Monday, November 23, 2009

American Music Awards

Bravo to Adam Lambert for pushing the envelope with his sexually-charged performance of "For Your Entertainment" last night on the American Music Awards.

Although he was relegated to the final slot at around 10:50 p.m. PST, there was still plenty of impact as ABC reportedly received more than 1,500 complaints from viewers. Lambert said he was trying to shatter the double standard regarding male TV performances. I agree - there definitely is one. It's ok for females to be racy and often hint at lesbian dance moves during routines, but a man does the same with gay moves and there's an outcry. Get with the times, people!

Of course the controversy bodes well for his new album released today. It is assured to debut in the top 5 ( has had it atop pre-orders for more than a month) on the Billboard 200 chart next week.

Most of the rest of the show was a snooze (except for Keith Urban and Green Day's lively turns). As for the awards themselves - I don't put much merit behind them, being based on album sales, charts and public voting.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Duran Duran live DVD review

Duran Duran
Hammersmith Live ’82!

By the time Duran Duran played three nights at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in December ‘82, the young New Romantic band had already made it big at home, where two albums and a half dozen singles reached the top 10.

Here in America, the following year would be a big one for the Fab Five, ushering in a second British Invasion. This short, previously unreleased concert (just 55-minutes) from the Rio tour provides a fun glimpse into the early hysteria. Teenage female fans shriek so loudly they nearly drown out exuberant vocalist Simon Le Bon, who looks as if he’s leading an aerobics class on “Planet Earth.” The setlist is evenly divided between the two albums, while the musicians’ performances are satisfactory.

Although the era’s technological limitations should be taken into account, the DVD and accompanying live CD contain sound mixes that are muddy in spots; the picture is shadowy. Both could’ve been cleaned up better. The booklet reproduces the world tour program itinerary and pages devoted to band members citing their favorite films, books and food.

Bonus DVD material includes six Rio-era music videos including genre classics like the title track, “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Save a Prayer” and R-rated “The Chauffeur.” There’s also a pair of seldom seen BBC TV clips from “Top of the Pops,” which diehard enthusiasts will relish.

(Side note: the label concurrently put out a fine deluxe reissue of Rio in mini-hardback book form, featuring rare demos, B-sides and remixes.)

The Killers DVD review

The Killers
Live from the Royal Albert Hall
Grade: A

Unlike some singers, Brandon Flowers wasn’t an impressive frontman from the start. When the Killers emerged with the new wave-leaning Hot Fuss in 2004, he came across as endearingly awkward onstage. Once the Vegas alt-rock band’s albums started going platinum around the world and they headlined larger gigs, Flowers became more of a showman. That was evident during recent tours for latest album Day & Age.

The same holds true on Live from the Royal Albert Hall, the Killers’ first live DVD/Blu-ray filmed in HD last July at the famous indoor English venue. The audience is - as they say in old Blighty – “mad for it.” They are as much a part of the show as the group itself.

Frequently shifting from color to black and white shots, the nearly two hour set includes most of Day & Age and touches upon the other Killers efforts (the cover of Joy Division’s “Shadowplay” and images from the film “Control” are riveting). Another highlight is the stripped down take on “Sam’s Town” with Flowers on piano. Later, guitarist Dave Keuning roams the stage and strikes a Rock God pose on “When You Were Young.”

Among the special features are a behind the scenes documentary (mostly observations from fans and crew), performances from various 2009 U.K. festivals (“Human,” “Mr. Brightside,” “Smile Like You Mean It,” “When You Were Young,” “Tranquilize”) and alternate camera angles. The deluxe version contains a 75-minute live CD.

Dead By Sunrise album review

Dead By Sunrise
Out of Ashes
(Warner Bros.)

Musical catharsis can result in really powerful songs. Out of Ashes, the debut from Dead By Sunrise, is a prime example. The band finds Chester Bennington working alongside Julien-K and Orgy members, in what was originally conceived as a solo album while he on hiatus from Linkin Park in 2005. The group’s moniker refers to a period when Bennington was so wasted that surviving to see another day was uncertain. Unlike Linkin Park, there are no hip-hop influences. Instead, Dead By Sunrise mixes electronic (four musicians handle synthesizer/programming), grunge and alternative elements with melodic vocal layering and harmonies.

While producer Howard Benson tends to make modern rock bands sound generic, the music here is compelling enough to make these guys stand out. Bennington’s lyrics revolve around battling personal demons and finding a way to make it to the other side.

On harrowing first single “Crawl Back In,” he wails about the effects of drug and alcohol addiction, sings to crunching guitars about “voices inside my head/why wont they leave me alone.” Fast-paced “My Suffering,” with skittering sounds, is also about dependency and Bennington lets out in a primal scream at the end.

Not everything is bleak though. Acoustic guitar-based “Into You” has a dreamy sexiness, “Walking in Circles” concerns an apathetic society and boasts a quiet ambience with lush keyboards. Then there’s the marital bliss of “Give Me Your Name,” featuring an uplifting chorus and weepy guitar sound a la Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”

R.E.M. album review

Live at the Olympia
(Warner Bros.)

Flying without a net in concert is a scary proposition, even for a band that’s been together nearly 30 years. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck called their working rehearsals in Ireland, where songs for 2008’s Accelerate initially got tested out, “an experiment in terror.” Barring a few minor flubs, you can’t really tell from this engaging two disc, 39-song collection.

Culled from a week-long run at Dublin’s Olympia Theater in July 2007 (the deluxe edition appends an hour-long concert film), early releases from the group’s first five years (Chronic Town, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction) receive the bulk of attention amid entirely different sets.

Affable singer Michael Stipe tells a few stories, converses with the audience and reminds them that “this is not really a show” (as a taped message repeated at the start). It’s interesting to hear how tunes from Accelerate - the veteran Georgia band’s strongest in over a decade – evolved from stage to studio.

Hit single “Supernatural Superserious,” for example, is heard in an early version sans Mike Mills’ bright harmonies, under the title “Disguised.” Two other impressive unreleased numbers (“On the Fly,” “Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance”) are included, but didn’t make the final studio cut. Filled with standouts such as “Cuyahoga,” “Pretty Persuasion,” “Electrolite,” “Disturbance at the Heron House,” “Driver 8” and the rarely played “Circus Envy,” this is a must buy for all R.E.M. fans.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Third Eye Blind concert review

A version of my review originally appeared in the Orange County Register Soundcheck blog. Photo above, taken at the Hollywood Palladium in July 2009, courtesy of

When Third Eye Blind reached the halfway point of its 95-minute set Sunday night at the Grove of Anaheim, frontman Stephan Jenkins urged the urged the crowd to embrace togetherness and “make friends with someone before you leave.” Bohemian sentiments are apparently still ingrained in the San Francisco singer and guitarist.

During the late ’90s, the Bay Area band was ubiquitous on MTV and alt-rock radio (especially KROQ, one of the first stations in America to lend support). “Semi-Charmed Life,” 3EB’s extremely catchy song about sex and recreational drugs, topped that format’s chart, crossed over to mainstream pop stations and became one of the most played songs of 1997.

The quartet’s self-titled debut album wound up becoming a juggernaut, spawning five smash singles and going six times platinum. Major tour stints (for U2, the Rolling Stones) as well as Jenkins’ dalliance with film (Rock Star, featuring Mark Wahlberg) and high-profile dating of actresses (notably Charlize Theron) ensued.

The group’s follow-up, Blue, wasn’t quite as successful, but it did notch three more Top 20 modern-rock chart hits and eventually crossed the million-seller mark.

A few months ago, Third Eye Blind returned with Ursa Major, its first full-length studio effort in six years, which entered the Billboard albums chart at No. 3. Jenkins produced the socially-conscious-leaning collection, where he occasionally shows that his knack for crafting memorable hooks hasn’t dissipated.

Has that revived their popularity? Well, the Grove was about three-quarters full Sunday — and the gig got off to an incredibly weird start.

Incense burned near the front of the stage as drummer Brad Hargreaves (he and Jenkins are the only original members now) emerged in shadows to trigger a techno-styled rhythm. Then the group’s female tour keyboardist climbed on top of the speakers, glow sticks covering her body, and did a dance that seemed to last an eternity. I felt like I’d walked into the wrong venue and was watching the Prodigy instead.

Continuing in the dance-rock vein, the group opened on a disjointed note with “Can You Take Me,” one of seven selections from Ursa. All five musicians were shrouded in dim light and both screens at the side of the stage were shut off. Concert-goers seated in the Grove’s last two section tiers must have been mighty irritated.

Third Eye Blind took a while to find its footing. Jenkins’ initial aloofness (he didn’t say a word until a half-dozen songs in) combined with having everyone hidden in the dark like some goth band for 20 minutes didn’t help matters. Everything finally clicked with another new one (the moody “Sharp Knife”) and the giddy “Never Let You Go,” where lead guitarist Tony Fredianelli’s careening effects prompted audience howls and a loud singalong.

Although it was the end of a seven-week tour, Jenkins, 45, didn’t seem too worse for wear. Playing acoustic guitar, the frontman was a riveting presence on “Motorcycle Drive By,” which built to a U2-style crescendo. Many of the Ursa songs benefited from brawnier arrangements live, especially the soaring “Bonfire” and the folk/rap track “Water Landing,” bolstered by ebullient harmonies. “Jumper” was pure energy, yet the spirituality in “Dao of St. Paul” came off a bit heavy-handed.

A seated guitar solo by Fredianelli was unnecessary; at least Hargreaves’ drum break was an extension of a shorter one in the raucous “Graduate.” Awkward techno strains came back during a reworked “Monotov’s Private Opera,” where Jenkins was covered in glow sticks and tossed them out (again, very weird).

For the encores, Third Eye Blind brought the house down with the strident rocker “Crystal Baller.” Jenkins excelled with some rapid-fire wordplay on the jittery new single “Don’t Believe a Word,” where he referenced Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” amid these peacenik lines: “Rap stars brag about shooting each other/ Whatever happened to ‘brother brother.’”

Finally, an extended “Semi-Charmed Life” was ragged and grungier than usual. Fans sang along at top volume and a seemingly gracious Jenkins told them, “You remind us of who we are.” I’ll bet a lot of people felt all warm and fuzzy inside upon exiting.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Raveonettes interview

(Photo courtesy and Nylon)

My interview originally appeared in IE Weekly. The Raveonettes play at the Glass House in Pomona on Saturday.

The Raveonettes worship at the musical altar of early 1960s girl group pop and Eighties white noise merchant Jesus & Mary Chain, but some people might be surprised to find they also revere a seminal punk group from the decade in between.

“The Ramones are definitely one of my favorite bands of all time,” says guitarist/singer/songwriter Sune Rose Wagner, in a phone interview from Seattle.

On fourth full-length album In and Out of Control, the Danish alt-rock duo name checks Joey and company, as well as “Rockaway Beach” during the noisy track “Gone Forever.”

“It just has that New York vibe to it that the Ramones always did really well. That’s why I mention them in the song itself.” Although Wagner resides in Gotham (vocalist/bassist Sharrin Foo lives in L.A.) and new song “Suicide” references both the Brooklyn Bridge and East River, the locale wasn’t a major influence.

“I get inspired by anywhere in the world, really. I travel all the time. I’m not in New York that often.” For last year’s spooky, droning Lust Lust Lust, The Raveonettes took the D.I.Y. route. It was the pair’s first release on indie label Vice Records and sold more than their Columbia Records output combined.

Predecessor Pretty in Black should’ve found success here. Featuring a spot on cover of The Angels’ 1961 classic “My Boyfriend’s Back,” plus guest appearances by Velvet Underground drummer Mo Tucker, Ronnie Spector and Suicide’s Martin Rev, it added to the Raveonettes’ large cult following, but drew mostly scornful reviews.

Wagner makes no apologies for spiffing up the band’s reverb-heavy sonic template for massive consumption in ‘05. “I have no regrets about any of the albums. They’re all brilliant. I have no favorites…they all work in [their own ways].”

Creating Control involved a trip back to Copenhagen to hook up with producer/songwriter and “old friend” Thomas Troelsen (DFA, Junior Senior), who was “really good at getting us out of our comfort zone,” explains Wagner. “We tried to experiment and sing a little more.”

Yet the process was a struggle because the musicians had no clue which direction to take while Troelsen insisted on short work days and weekends off. They ended up treating each song individually instead of seeking a common thread for the album.

Hardcore fans got an early listen to a few demos posted to Twitter. Wagner says the experiment went “really well. It wasn’t like we asked for help or anything. We just threw them on there so people could hear where we were in the process – to sort of give them a ‘heads up’ where we were going.”

Among the picks to click are blissful opener “Bang!,” the spiraling warped humor of “Breaking Into Cars” and the fatalistic, yet soothing first single “Last Dance” (one of two selections about drug addiction; it deserves heavy rotation at modern rock radio).

Then there’s the aforementioned Shangri-La’s-styled “Suicide,” where Foo’s breathy vocals surround hard-hitting couplets. Wagner calls the lyrics some of the Raveonettes’ harshest, most evil to date. They’re “about rape, violence, lost love, suicide, not giving a shit about what other people think of you and most importantly – being mad and angelic.”

He tends to hang around people with messed up lives. “I just wrote about my friends instead of myself this time around. It felt good doing that [for a change], actually.”

The current tour features The Raveonettes as a four-piece onstage. Wagner and Foo are mulling over an acoustic live jaunt upon returning to America in 2010.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Upland Music and Arts Festival

The first Upland Music & Arts Festival should be one of the most happening places in the IE this weekend. Soul Asylum headlines the second of three days. The scrappy alt-rock band emerged from the same fertile Minneapolis punk scene that spawned Husker Du and The Replacements in the early 1980s, but toiled for nearly a decade on various labels before finally hitting pay dirt with 1992’s sleek Grave Dancer’s Union.

That disc went double platinum on the strength of folk/pop-leaning single “Runaway Train” (#5 on Billboard’s Hot 100) and a popular MTV video spotlighting missing teens (you might recall a fourth season episode of “The Office,” where one character warbled the tune on a locomotive).

Soul Asylum eventually snagged a Grammy for the tune, played the Bill Clinton inaugural ball, notched a dozen top 30 songs on the Modern Rock charts (“Somebody to Shove,” “Black Gold,” “Misery”) throughout the ‘90s and contributed music to several Kevin Smith flicks. Raspy singer Dave Pirner briefly became a tabloid magnet while dating Winona Ryder (he made a cameo in “Reality Bites”). After a lengthy absence, the group reappeared with 2006’s solid The Silver Lining, featuring ex-‘Mats bassist Tommy Stinson filling in for Karl Mueller, who died of cancer during recording.

Dozens of rock, blues, jazz acts will also perform on seven stages throughout the downtown area. Among those not to miss: the whimsical synth-popsters hellogoodbye (Friday); Colbie Caillat songwriting partner Jason Reeves, esteemed bluesmen Charlie Musselwhite and Coco Montoya, local rhythm & blues fave/multiple IE Music Award winner Big Papa and The TCB (pictured) - whose sizzlin' new release is 12 Gauge Insurance Plan, Dios Malos and Groove Session (all on Saturday); Tommy Castro, IE indie rock band Science Fiction Theater, jazz combo Open Hands featuring noted session bassist Abraham Laboriel (Sunday).

Admission: $30. More information, (909) 949-4499,