High Places / Mi Ami
Rickshaw Stop; San Francisco, CA

[03-24-2010]

This show was so easy to space out at, in a good way. Two bands that play noisy music doing it pretty well makes for a satisfying night.

I saw Mi Ami open for HEALTH a while ago, and they’ve definitely honed their live act. By “honed” I don’t mean “polished” as much as “there is a much more noticeable dissonance between their instrumentation and their vocals.” Their music by itself is hypnotic, complicated and nicely jam-heavy. With Daniel Martin-McCormick’s vocals, though, it got sort of crazy. He just doesn’t look like he can make the kind of noises he squeals into a microphone jammed halfway into his mouth. But it’s not insincere, and it works. Mi Ami are not for the faint of heart.

High Places are, though, definitely. They’re warm and fuzzy and full of droning noise sure to envelop anyone in spacey bliss. Unfortunately many of their strongest moments – intricate instrumentation and sampling or complex vocals – get lost in the dense, overpowering guitar washout present in their live set. A rare moment of clarity came on “On a Hill in a Bed on a Road in a House,” from their latest record High Places vs. Mankind, as both their vocalists joined to sing a repeating string of words that guided the whole song beautifully. I think they sound better in the studio, where they can take the time to layer components of their music to the best effect.

The Clean
The Bell House; Brooklyn, NY

[05-07-2010]

Thirty-two years since they formed in Dunedin, New Zealand, The Clean still seem like just another band — and that’s meant in the most complimentary of ways. Following sets from Brooklyn’s Coasting and fellow Kiwi group Dimmer, the band nonchalantly took the stage at the Bell House, picked up their instruments and leaned into a set of tunes spanning their three decades of existence.

That the group can do this is a testament to their timelessness. When the Pixies reunited in 2004, they dusted off a repertoire of late eighties/early nineties material. When Pavement reconvened this year, they summoned up a discography that, as amazing as it is, will always bear a “Made in the Nineties” stamp. The Clean … well, they’re not beholden to any of the decades in which they’ve dipped their feet, and 2010 is no exception. The band’s set moved seamlessly from tunes like 1982’s “Beatnik” to “In The Dream Life U Need A Rubber Soul,” from last year’s Mister Pop.

All three members of Yo La Tengo were in the Bell House audience, a fact that inspires a comparison between the two stalwart trios. If there’s any American band that most resembles The Clean in sonic approach and career arc, it’s Yo La Tengo. But while the latter has built that arc with an LP every few years and fairly regular touring, The Clean’s equation is a little sparser, calling for a couple of albums per decade and a smattering of live dates whenever they find the time.

The band didn’t play their most well-known “hit,” their debut single “Tally Ho,” but it didn’t matter. In an era that runs artists through the hype cycle at a breakneck pace and systematically cashes in on our fond memories of tunes from another time, it’s refreshing to see The Clean still jangling along, impervious to it all.

Ariel Pink
Mercury Lounge; New York, NY

[05-04-2010]

Ariel Pink’s show at Mercury Lounge this past Tuesday was many things. It was largely a press preview — a one-off date for the music media to catch Pink’s Haunted Graffiti before the band embarks on European and US tours this summer. It was an unveiling of tunes from Pink’s forthcoming album, Before Today, his most polished release to date and his first for British label 4AD. It paired Pink with his musical mentor, the prolific, long-time home recording artist R. Stevie Moore. It also turned into a gathering of numerous musicians who have drawn from the reverb-hazed, tape-hissing sonic well that Pink has been tapping since the early 2000s (members of Real Estate, Vivian Girls, Telepathe and Neon Indian were all in attendance).

Under these conditions, the gig felt like a test for Pink. Would he and his latest Haunted Graffiti lineup — which features LA scene vets Aaron Sperske (Lilys, Beachwood Sparks) and Chris Cohen (Cryptacize, Deerhoof) — take their live show into the dressed-up, slicked-down realm of Before Today? Would they win the approval of the bloggers and critics? What might R. Stevie say of Pink’s new approach, which abandons his lo-fi past for time in a proper LA studio? What would his peers think?

All of these questions hung in the thick, muggy air of Mercury Lounge, but when Pink finally took the stage, all he had to stay was, “It’s hot in here.” That dismissive, visceral focus carried through the entire night, with Pink pouring out sweat as profusely as his band poured out solid renditions of songs both old and new. The set began with two tunes from 2004’s The Doldrums, “Strange Fires” and “Don’t Think Twice (Love),” then “Flying Circles,” from 2006’s House Arrest, before turning to new material. “Bright Lit Blues Skies” and “Butt-House Blondes,” both Before Today tracks, and “For Kate I Wait,” another Doldrums tune, stood out as highlights, but the whole show was infused with a vitality and propulsion that has been absent from Pink’s work… er, before today.

When introducing “Round and Round,” Before Today’s much-touted lead single, Pink remarked that the band didn’t have the San Jose Choir on hand to accompany them and subsequently cut short the tune’s final triumphant chorus, in which he sings, “We’ll dazzle them all.” It seemed to be an acknowledgement that, though he’s no longer hunched over a 4-track mumbling out his songs, Pink still has room for growth before he can truly dazzle everyone.

The Almighty Defenders
Great American Music Hall; San Francisco, CA

[04-20-2010]

The Almighty Defenders put on, hands-down, the craziest show I have ever been to. I apologize in advance for not being able to find pictures from this night, because it was obscene and messy and totally great. I don’t know where to start, so I guess the church robe-clad band is a good place. They strode out onstage, solemn, as King Khan demanded that we the audience give ourselves to Jesus, praise the Lord, and testify as sinners. Much (I suspect “ironic”) hand-quivering in the audience ensued as the band tore through the first few songs on their self-titled album. It felt like church intended for atheists, serious but totally sacrilegious.

This whole show, band and audience, was thoroughly alcohol-soaked and wonderfully sloppy to match. The band passed around a fifth of Jameson throughout the set. They played their guitars in weird ways and mimed various sex acts with each other. Mark Sultan (BBQ) dedicated a cover of Elvis’s “He Touched Me” to the Pope. And about 30 minutes in, dear readers, the night became downright bizarre. My friend and I had to keep grabbing each other and making “IS THIS SHIT REALLY HAPPENING” faces:

• The Black Lips’ Jared Swilley read out of a Bible with the fervor of a Pentecostal preacher, then collapsed on the floor while still testifying and writhing around
• Mark Sultan found someone’s credit card on the stage and broke it in half in his mouth
• King Khan stripped off everything but his shoes and ate it stagediving, after which he passed out on the dancefloor for about a minute and a half (concussion suspected). When he got back onstage someone in the front row touched his dick and got a kick square in the jaw in return.
• Cole Alexander, also of the Black Lips, pulled down his pants, played his guitar with his dick, and then peed on King Khan, who subsequently took a pull on the bottle of Jameson the band had been passing around and then spat the pee/whiskey combo out onto the audience.

And for the finale, a bleeding-from-the-mouth King Khan stuck his microphone up his butt. I feel really bad for whoever had to clean up after this show, and it turns out the venue wasn’t too pleased about it. From GAMH’s Facebook page:

Last night (April 20) an incident occurred at the end of the set involving inappropriate and uncondoned behavior by two of the artists performing. To those in the audience, please accept our apologies. We will continue to strive to provide an environment and music that is appropriate for all ages.

I don’t blame them for having to cover their asses, but I’m thoroughly grateful this show happened, and that I was at it, and that I walked away covered in beer and spit and feeling the Holy Spirit raging in my blood. Amen.

Charlotte Gainsbourg / Jogger / AM
Palace of Fine Arts; San Francisco, CA

[04-17-2010]

When coming to the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco for the first time, one suspects the giant pavilion/gazebo that sticks out as far away as Russian Hill on the eastern side of the city is the actual venue. The size of the structure alone suggests an outdoor amphitheatre seating a large number of people. It would certainly create a magical element in certain scenarios, especially in the case of chanson heir Charlotte Gainsbourg’s first tour. Alas, the place is simply an indoor theatre, which is a bit of a letdown, despite its impressive acoustics and rocking-chair seats.

Opener AM is surprisingly prolific in touring with big names: He had only appeared a few weeks prior in Oakland opening for AIR, and recently opened for Caetano Veloso in LA. His music could fit with either: After ekeing out the first few numbers flatly, he pulled out an eerie, bossa nova-esque number that was mellow enough to set a consistent and solid mood for the rest of the set. He was a small man on a big stage, but once he settled, he reached out to the audience well. The lone exception was closer “Self-Preservation,” a break from the mood that sounded more like Interpol than Jorge Ben. If he just sticks with the mellow, he’ll be going places.

Supporting act Jogger, on the other hand, threw consistency out the window and beat it with a shovel once it got out of the building via hot-air balloon. The duo, from L.A., tend to take a sample and just run with it, whether from Madonna or Generic Williamsburg-based Band #862. Sometimes they ran into brick walls like the Juggernaut in a tutu, going from dirges to electronica without paying attention. Incredibly, they even combined those two: “Nephicide” is the first time I’ve heard a band effectively combine bowels-of-your-lungs, black-metal vocals with techno. Even their on-stage antics were silly: Jonathan did everything in his power to rock out while behind his synths and samplers, while Amir veered between shoegazing guitar and singing into his violin. Make of that what you will.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is clearly on her first tour. In particular, her singing in “Greenwich Mean Time,” from the recent album IRM, was completely off-key, making one wonder if it was intentional. But after that, she managed to sing much better, (barring a false start on one song) playing around with the crowd’s momentum. She even channeled collaborator Jarvis Cocker in 5:55 number “AF607105,” though she sounded more like Neil Tennant. Most significant, though, was that she got comfortable to not only sing her Bob Dylan cover “Just Like A Woman” in a sultry manner, but channel her legendary father with his classic “L’hotel particuler,” from Histoire de Melody Nelson. She will definitely need more time to figure out her comfort zone live, but she can still captivate, and should make touring a habit.

Beach House
Bimbo's 365; San Francisco, CA

[04-14-2010]

A Love Letter to Beach House From a Person Who Can’t Write Love Letters

Dear Beach House,

I suspect the reason you lay ravish praise on San Francisco is obvious: Your music, on a scenic level, is much more appropriate for a city as hilly and surreal as the City by the Bay than it would be for a city as dirty and gritty as your hometown Baltimore (not that there’s anything wrong with Baltimore). You fit perfectly into the city’s landscape, be it a house show in a warehouse loft in SoMa, some cafe in Lower Haight (or bar on Upper Haight), or even the swanky Italian nightclub in North Beach that you happened to be playing at tonight. You are made for this city, and we love you for that.

You have a certain amount of bravery in carrying only one act before you at such a small venue, swank as it may be. While, arguably, your approach to music is unique and has very few imitators (which is what makes you so wonderful in the first place), for you to get on stage so early does offer the question of whether your set is that strong enough to hold the crowd from an early standpoint. That said, your friend Bachelorette was solid. The Kiwi, though still unused to to large crowds, put up a good show for it, songs like “Donkey” and “Do the Circuit” being particularly rousing numbers. It was a perfect warm-up for what was to come.

Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive about your new album, not to mention how it would turn out live. It was a change in direction, something faster, more bombastic than anyone thought. Who can blame us? With that, I’m sorry for doubting you. I see the logic in your actions now: Live, these songs make sense. Their bombast and noise resonate perfectly with the crowd. They became a way for you to go nuts when you needed to. From opener “Silver Soul” on, you were energetic, even sitting down. You made slow-moving numbers that marked your first two albums, such as Devotion’s “Gila” and the self-titled’s “Master of None,” feel bouncy. You also tapped into the crowd’s emotions very well. People were shedding a tear during initial closer “Take Care,” or getting pumped and motivated with set closer “10 Mile Stereo.” More importantly though, you took it all in stride. When someone requested “Zebra,” which you had just played, you felt flattered. As were we.

We know you love us and the city, as we do you. Why else would you, like you said, come to the city the day before your show? So allow us a proposition: Please move here! We cost a bit more than Baltimore, but we make up for it in loveliness. We’ll take care of you, offer you excellent food such as cheap-yet-incredible burritos and vegan meals, as well as various collectives you cut your own niche in. And there’s no snow, too. So, please move here. Pretty please?

Love,
Ze