Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pansy Division album review

Pansy Division
That’s So Gay
(Alternative Tentacles)

Some bands get better with age. Such is the case with Pansy Division, one of the first out queer punk bands in the early ‘90s. They toured with Green Day on the Dookie arena tour and Billie Joe Armstrong played an electric guitar sporting PD's pink triangle logo.

With lead guitarist Joel Reader (ex-Mr. T Experience, Avengers) in tow, the California quartet now boasts their tightest lineup to date. Sixth studio set That’s So Gay deftly mixes power pop, glam, punk and garage rock.

Lead singer/guitarist Jon Ginoli and bassist/singer Chris Freeman’s lyrical topics range from mildly political (“Obsessed with Me” references so-called disgraced public figures Ted Haggard and Larry Craig; “Never You Mind” takes mindless Bible belters to task) and playfully sexual (“Ride Baby,” “Dirty Young Man,” countrified football themed “Pat Me On the Ass”) to reality checks (the title track, which should be required listening for high school and college students who casually throw the expression around without thinking how harmful it can be).

Straight man Reader sticks up for his comrades with the self-penned, Bob Mould-styled “Some of My Best Friends.” The group’s label prez, Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, even guests on the hard-hitting “Average Men.”

Note: Life in a Gay Rock Band, an intriguing companion documentary plus concert DVD shown at Gay & Lesbian Film Festivals worldwide, is also available now.

Youth Group album review

Youth Group
The Night is Ours
(Ivy League/World’s Fair)

Influenced by Teenage Fanclub and fronted by a vocalist whose inviting timbre recalls James’ Tim Booth, this Sydney quartet got a leg up in America a few years ago when it signed to Epitaph Records. Two songs (“Shadowland,” sublime Alphaville cover “Forever Young”) were prominently featured in episodes of “The O.C.” A main stage slot at the Coachella Festival in Indio , Calif. and tours with Death Cab for Cutie and Coldplay ensued.

Traces of The Church and Snow Patrol can be felt in the melancholic alt-pop heard on fourth effort The Night is Ours, originally released in Australia last summer. Recorded inside a decommissioned ship near home, the location obviously had an effect on leader Toby Martin since the soothing “Dying At Your Own Party” boasts nautical lyrics.

An upbeat “Two Sides” (Death Cab’s Chris Walla adds guitar and vocals; he also mixed four tunes) revisits Joy Division territory with icy keyboards as Martin wonders, “have you come to dance or die?” On the winsome “All This Will Pass” jangly guitars at the fore find Youth Group channeling early Smiths.

Later, mournful New Orleans horns propel the stately “Babies in Your Dreams,” Martin name checks poet Allen Ginsberg on the gorgeously haunting “In My Dreams” and “What is a Life” (already featured on TV’s “Gossip Girl”) is a reflective mid-tempo rocker, enriched by a careening string section.

Fastball album review

Little White Lies
(MRI/RED Distribution)

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s the modus operandi for Fastball, which returns after a five-year absence with Little White Lies. The Austin trio’s earthy rock sound was ubiquitous on alternative and adult rock radio a decade ago with “The Way,” “Fire Escape” and “Out of My Head,” off the platinum-selling, Grammy nominated All the Pain Money Can Buy. After three CDs on Hollywood Records, they released the solid, but little heard Keep Your Wig On via Rykodisc.

Songwriting singer/guitarist Miles Zuniga and singer/bassist Tony Scalzo usually divvy up the lead vocal duties. The same is true this time around, except Scalzo handled the bulk of ‘em and concentrated on electric guitar. Lies was co-produced by Zuniga and C.J. Eiriksson (U2, Jack’s Mannequin).

Old fans should find plenty to savor, namely the infectious, acoustic-based “All I Was Looking For Was You,” where the guys harmonize about a girlfriend search “from Venice Beach to Katmandu …all twisted up on ‘Bitches Brew.’” Celebrity culture is examined in the somber organ-drenched number “The Malcontent” as Scalzo decries the “pretty boys and plastic girls.” And the appealing, finger snapping “Mono to Stereo” ponders the merits of beautiful female busker in NYC.

Other standouts include the psychedelic swirls of Wurlitzer and Moog on “Always Never,” tense and mysterious “Angelie” (think Spoon), garage rockin’ “White Noise” and power pop-leaning “Soul Radio.”

Doves album review

Kingdom of Rust

In a previous incarnation as ‘90s dance outfit Sub Sub, Manchester, England ’s Doves enjoyed a successful club hit. So there were high expectations for 2000 debut disc Lost Souls. The trio didn’t disappoint, thanks to some gauzy Verve/Radiohead atmospherics. It was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, as was lush follow up Last Broadcast. The melodic grandeur continued on Some Cities.

Now, after a four-year absence, Doves are back and the schizophrenic results are mixed at best. While the band is no stranger to lengthy tunes, several wear out their welcome by the five-minute mark. The stream of consciousness lyrics are average and few enrapture the listener like before.

A Kraftwerk-inspired “Jetstream” finds guitarist/backing vocalist Jez Williams singing in a fragile voice amid fluttering synths and ferocious guitars. The ominous title track is vaguely cinematic. “Outsiders” races ahead like mid-period Pink Floyd, thanks to a squelching bassline and dense, spacey sounds, while “Greatest Denier” mixes children’s playground noises, dreamily floating vocals and circuitous guitars.

John Leckie (Stone Roses) produced prog rock-leaning “Winter Hill,” driven by an idyllic looped pattern and “10.03” (the title refers to a subway train stop). Here, things start sparsely, then build into a guitar maelstrom with Jez’s undecipherable repeated mantra and bombastic drums.

Among the saving graces: fittingly titled “Spellbound,” awash in keyboards and cascading acoustic guitars; the Gang of Four-styled dub funk of “Compulsion,” where Jez really gets to shine and total rocker “House of Mirrors,” complete with sinister vocals and guitar feedback.

Erasure 'Hits' box set review

Total Pop! Deluxe Box: The First 40 Hits

Before teaming with singer Andy Bell in Erasure, keyboardist Vince Clarke struck gold in Depeche Mode and Yazoo . Yet the influential London synth-pop duo’s 1986 debut Wonderland barely made a ripple at home.

It wasn’t long until they were off and running, eventually notching 32 consecutive U.K. top 40 singles. Stateside, Erasure’s frothy confections were a mainstay on college/alternative radio (until grunge and punk took over) and often lit up the dance charts.

Maintaining longevity in the music biz is tough - especially for groups from the Eighties (a period teeming with flash in the pans). Anyone lasting a quarter century minus breakups or member changes should be celebrated. Erasure reaches that milestone next year and Rhino has assembled a fantastic four-disc retrospective, Total Pop! Deluxe Box: The First 40 Hits.

All tracks have been remastered; the early material sparkles anew. Running chronologically, Disc 1 contains the original 1992 Pop! hits collection, plus “Who Needs Love Like That ( Hamburg mix).” Disc 2 continues to the present, featuring “Moon & The Sky” (JC’s Heaven Scent Radio Re-work) and “Always” (2009 mix).

A real treat for longtime enthusiasts is found on Disc 3 – 60 minutes of concert audio from 1987-2007 where Bell ’s soulful vocal prowess is in full display. The DVD (At the BBC 1986-2005) traces the evolution of Erasure’s visual spectacle via 27 TV promo clips (Top of the Pops, Later with Jools Holland, etc.) and seldom seen 2003 music video to “Oh L’Amour.” Flamboyant and fun, this set is highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"American Idol" watch

It was a disco theme on "American Idol" last night and the contestants' choices were very narrow. You'd think the era consisted solely of the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack and Donna Summer. They definitely could've used more variety.

Consistently likeable Kris Allen put an acoustic guitar spin on Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money" that turned out good. And Adam Lambert impressed again with a torchy take on the Yvonne Elliman-popularized (and Bee Gees-penned) "If I Can't Have You" off "Fever". It had the 'wow' factor. I don't think Matt Giraud was as bad as the judges thought during "Stayin' Alive." Both Lil' Rounds and the grating Alison should go this week, but I bet they'll continue because they're female and there needs to be some opposite dynamic at play.

Ryan Seacrest got on my nerves (when doesn't he?) by announcing some of the original artists, but not others. The guy hosts "American Top 40" on the radio so he must know them. It's obvious he ad-libs a lot on the show and doesn't always read a teleprompter, so there's no excuse.

Coachella Festival 2009 review - Day 3


Time is a precious commodity at Coachella. There’s never enough of it to see everything you want. On Sunday, The Cure continued McCartney and The Killers’ trend of playing way past midnight and suffered mightily for it. The Cure’s power and lighting were eventually cut after a strange marathon show that catered almost exclusively to diehard followers (rarities were favored).

Robert Smith (pictured above, left) and Porl Thompson crafted many mesmerizing guitar soundscapes in the 32-song set (“From the End of the Deep Green Sea,” the careening “Hundred Years”), but the biggest cheers came from popular “Disintegration” material (“Lovesong,” “Pictures of You,” “Lullaby,” “Prayers for Rain,” “Disintegration”) and smattering of hits (“In Between Days,” “Just Like Heaven”). A reworked “Wrong Number” was a pleasant surprise. Smith said very little and smiled a few times. The crowd thinned out very early in the performance. Some people behind me got fed up and said they wanted to dance and apparently headed over to the Sahara Tent where Groove Armada and Etienne de Crecy played.

I don’t get all the fuss over My Bloody Valentine. The reunited Irish band tested the Coachella crowd’s tolerance level on the main stage with notoriously loud selections off “Loveless.” Epic (and I do mean epic – it lasted 10 to 15 minutes) white noise closer “You Made Me Realise” was akin to standing next to a Space Shuttle launch. Not fun or interesting to these ears. Sure, I liked many of the shoegazer acts they spawned in the early 1990s, but MBV wasn’t thrilling at all.

Veteran Paul Weller (pictured above, right) put on a killer sunset performance highlighted by, well, everything was ace: frantic “From the Floorboards Up,” “The Sinking,” Motown vibe in “22 Dreams” (title track from his latest double album), a fierce version of The Jam’s “Eton Rifles” and the extended, trippy psychedelia of “Porcelain Gods” and “The Changingman.” Weller appeared surprised to have less than an hour onstage. Yet the Brit rock legend dutifully wrapped with “C’mon, Let’s Go” another supercharged Jam gem, “A Town Called Malice,” featuring Johnny Marr on guitar. There was no need for Weller to have to be saddled with such a short set since Public Enemy followed more than an hour later. Coachella organizers probably didn’t want to saddle him with MBV’s ear bleeding noise drifting over.

Earlier in the day, England’s Friendly Fires lived up to the hype with fun Talking Heads-meets-New Order tunes like “Lovesick” and “Photo Booth” from last year's self-titled debut. Fans threw confetti into the air and shimmied right along.

The Gaslight Anthem
’s earnest punk songs added some coolness to a sweaty afternoon (especially “Backseat” and “The ’59 Sound”). Leader Brian Fallon tossed in some Tom Waits ("Downtown Train") and Ben E. King ("Stand By Me") lyrical references for good measure.

X bassist John Doe announced that fans had picked the setlist via the X website, but "there were a lot of slow ones; we're going to put in some fast ones too." The band, with ever-smiling guitarist Billy Zoom and caterwauling singer Exene, was solid as always. “Breathless,” “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline,” “Los Angeles” and “White Girl” still packing a classic punk wallop decades later. I really didn't want to leave them, but another band beckoned on another stage.

Coachella Festival 2009 review - Day 2


After reaching such a high on Friday, almost everything else at Coachella paled in comparison the next day. Still there were plenty of great moments to be seen and heard.

Norwegian spitfire Ida Maria was a revelation. A cross between PJ Harvey and Joan Jett, she launched the Gobi Tent and easily whipped the big crowd into a frenzy with sexually charged alt-rock tunes from her just released debut, “Fortress ‘Round My Heart.” For “Oh My God,” Maria engaged in a little primal scream therapy, while “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked” was trashy fun.

Former Husker Du/Sugar front man Bob Mould (pictured, above left) and his band attacked their fiery rock workouts with full-on energy, including a few from new album "Life and Times." Mould turned in intensely passionate versions of "See A Little Light" (from 1989's solo bow "Workbook") and Sugar’s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” Later, I saw him enjoying Superchunk's set on the Outdoor Theatre stage.

Who needs Amy Winehouse when you’ve got James Morrison? The immensely likeable young Brit (pictured, above right) played retro soul and modern pop music with panache. Complete with a small horn section and backing vocalists, the band nearly ripped the roof off the joint (er, Mojave Tent) and Morrison sang his heart out while playing acoustic guitar. “Save Yourself,” “Broken Strings,” “Precious Love,” “Nothing Ever Hurt Like You” (segued into Stevie Wonder's “Uptight”) and set closer “Wonderful World” with guest duet vocalist Joss Stone, left the most indelible marks.

Honorable mention: Band of Horses, The Killers, Jenny Lewis

Coachella Festival 2009 review - Day 1

The tenth Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival concluded over the weekend, bringing 130 acts to Empire Polo Field in Indio. I managed to see partial or complete sets by 33 of them. As always, the genres were diverse (rock, pop, alternative, indie rock, electronica, dance, hip-hop and beyond) and the weather was hot, though not as sweltering as previous years.

Despite drawing 160,000 people - the second largest audience ever – it wasn’t difficult to navigate between the five stages like in 2007 when Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bjork headlined.

Day 1 headliner Paul McCartney seemed to lure more families and a grayer breed of concertgoer, who were basically well-behaved. Surprisingly, black-clad Goths didn’t turn out en masse to witness Day 3 headliner The Cure like a few years back with Bauhaus.

A new filtered water program, where the purchase of a 22 oz. reusable plastic water squeeze bottle for $10 allowed free cold water refills, was designed to reduce disposable water bottle clutter. It appeared to be a success. Everywhere I looked, people had one. The downside? Only three refill locations. And fewer people took part in the 10 empties for 1 new water bottle exchange recycling effort.

Electronica fans had plenty of opportunities to get their groove on. The Crystal Method, Felix da Housecat, The Chemical Brothers, Groove Armada, Christopher Lawrence, Etienne de Crecy and others held court on various stages while The Do Lab (the demented gypsy water dancers who present a show every few hours) and massive Dome near the main entrance hosted more DJs.


Highly touted new Britpop band The Courteeners (pictured, above) opened the main Coachella Stage and drew a respectable crowd of early arrivals with their sublime, jangly and thoroughly enjoyable tunes, namely “That Kiss” and “Not 19 Forever.”

“Black is not the color to wear in this weather,” noted White Lies front man Harry McVeigh when the packed Mojave tent transformed into a sauna. Yet the young post-punk trio was anything but monochromatic during a thrilling afternoon set culled from debut album “To Lose My Life.” McVeigh gestured dramatically and turned in some robust vocals (ably assisted by bassist/songwriter Charles Cave). Expect big things in the future from this KROQ/106.7 FM fave.

Franz Ferdinand is usually a bundle of energy live. So when guitarist Nick McCarthy used crutches to hobble on stage, I thought their dusk set on the Coachella Stage might be subdued. Wiry singer Alex Kopranos more than made up for his comrade’s inactivity by pogoing and standing atop the drums at various points. Spirited versions of “Dark of the Matinee,” “Do You Want To,” “Take Me Out” and “Ulysses” stood out.

A sailor flexing his muscles provided the large backdrop to Morrissey’s show, which was equally strong, despite undetectable problems with his stage monitors. When the aroma from a nearby BBQ stand wafted in his direction, he responded as one would expect from a staunch vegetarian (remember “Meat is Murder”?): “I smell the stench of rotting flesh and I hope it’s human.” Knowing Moz’s history of barbed comments, I laughed. Others apparently took offense. Still, the band tore into “Irish Blood, English Heart,” “First of the Gang to Die” and new songs from “Years of Refusal” with a vengeance (“When Last I Spoke to Carol,” “Black Cloud”). Added bonus: a healthy dose of Smiths numbers (“Ask,” “This Charming Man,” “Some Girls are Bigger Than Others,” “Girlfriend in a Coma,” “How Soon is Now”) for just under an hour-long set. He rarely does that many in his longer headlining gigs. “Soon” had an extra pizzazz not seen on the last few tours. Eventually, Moz ripped off a shirt and tried to throw it beyond the massive barrier, but it fell in the photo pit. He might have been moody and sick (the following night in Oakland was cancelled), but it didn't derail things at all.

Where to begin with Paul McCartney? Many people said his performance was worth the hefty three-day ticket price and if I had paid it, I’d have to agree. Let’s look at the numbers: 35 songs. 21 from the Beatles (8 came in the three encores alone). Nearly 2:45 stage time. 50 minutes past the midnight curfew (the city of Indio is supposed to levy a $1,000/minute fine; we’ll see if that happens). Macca was in fine voice throughout and was like the energizer bunny. Opening with Wings’ “Jet” and closing with the Beatles’ “The End,” the man just never tired out. It was all effortless. Amazing, considering he’s 66. It helps to have a crackin’ band like guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray, drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. and keyboardist Wix, all of whom contributed backing vocals.

Macca dedicated Wings’ “My Love” to late wife Linda (Friday was the 11th anniversary of her death), “Here Today” to John Lennon and “Something” to George Harrison. As on previous tours, he played “Something” on ukulele, which Harrison had taught him all those years ago. Harrison’s widow Olivia was in the audience (her son Dhani debuted his iffy band The New No. 2 in the Mojave Tent on Saturday). A couple selections from 2008's Fireman album worked well live, especially “Sing the Changes.” Elsewhere, “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Only Mama Knows” and “Let Me Roll It” rocked; “The Long and Winding Road,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Let it Be” provided just the right amount of drama. “Live and Let Die” was bolstered by pyrotechnics and main set closer/sing along “Hey Jude” sent chills down the spine.

Honorable mention: We Are Scientists, Dear and the Headlights

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Coachella 2009: About the artists

A truncated version of these bios appears at Go to the site for info on all the acts appearing at the festival.

Friday, April 17

When Coachella organizers persuaded the former Beatle to make his first American festival appearance ever (!) in Indio, purists griped about the credibility factor. Although Sir Paul, 66, is the oldest one on the bill, anyone who has caught his top-notch live band this decade (especially guitarist Rusty Anderson) can attest to their sharp renditions of Fab Four and Wings tunes. Electric Arguments, McCartney’s freewheeling third collaboration with Youth as The Fireman, trades previous instrumental ambient dance textures for weird psych-folk, blues, experimental and Middle Eastern-tinged songs containing actual vocals. With a little luck, Indio concertgoers will hear the eclectic Fireman material and marvel how the legendary Liverpudlian can still hit some of those high notes 40 years later.

Q: Besides Morrissey, which acts at the festival also did the first one in 1999? (See answer below) Years of Refusal finds Mr. Misery, longtime axe man Boz Boorer and company rocking with more urgency than ever - especially “Something is Squeezing My Skull” and “Black Cloud,” where 1960s guitar god Jeff Beck flashes that old brilliance. There are even some mariachi flourishes, which should please the large Latino fan base. Not long ago, Moz reportedly turned down millions to reform the Smiths in Indio. Old school enthusiasts can usually take solace in hearing a few classics from that revered ‘80s group in concert. Depending on which way the wind blows, he could rip off a shirt or two and press flesh down front. Don’t count on getting onstage for a hug though. [A: Chemical Brothers, Perry Farrell]

During the slinky “Ulysses,” Alex Kapranos sings “come on, let’s get high.” Weed smoke will probably be wafting around Empire Polo Field come nightfall, but who needs illicit substances when these dashing Scotsmen are around to provide a euphoric high? Tonight, a sorta-concept album about a debauched night out and the morning after, emphasizes synths and danceable beats (epic “Lucid Dreams” uses an old skeleton for percussion). Kapranos’ lyrics are saucy as ever. They should mesh fine live with adrenaline-fueled alternative radio staples like “Take Me Out,” “This Fire,” “Do You Want To.”

He’s been tagged “the new Bob Dylan” and with good reason: armed with just an acoustic guitar, tremulous voice and unique confessional songs, Oberst can be as powerful in his solo Bright Eyes guise as any rock band (search YouTube for the ’05 Jay Leno performance of “When the President Talks to God” or check out the 2006 Coachella DVD for perfect examples). Highly prolific, it can be a chore keeping up with all the Nebraska singer/songwriter’s side projects and collaborations. Latest effort Conor Oberst is a relaxed batch of supremely satisfying alt-country numbers recorded in Mexico (download the frantic folk number, “I Don’t Want to Die in the Hospital”). Another new album is due next month.

Hard times are prime source material for country tunes. When you’ve actually lived through them, the music is even more effective. Ryan Bingham - who fills the Coachella crossover slot previously held by Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam – was raised in small Texas towns on the Mexico border. He spent several years on the bull riding rodeo circuit and broke multiple bones. On Mescalito, Bingham sings about pawnshops, truck stops, putting up with a drunken father and working for peanuts in a gravelly voice that’s a cross between Mellencamp and Earle. Feisty slide-guitar stomper “Bread and Water,” swampy “Sunshine” and “Boracho Station” (partially sung in Spanish) equal one potent Americana brew.

The seeds of We Are Scientists were sown at Pomona College. Vocalist Keith Murray and bassist Chris Cain became friends there, started the band in the Bay Area and settled in Brooklyn. Humor is intrinsic to everything they do (insane interviews, the joke-filled website, sardonic onstage banter). With Love and Squalor’s frantic alt-rock tunes about drunken revelry and insecurities spawned three top 40 singles and gold sales in England. The duo adds more Britpop and new wave touches on equally enticing sophomore effort Brain Thrust Mastery.

White Lies’ intense tunes tend to provoke extreme reactions among fans. Some burst into tears and compare the band’s gigs to a religious experience. No surprise there: dark song topics on the excellent To Lose My Life run the gamut from doomed lovers, murder and funeral breakdowns to hostage dramas and Electro-Shock Therapy. The fresh scrubbed West London trio ties everything together with buoyant New Romantic and angular post-punk sounds.

A tall twentysomething singer with a mod haircut and supreme swagger fronts a Manchester, U.K. five-piece and slags off fellow up-and-comers by boasting they’re the best band in the world. We’re not talking about Liam Gallagher of Oasis circa 1994, but Liam Fray of The Courteeners. Fortunately, he puts his money where his mouth is on spirited debut St. Jude (the cool cover sports Fray’s painting of actress Audrey Hepburn). Chiming guitars and sing along choruses recall Britpop’s finest (the Kinks, the Jam, the Smiths). Bono and Morrissey have given their stamp of approval. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Saturday, April 18

Not just another pretty boy musician from across the pond, this young raspy-voiced vocalist has impressive chops. Influenced by Otis Redding, Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder, his brand of blue-eyed soul bears traces of Motown and ‘70s singer/songwriter fare (the good stuff). Undiscovered was a U.K. No. 1 and earned a Brit Award. Last year’s stellar Songs for You, Truths for Me made a bigger impact on these shores, thanks to the sultry retro swing of “Nothing Ever Hurt Like You” and “Broken Strings,” a hit duet with Nelly Furtado.

A gorgeous moonlit ocean image on the cover of 2007’s Cease to Begin fit the cascading indie rock/Americana sounds inside perfectly. Small travel art prints replaced band photos and lyrics, providing a certain mystique. Ben Bridwell might look like a lumberjack (long scraggly hair and beard; flannel shirts), but the dude has a marvelous crystalline voice bathed in echo effects. The Seattle-bred group backs him up with dreamy shoegazer-styled soundscapes and concise Neil Young & Crazy Horse guitar excursions. It all adds up to a cosmic experience tailor made for the desert.

Musician/activist/filmmaker Michael Franti and Spearhead have spread unity through song since the mid-1990s (you might recall his brief stint in political outfit Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy). The African-American vocalist’s socially conscious brand of hip-hop, soul and rock is always thought-provoking and inspirational. A 2004 busking journey through war zones in Iraq, Palestine and Israel led to the documentary “I Know I’m Not Alone” and acclaimed album Yell Fire! Last year’s All Rebel Rockers delves into positive reggae and dancehall vibes with renowned producers Sly & Robbie. Expand your mind and set your soul free with the guy Serj from System of a Down calls a “modern minstrel weaving stories of war and occupation into his heart of peace, giving us hope, not just tears.”

Recently, I watched an episode from Season 2 of “The O.C” where The Killers perform at Bait Shop. Maybe it was poor editing, but Brandon Flowers was tentative and dull back in 2004. What a difference a few years makes. The singer now reigns as one of modern rock’s most charismatic showmen in concert. While the panoramic heartland rock on Sam’s Town didn’t dazzle as much as the glitzy new wave of Hot Fuss, the Vegas contingent is back on track with Day & Age. Have to admit though: hip Hunter S. Thompson reference or not, the “are we human or are we dancer” lyric in “Human” is really lame.

Sunday, April 19

One sure sign you’ve made the big time: a major rap star samples your song and talks it up in interviews. Such was the case with Peter Bjorn and John, who formed a decade ago, but didn’t find international success until the lo-fi indie rock of 2006CD Writer’s Block finally connected on a wide scale. The insanely catchy “Young Folks” (unofficially known as “that whistling song”) was ubiquitous on TV and movie soundtracks. Then Kanye West used the track on his Can’t Tell Me Nothing mix tape. For Living Thing, the Stockholm trio divvied up lead vocal duties and downplayed guitars in favor of South American and African rhythms, a children’s choir and sporting chants.

Paul Weller doesn’t suffer fools gladly. When asked whether the Jam would reform, he once said “my family would have to be fucking hopeless and starving in the gutter before I’d consider doing that.” The successful trio was a seminal part of the ‘70s U.K. punk movement with working class songs and Mod anthems (“Eton Rifles,” “Going Underground.” “Start,” “Town Called Malice”) that inspired countless musicians (Oasis, Blur, Artic Monkeys). An Eighties detour into jazz/pop with Style Council led to Weller’s lone American hit (“My Ever Changing Moods”). Weller’s cool factor increased in the following decades with a steady, solid run of albums characterized by soulful rock, psychedelia and prog/folk. 22 Dreams, a sprawling and ambitious 70-minute opus, finds him zig zagging between Krautrock, Philly soul, spoken word, piano ballads and more. It begs to be heard on old-fashioned headphones.

Robert Smith turns 50 next week and looks ridiculous sporting the same teased rat’s nest hairdo, smeared red lipstick and black frock onstage. Regardless, the Cure have treated SoCal to plenty of memorable concerts since the early ‘80s. Regular Coachella attendees still rave about the British goth rockers’ transcendent 2004 closing night set. I recall the mesmerizing 1997 KROQ Weenie Roast gig at Irvine Meadows, when they played nearly three hours and ended at 2 a.m. Smith’s wailing is creepy as ever and the underrated guitarist frequently astonishes with psychedelic runs. Porl Thompson’s return helped make 2008’s 4:13 Dream the strongest Cure album since Wild Mood Swings. Set lists usually span the group’s entire 30-year catalog, so this could be another one for the books.

Talk about wearing influences on your tattooed sleeve. This New Jersey punk band doesn’t hide the fact it worships The Boss. Scrappy front man Brian Fallon says “when I was a little kid listening to Springsteen, I remember thinking these aren’t songs, these are gigantic rides you went on and if I could even attempt to do that it would be excellent.” Rousing album The ’59 Sound succeeds with earnest tracks about facing adulthood and ample references to cars, girls, the open road, etc. Miles Davis and Tom Petty are name checked; astute listeners might spot nods to Counting Crows and Bob Seger.

Coachella 2009: Glasvegas interview

performing Saturday 4/18, Mojave Tent

For Glasvegas mastermind James Allan, music is all about authenticity. He sings in a natural Scottish accent, writes about working class concerns and reveres old time rock ‘n’ roll. The Glasgow group’s self-titled debut on Columbia Records has been all the rage in Europe and Rodney on the Roq (KROQ-FM/Los Angeles) has been playing it on air for months. “Something good happens to this band every day,” admits lead guitarist (and James’ cousin) Rab Allan. I talked with Rab (pictured, far right) earlier this month after a sound check at a Chicago nightclub.

The current tour has been going for a couple weeks now. How have things been going with the American crowds?
It’s been pretty bizarre. We go to venues in America and you don’t expect much and every night you’re surprised because of 7 or 800 people singing all the words back. It’s been incredible. There’s not one city that we’ve been to that hasn’t been good.

The crowds are mad for it.
Unbelievable. So much more than what we expected.

What are your thoughts on playing Coachella?
When we were doing the festivals last year, Coachella was the one that I wanted to do, but it just never happened for whatever reason. So this year, when we were thinking about it, I said ‘this is the one that I want to do.’ In Britain, Coachella is known as one of the best festivals in the world. They always get the best bands back together. It seems really exciting. That’s the one for me this year that I’m most excited about.

Are you going to make a point to check out particular bands while you’re there?
We just had a girl on tour with us from Norway – Ida Maria. Friendly Fires as well (on Day 3). We toured with them too. I like Brandon Flowers [of The Killers]. He’s always well dressed. I touched his tiger last time I saw him. He had a tiger on his jacket and I was rubbing it [while meeting backstage at a show]. I think he thought I wanted to have a romance with him [laughs]. I like The Killers. I would probably see them. I think I’m hanging about with some people from the record company for a couple days and see some bands. Think everyone else is leaving, but some other people I’m staying with.

Do you find Glasvegas’ sound works equally well in the large outdoor gigs as it does in small clubs?
I think last year we were really unprepared and terrible. That was purely lack of experience and we didn’t know what to expect. I think this time around, we’re probably more experienced as a band and we know what we’re going into. To be honest [at some festivals it’s a bit like a] cattle market. Every band gets thrown onstage then dragged back off. It’s so quick; you don’t get any saturation or anything. I think if you go into it looking at it like that, you won’t be too disappointed. The most important thing is that everyone at the front enjoys it.

Now that the album has been out for awhile, are you satisfied with how it turned out overall?
Of course. It was one of those things – we had the sound and all the ideas, but there was no thing that was definitely going to come out of it. To be honest, I think it was luck because we were pretty inexperienced in doing that kind of thing. We’d never done an album before. On the next album, we’ll know a lot more and that will be exciting. But with the first thing, it’s as good as it could’ve been and I’m damn proud of it.

Was it a goal from the start to have that dense, orchestrated sound or did the songs just evolve that way?
That was definite. It was probably one of the only things we actually did want. We did say from the start that we wanted it to be orchestral. We wanted it so [it seemed like] I was playing 100 guitars instead of one. And because Caroline’s uses two drums, we wanted it to be like a timpani. And Paul’s bass to be the bottom end. That’s one of the things we did set out for. I hope it comes across like that. I really do.

In recent years, more bands have turned up the reverb. Is that a good thing?
Probably. The reason we use reverb is because we’re terrible musicians and it covers up all the mistakes [laughs]. I think if you’re honest about it, maybe shyness was a part of it as well. We definitely didn’t set out to sound they way we do specifically. It was one of those things that just worked out like that. Now we love all those sounds. We love the reverb and delay. Even when we go into radio sessions, we need to have reverb. If I’m setting in someone’s house, gotta have reverb. You can’t just play guitar unless you have it.

Almost like an addiction or something.
I told James it’s an addition. You’re absolutely right.

Do you share James’ affinity for 1950s and 60s girl group pop, rockabilly and Elvis?
Do you know what? It’s quite strange. The four of us, before we were in a band, we used to hang out at Caroline’s house and listen to that kind of music because no one in Glasgow played it. She had an old record player and we used to put on old vinyl and listen to it. We were all friends and James started writing songs. So that’s kind of how the band started.

Moving forward a few decades, you’ve been compared to fellow countrymen JAMC a lot. But you guys weren’t really familiar with their music before Glasvegas, correct?
That’s right, yeah. One of our first gigs, Alan McGee came to see us and we became friends with him. He said, ‘you remind me of the Jesus and Mary Chain.’ I’d heard of the band but hadn’t heard them. By the point Alan saw us, we’d developed a sound a little bit and getting close to where we are now. But people can’t believe we hadn’t heard them before, but it’s just one of those things. It’s a funny thing – in Glasgow people are always proud of certain bands and cultural things. Some cities like Manchester are really proud of Oasis and Happy Mondays. Glasgow’s not really like that, so it’s not in your face as much.

Glasvegas comes from the rough side of town. Why do you think other bands from there haven’t had much success?
It’s very working class, whereas the other side of town there’s an art school and universities. It’s more middle class than the area we come from. Everyone works in a factory or shop. Really basic. Everyone that lives in the area we come from, there’s generations [have lived there]. To be honest, I don’t know any other bands. The only one that comes from close to where we are is the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. He was just crazy. It’s quite strange for us to come from there and do what we do.

James had said he knew he wanted to be a musician after seeing Oasis on TV. Was there a similar turning point for you?
It’s funny; it was actually Oasis as well. I was watching “Top of the Pops” in 1996 or 97. They were doing “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” At that point I wasn’t really too into music but I heard that song and for some reason, I was playing the computer console and I stopped to watch the TV. I thought ‘wow. They look like they’re having fun.’ Maybe I was like 12-13 at the time. After that I got a guitar. My mom and James’ mom are twin sisters so we were always pretty close, like a brother. James found I was learning the guitar, I found out he was, so we learned it together. Me and James messed about quite a few years before starting to do anything serious.

When you first started hearing James’ song lyrics, were you amazed at well he captured the working class vibe of your neighborhood?
Totally. I think I was more surprised than he was. James isn’t the kind of person who writes a song and says, ‘I’ve just written an amazing song.’ He writes the song, plays it for the band and says, ‘what do you think?’ We’ll say, ‘that’s amazing’ and he’ll say, ‘are you sure?’ “Flowers and Football Tops” was one of the first songs he ever wrote. When he brought that to us, I was blown away. He didn’t even think it was good enough to play. And “Daddy’s Gone,” he wasn’t very sure about that and what happened was we did a radio session in Inverness and Alan McGee came along. He started crying because he’d never heard the song before. So we knew that was something quite special. When James wrote “It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry,” that’s when I knew we’d get a record deal. The demo - James had recorded it in the house with other parts. Me and Paul sat in our car listening to it and we just knew. The hairs in the back of your neck stood up. James is confident at what he does but at that point he was still unsure at how good he actually was. There’s so many songs he’s written that no one’s heard. It’s just crazy.

The fact he sings in a natural accent adds to the band’s realism.
It’s funny. He always did that. I remember the first day he sang through a PA system with a microphone and it came out Scottish. We hired a rehearsal room with equipment and the person who owned it said, ‘why are you singing like that?’ We were in Glasgow and he thought, ‘why not sing in a Scottish accent. That’s natural.’

How has the band taken all the media attention and success back home?
I think if you believe all that stuff, you would go crazy. And that goes for the good and the bad. That’s not to say I don’t like hearing I’m in the best band from Scotland in 20 years. That’s nice, but it’s just one of those things. To be honest, something good happens to this band every day. So you don’t reflect on things too often. I remember before I was in the band I thought, ‘I wish I was on the cover of NME.’ Then the day I was on the cover of NME, I was more interested in getting a sausage. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, when good things happen, but you roll with it.

What is it like having your cousin as the singer and other cousin as manager?
Me and James fight the most out of everyone, but not over personal things…to be honest, I couldn’t imagine not being in a band with him now. Even with Denise managing, there’s just a total understanding and a respect there as well. Even Paul and Caroline are like family now as well. It’s like having another brother and sister.

Since Caroline used to work in a clothes shop, does she ever give you guys fashion advice?
You know the black biker jacket James has? He actually got that from the shop when she was still working there. That’s actually how we met Caroline. She used to try and dress James up. It didn’t work out too well. I think she should concentrate on how she dresses, but she dresses lovely! Very pretty.

In 2007, the band played four Scottish prisons. What was that experience like?
It was pretty real. By that point we had done a few gigs but those gigs are really gritty. You’d go in the gym hall and see prisoners dressed in overalls, drinking orange juice from plastic cups and eating packet of crisps. If they didn’t like you, you’d know it. They would make it obvious. At one of the prisons in Edinburgh, they were throwing pill bottles at us. And the guards were just standing there laughing. It was quite an experience and I’d definitely like to that again. A tour of Britain of a few different prisons. I think music can be good for people.

Last year, you recorded the Christmas EP in a Transylvanian cathedral. Whose idea was that?
It was James. I’ve asked him why and he doesn’t know. His mom used to dress him up as a vampire at Halloween and put a black bin bag over his head. I think that’s maybe one of the reasons why. It was such a surreal experience to actually be there. The place isn’t long out of Communism and is still trying to catch up with the rest of Europe. It was so basic, all the equipment we used to record. We basically build the studio on our own and spent maybe 4-5 days there. I think the full mini-album took 8 days. We had 10 songs – a full album to do – but couldn’t actually finish it because of all the touring. We only managed the six songs.

I really dig your Korgis cover of “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” on the U.S. version of the debut.
That band was incredible. It’s funny, before we were in the band, James always used to play that one. It was a song we always used to mess about with, maybe while rehearsing. What happened was we were doing the album and needed some B-sides for the singles in Britain. So we spent a day in the studio. We actually [planned] to do Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared.” For some reason, James at the very last minute, said ‘no, we’re going to do this song.’ And we hadn’t learned it properly. It turned out incredible for being done in one day. It came out really qu9ckly and sounds incredible. I think we’re going to start playing it live. Beck did an acoustic cover of it once for a movie.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

High retail prices

It's no wonder music retail outlets have been closing left and right in recent years. Sure, downloading music is a big part of sagging sales. But high CD prices also play a role. I was in Borders last week because I had a CD/DVD coupon. Not only was the selection pathetic, but some of the list prices were laughable. $18 for Bruce Springsteen's latest?? I also saw 12 CD copies of some "American Idol" also-ran taking up unneeded shelf space. Sometimes, when I need a catalog title for an act I'm covering, I'll run into Best Buy. That store has taken WalMart's idiotic lead in reducing CD shelf space, so I rarely find what I'm looking for. At least Best Buy doesn't devote half their space to Latino music (nothing against the genre; I think rock, country, pop, etc. should all should be equally represented).

Everyone should patronize Record Store Day on April 18, where most independent music retail stores will be giving away promos and offering exclusive releases. Wish I could, but that's Day 2 of the Coachella Festival.

American Idol

Although I'm a few days late, I thought I'd still weigh in on last Tuesday's performance show.

I thought Megan's trilling vocals were excruciating on that Bob Marley tune and she needed to leave. I don't think Simon was particularly callous in saying, "you said you don't care and neither do we" about not instituting the judges' save.

Danny was nearly unbearable on the overwrought Rascal Flatts song (why the band is popular is beyond me). And Allison's taking on No Doubt was like nails against a chalkboard. I'm all for rockin' women with attitude to spare like Tina Turner, but I'm sorry, the teenager just doesn't have it. Lately, I've dug everything Adam does, but Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music" didn't seem to have his usual spark. Judge Kara must've been embarassed after saying Adam's song was "just like being at Studio 57." She meant '54.' Doh! If you watched closely, I think Simon corrected her off camera.

On the upside, Matt's upbeat take on The Fray wasn't as bad as the judges thought. Kris was amazing on Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" (for the record, it came out in 1971, not 1979 as Paula inferred on the show. It amazes me when the judges make gaffes like that, especially Randy, who has quite a resume. Finally, Scott doing Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" was perfect.