Fuck Buttons / Growing / Chen Santa Maria
Bottom of the Hill; San Francisco, CA

[11-13-2009]

“Hey, Ze, you look upset. Everything all right…?”

StupidcrowdsfuckingdouchebagsTHOSELITTLE

“Calm down, Ze. No reason to get angry…”

WHYCAN’TTHEY

“Calm down. Need I remind you why you are not in Chicago anymore, Ze? You’re running out of places to run to.”

… Okay, fine.

“Now what’s making you upset, Ze?”

Well, I went to the Bottom of the Hill tonight to see Fuck Buttons. A sold-out show, no less.

“Well, that could make you upset, what with your type hating sell-outs… ”

How is that even funny?

“Okay. Start from the beginning. Who opened?”

Chen Santa Maria. Some experimental outfit this side of Jandek from Oakland. Not appropriate for the night, I’ll admit, seems like a call-in. They were more suited for something like an art gallery, or a place where you can sit down and listen to them while you wax philosophical over some postmodern theory or something while drinking Starbucks.

“An art gallery? What gives you that impression?”

They were simply experimenting with layers, filling the room with various feedback effects without a lot of structure. Good art, but not quality music. They seemed to fall into some groove about 20 minutes in, but then they stopped their set right afterward. Hardly a good start.

“But nothing to get that upset about. Anyone else support Fuck Buttons?”

Growing, a group from New York that holds some resemblance to Octopus Project (two male guitars one female keyboard), but with less synths and more loops. That's not a bad thing. They fit as a supporting act for Fuck Buttons. Their structure was solid, actually kept some groove going. It was easy to get lost at times though.

“How so?”

Some of the vocal loops were hard to hear, and it was difficult to tell the source of some of the layering. Less the band’s fault, though. They have yet to reach that point where they can effectively recreate the recorded sound live without too many constraints. Give them some time, maybe a headline tour, and they’ll come off quite better.

“Okay. Still doesn’t get to the heart of your concern. Let’s talk about Fuck Buttons.”

Fuck Buttons put on a solid show. They were able to meld their two albums well. They started off with Tarot Sport opener (and single) “Surf Solar,” following up with Street Horrrsing closer “Colours Move.” Very little momentum was lost in the transition. The use of a single drum was beautifully rendered. They focused primarily on the new album, though it can be said that they still don’t have a large enough song list to work with yet. Transitions between songs were incredibly maintained, with only a few drops in momentum. “Flight of the Feathered Serpent” and “Olympians” stood out in particular, as did Street Horrrsing single “Bright Tomorrow.” A beautiful set in the right circumstances.

“'Right circumstances?' So what made the set bad?”

The crowd. They were just awful. They weren’t reacting negatively to the music; they weren’t reacting, PERIOD. You had to feel bad for the duo. They were putting their hearts into it, really trying to build something visceral yet empathic. And all the crowd did for the most part was bob their heads around a little, if that.

“So they didn’t dance?”

No. Not really. I think the only time I really saw the crowd get into it was at the breakout point in “Bright Tomorrow,” and even then it was at most 10 percent of the capacity crowd. A repeat was attempted with “Feathered Serpent,” but it fizzled. What’s worse is that, listening to Fuck Buttons, they really have a danceable rhythm to their songs that makes their impact even more profound. Yet watching the duo, and even watching those in the crowd who danced (including myself), the setting felt like hundreds of hipsters watching monkeys dance. It was depressing, and quite disgusting in a way.

“Why didn’t the hipsters dance, Ze?”

I have no idea. None.

Future of the Left / Ume / Team Band
Bottom Lounge; Chicago IL

[11-05-2009]

The last time I had a chance to see Andy Falkous live was in 2004, when Mclusky were touring to support The Difference Between Me and You Is That I'm Not on Fire. I had my tickets in-hand and my friend and fellow TMT-er Paul Bower visiting from out of town, only to discover Bower’s underage ass wasn’t 21 enough to get into the venue. Of course, Mclusky disintegrated less than a year later, and ever since I’ve been plagued with regret over that (in hindsight) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So long story short, Future of the Left’s show at Bottom Lounge came with a fair share of emotional baggage.

{Team Band} was just wrapping up as I arrived. The group stumbled through a few slices of mostly straightforward guitar pop like a drunken wedding band, but they earned my affection by closing with an impromptu cover of The Misfits’ “Where Eagles Dare.” Singer/guitar player Lauren Larson of Austin’s {Ume} took the stage looking like she’d just clocked out from an American Eagle shoot, but her band’s punk-injected rock ’n’ roll spoke for itself. Larson’s breathy delivery turned to sandpaper at all the right moments, the flailing frontwoman transforming into a blur of hair during every guitar solo.

Impressive as {Future of the Left}’s musicianship was, it was almost overshadowed by their razor-sharp stage banter. Even a cursory glance at his lyrics will clue you in to the fact that Andy Falkous is a pretty funny guy, but he and singer/bass player Kelson Mathias riffed effortlessly off one another between songs for 5 minutes at a time. The band even fed on the negative energy coming from the crowd, at times inviting audience members to hurl insults at them. When one frustrated concert-goer accused the band of diluting their set with “stand-up,” Falkous sympathized with his apparent confusion, saying it was like watching a porno where “you tune in for some hardcore gang-banging and they’ve gone and added a post-modern twist.”

Their set borrowed about equally from 2008’s Curses and this year’s Travels. They chainsawed through misanthropic gems like “Arming Eritrea” and “Manchasm” with giddy abandon. Falkous’s animal roar may have taken front-and-center in most songs, but I was absolutely blown away by Mathias. His vocals tend to disappear into the background on the records, but this guy was hitting notes on Friday that I have never heard a dude hit. Future of the Left ended the night with a shambolic performance of “Cloak the Dagger” that degenerated into a hairball of raw noise. In between whammying with a drumstick and playing a discordant keyboard solo, Falkous could be found disassembling Jack Egglestone’s kit while the hapless drummer struggled to keep playing, and all the while Matthias hurled himself into the crowd, occasionally chanting the lyrics to “Wanna Be Startin Somethin.” It was a magnificent way to say goodnight.

Fever Ray
Regency Grand Ballroom; San Francisco, CA

[10-05-2009]

I didn’t really know what to expect from this show. I mainly wondered if I’d see Karin Dreijer Andersson, or if she would conceal herself in a manner similar to her performances as one-half of The Knife. Also, what would the music from her self-titled debut as Fever Ray sound like in a live setting? And: Would there be lasers?

There were indeed lasers, and that was some cool shit, let me tell you. Chilly flood lights and numerous old-fashioned lamps, triggered to switch on and off with the beat of the music, provided additional lighting. The setup made it possible to catch glimpses of Andersson and her band without being able to discern what exactly was happening onstage. Only during “When I Grow Up” did the audience get a fully illuminated look at the whole group, which resembled a scene from a pagan ritual -- the band in costumes, brandishing spears, and Andersson in a dark robe with an enormous collar, hands twitching with energy and eyes never fully focused.

All this provided an excellent frame for the music, which rarely diverged from how it sounds on Fever Ray. Live drumming and guitar effects added the texture necessary for the music to outdo the light show, and amplification increased the intensity of the beats to a bone-shaking degree. We heard the entire album; no encore, and no words from the band. I felt throughout the set that we might all be dispatched to some foreign land presided over by the mysterious figures onstage and live out our days listening to the eerie, unsettling noises resounding through the room. It seemed a fitting sentiment for a show that could have taken place in San Francisco, an ice palace, or outer space.

The Smith Westerns / Knight School / Fake Male Voice (Tunde from TV on the Radio) / mi-gu + Sean Lennon & Yuka Honda
Bruar Falls; Brooklyn NY

[10-23-2009]

Bruar Falls last Friday bore witness to two essential aspects of CMJ: the overexposure and instant ubiquity borne of industry hype, and how the circus-like nature of the festival can actually cause people to inadvertently overlook bills with high-profile artists.

The afternoon show allowed for a demonstration of the second phenomenon. The normally-a-two-piece {mi-gu} took the opportunity to expand to a four piece, featuring Sean Lennon and Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda. The first half of the set, precisely choreographed psychedelic blues from main members Yuko Araki and Hirotaka Shimizu, was pleasant, but Shimizu's pinch harmonics played right into a terrible stereotype of Japanese music -- formal precision over emotional expression. With the addition of Lennon and Honda, though, the set became more varied, gaining energy and momentum. By the time Lennon had ripped off an unexpectedly raw and blistering guitar solo, mi-gu had convinced me there was some real substance behind their formal perfection and new age spirituality.

TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and Gerard Smith, performing as {Fake Male Voice}, proceeded to set up with little fanfare. While Gerard manned a sampler, keyboard, and a host of pedals to produce minimal beats, Tunde sat calmly in chair, sang, and turned some knobs. The results were somewhere in between usual TVOTR fare and electro-acoustic improvisation. While there wasn't much to grab onto in the gradual ebb and flow of vocal delay without solid song structures, the set was short, sweet, and proved that Tunde can entertain adequately with a bare minimum of resources.

The evening show kicked off with Brooklyn's premiere indie pop trio, {Knight School} (full disclosure: I played music in the past with one of the band members). A Knight School set, and this one was no exception, is a pretty good encapsulation of what Brooklyn is about right now, so it's surprising that CMJ's hordes weren't as rabid about their show as some others. While some of their songs tended to blend together, standouts like "Meathead Hurricane" and "Pregnant Again" highlighted their tip-top songwriting chops and understated black humor. When they hit on all cylinders, their chemistry and sound were the sort that hipsters drool over.

{The Smith Westerns} (pictured) are another story. They're a band with good songs, a good look, tons of shows ahead of them, and maybe not adequate perspective or experience to deal with it all. Their show at Bruar Falls was smack in the middle of a three-day, seven-set CMJ run, and lead singer Cullen Omori seemed to be caught in the whirlwind. He still led the band through their T-Rex-inspired garage rock with an admirable lack of sweat, but -- unsurprising for a man of his tender age -- his stage persona needs some work. With the bar as packed as I'd ever seen it, comments about the crowd's "modest applause" unfortunately won't ingratiate the band to anyone.

[Photo: rg karlic]

The Almighty Defenders / Neon Indian / Cale Parks
Root Studios; Brooklyn NY

[10-24-2009]

Maybe it was the open bar. Or maybe everyone was just too weary of industrial posturing by Saturday of CMJ week to spend another night trying to make networking fun. In any case, this show, put together through the unlikely partnership of a men's clothing store, a party promotion juggernaut, and a nondescript photo studio somehow managed to put forward a great lineup and an atmosphere devoid of pretension, one that thankfully wasn't overly saturated in commercial tomfoolery.

The evening began with {Cale Parks} and his newly assembled three-piece band. Perhaps unsurprising in light of his past work as a percussionist with Aloha and Joan of Arc, his solo act was heavy on things that you hit. It brought to mind both the synthetic side of Yeasayer and the organic side of Depeche Mode, and alternating between electronic and acoustic drums, Parks showed an attention to texture that gave away his classical training. While not exactly dance music, the songs were solicitous of dance and, despite forays into the sorts of dark territory that are part and parcel of a Depeche Mode comparison, set a lighthearted tone.

Consciously or not, {Neon Indian} adopted the same jovial atmosphere as they took the stage. Like Parks, Neon Indian's Alan Palomo has only recently put together a full band to carry his work into a live setting, and while Park's band were no slouches visually or musically, Palomo's band looked pitch-perfect and sounded equally polished. While their record contains moments of funky effervescence, the straight-up Prince biting of their live show is something else. And, between the guitarist's flowing locks and keyboardist's impeccable strapless dress and coiffure, they not only sound like the New Power Generation, they even sort of look like them. Makes you wonder why anyone bothered coining a phrase like "glo-fi" to describe Neon Indian. Are we that disenchanted with funk, pop, and R&B?

As great as Neon Indian may have been, though, expectations were even higher for a rare appearance from the Black Lips/King Khan/BBQ Show gospel rave up that an {Almighty Defenders} performance promised. While the "will this particle accelerator cause a black hole" energy of a Lips show was diluted slightly, the meeting of minds produced a kinetic and oddly serious performance. Not that what these guys do on stage isn't usually serious, as in "serious violence" or "serious drinking," but this was surprising. Donning ecclesiastical robes, the juxtaposition of attire against Khan's shark tooth necklace, Cole Alexander's pederast mustache and Ian St. Pe's gold grill, was comical. But as the Motown-meets-psycho-blues tunes gave way to a genuinely affecting impression of fire-and-brimstone preaching from Joe Bradley -- complete with actual Bible -- I wondered if the religious angle wasn't so much a joke as another way to point at ecstatic chaos.

Cymbals Eat Guitars / Real Estate / I Was King / Deastro / Ungdomskulen
Santos Party House; New York, NY

[10-21-2009]

I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to waste my time at New York’s annual Clusterfuck Music Junket. The long lines, the short sets, the corporate shill, the smell of rotting ambition, the aging industry dudes drooling over teenage girl singers… it just isn’t my scene. But, against my better judgment, I broke my rule this year because, well, I really like Deastro (pictured) and kept missing opportunities to see Randolph Chabot and company live.

Luckily, the place didn’t fill up to Corporate Masturbation Jubilee levels until late in the evening, and I arrived at the Øya Festival and Oh My Rockness showcase early enough to avoid the hysteria. The unlikely duo of Norwegian musikkfestival and New York concert listings site made for some unexpected transitions, but also a good deal of variety.

The first band I caught was Ungdomskulen, an impossibly sparkly Norwegian trio who could seriously shred. There were sequins, spandex and attitude for miles, backed up by some appropriately '80s hair metal-derived riffs. Ungdomskulen were certainly the most charismatic showmen of the night, though I can’t imagine the fun of their performances entirely translating on record.

Deastro was up next. A recent lineup change has left Chabot -- on guitar -- with a single bassist, leaving the rest of the beats to the laptop. While I had been hoping to hear more of my favorite tracks from this year’s epically fun Moondagger, it was encouraging to find Deastro performing a slew of new material. The unfamiliar songs sounded a bit darker – in fact, Chabot seemed to be channeling Ian Curtis at times. Then again, the menacingly dominant synth and drum machine parts could also have been due to an over-amplified computer, which also, unfortunately, all but drowned out the guitar and bass.

I stayed for a bit of Oslo’s I Was King, a sweet '90s-indie rip-off whose newest album boasts collaborations with Sufjan Stevens and Danielson’s Daniel Smith. (Hmm, do I smell a Christian?) There was nothing wrong with the band – their music was entirely pleasant – but they weren’t wowing me, either, so I crept downstairs to the second stage, a few songs in, to wait for New York buzz band du jour Real Estate. The group was in the midst of about 85 Consensual Music Jerkoff performances, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Unfortunately, the basement stage was about half an hour behind schedule, and I had to haul ass back upstairs for Cymbals Eat Guitars before they played a single note. And did I mention that somewhere along the way I dropped my wallet? More on that later.

Back upstairs, Cymbals Eat Guitars, the band that put the “rock” back in “indie,” was tearing it up, as usual. Barely legal frontman Joseph D’Agostino seemed to have matured out of a good deal of grimacing awkwardness in the 5 months since I last saw him perform. Although the band’s headlining set was criminally short, they managed to fit in a new track or two, along with favorites like “Wind Phoenix.”

Real Estate were still playing to a packed crowd downstairs by the time I left, but I decided to forgo the madness and head home… well, until I got to the subway and realized I was missing my wallet. A few minutes later, I was back in that goddamn basement, having a minor panic attack while my friend/photographer chatted up every security guard and bartender in the place before recovering my wallet. (By the way, if the person who returned it is reading this: Thanks, man. You didn’t even steal my cash!) I probably wasn’t listening carefully enough to Real Estate while all of this was going on to give you an accurate review. But, hey, for what it’s worth, they sounded pretty sweet to me.