, alex sings against minimal soundscapes of gentle nylon strumming or plucking, looped patterns of voice or percussion, and sweetly-sung overdubs. each song is filled with a slightly rustic soulfullness that is aware and cogniscent of pop trends without the glassy over-singing of the commercial pop tart. however, despite the mathematics of girl+guitar, cumulus sounds less like the prototypical girl-troubador enabled by joni mitchell, and more like someone like laura veirs** or a less throaty, less-rocky kristen hersh. the intensity of the lyrics and the sweetness of the voice, combined with the simplicity of the guitar work does mean that cumulus could run the risk of being shoved (unwillingly, one suspects) into the chick-folkie corner, but her work is capable of rebuffing such efforts.
as far as subject matter goes, cumulus sings with the tender rage of early ani difranco, pointing out the inequities of the lives of girls and women under the threat of the implications of the male gaze. directly challenging this threat is the shockingly frank "wolves," which begins
you cast your gaze, but who says she wants it?
and launches into a document of young woman who is sexually assaulted and then blamed for the act by the curse/virtue of her womanhood. the tone echoes andrea dworkin, valerie solanas and early riot-grrl bands like bikini kill, particularily in it's sarcastically taunting accusatory refrain: doesn't every woman just want it? doesn't every woman just want it?. the "album art" that accompanies the song on cumulus' myspace page is a still from the disney "classic" sleeping beauty; it's an apt slap in the face of male fantasy, and a canny analogical thrust.
in some of the other material, the caustic tone of "wolves" is less in-your-face, but the general feeling seems to be not merely anger of female subjectivity, but a deep sadness. "why" is a compelling partner to "wolves" with its girlie-punk aesthetic of "oh-oh-ohs" combined with a looped rattle providing a pretty wallpaper for the indignant and vulnerable graffiti of lyrics scribbled across it. in "morning coffee" however, the disparaging tone is replaced by the sense that the cumulus' alter ego, with nostalgia and a sweet sense of loss, is nonetheless moving forward from lost little girl to empowered and sensual woman. the palpability of a relationship's arc is evident in the song as alex sings:
last night your lips touched mine
like a strawberry touches the ground
when it gets too heavy
when did this begin to
feel so heavy?
in my own relationships (not just romantic, but with close friends as well), i have encountered many girls and women who are facing this dilemma, of how to retain their individuality and assert themselves fully, even as they wish to be open and sensual, feminine as it is commonly and reductivley accepted. the paradox of being strong and yielding as it were. in the song cumulus seems to state her forward trajectory with positivism, but also allows for the recognition that love is nice too. it seems almost tragic that in this era, a girl entering womanhood still has to feel like prey and feels like she must reject certain emotions to be strong. honestly, coming of age in seattle in the nineties, in the cradle of the riot grrl movement, and having grown up amongst girls and women who settled for nothing less than respect and equality, it pains me to hear of young women still feeling opressed. it suggests that while many of my generation have gleaned personal triumphs for their efforts, those younger women cumulus speaks for have not (yet).
In "get close" alex says, "i don't wanna feel like i'm wasting your time."
that seems unlikely to be the case.
*less-kind listeners of the black lines may suggest that the situation in this regard has not changed...
**interestingly, anacortes luminary karl blau has played bass for veirs, and cumulus has recently played drums for blau.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
i would like to clarify that i am not actually a member of the cult of st vincent, by whom i mean miss annie clark, the saucer eyed gamine with the insanely rich and lilting voice and the ridiculous guitar chops, and not the home of the bearcats or the celebrated saragossan martyr of 304.
that disclaimer aside, i will admit to being wowed by (the video of) her performance at new york's other music. it's pretty impressive, with clark ripping through a net solo set with a sexy vintage archtop and a double-mic set-up that allowed her to channel billy holiday ('bang bang' in particular, is dope).
what really lights my candles though is a "dumbo" session (so-named for the chic brooklyn sub-neighborhood) where st vincent punches sweetly through a cover of the jackson brown song 'these days,' the one often attributed to the enigmatic teutonic chanteuse nico. as a fan of both the velvet underground and 'the royal tenenbaums,' the song is rich in associations for me, and annie's lovely version is less a "cover" than the sort of translation that used to happen when a jazz musician would perform/record another's tune: a tribute, a nod of the head, a chapeau of sorts. nice.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
as i was setting up the bar where i work this morning, a co-worker had his ipod plugged in, and much to the delight of we two, and the chagrin of everyone else, he was playing the eponymous 1976 release by the modern lovers (the original line-up of jonathan richman, jerry harrison, david robinson and ernie brooks). i have been feeling a little low lately. i am growing a little loving feeling in my dark, cold little heart, and along with the natural warmth that causes, there is a disproportionate monster of anxiety and unsurety, and jonathan richman's lyrics are a salve of sorts to those feelings. it's tough being a sensitive fellow, and jojo understands. and as he would no doubt add, it's tough too for the girls, and ladies, jojo wants you to understand that he knows this too.
i was especially drawn to "someone i care about." do you know these lyrics?* do you know this song? my goodness, it's so appropriate to all of my amorous intentions in my whole life, i suspect this richman of reading my mail. that is, if the song hadn't been written three years before i was born...
i first became aware of jonathan richman as a solo performer when my friend steven and i went to see belle & sebastian** years ago. we ran into my friend barry from high school outside the theatre and he was going on and on about the opening act (jojo) and how amazing he was. we were like "zuh?" because we did not know him. i have never seen repo man, and so didn't know "pablo picasso" from that, and i had seen something about mary but didn't know that the "greek chorus"-like troubador in that movie was jonathan. i was blown away by this performance. i don't recall richman's steadfast drummer tommy larkins being there, just this skinny, goofy guy, alone on stage with his acoustic guitar, singing these clever and darkly sweet songs.
i was hooked, man! from there i tracked down some of jonathan's solo records (mostly in used bins--a shame, i could not find new copies for the longest time), and the modern lovers "live at the longbranch" record (from france, no less). over the years i have delved deeper into jojo's repertoire, and saw him again in the far-more intimate surroundings of seattle's famed rockabilly haven, the tractor tavern. the circumstances in which i saw him on that night were fraught with my hopes of another sort of intimacy with a sexy polish girl, but in true modern lovers fashion, the romance was not to be (but i did not die--so some day we'll be dignified and old together). the show was awesome though. i can imagine some jaded indie so-and-so listening to jonathan richman and thinking, "say, my friend, what is this? raffi?" and i would say, "my goodness, you ignorant trollop. you simply must experience jonathan richman live in order to appreciate that in order to be cool, you need not in fact be cool. you must witness his spontenaity, his joie de vivre, his whole-body devotion to putting music into the world, and his unabashed willingness to smile while doing so." i suspect i would get a dirty, befuddled look for saying such a thing, but it's true. i am a gloomy, black-hearted pessimist, but even i defy anyone to see jojo play and to not smile. such people who are capable of doing so are the ones who will do horrible things to you if they catch you in a dark alley. they are pure sociopaths and need be shunned.
anyway, jonathan richman put out a really interesting record in 2007 called "revolution summer" named after the film for which it serves as soundtrack. amazingly, it is a lyricless album, and the deceptive simplicity of jonathan's musicianship is sidestepped by the revelation (were one needed) of his minimalist mastery. with many songs floating around the one-minute-mark, and one at 40-something seconds, "revolution summer" is essential listening for anyone who has a belief in the one-man-band conceit *cough-cough*.
then last year, another record came forth, "because her beauty is raw and wild", but this time it was a full-fledged studio release, jojo's first since 2004, with real songs and everything, but what sets it apart is that the stripped-down feel of "rs" remains, with jonathan's plaintive, sighing voice accompanied by his gentle, jangly strumming and tommy's unfussy drumming.
the typical ethos of a jonathan richman record is all there: the sweetly near-obsessive attention towards a particular lady; the dangerously emotional pitch, somewhere between deviousness and utter naïvité; erudite epigraphs such as the paen to johannes vermeer that sound simple despite their acuity; the prediliction for speaking in tongues, specifically spanish, a language richman truly seems to cherish. it's all there, like finding cats flitting around the paginated corners of a haruki murakami novel, and the familiar elements bring a sense of welcome that's nostalgically underlined by the lo-fi texture of the album as a whole. it reminds me personally of being in that small club on a bitter cold winter night, with a cheap lager in hand, leaning against a ragged old-growth pillar, as a goateed fifty-something stepping out from behind his microphone and, swinging his hips, and yelling passionatly into the crowd, winning their hearts.
*this is a selection:
well i don't want some cocaine sniffing triumph in the bar
and i don't want a triumph in the car
i don't want to make a rich girl crawl
what i want is a girl that i care about
or i want none at all
i feel warmer now.
**incidently, this was the first time i saw b&s live. it was amaaaaazing. i'm twee. i'm sorry.
i have noticed that many of my posts begin with "so." to which i might be tempted to say, "so what?" i'll work on new intros.
this one time, at... oh shit.
i have a flickr account, as some readers may already be aware, and apart from clogging the internet with my own images (of late, an ongoing catalogue raisonnée of my entire body of work--ongoing with the possibility of completion-failure, that is), i also like to just surf from page to page, following a general search to start out and going from there. while on one of these immensly satisfying little cyber-treks i came across a photo of a musician i think highly of onstage with another musician at the second guy's show (doing the whole "and here's our friend john darnielle, to sing anchorless with us" thing) and someone had commented something like "o ye mortals, behold this trancendent moment, would there were a record of this auspicious occasion, to be celebrated through repeated digital viewings."* to which the author of said photograph replied "the internets doth provide." such a small suggestion, yet the hyperlink attached became a wormhole to an audio bliss-- an awakening not unlike the one robert deniro experienced with robin williams' firm administration of l-dopa. except for the whole thing of being in a coma. nonetheless, a coma is a good metaphor for the state of not knowing who the weakerthans were (for the record, this is a severely late-written post considering the actual timing of this event, just fyi, but i wrote about another canadian band last time, and figured maybe i'll try to get it out of my system).
whatever. i was hooked. apparently i have been missing out for some time, since the weakerthans arose from john k samson's evacuation from propaghandi in 1997 (and technically, the song on the video, "anchorless" predates that split, but what-evs). i am resolved to make up for lost time.
however, as yet i haven't actually gotten ahold of any of these records, cursed, unlike my friend steven, as i am to not hold a job where i have easy and free access to a, shall we say library? of albums. *cough*
i have however been listening to mp3s and youtube clips and mysoace samples and all that, and i am really loving this stuff.
i just wanted to say that.
(i mean, i could analize john k samson's gritty-yet-warm voice, or the interplay between jangly, delicate guitar lines (like in "strangulation" or "night windows") and the rocky rhythm section, or the charming love/hate relationship with the band's native winnipeg, manitoba, which indelibly flavors their sweet-sad lyrics. but maybe if you don't know the weakerthans, you should be like me (probably only in this endevour should you be like me...) and hunt them down.)
*this is a very liberal translation of what may actually have been said. -ed.