Harvey Milk
Annex Wreckroom; Toronto, ON

[03-11-2010]

Harvey Milk’s set at Canadian Music Week was one of the most challenging and assumption-breaking shows I’ve seen in quite a while. Existing in a space between an increasingly distant past and a forthcoming dystopic future, their sound was filled with unashamed references to classic rock and swampy blues, drowned in menacingly brutal doom textures.

They began with 20 minutes of meandering sludge, built upon precisely placed yet sporadic drum flourishes in no discernable time signature. Grumbling bass syncopations developed in symbiosis with hesitant albeit thunderous drumming, creating an ominous soundscape rather than a driving beat. Creston Spiers emitted shearing squalls of guitar noise that acted as lightening strikes ripping though the foreboding tempest of brooding rhythm.

Following the epic opener, Harvey Milk reached into their back-catalogue, which lies outside the traditional metal and hardcore canons, to breathe new life into standard rock tropes, before agonizingly snuffing them out. Like a sociopath exhuming the decaying corpse of the 20th century rock, delta-blues riffs oozed from the songs’ disemboweled intestines and spurts of chugging ZZ-Top progressions spewed like blood from its mangled remains. Memphis boogie and honky-rock became the festering stew from which their maggot-y sound was born.

The combination of Spiers’ seamlessly effortless channeling and dismantling of the southern music tradition, Kyle Spense’s haunting drumming, and Stephen Tanner’s roaring bass provided an ahistorical lesson in American popular music. Bringing forth the future by mutilating the past. There was no irony; there was no nostalgia. There is only Harvey Milk.

Panda Bear / Kurt Vile
Cabernet Sauvage; Paris, France

[03-10-2010]

There aren’t many artists at the moment whose new material is limited to a couple of fan-made YouTube videos. MP3 leaks are non-existent for Noah Lennox, but it’s not like he needs any additional build-up for his new works. They’re exciting, those harsh synth stammers at the start of his current performances, oblique and Beatles-esque compared to his other new jams.

Cabernet Sauvage, on the (sort of) outskirts of Paris, seemed like a pretty good place to hear them. I’d only found out a half hour before heading out to the terrific permanent “tent” (complete with stained glass, wooden décor, and red velvet curtains) that Kurt Vile was opening, and his typically lucid and hazy solo ramblings came off spacious yet intimate. His “classic rock in spring” vibe permeated across material mostly from Constant Hitmaker and God Is Saying This To You and ending on the hypnotic loop from “Best Love” (particularly dense and loud in this live context), which served as a perfect segue to Panda Bear’s electronic sounds.

Starting with those harsh inverse synth arpeggios before adding guitar and beats, Panda Bear’s set of basically all-new material moved alongside hyper-weird and textural projected visuals. And if Person Pitch explores dance music tropes, many of these new songs are more “song-” or ballad-like. But there are also some total bangers; one song in particular took on hip-hop styles, with a beat typically missed in preference of a rest, which of course only adds to the incessancy, especially when backed with such huge bass. Elsewhere, shuffly dance and more dub-based ideas came out full and skewed, especially at one moment when foresty/liquid-y sounds were backed with visual loops of 10-13-year-old girls losing their shit at some sort of Britney Spears concert. It’s this sort of genre exploration doubled with rhythmic focus, vocal fervor, and general belief in wonder/beauty that continues to give Panda Bear’s music such relevance.

[Photo: Hisham Bharoocha]

Wiz Khalifa / U-God / Jasmine Solano
The Aggie Theatre; Fort Collins, CO

[03-05-2010]

I’d been meaning to check out a show at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins, CO for a long-ass time, largely because I’m sick of driving to Denver; I figured it’d be a lot easier to take the dreaded “You’re not on the list” conversation if I hadn’t just driven an hour-and-change out of my way. It’s too bad, however, that I had to pop my Aggie cherry on such a strange concert. There’s no doubt the Ag’ has the space, live sound, and “pull” to bring in good bands and good fans, so seeing such a wildly inconsistent show has left me blaming rappers and/or rap in general.

A few notes to rappers interested in putting on concerts:

• Don’t scratch unless you can scratch cleanly; that fingernails-on-chalkboard warble sounds like dogshit.
• The one thing you should never, ever do is let your buddy/buddies sit on the side of the stage diddling a Blackberry while you do your thing. Between Jasmine Solano and Wiz Khalifa, there were 3-4 people onstage who not only looked bored, but were also somehow able to transMIT their boredom to all in attendance. When I see a 350-pound tour-bus driver on the side of the stage, flanked by some chick straight off a rugby-team bus and a scrawny white kid in a backpack — who looks so starstruck my wife thought he was Elijah Wood; I corrected her by reasoning, “There’s no WAY Elijah-fucking-Wood would (HA!) be standing on the side of the stage like a giddy vagrant; there’s just no way” — I assume the rapper(s) are needy. Rappers should never appear needy. Ditch the entourage!
• You don’t have to make the crowd sit around for FOUR HOURS; if the concert is listed to start at 8PM, at least BE IN THE BUILDING by the time 11PM rolls around.
• If some white kid — whose shitty rap group probably just got done opening for you — yells, “Get off the stage,” you gotta sink your FANGs into that motherfucker.
• Between-jam circumlocution is the lowest form of time-passing.

Now that I’m done giving pointers, I’ll jump into the review. Jasmine Solano takes the stage after a few unmentionable white rappers “kill it” (“it” being my boner for white-guy rap). She plays a few records. Eventually, she shows us she can do something worthwhile by bringing out U-God of The Wu-Tang Clan. I am ready for a set that hits the brain like “Cocaine straight from Bolivia,” and what I get is an unsure performance from a flu-addled rapper more suited to being a sideman. I can see he feels passionately about his music, and the aforementioned jeer directed at him (“Get off the stage”) gets him pumped-up enough that he dares anyone to take him off, but his set carries with it the feeling of inertia, of not knowing what to do now that the hype has thoroughly passed him by. And if you’re going to do medley-esque snippets, why not hit-up your slot on Only Built For Cuban Linx or Enter the 36 Chambers? I don’t get it.

Wiz Khalifa? Now that man knows how to work a crowd. Not only that, but he’s young and tattoo’d, just as a rapper should be. No nostalgia trips here; this is the sound of a young man who has figured out his style to the tip-top “T.” His charisma is as apparent as his booming, easy-to-understand voice; I almost forgive his entourage I’m so into it. I love the way his voice slippery-slides over the beats, like Nelly, 50 Cent, and a half-dozen Southern rappers had sex with each other and birthed one pure, destined golden child. What a bad-ass (and I don’t use the term “bad-ass” lightly; not at all).

I should mention that, at one point, I noticed Khalifa lip-syncing. Yeah, that’s right: He took the mic away from his mouth and the rapping continued. It wasn’t on a chorus, either. Was he faking the funk? I’d rather not examine it because I really don’t know; it’s possible parts of the show were canned, it’s possible just that one snippet was. I do know what I saw though; take note and hold rappers to their mics! If Khalifa ever does iron-out this discouraging hiccup (that hiccup being, ahem, a partial lack of actual rapping), there’s really no telling how high his wicked brew of weed tales, tattoo declarations, and trash-talk can take him, even in a live setting rap so-often fails to take advantage of.

Memory Tapes / Birds & Batteries
Bottom of the Hill; San Francisco, CA

[02-27-2010]

Despite being one of the only San Francisco public city services that measurably and directly benefits taxpayers, our bus system – Muni – is always first on the budget chopping block. Service cuts hit hardest at the end of the month, so I missed Letting Up Despite Great Faults because my bus was horribly late. Other people at the show said they were fantastic. Thanks, 22 Fillmore, you really did me a solid on that one.

Luckily I caught most of Birds & Batteries. I love vocal harmonies and catchy beats, and B&B managed to pull off sounding funky without falling into the kitsch trap. They play guitar-heavy synth pop transported back to the 1970s via outer space, with all the bad things that happened between that decade and this one removed. Have you seen the “Future Sailors” skit from the Mighty Boosh? Birds & Batteries are reminiscent of a good, fleshed-out version of that. This band is on tour right now. I suggest you see them.

For a guy who’s never been on tour before, Dayve Hawk’s Memory Tapes does a much better job than many bands well-versed in live performance. It’s probably because his music is just so good he’d have to work hard to make it sound bad, and with the addition of live drumming and guitar, it sounded totally fantastic. It took me a while to warm up to Seek Magic, but live his work is clarified, catchy, and precise, more immediate than on the album. Vocals and instruments rose above sound effects. Indeed, a Memory Tapes record is for spaced-out, sunny afternoons; a Memory Tapes show is a place to let go and dance. We always need more of those. Thanks for giving us another one, Dayve.

Wild Beasts / Still Life Still
Chop Suey; Seattle, WA

[02-14-2010]

About three minutes into Still Life Still’s 45-minute set at Seattle’s Chop Suey, I realized I wasn’t going to get through this review without mentioning Broken Social Scene. The young Torontonians would get high marks at Canadian Indie Rock College for their grasp of prevailing aesthetics and sonic concepts. Scruffy and half-bearded, their laid-back jams were charged with an energy meandering between raw and relaxed. Nothing particularly new there, but the band’s chemistry was effortless. They weren’t particularly tight, but they weren’t particularly tight in the exact same proportion to each other.

Wild Beasts, on the other, were extremely tight. And by time the English four-piece took the stage, the 250-capacity club was packed. On paper, Wild Beasts shouldn’t be perplexing: four guys playing two guitars, bas, and drums, pinning down grooves with brutal focus. Their metronome beats and precisely picked guitars compelled onlookers to consistent head-bobbing and concentrated ass-shaking.

But it was the vocal interplay that stole the show. Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming share lead vocals, and the contrast between their styles is transfixing. Fleming’s voice is deep and steady, while Thorpe’s vibrato-heavy falsetto is startling, even unnerving, cutting through the thick instrumentation. They only indulged in a few vocal harmonies, but their traded vocal duties were clearly the highlights of the show.

Yet, while Wild Beasts constantly threaten greatness in a live setting, they’re a little too static overall. After building solid grooves and cranking up the tension, a lot of the songs stop as soon as you expect them to climax or change up the beat. They never build on the momentum. Still, it was a captivating hour of music and proof that, in a world of electronic music-making gadgets, a traditional four-piece rock band can still sound fresh on stage.

White Denim / Brazos
The Larimer Lounge; Denver, CO

[01-27-2010]

In case you didn’t know, when it comes to band names, White is the new Black.

Fuck-fuck-FUCKK Black Lips, Black Hollies, Black Time, Black Eyes, Black Heart Procession, Black Milk, Black Rice, Black Dahlia Murder, Starless & Bible Black, Black Sea, Black Angels, Black Keys, Black Mountain, Blackstreet, Blackfield, Black Uhuru, Black Flag, Black Sabbath, Blackhearts (Joan Jett and), Black Box, Blackbyrds, Blackfoot, Black Sheep, Blackhawk, Blackjack, Black Oak Arkansas, Black Girls, Black moon, Black Lab, Blackwell, Black Star, and all the rest; give me WHITE Shit (a better-than-the-mothership side project of Big Business), WHITE Lion, WHITEsnake, WHITE (Barry), WHITE Hills, WHITE Lies, W-H-I-T-E, WHITE Stripes, Average WHITE Band, and, of course, WHITE Denim, perhaps the best-named band in all of America.

Although my wife and I failed to find matching white-denim outfits at thrift stores before the show, we did manage to listen to the entirety of White Denim’s Fits two times on the way to the Larimer Lounge in Denver. It was no preparation; I’m not sure if they used condensers the size of a small pick-up truck or recorded in an air-proof bomb shelter, but Fits doesn’t come close to harnessing the proud pummel-horse that is a White Denim show. So sick they should give H1N1 shots at the door, White Denim are a sexless three-piece with the chops of Comets On Fire, the drugganaut bluster of Black Mountain, the ham-fisted proto-punk power of early Melvins, and the endless-jam power of fellow power-trio Titan.

Rarely giving the crowd the chance to catch their breath, W. Denim covered our noses with an ether-soaked rag of technical virtuosity, only letting up occasionally to look at each other and burst into another long-form creation full of stops, starts, ticks, tocks, ups, downs, breakdowns, shakedowns, stutters, hesitations, jukes, jives, staccato, arpeggio, triple-F blastissimo, and more tricks I don’t know the names of (and wouldn’t want to). Best of all, W(M)D don’t have a saxophone, clarinet, flute, oboe, or trumpet player giving the audience a Talibam! teabag, so you can concentrate on the guitar, bass, and drums, which the trio derive so much life from you wonder why so many acts feel they need a 12-piece neo-classical arrangement to “wow” a crowd.

Any attempt to describe specific moments of this show would be akin to detailing a high-speed car crash in which I was a participant, so I’ll just say I was visibly shaken by White Denim, unable to do much save sweat, stare, and drool. They were so dead-on I seem to have blocked out the set by openers Brazos. But just let me say, there ain’t no Cane left for Brazos; there just ain’t.