Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Ed Harcourt album review

The Beautiful Lie
Grade: A

When Ed Harcourt sings, “music slays my heart and soul” on The Beautiful Lie, he does it with such conviction that you hang onto every word. The British singer/songwriter/pianist’s fourth album is filled with confessional tunes and enthralling character studies. They’re mostly done up in grand cabaret pop style a la Rufus Wainwright, but acoustic folk and psychedelic touches also seep into the musical woodwork. Primarily recorded on an eight-track machine at his grandmother’s home, Harcourt used a piano built in 1917.

The proceedings get off to a haunting start with “Whirlwind in D Minor.” Harcourt uses his falsetto (key lyric: “will you love me when I’m old/I’m still hoping I can get that far”) as pedal steel master BJ Cole adds eerie swirls and a Flamenco guitar pattern carries everything along.

An upbeat melody, jazz drums and sprightly guitar work from Graham Coxon (ex-Blur) belies the dire sentiments in “Visit From the Dead Dog.” Here, Harcourt touches upon religion and politics: “God has the last laugh from up on high/he lets us kill/as people die for their faith/we call it triumph of the will.” A thunderous, Spectorian barrage of instruments propels “Revolution in the Heart,” where Harcourt goes through a litany various troubled characters and The Magic Numbers lend their pipes to a soaring chorus.

Other standouts include “Late Night Partner,” a stark, brokenhearted piano ballad with a gorgeous cinematic flair, the stirring, orchestrated drama of “Rain on the Pretty Ones,” simple, acoustic guitar and violin-driven “The Last Cigarette,” about a terminally ill smoker (shades of Damien Rice, albeit far less grating), “Scatterbrain,” a waltz which switches time signatures, and the expansive “Braille,” Harcourt’s duet with his wife leavened by treated guitar. Dramatic and personal, this is Harcourt’s finest effort since 2001’s Here Be Monsters.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Carrie Underwood, gospel show on tap for new arena in Ontario, Calif.

Country superstar Carrie Underwood will grace the Inland Empire with her presence for the first time since playing the much-missed Key Club at Casino Morongo a couple years ago.

She performs at the new Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario. The show is Nov. 9 and tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday. Prices are $35-$55, plus fees.

Already on sale is gospel show Bill Gaither & Friends, Nov. 22, $19.50-$42.50.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Vans Warped Tour 2008 preview

(This article originally appeared in Inland Empire Weekly) The Warped Tour hits Pomona Fairplex on June 20 and Home Depot Center in Carson on Aug. 17.

Convenience, surprises and expected elements. They all add up to a successful lifestyle festival, according to Warped Tour organizer Kevin Lyman.

“I think Warped Tour works because the kids can go and feel comfortable,” he said. “There’s always something different that catches their ears or eyes. That’s what we continue to do. Sometimes festivals lose their focus when they try to shift away too much from what they’re about.”

Although teens and pre-teens comprise the core Warped audience, the annual event also attracts adults who come to see their favorite old school punk acts and those currently making waves on radio.

An Inland Empire native, Lyman graduated from Claremont High School and Cal Poly Pomona. He later worked with Lollapalooza and concert promoter Goldenvoice, before helping to launch the Warped Tour, which deftly combined skateboarding and alternative music, in 1995. It has been going strong ever since.

No Doubt, Sublime and face to face served as the inaugural headliners. Vans signed on as corporate sponsor the following year. Each edition has spotlighted established and upcoming groups on multiple stages and inside tents. Many have gone from playing a small area in the corner of Warped to topping large venue bills on their own. My Chemical Romance and Paramore are recent examples.

Lyman takes pride in watching that happen. “It’s what I’ve probably done best – giving bands a little step up. I love music and got into this business to help develop and break bands. I think I’ve done a pretty good job.”

Previous Warped tours featured enough acts to make your head spin, but Lyman said the 2008 edition - anchored by Pennywise, All American Rejects, Angels & Airwaves, Gym Class Heroes, Cobra Starship and Against Me! – should be capped around 75.

“Sometimes ‘more isn’t better’…when we were having over 100 bands a day, it was getting to be too much trying to park everyone and separate the sound.”

With sky high gas prices, local Warped attendees can be relieved that the festival is still anchored at Pomona Fairplex.

“There’s grass and some shade. The Fairgrounds has big parking. They help us get started and don’t charge us rent. We can go in there early to get ready to go. Everything like that goes into keeping the tour price [reasonable].”

Environmental efforts continue at Warped. The Kia/Kevin Says stage runs entirely on solar power, backstage catering uses washable dinnerware and a biodiesel fuel blend helps cut down on carbon emissions.

People who bring 10 empty bottles or old cell phones/accessories to designated on-site recycling centers earn a contest entry for the Eco Adventure. It happens this October at St. Croix with the Warped crew and Costeau Foundation. Warped VIP perks and swag are also in the offing to anyone seen carpooling or wearing a t-shirt that promotes eco action.

An emphasis on diversity is evident by the lineup inclusion of Oreska Band (all female ska from Japan) and the Pinker Tones (electronica DJs via Spain). Lyman cited young pop/popsters We the Kings as breakout of the year.

Beat Union, a promising English new wave/punk/ska quartet that hails from Birmingham, is definitely another one to watch at Warped. Singer/guitarist Davey Warsop said they are psyched about the jaunt through America, especially after reading about it in local rock rags as teenagers.

“We’re completely over the moon to be playing. To finally be here doing it is an absolute honor.” Disconnected, produced by Goldfinger’s John Feldmann, bears traces of late ‘70s-era Jam, Clash, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Squeeze and The Police. The sharp album is one of the best debuts of ’08 thus far. They should go down a storm on the stage. “We pride ourselves on an energetic and fun live show, for sure,” added Warsop.

The Briggs’ guitarist/vocalist Jason LaRocca believes the best part of performing at Warped is “getting to experience all the other music that’s going on. To see all those bands separately would take several months. You get to do that all in the course of a day.”

His punk band is doing the entire run for the first time. LaRocca – who splits guitar and vocal duties with brother Joey – agreed that a big part of Warped’s staying power can be attributed to Lyman not gouging young concertgoers.

“Every year, he manages to make a really strong package for the price. It is pretty unparalleled. There is no other tour with that many bands and that much to experience for $30.”

Singalong chants are important to The Briggs, whose rousing fourth release Come All You Madmen dropped this week. “This is L.A.,” a fiery ode to their hometown, was inspired “by the frustration of people thinking we were from Boston because of our sound and bands we’ve toured with,” explained LaRocca. “It was always coming up in interviews: ‘Boston this, Boston that’…it kinda sucked. We have a sense of pride being from L.A. It is home.”

Easily the group’s strongest to date, Madmen features politically-themed tunes (“Ship of Fools,” “Charge Into the Sun”) and acoustic slow burners. Several Mighty Mighty Bosstones members, Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker and Dropkick Murphys singer Ken Casey also contributed to some songs.

“From top to bottom, I think it’s a really strong lineup and unique again,” noted Lyman. “I’m really excited about it and I don’t say that every year.”

Q&A with The Briggs

Here is my interview with singer/guitarist Jason LaRocca of The Briggs. We chatted from his home in L.A. on June 5. The band - which also includes LaRocca's brother Joey (guitar/vocals), Ryan Roberts (bass) and Chris Arredondo (drums) -
plays the Vans Warped Tour all summer. Their fine new album "Come All You Madmen" is out now on SideOne Dummy Records.

The Briggs can also be heard on the label's "Warped Tour 2008 Compilation," a 2-CD set featuring 50 tracks from current and recent Warped acts.

Q: Did you ever attend Warped as a teen?
A: I tried to make it out to several and I don’t think I ever ended up making it... For whatever reasons, I was always trying to get out to one and never did. I think Joey’s first one was when he was 12 or 13. Obviously, I always wanted to go see one. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were a huge band for me in ’97. I always felt that energy.

Q: How did you get several members of the Bosstones involved in various aspects of the new album?
A: Basically, we’ve known [Joe] Gittleman for awhile now. He approached us about producing our EP when we first signed to SideOne Dummy. We did that and it was a really great experience. We did ‘Back to Higher Ground’ with him. On this record, all the stars aligned to have Dicky [Barrett] and the horn section work with us. Everyone was in town for their reunion show at Avalon. I was pushing for it and Gittleman was like, ‘are you sure you want Bosstones stuff all over this?’ I said, ‘it’s still us. We just wanted these things sprinkled around. I can’t help but be a fan.’ He broke down and let me bring the guys in, so it was cool.

Q: Brian Baker adds some great guitar solos. Didn’t you do some dates with Bad Religion last year?
A: Yeah, we did their fall tour after Warped. It felt too short – four weeks in September.

Q: When you went into the studio, did you strive to make the songs sound closer to your live show?
A: Definitely...we wanted to feel like we had already toured with these songs and knew them well and could go in the studio and record them very comfortably. That was the goal we had in mind.

Q: As you’re writing the songs, do you ever think, ‘this would make a cool chant or gang chorus?’
A: Oh yeah. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if some things are going to be as anthemic as you think they’re going to be until you plug it in and play it with the full band, up to 11.

Q: One of the most striking of the new songs is ‘Final Words.’ Was that inspired by a true story?
A: Yeah. It was written from a place of being a little bit lost. A lot of things were going on at the same time. I had a friend who was going out to the war in the Middle East. The inspiration was if there was a song that could reflect what you wouldn’t have been able to say or sing or do without having the time to plan for it. It was various personal experiences that brought out that somber sort of message.

Q: Is ‘Madmen’ directed at any particular king abdicating his throne?
A: You’d have to ask Joey about that one, but I think it’s pretty obvious who he’s talking about [laughs].

Q: Does ‘Ship of Fools’ refer to the same subject matter as ‘Madmen’?
A: Yeah, it’s got a bit of political connotation. Also, it’s a reflective on the music industry in general. Some of the confusion we feel about where it all stands with what the hell are we doing? This model we’ve created is falling apart as this ship of fools. It’s a tongue and cheek nod to those two things.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bonus Q&A with Will Pugh of Cartel

I had a great phone interview with Will from Cartel on June 11 as he was driving around somewhere in the vicinity of hometown Conyers, Ga. The band - which also includes guitarists Joseph Pepper and Nic Hudson, drummer Kevin Sanders and bassist Jeff Lett - had just cleaned out their rehearsal space and continued working on new material for the next CD. They always put on an energetic live show. I remember catching Cartel at the Vans Warped Tour a few years ago and they overshadowed the veteran acts. Here are more excerpts from our chat.

Q: What is new in the world of Cartel?
A: We’re starting the writing process a little differently this time. Normally it will start with Joseph or I coming in with a riff or some idea of the song and I’ll have some vocal melody, more of a structure to it. This time, we’re cutting it in a few months early instead of taking those ideas and trying to explore them on our own. We’re actually bringing them in and try to work them out entirely as a band from the ground up.

Q: Do you plan on taking your time with this one?
A: We’ve never actually had time to record a full length. Even the first EP we did on our own. We did 5 songs in 3 days because we were paying for it. ‘Chroma’ was rushed too; mainly because of the budget. We wanted to get the best studio. Obviously, everyone knows the story of the last one. We want to take the time and make sure the songs are perfect - be more prolific this time, have more songs to use as B-sides, more songs to choose from, things like that. Just to switch it up and make it different. It can get monotonous after 4 ½ years of recording/touring.

Q: Any idea who might produce? Maybe Zack and Ken again?
A: I think we’re going to go with somebody else. Not for the fact they can’t do a great job; they always have. We need to hear something different. We need to see something different. We need to have our whole comfort level tossed up a little bit. Just to make us do something else. Not like we’re unhappy with what we did on the last record, which is great. We don’t want to do the same things again. You’ve got to shake up the tree, knock off the dead limbs and get some new growth. That’s kind of what we’ve been doing the last few months.

Q: Can fans look forward to a longer set than usual in Del Mar?
A: That will be our first show back since we’ve started writing. I think we’ll be anxious to get out and play some of our older songs. Every time we’ve written in the past, we’ve been anxious to go out and play the other stuff because we feel like veterans at that. Our second record now is our old stuff. It’s going to be a good mix of everything. Since all our songs are pretty short, we tend to play a lot of songs because we had to fill some time. We’ll probably play 18-20 songs.

Q: What about doing rarities or covers, like that great version of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” you guys did for the 'Punk Goes 90s' comp?
A: We actually really like playing that song live. It’s one of our best songs we do live because it just sounds good. I think we way we recorded it reflects really well the way how we play it live. We never actually rehearsed that song before we recorded it. We took the studio version right to the stage. That really lent it to having the song work out really well.

Q: I read that several of you attended a major NASCAR race last month.
A: We’ve always kind of been closet fans of NASCAR. My uncle and dad we’re really into it when I was younger. Kevin is a car fanatic. Anything that goes fast, he’s down with. Nick’s dad is a big NASCAR guy. It kind of came up a year or two ago that we were all NASCAR nerds. Not necessarily following it, but everybody was like ‘we’re big Earnhart fans.’ I think it all started with us getting the NASCAR ’08 videogame last year. XBox sent us that…we went up to Charlotte and saw two races and got drunk and yelled at cars as they whizzed by.

Q: It’s been about a year since the second album was recorded and released. With hindsight, are you satisfied with how it turned out?
A: A lot of people gave us a lot of flak because they thought the album was actually being written and recorded in 20 days. We felt kind of shafted by that promotion because that’s not what we signed up for. That’s not what they ever told us we had to do.

Q: Why not?
A: When they originally had the contract, they said, ‘we only want you guys to do 4-5 songs. We just want to have the story of a couple songs.’ I thought, ‘great. We can still record the way we want and we’re just going to do a couple songs there and those are required to be on the album. And we can pick the ones we’re going to do. It’s a no-brainer.’ We did that and finished up the record in there. But we’re not going to do drums in the bubble. No way. It’s going to sound terrible. We recorded some drums and we were right, it sounded bad. We made a good call. We kind of got the hose on that. I think the record and what the bubble had to lend to the writing process, the finishing process of the songs, it was a totally unique experience. I think the record turned out really well. We’re all very proud of it. It’s very different that “Chroma.” That’s what we wanted…the second record is always the hardest. Now that we’ve actually been through it, I actually know what people are talking about. It’s either, no one bought your first record and your second one is like your statement and everyone likes it. It’s almost a curse if your debut is good and people like it.

Q: What's on tap for Cartel the rest of the year?
A: The record won’t come out this year. We’re in a good frame of mind. We had these stickers made up: ‘Cartel ’08 – The right band at the right time,’ playing off the election. The new president is not going to be able to do anything until ’09. We feel the same way. It’s a little self-fulfilling prophesy here...the writing is going well so far. We call it Round 2 in the circle.

Cartel interview

(This article originally appeared in North County Times) Cartel performs at the San Diego Fair in Del Mar on June 25 and The Roxy in West Hollywood on June 26.

The recording process can often be a high pressure situation, rife with deadlines and conflicting opinions. Imagine doing it under the watchful eyes of an MTV film crew and two dozen Web cams.

That’s what Cartel endured last year while making their self-titled second album. As part of a Dr. Pepper-sponsored promotion and reality series, the musicians became the “Band in a Bubble.”

Holed up in a 2,000-square foot transparent bubble-shaped pad at New York City’s Hudson River Park pier for 20 days, Cartel completed most of the CD as their moves were tracked 24/7.

“We didn’t want to pass up an opportunity that could be really great,” explained singer/guitarist Will Pugh, 24, in a phone interview last week. “Even though it didn’t turn out to be this monumental thing – and wasn’t a failure by any means – we provided our fans access to a process they wouldn’t normally see.”

MTV producers sought a little extra drama, so they “tried to load us up with alcohol all the time. It backfired on them…we had a fun time. After the [crew] would leave and the computers shut down, we’d do all sorts of crazy things: food fights, hitting golf balls indoors, you name it.”

Although some fickle Cartel followers were quick to turn on the group for taking part in the series, plenty of others discovered them on the Web and TV.

“I definitely think we gained more fans,” Pugh said. “People who didn’t like the whole mainstream public side have recently started to come around on the record. They’re able to separate the music from what happened.”

Formed eight years ago, Cartel initially signed to SoCal indie The Militia Group. The band put out an EP in 2004 and issued debut CD “Chroma” the following year. Steady touring and intense buzz among social networking sites led to an alliance with major label Epic, which reissued it in ’06.

Cartel’s profile increased, thanks to well-received appearances on the Vans Warped Tour and tracks heard in a popular videogame (Madden NFL 2007) and TV series (“The Hills”). The CD moved nearly 250,000 copies and spawned a top 40 pop airplay single (“Honestly”). “Cartel” debuted at No. 20 on the Billboard 200 chart.

There are several instances on the eponymous release where the Atlanta pop/rock quintet display pronounced musical growth. “We leaned on a lot of ‘90s alternative influences,” confirmed Pugh. “The first records we cut our teeth on were Soundgarden, Radiohead, Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins.”

Two tunes (“I Will Hide Myself Away,” “If I Were to Write the Song”) seamlessly segue into entirely different compositions, a method also used to fine effect on “Chroma.” But the compelling “Wasted,” where Pugh sings about not taking life for granted, is the centerpiece. The rhythm and melody resulted from the frontman tinkering around with a new sequencing program.

“I put some autobiographical elements in there, like the time I was born and when I was [little] and my dad missed one of my baseball games. Being an adult, now I understand. These little vignettes of life are what I was trying to capture.”

A Harlem choir, string and horn players and a drum line are added to the mix a la Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” Pugh admitted to being a marching band geek in school. “I played trumpet in middle school, so I have a big love for that, especially the beautiful way it is used in soul music.”

Wyclef Jean remixed “Wasted” and turned it into a cool dancehall number that appears at the end of “Cartel.” The band originally tried to get Outkast’s Andre 3000, a fellow Georgian. When he proved unavailable, Wyclef’s name immediately came up.

“We sent the song to him and he really liked it,” recalled Pugh. “We got a phone call in the bubble one night. I thought, ‘who has this number and what would a guy with a Haitian accent want to talk to me for?’ Wyclef said, ‘I wanted to show through the song that death doesn’t have to be a sad thing; it can be beautiful.’ He brought it in and we were all floored.”

Monday, June 16, 2008

Helio Sequence interview

(This article originally appeared in North County Times)

The Helio Sequence has done its fair share of unusual gigs over the past nine years, but a San Diego appearance last month at the Red Bull Air Race World Series definitely topped the list.

“Playing corporate events is always more on the bizarre side,” admitted singer/guitarist Brandon Summers, while en route to a gig in Dallas. “Everything gets a little surreal. You had 150 girls dressed up like flight attendants and other weird stuff that doesn’t usually happen at our shows - like three guys jumping off a building with parachutes. It was fun though.”

A recent European tour in support of stellar fourth release “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” (Sub Pop) with Low proved to be another unique experience. “They tend to have a sit-down audience, so there were a lot of nice theaters and cathedrals. It was a little more polite than a rock show.”

Fortunately, there were no transportation problems for Summers and drummer/keyboardist Benjamin Weikel. That hasn’t always been the case in America. “We found out our van’ wheel axle was breaking on one of the last West Coast runs that we did (in the Bay Area). We just had time to pull over…threw everything in the U-Haul and got it to the show in time to play.”

Onstage, everything tends to run smoother for The Helio Sequence, whose previous albums have been compared to My Bloody Valentine and Flaming Lips. It recreates the densely-layered tunes by triggering various effects and programmed sounds.

“Using sequencers and keyboards has always been the backbone of what we do,” explained Summers. “We’re constantly working in the studio on the keyboard mixes…it’s very different from recording to translating that to the live process. You can’t just take the tracks you’ve recorded and play along with them through speakers. It’s a really long and meticulous process.”

If there’s any justice, scores of people will discover the allure of The Helio Sequence. Back in February, a million or so late-night TV viewers saw the band on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (the show’s highest rated episode to date, thanks to the infamous Sarah Silverman/Matt Damon video skit).

Plenty more are expected to check out the duo during Sub Pop Records’ 20th Anniversary concert on July 12-13 in Redmond, Wash., with Mudhoney, Iron and Wine, The Vaselines, Flight of the Conchords and others.

On “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” (sporting great flying bat cover art by Summers’ photographer/graphic artist wife Pavlina), the Portland alt-rock duo has crafted its best effort to date. All studio duties (except mastering) were handled by the band as usual.

They took a minimalist approach to the songs, using first takes, spruced up demos and got their points across quicker. The “less is more” technique stemmed in part from a grueling string of shows in support of 2004 album “Love and Distance” with Kings of Leon, Secret Machines and Modest Mouse.

Weikel had played on the latter’s platinum-selling breakthrough disc, “Good News for People Who Love Bad News” (including modern rock radio hit “Float On”). He also did double duty live with them and Helio Sequence, which served as opening act.

Meanwhile, Summers shredded his vocal chords. A doctor advised the singer to be silent during the day and eventually stop altogether for two months.

“Losing my voice made me refocus. I think that comes through in the concision of some songs. We were conscious the whole time of not embellishing things too much…we ended up paring down in general.”

Yet there’s still an atmospheric splendor to tracks like “Captive Mind” (propelled by synthesizer), “Back to This” and album opener “Lately,” with shimmering guitar work reminiscent of The Edge.

“I’d never been a huge U2 fan,” Summers admitted. “The recording of this record was probably the first time I really started listening to ‘The Joshua Tree’ a lot and really got into it.’

The upbeat and Modest Mouse-esque “Hallelujah” and “You Can Come to Me” (think mid-period New Order) are ripe for alt-rock radio play. A folk undercurrent is at the heart of “Shed Your Love” and “Broken Afternoon.” After reading Zimmy’s “Chronicles: Volume One” during his exile in silence, Summers immersed himself in Bob Dylan music.

“In order to get back to basics, I started playing a lot more acoustic guitar and singing,” he said. “If there was a Dylan song I really liked, I’d learn how to play it.” Summers’ fondness for folklorist Harry Oster’s audio collection of 1959 prison spirituals was parlayed into the CD’s old time gospel closer, “No Regrets.”

Q&A with American Music Club's Mark Eitzel

Mark Eitzel on stage, Feb. 2008

(This article originally appeared in North County Times)

From its inception in 1983, American Music Club excelled at crafting an extremely dark, sometimes unsettling and frequently gorgeous alt-rock blend that incorporated folk, punk and lounge music elements.

Over the course of seven albums, the Bay Area band - led by singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel and guitarist Vudi - gained a sizeable cult following and became a leading light of the so-called “slowcore” movement, which would later include Galaxie 500, Mazzy Star, Low, Red House Painters and others.

AMC put out the lush, more pop-oriented “San Francisco” in 1994 and broke up soon after. The group reunited a decade later and released “Love Songs for Patriots.” Earlier this year, AMC returned with equally captivating disc “The Golden Age” (Merge). It features new members Sean Hoffman (bass, vocals) and Steve Didelot (drums, vocals) from Los Angeles alt-country band The Larks.

Always a favorite among music journalists, AMC continues to garner acclaim. “The Golden Age” ranks high on consensus site, alongside Portishead, The Roots and Robyn. I recently caught up with Eitzel to give me the lowdown on everything.

Q: Do you have any memories about San Diego area gigs from the past?
A: Once we opened up for Pearl Jam (there) and I was standing in the crowd watching. A girl came up to me and asked if I was in the opening band. I said ‘yes’ and she said she loved us and wanted my all access pass, so she could go backstage and pee (and harass Eddie Vedder, I think).

Q: Now that you’ve had some time to live with “The Golden Age,” are you happy with how it turned out?
A: I am satisfied. I had to compromise a little to get it out on time, but I think it’s good.

Q: What effect did Sean and Steve have on the AMC sound?
A: They are absolutely a part of it - great players, who know how to play simply. Without them, this record would have been very, very different. Sean is a commercial music maker (check out all the shedding guitars on Fox Sports Network) and Steve is a great singer/songwriter in his own right. For them, this was all fairly easy to do.

Q: Some tracks boast dynamic backing vocals, especially “John Berchman Victory Choir.” Was that something you really wanted to emphasize this time around?
A: Of course. I wrote these songs with background harmonies in mind.

Q: What prompted you to revisit “Sleeping Beauty,” originally done on your 2005 solo album “Candy A**,” with the band?
A: It was Sean’s idea and the rest of the band went along with it. I really like the (new) version we do.

Q: Was “The Windows on the World” inspired by a real experience you had at the same-named World Trade Center restaurant and bar before 9/11?
A: Yeah, I went to a party there for (now defunct New York City band) Jonathan Fire*Eater.

Q: Geographical references tend to pop up from time to time in AMC album and song titles. This album has two songs about San Francisco. Why?
A: It is where I live and I like to put real things in songs.

Q: On “Windows,” “On My Way” and “One Step Ahead,” the band plays an atmospheric sound, then Vudi suddenly cuts through with his jagged electric guitar work. Do you think that gives the songs a certain ‘calm before the storm’ effect?
A: Maybe - or else we just like loud noise.

Q: I was surprised to hear the band venture into world music territory on “I Know That’s Not Really You.”
A: We live in San Francisco and LA and hear Mariachi music all the time. Vudi had the idea that this was a “Mexican” song (though it is far from it).

Q: You’ve been working on writing a musical called “Maine Parade.” Can you tell me about it?
A: It’s going great. It might open in early 2009 in New York and then move on to London. It is an odd piece - more of a play with music than a real musical, though it works as a musical as well. Hard to describe.

OMD live reunion DVD review

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Architecture & Morality and More
(Eagle Rock Entertainment)

One of the strongest OMD albums, 1981’s Architecture & Morality found the Liverpool duo expanding upon their early electronic music influences and delving into new sonic terrain. This concert DVD was shot in May 2007 at London’s Hammersmith Apollo during OMD’s reunion tour. A full multimedia experience, the 95-minute set featured a complete Morality, followed by a dozen exciting UK hits (“Tesla Girls,” “Locomotion,” “If You Leave,” “Electricity, “Forever Live and Die”).

No-frills lighting and unobtrusive camera work make the concert seem like it took place decades ago. Frontman Andy McCluskey and keyboardist Paul Humphries are both in fine vocal form (McCluskey even dances around). Despite no DVD audio options, the sound is good. Band and director interviews, plus onstage films are also included. A companion live CD is available separately.

My Morning Jacket CD review

Jim James, onstage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Indio, Calif., April 27, 2008

(This review originally appeared in IE Weekly)

My Morning Jacket
Evil Urges

Reinvention is part of many groups’ sonic evolution. If they go off on a tangent for too long though, a backlash usually follows. The tricky part is finding middle ground, which My Morning Jacket does masterfully throughout fifth album Evil Urges. Leader Jim James downplays the reverb and gets his R&B and funk jones on during the triple opening salvo. The title track - about mixed signals between religion and morality – is pure Smokey Robinson smoothness as strings swell in the background. Fat bass grooves and James’ helium singing dominate the urgent “Highly Suspicious,” which could be an early Prince outtake if not for the militant backing vocals.

Longtime followers should dig the Kentucky band’s trademark crunchy rockers (politically-themed “I’m Amazed,” the fun “Aluminum Park,” “Remnants”). There’s a Philly soul vibe to the effervescent “Thank You Too” and old time country feel on “Sec Walkin’,” sweetened by pedal steel and prominent harmonies (the quintet ably assists James in this area). Other standouts – no filler here, folks - include the haunting narrative “Librarian,” volcanic guitar work in “Smokin’ from Shootin’” and “Touch Me, I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2,” a mind-blowing exaltation of love done epic, prog-rock style.

Midnight Juggernauts CD review

(This review originally appeared in IE Weekly)

Midnight Juggernauts

Midnight Juggernauts gained major attention last year as an opening act for Justice, who proceeded to give them props in various interviews. Formed in Australia, the dance rock trio put out two EPs and did popular remixes for others (Presets, Electric Six). They went down a storm this past April at Coachella, despite an early afternoon set in the Sahara Tent.

Self-produced debut disc Dystopia is equally invigorating. Taking a cue from 1970s Eurodisco producer Giorgio Moroder and the sinister Gary Numan, plus latter day practitioner Air, the Juggernauts are equally adept at space rock, mood pieces and party anthems. Among the standouts here are the acoustic guitar-driven title track (think chilled out Pink Floyd), infectious “Into the Galaxy” (with a lyrical nod to Van Morrison & Them), freaky instrumental “Scorpius,” bouncy “Road to Recovery” and “Tombstone” (both full-on electronica in the Daft Punk vein). Prepare for a memorable journey, these guys are an irresistible force.

Aimee Mann CD review

(This review originally appeared in IE Weekly)

Aimee Mann
@#%&*! Smilers
(Super Ego)

The title of Aimee Mann’s latest speaks volumes. It refers to annoying people who always urge you to smile (insert preferred curse word). Not exactly Mrs. Happy Go Lucky, Mann often crafts cynical, confessional tunes about broken romances and drug dependency. Her visibility factor rose immensely after an Oscar nod for “Save Me” (from the flick “Magnolia”) in 1999. That didn’t translate into mainstream success, so Mann started an independent label, became a regular at L.A. singer/songwriter haven Largo and continued making beautiful, yet caustic tunes dealing with depression and alienation. 2005’s The Forgotten Arm was a pop/rock concept album revolving around an alcoholic Vietnam vet and his white trash girlfriend.

Smilers is like a collection of short stories and lighter in tone. Electric guitars are absent; layered keyboards, analog synths, clavinets, distorted Wurlitzers, prominent horns and a string section provide a far more inviting sonic palate than before. Opening track “Freeway” concerns a well off speed freak who moves to L.A. to get clean (oh, the irony) then heads to the O.C. to get a fix. Boasting a vaguely New Wave sound and hooky chorus, it’s one of the catchiest things Mann has done in years.

On “31 Today,” the artist recalls how she thought her life would be different at that point and sees peers “getting loaded and watching CNN.” Dig the dreamy Fountains of Wayne keys. “Ballantines,” a jovial ode to an old Kentucky bar (the male duet partner is a dead ringer for Antony of the Johnsons) recalls past work with Jon Brion. Falling in love with a poltergeist is the impetus for the whimsical “True Believer,” co-written by Grant-Lee Phillips. Another enthralling adult alternative collection. Bonus points for the cool artwork patterned after a book with retro illustrations for each song lyric.

Futureheads CD review

(This review originally appeared in IE Weekly)

The Futureheads
This is Not the World

In 2004, The Futureheads crash landed on American shores with one hell of an adrenaline-fueled debut. The U.K. quartet’s short and angular, post-punk guitar songs - partially guided by Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill – bore Jam and XTC influences and cascading harmonies. Despite a primo slot at Coachella ‘05, stint opening for Franz Ferdinand, videogame (“Burnout 3”) and TV (“The O.C.”) exposure, plus a deft take on Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love,” they failed to find major success here. Ditto the glossier, more mature News and Tributes. If there’s any justice, the third time will be the charm. This is Not the World, produced by Youth (Killing Joke, the Verve), is more direct and enjoyable than its predecessor. Urgent, pogo-worthy numbers (“Beginning of the Twist,” “Walking Backwards”) could give Kaiser Chiefs a run for the money. Singer/guitarists Barry Hyde and Ross Millard’s distinctly British vocals are also excellent throughout. The poppy “Radio Heart” humorously describes traits for a potential mate. A lurching guitar solo on “Sale of the Century” and pedal steel work during the poignant “Hard to Bear” (about a guy who consoles his buddy after a difficult breakup) shake up the frantic formula with winning results.

Beat Union set to rock Vans Warped Tour

Davey Warsop at Great Escape Festival, Brighton UK, May 2008 (photo by Jeff Galasso)

(This interview originally appeared in Mean Street Magazine)

As a budding teenage musician in England, Davey Warsop eagerly read about the Vans Warped Tour every summer in local rock rags. Now he actually gets to experience it first hand.

“We’re completely over the moon,” said the singer/guitarist, from Science Records’ office in Costa Mesa. “To finally be here doing it is an absolute honor.”

Beat Union will perform on the entire tour. Warsop cited Against Me!, Pink Spiders and G.B.H., “the old punk band from Birmingham, where we’re from,” as the acts he’s most looking forward to catching live.

In recent months, Beat Union got a first taste of American audiences while opening for Bedouin Soundclash, Authority Zero and Goldfinger. “When you come to a new country, you don’t know how people are going to take your music…but it’s been absolutely crazy.” Warsop said “the crowds are (definitely) more enthusiastic here” than back home.

Formed three years ago by grade school friends Warsop and guitarist Dean Ashton, Beat Union went through various member changes before settling on drummer Luke Johnson (Amen) and bassist Ade Preston. “We met them when we were teenagers, playing in different bands on the local gig circuit.”

The group immediately crafted an exciting amalgam of 1970s punk, pub rock and new wave sounds, did some demos and sent them everywhere. Goldfinger frontman/producer John Feldmann (The Used, The Matches, Story of the Year) heard one and was so impressed that he flew Beat Union out to California to record. “We were absolutely blown away,” recalled Warsop. “We just couldn’t believe it.”

Tethered to a tight budget and time schedule, they entered an L.A. studio and bashed out the insanely catchy tunes heard on “Disconnected” in three weeks. “For a debut album, that’s the best thing to do - especially for a band that’s influenced by a lot of punk music (like us), you get more of that desperation down on tape.”

Inspired by Elvis Costello, The Jam, Joe Jackson, Squeeze, The Police and The Clash, Warsop said he isn’t afraid to admit that “we wear our influences on our sleeves.”

When you’re starting out, “there is no songwriting handbook, so you’ve literally got to listen to what your favorite people have done before and take a little bit from here or there.”

On the blazing title track, Warsop sings about how we often let technology rule our lives (key lyric: “maybe I’m just out of place in the modern world/don’t wanna go to their MySpace/I wanna talk to girls”).

“That was my mild contempt for the digital age that we’re living in…I’m not saying I boycott all that stuff and hate it; I don’t. It’s just realizing how times have changed and not wanting to be left behind.”

Elsewhere, Beat Union delves into ska territory (“Pressure Zone,” also heard in a hidden dub version with a King Tubby/Roots Radics sample), gang-style chants (“She is the Gun,” which was playlisted last year on England’s BBC Radio 1) and insightful storytelling (“Johnny Loves JoJo”). Musicians from Goldfinger, The Used and Good Charlotte also lent a hand. It all adds up to one of the best debut releases of 2008.