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Music Consumption: Ruby on Rails
06/06/2008 Ruby on Rails

I'm surprised at how poorly documented PDF_create_textflow() seems to be

06/03/2008 Ruby on Rails

I finally have PDFlib running in Ruby

06/03/2008 Ruby on Rails

I'm beating my head against PDFlib

05/29/2008 Quick Takes

I'm kind of obsessed with the Fall Peel Sessions

10/09/2007 Holst: The Planets

Wow, it's been a long time (and a lot of music heard) since I last posted to this section. Parenthood will do that.

I haven't exactly been listening to The Planets the way most people might--I've mainly been listening to "Venus" slowed down to 1/4 the usual tempo, something I've wanted to do for a long time. I used Ableton Live to slow the tempo without dropping the pitch. The result...is forty minutes of nearly-ambient texture. At this extension of tempo shifting, Live's warping function puts in little glitches and pitch wobbles--even with the most source-friendly settings--but these too are enjoyable. Recommended for those with tempo-warping software. ("Neptune"'s not bad, either, but "Venus" is where it's at.)

12/09/2003 Melochrome: This Is Motion

This Is Motion is flat-out gorgeous, is what it is. A slab of pure beauty, a sequence of surprisingly pleasant surprises. I've been way into this one of late. Melochrome is a Chicago band composed of Pramod Tummala (vocals, keyboards, guitar), Thomas Stanley (drums, guitars), Darlene Poole (vocals, bass, keyboards), and Justin Mayer (keyboards). The lineup seems to suggest that they'd be a bit heavy on the keyboards, but no--while the keyboards (particularly Fender Rhodes) are an important component of the sound, there's a lot of space in this music, and everything falls into place: the roomy reverb on the drums, the deep, restrained bass, the light touches of guitar, and the keys themselves. And there's still plenty of room for the fine, understated vocals of Pramod and harmonies by Darlene.

Every choice made on this disc is a good one. While I'm not familiar enough with traditional Indian vocals to accept straight off the sample that's in the lead-off track, "An Afterthought," and found myself skipping it for a while, it now works just fine for me, and I'm hard-pressed to hear the friction that bothered me at first. The second track, "So We're Finally Moving On," starts pretty, gets even better with Pramod's vocal, and reaches a slow climax with the aid of dub-flavored trumpet and mellophone courtesy of Wendell von Brenner.

Surprisingly, the intro to "Catalina Girls" is even more inviting and spacious, with a fine interleaving of keyboard, bass, and drums--and again, it gets better from there with the vocals on the verses, and guitar and horn touches on the bridges. Man. As if this isn't enough, "Seaside Instrumental" ups the ante even further, with gorgeous liquid keyboard burbles, clean guitar chords, poignant bass, some light electronica touches in a noise/cymbal layer, and Rhodes over the top.

"Music for Motion" takes us back to vocal territory, and adds a bit more guitar, along with a lovely muted trumpet to the horn section. Another fine vocal from Pramod here, showing him to have a very good sense of vocal melody (if that hadn't been apparent with the melodies elsewhere). "Stereo City" brings in a bit more danceable active drumming, a moving and lyrically inventive chorus, and some additional tasty effects. There's a simplicity to the music here that really works for me--they're taking what they're doing, stripping it down, and showing that it works just as well as the denser arrangements.

"A Forethought" is yet another instrumental, which builds an extremely cool, reflective trip-hop atmosphere. Nice interplay of keys, bass, light guitar, sparse effects, and drums on this one. "Out Late" is the last tune, another song of simplicity that again works its magic well. The only thing left to do is hit Play again, and believe me, I have--lots of times.

According to the Melochrome site, they're on hiatus for a while with some members moving out of town, but here's hoping they can work remotely. This is a band that deserves to be heard.

Full disclosure: Pramod (with producer--though not of this record--Barry Phipps) dropped by my Chicago show this past summer, and gave me a copy of this disc. Even so, this is a fine, fine CD, and your life is impoverished in a big way if you don't check it out.

10/23/2003 The Lesser Birds of Paradise: It Isn't the Fall

Here's a promising disc of folksy, alt-countryish indie pop, which has been in my CD player and in iTunes a fair amount. The Lesser Birds of Paradise come on gentle and approachable, with a streak of endearing oddness that pops up winningly in solos, bridges, and in occasional lyrics (more about which shortly). I'm particularly drawn in by singer/songwriter Mark Jenka's great sense of vocal melody and the group's feel for instrumentation--and here I also detect the welcome fingerprints of producer (and ex-Coctail) Barry Phipps. (The disc was exquisitely recorded at Barry's studio.) Full Disclosure: I was on tour in July and met up with Barry in Chicago; he gave me a stack of CDs he'd been working on, including this one.

The disc starts strong and inviting with "If You Wanted," a gentle lover's entreaty over a loping accompaniment of acoustic guitar, uke, accordion, drums, and Barry's upright bass. It's a great example of Jenka's gift for vocal melodies. There's an endearing front-porch feel to the playing and the arrangement through the first verse, helped in part by Jenka's plain, clean voice. Then out of nowhere, there's a surprisingly lush bridge (complete with Mellotron samples) that kicks the beauty level up several notches, and leads right into...a stylophone solo! (That'd be one of those inspired, left-field arrangement choices I'm digging.) The second time around, it leads to a warm, shimmering baritone guitar line and the stylophone again, with perhaps the sole misstep on the song--the breaths between backing "oooohs" are accentuated, which I found distracting at first, but on multiple listens, I can say it does nothing to diminish the song's beauty.

Some other high points: the vocal melody (particularly on the chorus) and the gorgeous bowed vibes played by yet another ex-Coctail, Mark Greenberg, on "Quitter's Waltz"; the tasty electric and baritone guitar touches of "Boy (Song for K)"; the bizarre disjuncture between Jenka's deadpan, sincere voice and the viciously funny lyrics of "Into Pieces," along with the beautiful Theremin solo (which is accompanied by a nicely edgy sound on the guitar), and the cheerful Optigan during the verses...and the lovely radio sample at the end; and the intro to the last tune, "'Til Next Spring," which starts with one of the more interesting mix choices I've heard--serious high-end rolloff at the beginning of the fade-in, so that when it finally comes in, the high end on the harmonica is striking in contrast.

I have to point out that the vocal melodies are very good throughout, particularly on choruses, and most of these songs feature surprisingly engaging, moving bridges, too. If there's a weakness here, it's that the lyrics occasionally display some unfortunately obvious choices at line and verse endings, but some additional time spent on editing should pay off. Overall, well done, guys.

12/04/2002 Tom Verlaine: Music for Film

I'd forgotten about this review, which I'd been working on but got too busy to finish. We're almost a year after the event itself, but here it is. Three years ago, I got a chance to see the Columbus show, which was one of the first film soundtracks shows, if not the first. (New York may have been first...in any event, it was the first time I saw Tom live.) If I had to compare the two, I'd say this latest show was significantly better than the 1999 show, due to more spirited playing, better tone, and a seemingly more relaxed Tom.

We brought a few friends along to this one, one of whom was a recording buddy who's been listening to Tom about as long as I have, and this was a first time for him to see Tom as well. The show was publicized a bit, but it didn't seem to have quite the general market awareness that it could have had. Nonetheless, the room gradually filled up--pretty much every hipster in Pittsburgh was there--so I was glad that we came early. We went down to the front seating row, which was the second row (the first row had been taped off, as Tom and Jimmy were seated directly in front of it), and my recording compadre and I went to the center to check out the gear.

Jimmy's using what looks like the same Strat he had in Columbus, as is Tom. Tom's FrankenStrat has the sanded-down body (or possibly an unfinished replacement body), a Jazzmaster neck (headstock finished in a kind of greenish-gold, probably an aged original finish) and actual lipstick pickups. Tom had the Tube Screamer, plus some other effects I don't recall at this remove (a lost opportunity, I know...I also should have checked out Tom's string gauges to see if he's still using heavies); Jimmy was using the Ibanez Modulation delay, a Line6 DL-4 delay modeler, and a Line6 distortion modeler (the yellow one), among other effects.

The big news--and one of the main contributors to the evening's high quality--was that local shop Pittsburgh Guitars had donated matching Fender DeVilles for the night. As a result, both Tom's and Jimmy's tones were much, much better than they were in Columbus (Matchless and Line6 then, respectively).

Considering our fine vantage point, we opted to sit in the middle, right between Jimmy on the left and Tom on the right. Unlike Columbus, they were facing the screen, backs toward us, and they weren't on any stage (although it looked as though one had been set up to the left of the theater)--they were right on the floor in front of the first row of seats, close enough that Tom could easily have swung around and nailed me with the FrankenLectroStratMaster had I yelled out a request for "Yonki Time" at the wrong moment. About the only other tragic flaw with this position was that I was going to spend the evening with my neck craned up so I could see the screen.

We had to wait quite a while before things got underway. While I'm not sure of the reason for the delay, it worked out--the room filled up with scene makers, and I got a chance to kibitz with a local musician who currently books one of our higher profile clubs. (By the end of the evening, I was offered a chance to curate two evenings of electronic music for a festival they're doing there in January--an interesting benefit to fandom.)

Etoile d'Mer

This soundtrack begins with Jimmy providing volume swells as Tom states the peaceful theme. The theme occasionally goes into relative minor, but resolves back to major again. This being a Man Ray film (another one of my heroes), there's not what you'd call a narrative--in fact, there are moments of inversion of typical relationship films (Kiki--Man Ray's lover at that time--disrobes in her room before a male suitor, who...leaves. Rather amusing in the moment.) And most of the film is shot through rippled glass.

The B section is more of a minor figure, with a bridge that reminded me of the Byrds in super slow motion. Occasionally Tom's soloing pokes out, and in peaking revealed his TONE--we were really listening to Tom Verlaine live.

Eventually, the next section features train wheels, and Jimmy's train whistle and wheel scraping sounds really fooled me--for a moment I forgot that we were watching a silent film with a live soundtrack. Jimmy kept the DL4 repeats high enough to allow for a bed of noise, while Tom played pizzicoto notes over it.

The following section was a more ambient version of the B section, minor, but consisting more of volume swells than plucked notes. This gradually became more microtonal and dissonant, with a menacing air. Both Tom and Jimmy are masters of the slide, I'd say. Ultimately, this section resolved into a restatement of the main meditative theme, dissovling into more volume swells, until it culminated in a final restatement with long sustain. Quite beautiful.

The Fall of the House of Usher

This film for me marked the return of the film library theme of ascending chords that Tom and Jimmy played in Columbus, although they were a bit less playful with them this time. I should also mention that while in Columbus, Tom signalled his readiness for the next film with a low-E hit, this time he waved a pocket flashlight on the darkened screen. Each time he'd wave it in a different playful pattern, and this first time he turned around slightly and said to the audience, "This is our light show." I took this as evidence of Tom's good mood.

The soundtrack to this one was creepy as I'd remembered it, much more toward the dark ambient than the others. Both Tom and Jimmy did dissonant volume swells, with Jimmy doing the bong-bong-bong hammer strikes symbolizing the actual disintegration--he struck his fist on the upper horn of his Strat. I recall him using the Ibanez delay for this in Columbus, but didn't hear it in evidence at this show. Tom's own sound varied between these dissonant swells and dark, loud low notes with amp tremolo. Lots of delay on this one.

Ultimately Tom played a creepy obsessive minor key figure on the low E string while Jimmy struck the Strat body again, some more volume swells, and then that dark tremelo figure again, before dissolving in further swells. The film itself is your classic German Expressionist take on the story, perhaps a bit heavyhanded in places, but then again Poe doesn't necessarily invite a light touch.

Man, Tom and Jimmy are versatile, I must say. Someone seriously would benefit from contracting them to do a feature film. (But make sure the studio has Fender amps.)

The Life and Death of 9413--A Hollywood Extra

This was a welcome interlude of lightness after Usher, even though this film is a black comedy. Hey, at least it's a comedy. Tom's theme wasn't quite as "happy bumpkin" as I'd remembered it, and in fact the bridge to this theme was quite moving, revealing a great compassion for the film's lead character.

Emak Bakia

Some fine rocking moments, stronger than I'd remembered, with the added bonus of Jimmy's well-timed pick drags for the collar-ripping sequence. Afterwards the lights came up, and Tom announced that there'd be a few minutes of intermission so that the reels could be rewound. He then rapidly made his way up the aisle, presumably to avoid having awkward contact with the fanboy contingent.

They Caught the Ferry

While the minor E-string driving theme is the one I recall most vividly (and it's still one of the all-time great riffs), I found that the relative major theme for the earlier part of the drive is also a fine one, and it was during that moment I realized how happy I was to be there at that moment, hearing this playing. It's that good.

(Later a fellow audience member observed to me that there's a bit of a resemblance between Tom and the hearse driver in this film. Hmmmm.)

Autumn Mist

More atmospheric, a cooling-down piece after the aggressive film before it. Very pretty, but there's not a whole lot going on in the film, and the music consequently tends more toward the ambient.

Ballet Mecanique

At this remove it's hard to recall all of the parts of this soundtrack, but it began with Jimmy playing a fast U2-ish delay riff, with Tom laying melodic solos over the top. A fine climax to the evening. The lights came up, Tom and Jimmy stood and gave quick waves and half-bows before disappearing. A great evening indeed.

09/15/2002 Polvo: Today's Active Lifestyles

I'm in the middle of a serious Polvo period, and this early full-length from these much-missed (by me) North Carolina titans has logged a lot of hours in the CD player and iTunes this summer. I've heard them described as "Sonic Youth by way of Big Star" (or perhaps the reverse), which is a good enough starting point, I'd think. There are the nonstandard tunings, resulting in tasty mildly dissonant ringing intervals on the open strings and occasional rubber-band sounds, some aggressive strumming as you'd expect, and there's also a tuneful pop sense and a concern with the arrangement of the guitar interplay. But it's more than that, too--the song structures are odd, with measures of unusual lengths, and very strange melodies. Polvo's passports definitely sported stamps from the land of Math Rock, although I wouldn't call that their home.

Case in point is the lead-off track, "Thermal Treasure," beginning with a slow duet of detuned guitars, so slow as to verge on being brain-damaged ambling. Indeed, by 0:21 it seems to fall apart completely, and it's quite a shock when a little cast-off kind of phrase at 0:27 turns out to be the riff into which the band explodes at the half-minute mark, stunningly tight even as the intro seemed sloppy. A very neat trick. We're then led through three distinct sections...twice, plus a complete variation on it before the vocals come in on the second variation at 1:45. Sounds "complex," to be sure, but the impact is real. You don't need a Ph.D. in order to rock. And what I can make out of the lyrics are a treat as well--some obscure observations of little details are sung and shouted with great urgency.

What impresses me about this song is that there are so many things done "wrong" (or which sound as if they'd be wrong from the description) and it turns out completely right when you hear it--sort of emblematic for this band. "Lazy Comet" is similar in its apparently sloppy beginning, but the band builds quite the groovy riff out of this sloppiness. And this, too, is a song built from many sections. The band's penchant for long musical phrases is showcased on the positively gorgeous guitar duet "My Kimono," which unwinds itself in surprising ways.

The rest of the disc boasts other good songs and fine moments on this disc (the extended "Tilebreaker" and the energetic-to-reflective "Action Vs. Vibe" in particular, also "Time Isn't on My Side," which kicks off a practice of parodic name-checking of other bands and songs on other discs), but after these first three, you're pretty much in Polvo's sound world for good. And I'll tell you, it's a fine place to be.

05/18/2002 Damo Suzuki: live at Backward on Forward

An interesting evening for a number of reasons. Damo Suzuki was the vocalist of the krautrock group Can, and has been performing again with a similar aesthetic (although with a wide variety of musicians). The aesthetic in this case is essentially free rock improv, every night different from the next. In practice, results depend on the inclinations of the musicians he's working with. He's lately been touring with Boston noise/rock/surf band Cul de Sac, and the whole package swung by the 'burgh tonight.

The evening opened with a performance-grade soundcheck, but the real opener was one of the bassists doing live PowerBook dub. Rather engaging, actually. I wondered at his sound sources, which seemed to fit together quite nicely; didn't get a chance to talk to him, though. He was followed by the rest of Cul de Sac, who turned in a respectable set of surf-flavored noise rock. Instrumentation was interesting--two bassists, one of whom doubled on PowerBook, and the other who doubled on violin through a wah pedal (as was the case with his bass as well). The keyboardist provided even more atmospherics with a digital and an analog synth (the analog was particularly nice) and the guitarist exhibited fine taste in guitars (all cheapies--nice Hagstrom, too), with a load of different pedals in a high road case for easy hand access. The drummer was more than capable as well, and the set was hypnotic, melodic, and definitely worth a listen.

Damo joined them, and his vocals added a level of intensity as the set became even more hypnotic, jammy, and, well, long. I left at 1:00, and heard that they were going to play until 2:00. I did enjoy the hypnotic quality, but...this is the pitfall of rock improv: without constraints, the audience's minds will wander (or at least mine did). Everyone seemed pretty good at what they did, but yet something was off. I think Cul de Sac's set was stronger when they were doing their songs, which they knew and which had structure. That structure can indeed be a friend when even in an improv setting--you don't get that horrible blank mind, that lack of ideas that can befall you. In that sense, rock improv's probably easier than completely free improv, as you can just keep jamming on that riff you already have going...but that's the thing that can lull the audience to inattention instead of engaging them. (As an improv performer, I can't help seeing this set with these predicaments in mind.) In any event, the band seemed to be having fun, and the room was packed, so it was a successful night for them and an object lesson in general.

Do check them out, though--apparently the set changes from night to night, and everyone's good enough for these shows to have some really special performances in them.

04/05/2002 Don Caballero: What Burns Never Returns

Lately I've been listening to this one a lot. It wasn't their last one, but it was the last studio recording with Mike Banfield still in the band, and for me it's their creative peak. "Don Caballero 3" picks up literally where the previous disc left off (same drumbeat--neat idea) and builds from there. The nearly three-minute introduction builds tension appropriately until the piece shifts into another introductory riff, which shifts again at 3:30, leading up to the open dramatic figures that follow it at the four minute mark, and it keeps changing from there. What a band--this piece just keeps building. It's a real pocket symphony.

"In The Abscence Of Strong Evidence To The Contrary, One May Step Out Of The Way Of The Charging Bull" is another fine highlight, with the interlocking finger-tapping, and a fine moment for Pat Morris's bass. I think I've been listening to this album again as a result of working with a fine drummer who kind of reminds me of Damon Che here. (I actually don't think he's familiar with the Don; I'm going to have to introduce him to the music.) The whole-band interplay on this one is thrilling and moving, and not without its humor. It's not just about counting.

"Delivering The Groceries At 138 Beats Per Minute" is, in comparison with most Don stuff by this point, a pop number. You can see why Southern put it up as the .mp3 single. Rocky, grooving, infectious. "Slice Where You Live Like Pie" in a way combines the previous three tracks with Che's salsa-esque cowbell, the guitarists' tapping and clustered riffs...but again the piece expands and contracts, ebbs and flows, grooves and slows...with some distorted peaks.

The pinnacle of this disc, however, is "Room Temperature Suite," a concise (for the Don) piece that nonetheless could be called "sweeping." Many little sections that lead into each other, with actual emotional content. (Or at least what I perceive as actual emotional content.) It's another symphonic structure, and one of those glorious occasions on which a very promising band even exceeds that promise.

"From the Desk of Elsewhere Go" is another epic with a light touch in places, alternating consonance with dissonance, grooves with complex stumbling, and intensity with reflection, a real microcosm of their music. This one and the next one, "June Is Finally Here," with its clean, cyclical playing, do put one in a springtime frame of mind. A great listen for this time of year.

02/02/2002 Chris Butler: The Museum of Me

Most recently (and because I've been wanting to have content with an 02/02/02 datestamp) I should point out that I've been greatly enjoying .mp3s of Chris Butler's The Museum of Me project, in which he has recorded songs using various antique audio gear like Edison wax cylinder, wire recorder, and paper tape. What might seem like a mere gimmick is actually a delight--these are really good songs, and the artifacts of the recording media only enhance their charm. Check out "The Man in the Razor Suit," for instance, and try to get it out of your head afterwards--impossible. As well as being intensely catchy, the song's lyrics feature wordplay that is well worth scrutinizing. Or try not to sing along to "Thinkin' About Them Girls," a period piece mixing wax cylinder and digital multitrack to great effect (and a classic tune, as well). The others, "Hole in the Sky" and "Swamp Boy," are excellent as well. Keep an eye out for this one when it's released.

I should note that Chris's site is another exquisite design by the great Keith Allison, Web designer of fine sites for Richard Lloyd, Bibi Farber, and the Television tribute sites that can be found here and here, among others.

01/24/2002 Chris Bell: I Am the Cosmos

Many, many fellow Big Star fans have recommended that I check this out. I was under the impression that Chris's songs on #1 Record weren't as strong as Alex's, but it appears that they actually co-wrote a fair amount, and it turns out that Chris's contributions to Radio City are among my faves. So what's this one sound like?

Let's get the one nitpick out of the way--some of the lyrics and rhymes are a bit obvious. I don't care, though--with music this beautiful, I'm willing to forgive this. Well, and there's an issue with the headphones I'm using to play this on the PowerBook, also--they're Sonys, so the high end is majorly hyped so as to give the illusion of "clarity." It's actually a shortcut to major ear fatigue on some discs like this one, where the spectrum is full, and there's a lot of high-end information. But back to the music: everything you've heard is true--this is a brilliant slab of power pop, completely satisfying to the Big Star fanboy I've become.

High points:

"I Am the Cosmos": Besides the drama of the tune and how he delivers it, there's this perfect radio-friendly, melodic guitar solo that speaks the language of the heart with pure eloquence. I can't say enough good things about this. The fade of "Better Save Yourself" acts as the ideal release of the song's slowly-built tension. "You and Your Sister" is another perfect single, and appears in a total of three versions on this disc. Sure, the rhymes are predictable in this one, but it is indeed a beautiful tune, somehow more sturdy and more fragile than the perhaps better-known This Mortal Coil cover. "I Don't Know" is another thrilling power pop workout alternating between tasty Byrds-like arpeggios and almost boogie-rock chunky chording. But everything on here is a gem, and more than worth a listen. Worth several listens, in fact. Some of the remaining tunes are stronger than others, but you'll have that. Check it out.

10/31/2001 Alloy Orchestra: live Nosferatu soundtrack

We just got back from the Alloy Orchestra (a trio, actually; one of the members is ex-Mission of Burma/ex-Birdsongs of the Mesozoic renaissance man Roger Miller) doing a live soundtrack to Murnau's Nosferatu. Deeply creepy and amazing. You can't watch this film silent, as the acting is that particular flavor of '20s-era overblownness. It needs an intense soundtrack that occasionally hits even more intense peaks, and that's what we got. Flowing piano, simulated strings, musical saw, chimes, and sheet metal scraping, along with more conventional drums and percussion toys. Highly recommended--they're on tour right now.

It was mighty. Very intense, gorgeous playing, perfect for the film. Two percussionists also, one of whom also did musical saw and sheet metal scraping for the super-creepy parts. I thought that a static soundtrack would not have been nearly as good, and that something historically was lost when pit bands stopped playing live soundtracks.

Roger, btw, is in fine form. I remember thinking at one point, This is definitely the same guy who wrote "Waterwheel." Well done. And it turns out that the CDs are very good indeed.

09/26/2001 Alex Chilton: live

He was in fine form, pulling from the history of rock 'n' roll (doing an Ernie K-Doe tune), lounge ("Volaré"), R&B ("Precious, Precious"), some unexpected covers (Michael Jackson's "Rock with You"--I'm not kidding), and fine versions of "In the Street" and "When My Baby's Beside Me." Quite an inventive guitarist, and his voice is in great shape, too. He was, apparently, in a good mood, and it was indeed a fine evening.

There were shouts for "O My Soul," which Alex ignored. (Full disclosure: while I didn't shout out any Big Star requests, at one point my wife and I shouted a request for "Tea for Two," because it seemed as though it would fit. He didn't play it, though.) He did, it must be pointed out, do "What's Your Sign, Girl," which a friend (and Chilton fan) had warned me about, and which at the time seemed like a wrong move. Taste being what it is (highly mutable), it has since kind of grown on me.

Highly recommended.

06/05/2001 Big Star: Sister Lovers/Third

I have to agree with friends of mine who point out that this one's a downer, but man, what a beautiful downer! While I love the power pop of the first one, and a lot of the tunes from the second, I'm listening a lot to "Kizza Me" (when the trashy/sleazy fuzz guitar kicks in after the chorus, it's totally right, and dig that out of sync, schizophrenic doubletracking on the vocal!), "Thank You Friends" (as cynical as the song is, I still love the way the backing vocals sound, and there's a fine radio-friendly guitar solo), "Stroke It, Noel" (achingly beautiful), "For You" (sucker that I am for classic melodic pop with good strings--the chorus is exactly what it should be), and "Nighttime," which is a downer, but has such a moving, gorgeous lap steel guitar and deep plate reverb that I feel elated anyway. There's that "Femme Fatale" cover also, the weirdness of "Kangaroo," the desperation of "Dana".... Damn, it's a good record, and it gets a lot of play around here, let me tell you.

06/05/2001 Big Star: #1 Record/Radio City

They sure are name-checked enough. So what's the big deal? Pop. Pop, pop, and more pop. Power pop, sensitive pop, messed-up, depressed pop. And it's gorgeous. They were the American Beatles that could have been. The only thing standing between this music and megastardom was really, really bad distribution. It's a pity, but the elitist in me is more than happy to love this stuff alongside the rest of the cult. Sure, some of the lyrics are mundane, even dodgy, but I don't care. It's gorgeoous, gorgeous power pop, and I'll happily cop to being a fanboy.

#1 Record is a strong start. Highights for me are "The Ballad of El Goodo," "In the Street," "When My Baby's Beside Me," and "My Life is Right." Perfect summer car music. Check out the inner resolve of "El Goodo" and the harmony on the chorus! Groove to "In the Street," which I'm told has been the theme song to some TV show. The latter two are also fantastic, thrilling pop tunes that I'm not ashamed to love. Admittedly, many of the other tunes on this one don't do it for me--the really embarrassing "India Song" comes to mind, and I'm not much for "Thirteen," either. (Sorry if you happen to like them.)

The writing team of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell (actually the person who put the band together) split between #1 and the next record, Radio City, and Bell left the band. (Tragically, he would be killed in a car crash just when he was getting a new band together, but not before recording the songs that would make up the posthumously released I Am the Cosmos, a record beloved by fanboys everywhere.) Losing a songwriter might have hurt other bands, but not this one--Radio City, if anything, is stronger than the debut, and is just dripping with classic tunes: "Way Out West" (written with Bell, so I understand), "What's Going Ahn" (was Alex hangin' aht in the 'burgh 'n'at? Inquiring minds want to know), "Back of a Car," and the perfect "September Gurls." All of these are thrilling pop tunes I can't say enough good things about. There's lyrical ambivalence, beautiful guitars, harmony vocals...the works. It feels exactly right. Sadly, Stax didn't get the distribution right for this one, either. But you can buy 'em both on one CD, and check this scene out.

06/02/2001 Richard Thompson: live

An outdoor concert. In the rain. And the audience didn't move during the set. Very impressive! (RT, in response to some shouted requests: "No, we're going to save the popular ones until it really pisses down." And later: "Thank you. You're all very kind...and very damp." ) Admittedly, we did abandon our position to stand under the bridge behind the stage toward the end of the show, so we couldn't see him anymore, but we could hear just fine. I'm not familiar enough with his ouvre to know the names of all the tunes, but "'52 Black Vincent" and "Persuasion" were in the set, along with the Kenny G one, which was much applauded. The size of the audience was surprising given the downpour--some really loyal fans. While I've gotten more familiar with his early electric work, he's developed those mighty fingerpicking chops that the uninitiated might mistake for an overdub...until he does it live with nobody else onstage. Jawdropping, but also intensely tuneful. Highly, highly recommended.

05/23/2001 The Coctails: Peel

This is a totally unassuming little gem of an album, with great melodies, spirited playing, and a distinct lack of self-importance. It's a beaut. I picked it up knowing some of their jazzier stuff, and was quite unprepared for this nearly-perfect indie charmer.

Where to begin? Barry Phipps's "Miss Maple" starts the disc off, a driving, poppy summer tune of the first order. The title track is next, an instrumental that builds gradually to a satisfyingly hard-strummed peak. After a brief pause for Archer Prewitt's slow, quiet "Wicked Ways" and a tune I'm not remembering at the moment, it's back to love-pop ecstasy with Phipps's "Postcard," a perfect song for the lovers--perfect, I tell you. Innocent, knowing, edging toward irony but deeply sincere, in a universe with any justice, this would be a monster hit.

Other high points of the disc include Phipps's intensely catchy "Weather King," one of the most surreal singalong tunes I can thing of. There's also a rare peppy Prewitt tune, "2000" (another catchy one), and John Upturch's "Moment of the Day," a driving song of uptempo wistful melancholy.

In addition to the fine guitar tones (low-power amp overdrive, sounds like), we're also treated to marimba, upright bass, harmonica, and musical saw, all exquisitely recorded by the great Robert Weston IV.

Archer Prewitt is perhaps the only member still musically active in a big way, but I really wish we heard more from Barry Phipps--for me, his songs are the standouts on this disc. Well worth picking up.

05/10/2001 Television: Live in Chicago!

So. We've seen Television--amazing, and for a while I wasn't sure it would be.

A quick summary: Promising, energetic, and at times...not quite focused, or something. The band would get pumped up, play tight, interact, and then something would dissipate the energy. It's always hard to enjoy a show for what it is when you're expecting something, and--even though I should have resisted the urge, I kept waiting for the transcendent moment which was approached several times, and not fully embraced. But that moment did come, and it was during "Marquee Moon." (More on that below.)

Why the dissipation? One of the fellow fans we hooked up with predicted that the three-week layoff might suck some energy out of the band, which is indeed possible. Could be unfamiliar equipment, since Tom's guitar seemed new, and Richard played two guitars we hadn't seen before. I also somehow picked up the impression that Tom was fighting a cold or something. Now that I think about it, I can't pin down where I got the idea from, but...I did get that impression.

Overall, the older material seemed to gel a bit better, but the material from the third album definitely took on a life of its own, particularly "The Rocket" and "Rhyme." Billy was as inventive as one would hope; Fred was steady and cool; and Richard and Tom played very well. Paradoxically, however, it seemed from time to time that the band had lost its edge, or wasn't as tight as it could have been, quite possibly a result of the downtime.

There could also be some question of how relations are within the band--Richard stood way off to stage left, on his own. Everyone's facial expressions seemed disengaged or even slightly annoyed when playing, but Richard laughed at Tom's "We bought new clooooothes for this gig" joke, and Tom seemed to be enjoying himself from time to time in these asides (like the "Yuh, right" response to requests for "Fire Engine" and "Elevation"). Who knows, it might have been the effect of concentrating on their actual playing. I'm not complaining, though--it was indeed a thrill to see and hear them live, and it was great to hook up with "Marquee Moon mailing list" folks, all of them very cool and different.

Now for the loads-of-detail version:

The Metro is a once-grand theatre that seems to have endured some long-ago psychic trauma, followed by decades of casual abuse as it bumps slowly toward decay. Still, some grandeur lingers in the ornaments about the high ceiling and around the proscenium. No seating, as we'd learned (for the likes of us, anyway). One of us had done some advance reconnaissance the night before, and found that the best view was from the floor, as close to the stage as one could push. The place was packed, though. Most of our little group was off to the left, what clearly looked to be Tom's side.

I found the openers, Preston School of Industry (Scott Kannberg), quite likeable. Amusingly, one of our friends leaned over at one point during their set, and said, "If I know you, you're writing a review in your head: nice rhythm guitar, not enough soloing." Which was pretty accurate. Kannberg has that steady post-Velvets pop-strumming thing down cold. It's good in its way, but tends toward sameyness. Fortunately, the arrangements (keys/flugelhorn, bass, drums, guitar/vocals) varied a bit, although at times seemed, I dunno, Springsteeny or something. When Kannberg soloed or contributed feedback noise, or when the flugelhorn came out, those moments revealed the real promise of the band. Mostly, Kannberg was content to hold down rhythm and let the bassist do the solos. Fine, but I would have liked more guitar soloing and melodic playing, since he has a nice sense of texture.

Television. First off, it was a thrill to see Billy onstage, setting up his drums--we're seeing Television! Really! Gear: Tom's red hardtail strat, which a fellow audience member observed might have still had the price tag hanging from it (looked very new), miscellaneous effects (which I couldn't see), and that Matchless amp--not the same one from Columbus, which I know was borrowed; anyway, the Columbus one was burgundy-covered, and this one was black. If it's his, maybe that's what he's into now. It'd be interesting if the amp he borrowed in Columbus got him into these guys.

Fred was playing...I remember it as a Jazz bass, which surprised me. That into an amp I can't recall (G-K?), and a Hartke cabinet. You'll find in the review that I don't mention Fred much, mainly because...he was hard to hear from where I was. Bass waves don't fully resolve for several feet out from the stage, so I've heard, and I may have been too close for the waves to fully resolve. Or maybe I was in a null. Or I may have just cruelly neglected Fred in paying attention to Tom and Richard. <Insert dope-slap>

Richard played mostly a sunburst Strat with a deeply disturbed finish and a humbucker in the bridge. He was quite busy with the pickup switch, so it seemed to me. I'm not sure what pedals he used, either. (Both Richard and Tom seemed to have electronic tuners among their effects.)

During the plugging-in-and-tuning part, Tom was met with shouts of "Where's the Jazzmaster?" (wasn't me, honest) and "Tom, we love you no matter what!" which wasn't me either, but was heartening to hear. (I've heard an awful story involving one of his acoustic tours, and man, if Tom's come to hate performing, that'd explain it. But the crowd in Chicago was happy to see him.)

Having heard about "Swells" from reviews of the UK shows, I was able to enjoy it for what it was, a sort of ambient, dramatic overture. The drum rolls and the mode Tom was playing in had some similarities to the "overture" part of "Seneca" from Tortoise's Standards, with a touch of "Sor Juanna" from Warm and Cool.

As this intro slowly died away, Tom picked out the riff of "1880 or So," perhaps a tentative, delicate tune to start with, it was still proof that this was really the band we came to see, after waiting all this time. I was on Tom's side of the stage, where he was clustered with Fred and Billy, with Richard off on his own to the right. (What's up with that?) I was back from the stage a bit--no room to push up front--and found that I could hear Tom's voice and guitar quite well (not surprising), Billy's drums just fine, and Richard with some difficulty. (Not helped by the weird midrange choky quality to his tone in the solo here.) Richard seemed to be playing his ass off, but from where I stood, it was buried in the mix. At the time, it seemed that it should have been the moment when the band took off, but there was a kind of cognitive dissonance between Richard's fretboard attack and the laid-back quality over on stage right. Interestingly, Tom's solo was a lot more engaged and aggressive live than the sparse, pedal-steel-ish solo we know from the studio version--a good sign indeed.

"This Tune" came next, my least-favorite track from the third album. ("Mars" would have killed the momentum, but I do like it better than "This Tune.") The energy seemed to slip a bit here, but it might have been my lack of engagement with the song. Tom delivered some of the lines (like "you touched my knee") in a dissonant moan that added a likably creepy dimension. The interplay between Richard and Tom got tighter, and they had a groove going toward the end.

When they slammed into "Venus" next, as others have observed, a charge went through the audience. Hearing and seeing them play this was the realization of a dream we'd had for many years. This was also my first real education in how Tom and Richard split up the playing--Richard handled the complex riff (his parts much more audible now, with a less choked tone), and took over the rhythm playing during the Tom's solo. The solo itself showed great spirit, and was another truly thrilling moment of the evening (for me, anyway). Billy's drumming was also dramatic on this one, and we got to see Tom bending at the knees as of legend, leaning over his guitar, pumping the notes out. The band was very tight on this one, which says a lot for playing old tunes.

"Beauty Trip" was pleasant enough, but some of the energy seemed to dissipate. Perhaps it's because the arrangements aren't as intricate as the older tunes or something--there's more space in them, more flexibility maybe, but it can create a big hole to fill. Richard exhibited a fine solo, however, and the tradeoff of the main riff between Tom and Richard was a treat to see, which contradicts what I began this paragraph complaining about. (It'd have been nice to see Richard play slide on this one, but such was not to be.)

Some sparse, creepy atmospherics were next, with Tom exhibiting the pinky-on-the-volume-knob Roy Buchanan swells that he does so well. It seemed like the beginning of some new tune, something like "Swells." It was cool, with Tom and Richard responding to each other playfully, seemingly unrehearsed. Then Billy started the drum part, and--it was "Little Johnny Jewel"! Another thriller. Tight, engaged, and mighty, particularly Richard, Fred, and Billy, who all seemed to be spurring Tom on. "And then he loses his senses..." The solo started strong, and Tom followed his inspiration outward...dissipating into those sparse volume swells again. A much shorter solo than I would have expected from this usually epic tune.

"See No Evil" pumped some life back into the band, with another smoking solo by Richard. Also good to see was Tom's playing during Richard's solos--I was vividly reminded of one of Tom's comments about there not being any personality stuff onstage, but that when Richard played, Tom's only concern was to push him as hard as he could. This was quite visible. Richard's playing all evening was very note-dense, sometimes verging on shredding territory, as if he was trying to wrench the band into life, to light a fire under everyone. The same was true for "Call Mr. Lee," in which Richard's playing struck me as almost twisted in this setting, and put me in mind of Ernie Henry's first phrases in his solo on Monk's "Brilliant Corners"--the dissonance was beautifully jarring and noirish. Tom's playing, as if in response, became again more aggressive than on the studio version, and the tune ended hard and wonderful.

Next came "Prove It," yet another lesson in how the old tunes were arranged. Again, many of the parts I'd thought were Tom's were in fact Richard's. As Philip noted, the audience sung along on the chorus, and Billy's glorious drum fills were right there in the verses (kind of made me wish they'd done "Torn Curtain"). Tom's solo was even better than his others so far, and I got the impression that things were getting fun for him.

"Rocket" and "Rhyme" were next in the set, and really did come to life. "Rocket," their Sonic Youth tune, began with Richard's gorgeous Hendrixian cascading waves of feedback. I'd have been happy to hear the whole tune played that way. While I dug the ping-ponging between Tom and Richard in the trading of lines, more of that feedback would have pushed it over the top. Still, a joyful noise was made, and phased into "Rhyme." Tom's vocals were significantly improvised, and he played with the delivery a lot, getting into the character of (as Milo Miles put it) "a man so inarticulate with lust" that he was reduced to random disconnected phrases. It was cool to hear him digging around and finding the poetry in the words--hey, a Live Event! As it trailed on, though, there was something disturbing about the "blue dress" monologue--that "heaviness" or "sense of crisis" in the light stuff that Tom's talked about, an example of this tune done well. Finally, in the middle of it, the band fell silent, and I thought for sure everything had fallen apart. But no--there was the "scream and shout" crescendo, and the band blasted out the long coda. Way more enjoyable than on record.

"Rhyme" faded into..."Marquee Moon," of course, mighty, confident, just as one would want (another who-played-what lesson!). Richard kicked out the jams on his solo, and Tom's solo had great spirit as well. Finally, during the ascending figure near the end, Richard dropped out to change guitars and tune the replacement. Tom took over both guitar parts for the atmospheric resolution, and...led Fred and Billy back into the ascending figure, repeatedly, with greater intensity each time.

My memory at this point is sketchy (anyone who's heard a recording of the show may be able to verify one way or another)--I recall that right before Richard joined back in (after what was probably just a couple of minutes, but seemed much longer), Tom had stretched out the atmospheric part again, into a supple, pure noisemaking, waving the guitar back and forth for the RFI hum, in a thrilling example of an expert at play. When Richard joined for the last iteration of the figure and the ending of the tune (without the reiteration of the theme as on record), the noise was loud, overpowering, and glorious--it was as if the band had slyly pulled victory from the jaws of chaos. What would have completely derailed lesser players (equipment screwup at the climax of the signature tune) became proof of their mastery.

What I want from a band is for them to show me something new, and Television did here, just as they did the first time I heard them on record. I'd go so far as to say that this version of Marquee Moon is the best I'd ever heard. One of our group observed that we should have had to pay extra for that mistake, and I have to agree. At that point, the evening was made for me.

That the encore began with "Glory" was yet another pleasure. It smoked appropriately gently, while the covers "Don't Need Your Lovin' Anymore" and "Psychotic Reaction" burned full on. Chaos reared its head again at the beginning of the latter--Tom's call for the segue seemed to take Richard by surprise, or something, and they ended up a fraction of a beat out of sync on the riff. This seemed to amuse Tom. They synched back up, and played all the harder for it, Tom memorably attacking his Strat with wire cutters for a chaotic slide in his solo. And then they were gone.

They'd rocked, played "out," let the tunes breathe, showed us something new, and struggled against chaos. A truly great, dramatic evening.

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