Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Cult concert review

The Cult
Musink Festival
Orange County Fairgrounds, Costa Mesa
Feb. 19

A version of my review originally appeared in the OC Register. Photo by Kevin Warn, courtesy of the Orange County Register.

After witnessing a sizzling Costa Mesa performance by The Cult on Friday night, I regret not catching their Club Nokia gig last summer, where 1985 classic Love - given the deluxe reissue treatment in 2009 - was performed in its entirety.

Still, those who braved the cold, wet weather were treated to selections from half that album (more than any other) during a 90-minute set rife with ample hits and some rarities. The veteran English rock band headlined Day 1 of the Third Annual Musink Tattoo Convention & Music Festival.

Singer Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy are the lone holdovers from the original mid-1980s lineup. Over the past decade, they’ve put out two studio albums (the criminally ignored Born Into This, a return to form, arrived in ’07).

Astbury also toured with surviving members of The Doors, while Duffy (looking quite like David Beckham these days), joined Coloursound and Circus Diablo. The pair are now augmented by powerhouse drummer John Tempesta (White Zombie, Testament), bassist Chris Wyse and longtime rhythm guitarist Mike Dimkich. They're currently working on new material with producer Chris Goss (Queens of the Stone Age, Masters of Reality).

Playing to a medium-sized crowd in an OC Fairgrounds exhibition hall, The Cult opened with the rousing AC/DC-styled crunch of “Lil’ Devil” as Astbury vigorously shook a tambourine. An extended “Rain,” awash in shimmering Goth rock sounds, was simply amazing. Duffy is one of the post-punk era’s best guitarists. He frequently held his Gretsch White Falcon aloft throughout the show, giving old fans and younger “Guitar Hero” enthusiasts a close up instructional view.

Both founding Cult members were in talkative moods. Duffy dedicated a tune to frequent producer Bob Rock (I’m not sure if he was in attendance, but The Offspring’s Dexter Holland apparently was) and teased Astbury about “Fire Woman” being one of his least favorites to do.

That prompted a defensive retort (“I put my heart into it; that’s all I can give you”) and disdain for music journalists that call The Cult “too earnest” (apparently he reads their press). The thunderous tune’s persistent wails did prove taxing to the 47-year-old front man, who tended to clip various songs' phrasings here and there. But he’s done this live for awhile, without much detriment to the choruses.

Interestingly, Astbury ad-libbed during the “Fire Woman” breakdown section (“I’ve been thinking/Why must MTV air the Jersey Shore/While we’re at war”). Later, he prefaced the mesmerizing “ Phoenix ” by singing “this is not a love song” and asking who in the crowd were planning to attend the upcoming Coachella festival to see PiL.

“We’ve never been invited by Goldenvoice and we started this whole thing,” he said, referring to the Astbury-organized Gathering of the Tribes music festival in 1990. The pre-song rant continued: “People come and go, but we’re still here. Don’t talk to me about punk rock. This is acid rock. Prepare for liftoff.” Led by Duffy’s eerie effects, it definitely soared.

Same held true on more recent songs culled from Born Into This. “Dirty Little Rockstar,” included a needling Keith Richards-inspired riff (a la “Undercover of the Night”) and the stop/start rhythm of “I Assassin” featured Duffy’s windmill guitar moves. More standout moments came during the clarion call guitars and chanting of “Spritwalker,” full group harmonies on “Love Removal Machine” and razor sharp closer “She Sells Sanctuary,” which continues to induce goose bumps after a quarter century. All told, The Cult proved it is still a force to be reckoned with.

Earlier in the evening, pro-BMX rider Rick Thorne and his punk group Good Guys in Black played to a dozen or so people on the outdoor Jaggermeister stage, located next to the skate ramp.

“Moving On” came across like a less melodic Unwritten Law, “Whoa Yeah” bore elements of early Social Distortion and an expletive-laden diatribe about Hollywood posers recalled Suicidal Tendencies. Thorne seemed sincere in his song introductions and his band mates were definitely proficient players.

Indoors, Long Beach skateboarder Mike Vallely & By the Sword struck a far more aggressive hardcore rock stance amid a set concentrating on Black Flag and Minor Threat covers. They were joined by another noted skateboarder/musician, Duane Peters of U.S. Bombs/Die Hunns, on “Rise Above.” The group capped things off with thrashing takes on “Louie Louie” and “Good Guys Don’t Wear White.”

Lollapalooza fave Jim Rose served as emcee on the main stage, bringing an odd assortment of characters and audience participants up for stunts like the human dartboard and hitting people over the head with a frying pan until they can't take anymore.

Motion City Soundtrack concert review

Motion City Soundtrack, Set Your Goals, This Providence, Swellers
House of Blues Anaheim
Feb. 15

A version of my review originally appeared in the OC Register. Photo courtesy of Columbia Records and

Sometimes the best lyricists are the quietest ones onstage. Mild mannered Motion City Soundtrack singer/guitarist Justin Pierre is a prime example. During a well-attended Anaheim show on Monday (with openers Set Your Goals, This Providence and The Swellers), he let the music do most of the talking.

Last month, the Minneapolis-bred quintet released long awaited fourth album My Dinosaur Life – their first on a major label - and nabbed a career high No. 15 placing on the Billboard 200 chart. Produced by Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus, it finds the band crafting a supremely satisfying batch of effervescent punk-pop. Pierre sings from a darker frame of reference, yet still utilizes his trademark wry wordplay and amusing pop culture references to fine effect.

At the Mouse House, MCS entered to the whimsical strains of “Walk the Dinosaur,” a late ‘80s pop hit by Was (Not Was). “Worker Bee,” the first of seven new tunes performed, got the excellent hour-long, 18-song set off to a frantic start. Fans immediately sang along loudly and pogoed to Tony Thaxton’s insistent rhythms and Josh Cain’s buzz saw guitar work.

Thaxton broke his upper arm a year ago, resulting in an extended Dinosaur writing/recording period. In O.C., he was powerful as ever and showed no signs of holding back.

Old faves “The Future Freaks Me Out” and “My Favorite Accident,” from 2003 debut I Am the Movie, saw Pierre deliver vulnerable vocals alongside the musicians’ aggressive playing. “Delirium,” a giddy new one, found Pierre singing intensely about drug-induced paranoia while keyboardist Jesse Johnson had a blast playing a mini synth (he was the most animated member, by far).

A few selections from Even if it Kills Me (“Broken Heart,” “This is For Real”) were good, but didn’t go off like the new stuff. Stranger in a strange land-themed “Pulp Fiction,” where Pierre name checks “Miami Vice” and American pulp magazine writer Seabury Quinn in rapid-fire cadence, was a standout. It featured rich harmonies and this memorable couplet: “like a slasher film/I’m torn in opposite directions/the plot sucks but the killings are gorgeous.”

“A Lifeless Ordinary (Need a Little Help)” proved supremely catchy live and current single “Her Words Destroyed My Planet” is a surefire hit (why these guys aren’t as huge as Weezer after a decade together is baffling).

For the encores, MCS did a fierce “Disappear” as Pierre revelled in bleak desperation real and capped the concert off with a peppy, fun “Everything is Alright.”

Each opening act did a half hour opening set. First up was Flint, Mich.-based The Swellers. Led by brothers Nick and Jonathan Diener (vocals/guitar and drums, respectively), the earnest punk group turned in a solid - albeit somewhat monochrome - performance concentrating on last year’s Ups and Downsizing release. Frequently recalling face to face, the tunes delved into working class issues.

Seattle ’s This Providence brought far more variety, encompassing emo, pop and rock music that made a bevy of teenager girls in the venue swoon. Grainy-throated frontman Daniel Young informed the crowd of an ankle injury a few nights prior and that he wouldn’t be doing any wild “Story of the Year-type moves.” Still, the Australian born singer moved around quite a bit. Set highlights included the dreamy “My Beautiful Rescue (Renovated),” the propulsive “Playing the Villain,” which brought to mind late ‘70s Stones and dynamic, synth-driven closer “Let Down.”

The sloppy Bay Area hardcore sounds of Set Your Goals inexplicably got the best response of the three. There was crowd surfing and moshing galore. At one point, things got so crazy that co-lead singers Matt Wilson and Jordan Brown chastised House of Blues security guards for being too overzealous. Most of the militant, political tunes (imagine a blend of Pennywise with a little Less Than Jake and Rancid thrown in) were drawn from 2009’s This Will Be the Death of Us. None of the songs were particularly memorable, but the guys definitely had energy in spades. When the set ended, concertgoers shouted, “one more song!”

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"We Are the World: 25"

Talk about a letdown. After hearing the complete version/seeing the video for the new cover of USA For Africa's "We Are the World" (NBC inexplicably ran an edited take on the video during the lead up to the Winter Olympics' opening ceremonies last night), I was very disappointed.

Back when the original came out, I can honestly say I liked or could ID 75% of the acts that contributed. This time, I kept thinking, 'who is that?' or 'yuck.' Justin Bieber to open the song? An unwieldy rap ending? Barbra Streisand seemed woefully out of place.

And why was Jennifer Hudson (overrated in my opinion) given so many spotlights? Whose bright idea was it to let several actors in to the chorus to sing?

Yes, Jamie Foxx has a successful rap/R&B career, but did he need to mimic Ray Charles' original line in the song? Each time Wyclef Jean sang in Haitian, I cringed.

Knowing that the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson had to leave the recording because he couldn't stand for long periods and would be inserted later into the video, I looked closely for him. The editing was obvious.

Since proceeds go to Haitian relief, it is a good cause. Musically though, a train wreck.

Monday, February 8, 2010

SuperBowl halftime show: The Who

Despite an erratic sound mix (Pete Townshend's backing vocals drowned out Roger Daltrey a few times, esp. "Pinball Wizard"; the drums and other backing vox were too low in the mix), I thought The Who's current incarnation did an admirable job with their medley on Sunday. They sure played a lot more of "Baba O'Riley" than I expected. I totally dug the cool lighting, outfits and Zak Starkey's union jack symbols. This was the most watched SuperBowl ever, so the British vets should see a major boost to catalog sales on the Billboard 200 album chart.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bonus Q&A with Rhett Miller

Here is more from my chat with Miller, who was very forthcoming and a pleasure to speak with.

What can fans look forward to during this brief West Coast run with your solo band, the Serial Lady Killers?
We’ve got a list of 30-35 songs that that band is comfortable playing. It’s a good mix of Old 97s songs and solo songs. It’s really fun.

While on tour with the Old 97s last year, you also did an opening set of your solo material. Did that take a lot of stamina?
No, it’s kind of not that big of a deal. [For the first couple weeks], I thought it was really going to beat me down, but it was fun. The solo set doesn’t get too crazy. The Old 97s don’t play quite as long as we used to play, which was 2½ hours. Now, it’s just under two hours.

The self-titled 2009 album has been out a little over six months now. Are you satisfied with how it turned out and has been perceived overall?
I don’t know if anyone’s ever satisfied. I mean, it would’ve been nice if it had gone triple platinum. The reviews were some of the best I’d gotten in years and years. Right now is a weird time to be making art because there’s so much noise and it’s so hard to cut through. There’s so many things that are made, I think, to take money out of people’s wallets. If you’re trying to make something high quality, then someone walks in with a bunch of junk that’s just garbage. It is what it is. The landscape may be over-crowded, but I really don’t have a choice. This is the time we live in. But I was proud [of the album] and feel I’ll be able to play songs off it the rest of my life. But I’m never satisfied.

Was it easier having a longtime friend like Salim in the studio to produce as opposed to someone you don’t know at all?
Absolutely. I’ve discovered I liked working with Salim so much, it’s going to make it hard working with anyone else. He really is my friend and...gets good performances out of people and creates a good environment. And then there's the sonic stuff – he makes beautiful sounds. To be able to go in and make music you think is really great with someone you enjoy spending time with is a big thing. It’s not a gimme. I’ve made records where there was a lot of tension in the air. That’s never fun.

The musicians who played in the studio all had past production experience. Did that prompt you to solicit their opinions more than you would other studio guys?
Oh yeah. It was like getting four producers for the price of one. Also, pretty much everybody, we were all good friends. John Dufilho, Billy Harvey and even the little bit of input we got from the great Jon Brion, we’ve known each other for a long time. There wasn’t that having to figure out how to talk to each other, like ‘why don’t you try this?’ ‘I don’t know. It sounds like crap.’ It was great.

In one interview you said, ‘there was a fundamental difference in the way you approached writing and recording this CD.’ How so?
When I was writing the songs, it was kind of like that thing where you don’t want to feel dumb and put yourself out there too much. I don’t care. I’m at a point now where I’m not gonna feel dumb. I know I’m good at what I do. I know I do this certain thing and some people might not like it, but I love it and am proud of it. I’m just gonna do it and it’s not as if I’ve listened to criticism that much or let it affect me much. The times that I have have been detrimental. I really felt like there was a weight off my shoulders. I was going to make this record however I wanted and if people don’t like it, then fine.

Lyrically, some songs are darker than we’re used to hearing, but you leaven that with upbeat arrangements. Was it hard to find the right balance?
That’s a trick I’ve been pulling for a lot of years. I feel I’m getting better at doing it. To me, it’s like a necessary treatment of a song that has a heavy subject matter of something darker. I don’t want to go out there and be the guy that’s like ‘give me the blue light, dammit.’ And make everybody sit there and endure some excruciating retelling of some horrible moment in my life, presented in a way that’s appropriately depressing. I mean, the whole point of being an entertainer is entertaining. If I’m going to hit ‘em with something heavy, I’m going to sugarcoat it and make it sonically fun.

‘Haphazardly’ dates back several years, right?
Yeah and that’s one where I didn’t really try and sugarcoat it. I just let it be the sort of depressing opus that it is. I like that. I remember playing that at Largo in Hollywood a lot and people have always really liked it. For some reason, it was a song that girls always related to and said ‘that made me cry.’

When you’re in LA and have some free time, do you still check out shows at Largo?
Oh my gosh, yes. It’s one of the big things I miss. Now it’s the new Largo and it’s different, but every time I go to LA, the trip isn’t complete if I don’t go to Largo. I really love it and I see Flanagan’s vision. It’s weird; I miss the old Largo. But I have a ‘Live at Largo’ record coming. Around the time of ‘The Interpreter,’ I did a bunch of cover songs the month before the old club closed down. I recorded all the shows and I’m going to put a record out.

How has fatherhood affected your songwriting?
What I’ve learned to do is just write amid the confusion of life in the living room. I’ll just sit at the dining room table and the kids will be running around and everybody will be screaming, my wife will be on the phone. It’s almost as good as being by yourself in a quiet room because nobody’s paying any attention to you. Because writing a song, you try out a million things that sound ridiculous before you hit on something that sounds good. You have to feel unselfconscious. There’s a certain point with the family household where nobody cares what I’m doing. It’s a nice anonymity.

Did being a fan of David Foster Wallace’s work influence your writing at all? You include a quote in the liner notes from ‘Infinite Jest.’
Oh gosh. He’s written some of my favorite books in the world and I’ve always said he was my favorite author. Since he committed suicide, it seems kind of sad to say that. There’s something about his writing that to me contains so much heart. There’s so much real emotion at the core of the stuff he did. It can be so complicated and weird and dense but there’s a really big heart. I’ve lays believed you could do anything you want, but if it doesn’t resonate from a real place coming from a human being, then it’s just going to sound like a bunch of words together. So I try to take that to the music as well. There have been times when I’ve had record label executives ask me to write a song about walking on sunshine or everything seems great. I can’t just do that. It would sound so disingenuous.

Not everyone can write to order.
I actually love to write to order in a way. If I get asked to do a movie and they show me a scene, I’ll get inspired by it. But I have to bring it home. I have to watch it and figure out how I relate to it and what in my life it reminds me of. Like ‘all the No. 1 songs in the country have this progression, so we want you to do that.’ Whatever. That’s not how it works.

Despite the lack of a big hit album by the Old 97’s, are you content with how your career with them has gone?
I don’t regret anything we’ve done and I’m pretty proud of it because it’s hard to do. I know we were beneficiaries of a major label system that was for the most part still intact and had millions of dollars poured into the marketing of our band. We rode the last wave of that business model. We’re very lucky in that respect because we were able to ride it without having it crash on our heads. We never had to apologize for or live down anything. I know Third Eye Blind put out a record recently. I saw them on TV and it was hard not to feel sorry for them. I wouldn’t trade places in a million years with those guys.

Findlay Brown album review

Findlay Brown
Love Will Find You
(Verve Forecast)
Grade: A

They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Yorkshire native Findlay Brown is an ex-boxer who played bass in an obscure electronica outfit before branching off on his own a few years ago. His acclaimed 2007 U.K. import-only release Separated by the Sea delved into Nick Drake-styled folk territory. On Love Will Find You – Brown’s outstanding stateside debut – several sublime pop treasures transport you back to the early 1960s, when Roy Orbison, Phil Spector and NYC Brill Building pop songwriters ruled the charts.

Former London Suede guitarist Bernard Butler (Duffy, Libertines) expertly produces, plays guitar and keyboards here. Amid swelling orchestration and female backing vocals, Brown sings about being shunned on “Nobody Cared.” Instead of taking the ‘woe is me’ approach, he’s optimistic: “you’ve got to carry on/everything will wash away with the rain.”

The gorgeous, ultra-dramatic ballad “Everybody Needs Love” puts Brown’s soulful voice to great use. “That’s Right,” is a fast and fun rockabilly detour (no surprise, since the artist usually sports a pompadour), sounding like something Sam Phillips might’ve cut for Carl Perkins back in the ‘50s at Sun Studios.

Standout tracks “I Still Want You” and “Holding Back the Night” find Brown channeling Orbison’s passionate delivery alongside Everly Brothers harmonies, while reverb-heavy vocals during the pedal steel-accented “If I Could Do It Again” are pure Ricky Nelson. Finally, the inspirational “I Had a Dream” brings everything to an epic close amid trumpet and sax solos and a male choir (think Elvis Presley and the Jordanaires). Definitely an album of the year contender.

Motion City Soundtrack album review

Motion City Soundtrack
My Dinosaur Life

Grade: A

When an indie rock band makes the jump to a major label, they often end up with a producer who supplies a slicker and ultimately diluted sound. Not so for Minneapolis outfit Motion City Soundtrack.

Mark Hoppus of Blink-182, who helmed their most successful album to date - 2005’s Commit This to Memory - returned to produce fourth effort My Dinosaur Life. MCS’ brand of synth-driven punk/pop is bound to bring a smile to listeners' faces. Vocalist Justin Pierre – the one with the wildest hairdo since that tall dude in Static X – continues to improve vocally and never over-emotes. His knack for wry wordplay and pop cultural references still dwarfs the band’s alt-rock competition.

The highly melodic “Pulp Fiction,” about being a foreigner in Japan , is one example. Pierre sings rapid fire style while name checking Cloak and Dagger, author Seabury Quinn and “Miami Vice.” Spaz out tune “Her Words Destroyed My Planet,” where Pierre sings honestly about Twentysomethings trying to grow up, rivals Weezer’s pop smarts.

Here, everything has to get worse before it gets better. Case in point: “Delirium,” a dark, yet giddy tune revolving around entering a drug treatment program. Other highlights include “History Lesson,” an acoustic guitar-based dose of folk/punk with a gang-styled chant, the bleak desperation in “Disappear” and stripped down vulnerability and subtle piano of “Stand Too Close.” If there’s any justice, this satisfying album will be MCS’ big breakthrough.