Friday, March 10, 2006

whither the Limeys of yesteryear?

So while watching Robyn Hitchcock last week, I came to the conclusion that in my personal pantheon, XTC's Andy Partridge is the wise Father, Elvis Costello is the snarky Son, and Robyn is the ineffable Holy Ghost. Pretentious but true - those three artists, all born within a year of each other, are without a doubt my favorite songwriters of all time. (Yes, even including Jeff Tweedy.) They've got it all - great tunes, great voices, a willingness to experiment stylistically, and lyrics which can make you laugh and tear your heart out, sometimes in the same song.

I don't think it's a coincidence that all three artists are also British. The Brits have a rich legacy of combining catchy pop and clever, insightful lyrics, dating back to the Beatles, of course, but also (and especially) the Kinks. Andy Partridge hails Ray Davies as a forebear; I don't know if Robyn and Elvis do too, but the influence is there. The Kinks' legacy has lingered in British music for a long time - I definitely hear it in the Smiths, for instance, and Belle & Sebastian. But maybe I'm just not listening to enough British music nowadays, because I don't hear much Kinks-ness anymore. In fact, I hear very little British music that interests me at all, regardless of influence.

It seems like every British band nowadays is based on one of three templates. Either it's swoony, "Bends"-era Radiohead (Coldplay), Strokes-style pseudo-garage rock (The Libertines), or fidgety Gang of Four post-punk (Franz Ferdinand). The latter two are newer styles, but nevertheless, every time a trendy new British band comes along, I can predict exactly what they'll sound like. The much-hyped Arctic Monkeys, for instance (and imagine how we'll be laughing at that name in ten years), follow the garage-rock template. I'm not making a wholesale dismissal of any of these bands, by the way - they don't suck, but it's like... jeez, let's hear something different for once. Maybe this sameness is an artifact of the slobbering, "hype them and forget about them" British music press. Maybe these types of bands are just what makes it over to the States. I don't know, but it's getting pretty boring.

The only new British band to catch my attention in the past five years has been Clinic, just because they sound... weird (and definitely different) - although admittedly I lost interest in them after one album. I've also been meaning to listen to more Super Furry Animals and Mogwai. But neither of those bands are new, and they'd probably resent being called British, being Welsh and Scottish respectively. (Yes, I know, Belle & Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand are Scottish, too.)

So is British rock really a vast wasteland? Give me some recommendations, folks. I don't want to give up on ol' Blighty quite yet.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Robyn Hitchcock is...

A three-month hiatus since my last post? Pfft, it's not like we're talking seven years between albums here (ahem, Andy Partridge). I've got several show reviews and other backlog to post, but first of all let's discuss Mr. Robyn Hitchcock, who played at the Doug Fir Lounge last night.

So this was my 9th time seeing Robyn - a paltry number compared with folks who've been going to Robyn shows since the mid-80's, some of whom were with me at the show. Nevertheless, I've seen more loud shirts and ugly trousers than you can shake a stick at. Last night's show was a little more sartorially tame - a black-and-white polka-dotted shirt and purple trousers. It was Robyn's 53rd birthday, and he was feelin' the love, in his British kind of way. He was more cheerful and mellow than I've ever seen him, though he was sort of taken-aback when the audience started singing "Happy Birthday" to him. "Aw, let 'em sing," said, Scott McCaughey, whose ubiquitous Minus 5 was serving as Robyn's back-up band.

The show started with Robyn playing solo acoustic, unfortunately somewhat drowned out by noisy talkers in the audience. (Typical.) I'd been going around humming "The Speed of Things" (off Robyn's 1994 album "Moss Elixir") for a few days previously, and was hoping Robyn might play it, but with a nearly 30-year back catalogue, I thought this was unlikely. And what do you know - he played it! I love moments like that. He dedicated the song to "his father's bones," and explained that he tends to get morbid on his birthday.

Following the acoustic set, Robyn was joined by Scott, Peter, and co., as well as Harvey Danger's Sean Nelson singing back-up harmonies, and the show kicked into high gear. The setlist was terrific, ranging from Robyn's old band the Soft Boys to some new, unreleased songs which, unlike much of Robyn's recent output, actually weren't half bad. He also did several covers - a couple of George Harrison songs, Dylan's "Visions of Johanna," and the Byrds' "Eight Miles High." A number of songs were from "Moss Elixir" and 1988's "Element of Light" - maybe they're favorites of his? Anyway, it was great to hear oldies but goodies like "If You Were a Priest" and "Beautiful Queen" - the latter dedicated to "Colin and Carson Meloy, who just had their baby." (Huzzah!) I was also thrilled to hear "Madonna of the Wasps," "Flesh Number One," "Acid Bird," "Chinese Bones," and especially "Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)." I decided that the sound of Peter Buck's Rickenbacker is the most beautiful sound in the world. I think it could cure lepers or raise people from the dead.

As usual, Robyn's surreal comments were out in force. At the encore, someone brought out a big cluster of green and purple balloons. "Oh, a bunch of dark alien eggs," said Robyn, as Peter Buck tied them to his guitar strap. He explained that "Flesh Number One" and "Alright, Yeah" were "spiritual leveling songs" - "They leave you as they found you, but subtly different - you'll find that your emotional problems are vacuumed away." He also dedicated the Soft Boys' "I Wanna Destroy You" to Karl Rove. "The man's a Sagittarius!" he said in horror, "like Jim Morrison. If I had any faith in humanity, I'd lose it." But the song - a glorious anthem of spite and revenge - ended the show on a high note, and I went away very happy indeed.

This was the best Robyn show I've seen since the Soft Boys' reunion in 2001. My love for Robyn - which had been faltering after a series of lackluster solo albums over the past few years - has been restored. Yay Robyn, and happy birthday!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Wilco is...

Courtesy of an articulate soul on the Wilco board:

Wilco is a feeling, a soft spring breeze that can turn direction the next day and freeze you where you stand. Wilco is a leaf collection, it is the look in a bird's eye upon coming to after hitting a plane glass window. Wilco is the awkward empathy you have for the old lady fumbling for change at the coffee counter.

Wilco is that same damn electric shock every time you touch your car on certain days. Wilco is that little halt in time between the time you set down your beer mug and the satisfied "Ahhhhhh......"

Wilco is that little girl with the big eyes that you can just tell is going to be something else when she grows up. Wilco is the grey area where a word means the same thing in several languages. Wilco is that uneasy feeling where you're SURE you have a flat tire cause the truck's driving funny, but it's not really flat.

Wilco is that first cigarette, that old lost toy, that dog who looks familiar. Wilco is a mother in curlers. Wilco is stroller locks, dentures, x-ray specs. Wilco is cool marbles, Viewmaster, adolescent urban myths and toast. Wilco is an old friend you forgot about, and find you still love.
Wilco is a scar that won't go away. Wilco is bone and blood and mud and stones. And sometimes essential.

It's hard to sum up the appeal of your favorite bands, but I think this does it nicely.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

find him, bind him...

There's really no such thing as a bad Decemberists show. Unless my memory fails me (as it often does), last night was my 8th time seeing them - if you include Colin's solo shows - and I have yet to be disappointed.

The show was at the Roseland Theater, where I saw Wilco last year - an impersonal venue where they frisk you at the door and run you through a metal detector. (WTF?) But the first thing I noticed as I went through the door was a sign saying that the show was a live video shoot. Sweet! I ended up standing almost immediately behind the huge camera boom, a spot which gave me a mostly unimpeded view of the stage except when the cameraman decided to zoom in on the keyboards.

I didn't know the name of the first band, a bunch of mild-mannered indie-poppers who had us all sing along with a song whose chorus was "I love you." (Really living on the edge there...) The second band was the Minus 5, whom I had previously seen backing up Robyn Hitchcock. As a back-up band, they're great, and I always enjoy the goofy stage presence of Scott McCaughey, with his frizzy hair and silly hats. As a main act... they're not so good. I've seen them a few times before and it always takes about 20 minutes for them to go from "Hey, these guys aren't so bad, I've been giving them a bad rap" to "Are they done yet?" They put a lot of energy into their unimaginative garage pop for a bunch of old guys, I'll give them that. They also did a cover of the Soft Boys' theme song, "Give It to the Soft Boys" (I squealed) and the Sonics' "Strychnine." The Decemberists' John Moen (whom I think used to be in the Minus 5) came out and enthusiastically played sleighbells for one song, which was also fun.

So then it was time for the much more exciting main act. Colin wore his trademark stripy jacket, Crutchy had a goofy hat and loud tie, and Nate was wearing a trilby hat and a suit. There was a clipper ship on the amp and bird decorations everywhere (this was the last stop on the "Flight of the Mistle Thrushes" tour). The first song was "The Tain" - a 20-minute prog-rock epic which most of the audience had never heard. Ballsy! The intrepid sextet then rocked on through the rest of a fairly usual set, enlivened by (eeee!) my favorite Decemberists song, "July, July!" and a solo Colin performance of "Every Day is Like Sunday." Only one other Castaways and Cutouts song ("Leslie Anne Levine") and nothing from 5 Songs, but oh well. It was particularly fun hearing "On the Bus Mall"... on the bus mall, where the Roseland is located.

Naturally, the showpiece of the set was the lengthy "Mariner's Revenge Song," which I've never seen performed live. The band pulled out all the stops for this one - the climax being when Crutchy ran through the crowd with a set of giant whale jaws made of cardboard (for the part where the protagonist and his enemy are eaten by the whale). Then it was time for several more Decemberists showstoppers - "The Chimbley Sweep" and "I Was Meant For the Stage." Scott McCaughey came out and attempted to jam on Colin's guitar during "Chimbley Sweep," and at one point Crutchy was waltzing wildly around the stage with Jenny, Nate, and Petra. At the end of the show, Jenny threw all the bird decorations in the audience and Crutchy threw the giant whale jaws. It was funny seeing an audience member come out of the venue afterwards holding one of them.

Now, if you're thinking, "Gosh, I wish I coulda seen them Decemberists" - fear not, for the video footage is going to be used for a live DVD! I don't know when it will be released, but it's definitely something to look forward to. Wheee!

Friday, October 28, 2005

speaking of Okkervil River...

... there's nothing like an amusing band bio to pass the time between homework assignments.

"College droned on. Each of my nervous breakdowns fell away when I made the most important decision of my life: to be a total failure. A professional failure. I relocated to Austin, as did Seth, and Okkervil River was born. The name comes from a story by Tatyana Tolstaya, and it's a real river outside of St. Petersburg. At our first gig, they misspelled our name as "Okkerut River." Later, Electric Lounge advertised us as"Occerville River." The failure had begun. We were elated.

Gigless ciphers, we nonetheless retired to our friend Jeff Hoskins' downtown Austin studio to set to tape our First Major Statement to the world. We emerged a few days later and presented the product of our labors, entitled Stars Too Small to Use, in the hands that stretched out beneath our tearstained eyes. The record struck the earth with such force and precision that it resounded against the surrounding sky like a clapper in a gigantic bell, and we gained one new fan. We promptly added him to the band."

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

"you should wreck his life the way that he wrecked yours"

I almost didn't go to see Okkervil River. My show-going enthusiasm has increased somewhat over the last couple of months, but I'm still not really into going to shows by myself. But I had a ticket that I had purchased back in August, so I figured I'd better get my ass out there. I'm not regretting my decision.

I arrived late on purpose - I'm too old and decrepit to be standing up through two opening bands - so I missed the first band, Low Skies. The second band was listed as Band of Horses, but they introduced themselves as Horses. (I wonder if Patti Smith insisted on a name change.) There was a lot of facial hair and tattoos on the stage, and I wasn't sure what to expect. But they turned out to be a plaintive country-ish band much in the same vein as the headliner, and the singer had a great wailing high voice. Me likey. And it was fun to see Okkervil's frontman Will Sheff rocking out over by the side of the stage, with his bedhead and thick glasses. He's certainly one of the cutest dorks in indie-rock.

The stage rapidly became a forest of mic stands and other equipment (two keyboards, an accordion, and a pedal steel guitar) as Okkervil River got ready. One of the keyboardists set up so close to me that I could've played the keyboard, which was a little weird. Soon the band ambled out and Will, in a baggy white shirt with a tie and a hand-knitted scarf, announced that they'd just played twenty-two dates in Europe, he'd gotten strep throat but the doctor gave him steroids and antibiotics, and "now I'm almost half the man I used to be." Everyone cheered. He also explained that the band's supply of Maker's Mark had mysteriously vanished between their arrival and the show, and asked for shots. "It's for medicinal purposes," he explained.

Will then removed his glasses - I guess he's afraid of losing them while rocking - and the band proceeded to kick ass. Okkervil River has always struck me as being a little bit uneven - when they're on, they're really on, especially with the upbeat tunes, but their slow laments in 3/4 time tend to blend into each other. I didn't feel that way last night. Especially because they had a trumpet player. I've decided that horn sections are the MSG of rock. Whether it's the Decemberists' "16 Military Wives" or Wilco's "I'm the Man Who Loves You" or anything by Neutral Milk Hotel, or even my favorite Beatles song "For No One," horns make everything sound better. Okkervil River's trumpet player was no exception, and I actually got a little weepy during some of his solos.

The setlist included pretty much all of my favorite songs - "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks," "Seas Too Far to Reach," "Blanket and Crib," "For Real," and a particular highlight, "Black" - one of the best songs off their latest album, "Black Sheep Boy." As they were banging their way through that song - Will jumping around the stage, the keyboardist in front of me grinning his ass off - I had one of those euphoric moments that you only get when a great band is playing a great song and everything is absolutely perfect and you can't stop smiling or dancing. The last time I felt that way was when I saw Wilco playing "Late Greats" in Oakland last year. It's a rare thing, and one to be treasured.

The set went on, someone brought shots for the band, I feared for Will's pretty Martin guitar because he kept swinging it around, and the guy next to me left and I invited a young girl even smaller than me up to his spot at the front of the stage. "I have to watch out for short people," I explained to her. She was really, really excited and every so often we'd just grin at each other. The band played some songs that I didn't know, but everyone else seemed to know, which made me feel a little chagrined, but they were great songs so I didn't care. During one of them, the trumpet player played a tape recorder, holding it up to the microphone. For the encore, they played two more songs that I didn't know - a slow one ("because you guys are too hyped up") where Will played harmonica, and a rocker where he kept jumping around even though he was still wearing the harmonica stand. By this time he was thoroughly hoarse and shouting his way through the lyrics. I gotta love a band that really gives their all like that.

So that's all that happened. I'm certainly not sorry I went. Since I may be moving to Austin next year, I hope to be seeing Okkervil River a lot more often. I can only hope.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

I belong to the - generation

... and I can take or leave it each time.

When I was young and full of grace, back in 1994 or thereabouts, my friend Colin made me a mix tape called "Proven Conclusively That The Late 70's Are Where It's At!!!" It included tracks by Television, the Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Dead Kennedys, Sparks, Blondie, Patti Smith, Kraftwerk, Can, the Germs, and other luminaries of those times. Needless to say, having been unaquainted with these artists previously, this tape precipitated a massive shift in my musical taste. Pretty soon I was listening to "Singles Going Steady" and "Marquee Moon" every day, becoming deeply obsessed with Elvis Costello, and wishing I had a time machine so I could go back to 1976 and see shows at CBGB's.

Ten years later, I still firmly believe that the late 70's are, indeed, where it's at, and I'm still working on getting that time machine. So I was really excited to read in the weekly paper that none other than Richard Hell was doing a reading at Powell's Books. OK, so he wasn't going to sing "Blank Generation" or tell stories about hanging out with Johnny Thunders, but still - Richard Hell! One of the cornerstones of punk rock, co-founder of Television, the guy whose style Malcolm McLaren ripped off shamelessly when creating the Sex Pistols. Of course I had to go.

There was a respectable crowd at the bookstore when I showed up - ranging from young music geeks clutching copies of "Blank Generation" to old punks wearing CBGB's pins on their leather jackets. Pretty soon, the man himself made his appearance. Now, Richard Hell was once a rather sexy young man, but now, predictably, he looks kinda old. Actually, he looks really Jewish now - I'd read somewhere that he was one of my people, and it's pretty easy to spot these days.

He started off by praising Portland for being "seedy," enthusiastically describing the neon signs and strip clubs of Old Town. Then he read a few passages from his new novel, "Godlike," about an older poet who befriends and eventually has sex with an arrogant young admirer. It wasn't bad, but I squirmed a bit when I noticed that there was a young kid in the crowd, maybe about ten years old, who looked uncomprehending as Hell described a graphic sex scene. Hell mentioned that everyone thinks he's gay because he writes about gay sex, then added cheerfully, "You know what I always say to that? Sex is gay, man. Real men don't have sex."

Then it was question and answer time. An older guy asked if he still talks to Tom Verlaine. "Ahh, I don't wanna reminisce about the old rock n' roll days. Yeah, we still talk sometimes." A teenager asked, "Is Tom Verlaine gay?" and everyone laughed. "Not that I know of." Someone asked about going out and touring again, a suggestion which was summarily rejected. I couldn't think of any questions, but wished my fellow Portlanders' questions hadn't been so stupid.

So I ended up grabbing a copy of the book and getting it signed, and still couldn't think of anything to say. But I did shake the hand of a punk rock legend, and I guess that's what counts.