Monday, December 30, 2013

2013: The Year in Shows

Every year I do this post, and every year it seems to start the same way:

I sure didn't go to very many shows this year.

And why on Earth should I break with that humble little tradition? This was yet another year when I couldn't get my act together, constantly hearing that Clutch or High on Fire or Mudhoney was playing, only when it was already too late (or, more likely, I was too worn out) to make the run downtown to see them.

Anyway, I'd like to think that I made up in quality what I gave up in volume. So, here are my top three shows of 2013:

3. Pig Destroyer at the Black Cat

Pig Destroyer is a weird band, and so I'm happy that they've amassed the following that they have. God knows, there probably isn't a huge market for 2-minute long songs consisting largely of distorted screaming backed by feedback and spastic drums.

And yet, even with all of their grindcore trappings, it's kind of fun to look at these guys as avant garde. True, there was a shitload of something happening at this show that might be most easily called noise. And yet, 40 minutes into the set, I was exhausted for them and the incredible stamina it must have taken to pull off that tour.

2. Graveyard at the Black Cat

People have been calling Graveyard a metal band for at least three years now, and I still don't quite know why. They sound a good deal more like Led Zeppelin or even the Allmans than any "metal" band I can think of, yet the label persists. Perhaps it's because they're Swedes....

Nonetheless, this bill was a remarkable reminder of what rock and roll can sound like when it's done with effort.

In recent years, it's become fashionable for many bands to cast off blues-based rock and roll as a simplistic, paint-by-numbers relic. What's lost in that opinion is the fact that rock and roll is only easy or simple when it is played by average bands -- which it all too often is.

However, when played by inspired individuals - with real songwriting talent and a proper rhythm section - a great rock show can become something of a clinic for the audience. And that's exactly how Graveyard did things on this evening.

It wasn't terribly fashionable, but at a time when bands like Awolnation and Imagine Dragons are occupying that space with little more than synthed-up soccer chants, it was good to be reminded that hip is so often the enemy of cool, and that rock and roll never goes away for long.

1. The Melvins at Maryland Deathfest

I gave this one some love already this year, but it's worth repeating: 

The older I get, the more I need bands like the Melvins. Much like my beloved Motorhead, their existence is proof that you don't have to be young or good looking to find success as a professional musician. You simply have to be talented, focused and very disciplined.

In fact, the Melvins stepped into Maryland Deathfest directly following a several-months-long European tour, and directly before embarking on an even longer U.S. tour. They didn't look tired or grumpy. In fact, they were at the absolute top of their game, despite playing in the middle of the afternoon on a summer day.

Why? Because - quite simply - it's their job.

As I had written before, the mood at Deathfest was relatively blah for much of Saturday afternoon. Fans largely wondered around, chatted with one another and checked out merch as bands like Weedeater and the Obsessed played their meandering sets. Such is the nature of a festival.

When the Melvins took the stage, something altogether different happened. The foot traffic stopped. Vendor sales plummeted. Fans planted themselves in place for the length of the set and took it in almost reverently. All for a band that isn't easily pigeonholed into any metal sub-genre.

In fact, if there were one single theme of this set, it would be that of respect. Festival attendees paid attention. Fellow bands crammed to the sides and back of the stage to take it all in (and perhaps take notes).

Moreover, the band showed an uncommon respect for the crowd. The mood of the set was communal and familiar, without Buzz Osborne ever having to deliver the types of pandering rock and roll speeches that Phil Anselmo would make a signature of his performance later on in the evening.

And the set itself was thoroughly rehearsed without sounding the least bit small feat within the context of a year on the road.

I realize that some of this sounds a little righteous, so I'll offer you a less serious memory from the afternoon:

The Melvins did a fairly long warm-up. This is a fact of life when you're sharing a festival stage (and when you have two drummers to sound check). As Buzzo was trying to get his levels right, he riffed along in that second-nature kind of way that all guitar players do when they're trying to fill time. 

In the middle of a bunch of noisy riffs, he began to slowly pluck an eerily familiar solo...a majestic 70's-style walk-down lick that caught me by surprise. I knew that I knew it -- in fact, it was a lick that I knew intimately -- but in this context, I couldn't place it at all. For a frustrating five or six seconds, I unsuccessfully raked my mind, to no success.

I looked around at the people around me. A kid in a black hoodie was standing next to me with a grin on his face.  He glanced at me and made the first move.

"Detroit Rock City. He does that a lot."

I thanked him and laughed at myself. Of course it was Kiss. Of course...

Monday, December 23, 2013

Confronting Honesty: On Deafheaven

December is a tough month for me as a music fan. Given the plethora of year-end lists that emerge at this time of year, it's often difficult not to feel as though I've failed in my efforts to discover new music.

That said, if you can work through those feelings, it's a pretty awesome (and economical) opportunity to catch up on things in short order.

Complicating matters, this is also a time when music critics become even uglier than usual. As certain bands pull away from the pack, there is an immediate backlash against them -- a backlash that is often petty and seemingly motivated by the critic's personal insecurities. (If that sounds mean, than you probably have never met a music critic -- or a critic of any kind, really).

This year, no metal band is more firmly trapped in this tug-of-war than San Francisco's Deafheaven.

The Objective: Being Objective

I'll be honest: I didn't hear about Deafheaven until this past fall. Maybe I should have. I dunno. (The fact that I've heard of them at all makes me feel like I've done at least one thing right this year...)

Among the very first things I heard about the band was that they were considered by many to be "metal for people who don't like metal." 

At root, everyone knows that this is an incredibly elitist statement. In fact, it actually made me want to give the band a fair shake. So, I did something I rarely do anymore: I bought Sunbather, sight unseen. Just like the old days. And it felt good - just like it used to.

That's not to say that I didn't walk into the experience with my own set of prejudices. Quite the opposite.

The hipster fascination with metal that's emerged these past ten years irks me deeply, and I struggle with it quite a bit; I can't sit here and honestly tell you that I think every single 29 year old in East Austin (or Silverlake or Williamsburg or Wicker Park) who owns a Slayer tee is just a poseur.  Some - if not most - of them have to possess a true love of metal.

Yet, there are days when I feel 100 percent certain that this weird hipster fascination with black metal is little more than the result of a bunch of music nerds who got so bent out of shape over "alternative punk rock" going mainstream that they went out and deliberately tried to find the least accessible music possible, so that they could still feel cool and different and flaccidly subversive.

God knows we've all been there. Remember that first time you heard your "yeah-bro!" coworkers talking about Block Party or the Arctic Monkeys or whoever?

It sucked. Made you want to take up free jazz, didn't it?

So, anyway, I knew it was going to be tough to be impartial with this record. I was incredibly quick to dismiss Krallice and Wolves in the Throne Room as "hipster metal" after very quick listens, and that probably didn't bode well for Deafheaven.

...And neither did the first several minutes of Sunbather. In fact, I probably wasn't even 30 seconds into the album before I found myself saying it out loud:

"This isn't a fucking metal album."

Trailblazers or Trend-chasers?

To the contrary, this sounded like just one more record in a firmly-entrenched trend of bands that using ambient soundscapes as a technique for enhancing their arrangements.

That's not to say that it sounds bad. Quite the opposite: there are bands that I like a great deal who use this same technique in different ways: the Drop Electric and even Sigur Ros come to mind.

But within the context of metal, it sits poorly. There is a strong sense that without the drums and the screeching vocals, none of the music would be terribly identifiable as metal.  Maybe that shouldn't be a problem for me, but it is. Because when the sound of the music is so - forgive the term - mainstream, the metal vocals begin to sound like a gimmick.

That's undoubtedly an unfair accusation. But it comes from an honest place: these songs may be beautiful, tragic and tortured, but they provide little or none of the visceral sensory satisfaction that I seek in metal.

Maybe I'm simple that way. But I kind of doubt it.

On the Bright Side....

To be completely fair, there are moments on the album that absolutely work - particularly in the second half of the record. When "Vertigo" hits fifth gear, it is simply tremendous. Ditto for "The Pecan Tree", which is the album's masterwork.

To that end, its a real blessing to have Sunbather end on such a strong note. It leaves an impression that is somehow powerful enough to forgive the unsatisfying shoegaze of the album's first half.

In fact, I can't even pretend not to love the final 25 minutes of Sunbather. When it gels, it represents a tremendous meeting between vision and execution in a way that utilizes the soundscaping majesty of the first half of the record, without sacrificing its metal underpinnings. And those moments are incredibly satisfying.

In Conclusion: An Undisciplined Sidebar Thought That Just Came to Me...

I have a feeling that it could be a long time before I make my peace with Sunbather as a whole entity. In fact,
if I were a better writer, I'd make a big comparison between Sunbather and Kanye's Yeezus.

They're both incendiarily polarizing to critics. They both seem intentionally confrontational to the listener. They both strike me as an example of the vision of the art being significantly greater than its execution. And they both seem to be records that demand a few weeks' worth of listens in order to make a fully-formed opinion.

But I'm not a better writer. And I don't give a fuck about Kanye. And I have limited time these days. So, I'll be spending these next few weeks trying to get to know Sunbather.

To tell you the truth, it feels nice to embrace such a challenging record. I'm finding myself almost grateful.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Christmas Miracle - Reviews in Bad Taste: 20 Feet From Stardom

So, I turned around and made some massive life changes (no, I still drink, but thanks for your concern), and the next thing I knew it was Christmastime, and I hadn't updated this blog for several weeks. And no one complained.

I'll focus on the latter and take this as a victory.

Anyway, here it is: December. I've been mashing the iPhone with Phil Spector's "A Christmas Gift for You", because....well, it really is the only Christmas album I need. There's plenty of other great stuff out there (the final shot of that Low video does it to me every single time), but if I could only walk away with one holiday album, this is the one.

Listening to all of that phenomenal girl group pop reminded me: I saw a great music documentary earlier this year, and I never finished the blog post I started about it. Because I'm incredible that way.

Anyway, here it is. Because we need to make things right before 2014...


Among my greatest (and possibly least known) musical fascinations is my love for girl groups and female background vocals.

The Crystals, The Ronnettes, Martha and the Vandellas and most especially the Shangi-Las have all had a special place in my musical library over the years. (And don't even get me started on the Sahara Hotnights).

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why - blame it on the Stones, blame it on the Dolls, blame it on Eddie Money - but I suspect it mostly has something to do with a certain kind of power that women have always had over me: unabashed expressions of feminine emotion -- be they exuberance, sorrow, longing or, well, anger -- have always been much more compelling to me than those by males.  

(Think about it: would "Soul Finger" sound halfway as fun without the girls?)

And, so, I was excited when I learned that the SilverDocs/AFI Festival featured the film, "20 Feet from Stardom" this year.

"20 Feet From Stardom" takes a close look at some of the most prolific but unheralded heroes among the rock and roll / R&B / soul background singer communities. And while it features all of the prerequisite interviews with superstars (Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting are all interviewed prominently), the beauty of this film is that the background singers themselves are the focus.

If 20 Feet has a heroine, it is certainly Darlene Love. For folks like me, who know her primarily for her signature song, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", it was a revelation to learn:

(1) just how prolific she was (Ever heard The Monster Mash? Then you've heard Darlene Love);

(2) just how badly the industry screwed her (Ever heard the Crystals' signature song? Then you've also heard Darlene Love, thanks to Phil Spector's magnificent - yet despicably unethical - legal and marketing acumen); and

(3) how she made her comeback.

This concept of getting screwed by the industry tends to be a theme throughout the film. The mighty Merry Clayton shares her experience of being told that -- despite being the voice behind Gimmie Shelter and Sweet Home Alabama, among others -- her solo career flopped because there was "only room for one Aretha".

Meanwhile, Claudia Lennear finds herself at a loss as to why her solo albums didn't get a bigger push from the record companies.

And in a heartbreaking twist, Love recalls hearing one of her songs on the radio as she was working as a house cleaner.

On the flip side, career background singers like Lisa Fischer (practically a de facto member of the Stones by this time), and the mind-bogglingly ubiquitous Waters Family (...Google them) are portrayed as far more satisfied with their place in the arts, even if that place has somehow come at the expense of both stardom and domestic stability.

As a full-fledged junkie for rock star documentaries, I have to admit that 20 Feet From Stardom was a needed reminder that it takes an awful lot of talented people to make a hit single or a great album - and that all of them (not just the stars) make sacrifices in order to be a part of it.

I really can't recommend this film highly enough. I've found that it has changed the way I listen to just about everything -- even songs I've known since I was a kid.

And I'm not sure you can ask for much more out of a music documentary.