Friday, February 25, 2005

the sprout and the bean

"If you could spare it, could I get just a little bit more harp in the monitor, please?" Joanna Newsom asks from the stage, her eyes cast upward to the soundman in the back of the room.

"WHOO!" Someone in the crowd yelps in delight. It's Newsom's second request to hear more of her instrument, and it's the second time a portion of the audience has celebrated her wants.

She smiles sheepishly. "That's, um, just so I can hear it."

Such was the level of rapt adoration on display at the Troubadour in West Hollywood last night. Joanna Newsom has been compared to a pixie, a fairy, a "Lord of the Rings" outtake, a sprite and, I believe by Dave Eggers, one who could ward off the plague. None of these are true, naturally, but given the illogic of someone like Joanna Newsom selling out a Thursday night at a major music venue with nothing but a warbling voice and a harp between her knees, it's natural to suspect larger forces at work.

Newsom's debut record, "The Milk Eyed Mender" is perhaps the epitome of an acquired taste. With its surreal, stream-of-consciousness talk of mollusk weddings and beetle shells combined with the tumbling, twinkling sound of the harp--perhaps the least indie rock instrument on the planet next to the oboe--"Mender" managed to be unlike anything else and yet still accessible. Newsom's voice, a warbly, wandering hummingbird that could resembles a self-actualized Lisa Simpson, reaches in and out of key so freely that it passes by golden-eared expectations and approaches the realm of outsider art. Newsom doesn't sound like music should, but she sounds exactly as she should, and that fact coupled with the sheer joy pouring from her every song filled the Troubadour with hippies, introverts and art school tourists looking for the source of a record that against all odds landed on several year-end best of lists.

Newsom approached the stage in a vintage top and tight jeans, a somewhat surprising departure from her usual prediliction for tailored granny dresses. Her petite frame and impossibly fresh face do nothing to discourage the Tolkein-drawn comparisons, and the Ren-faire crown of shiny silver discs on her head also added the feeling that she was fresh from a Shire bridal party.

But then, after a pause to tune the enormous beast, she sat down at her harp and the entire Troubadour fell silent. Los Angeles is not generally a city kind to performing acts; its reputation as a home for passionate music fans in the front and passionate conversationalists in the back pretty much stretches around the globe. But on this night, with a shaft of light wrapping around her as if it had always been there, Newsom held the room to the sort of reverent silence the harp is accustomed to in classical audiences.

Newsom mostly played tracks from her album coupled with a few new ones. The only augmentation was a brief and oddly off-putting flirtation with vocal reverb for one song, but for the most part the songs remained true to their original form. Occasionaly she would stretch verses a little further with her playing, other times she couldn't resist sending her voice even higher out of her range, like a child stretching for a cookie jar just out of her reach.

Each song was greeted with rapturous applause and cheers that sent Newsom into a wide smile as she sipped from a bottle of water. On this night in a darkened club she was something more supernatural and unlikely than all the mythical beings she was compared with above. She was a star.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

blame canada

On this what must be a pretty dark day for our neighbors to the north, it's probably high time that we give a little love to Canada. They've lost hockey. Their nation's most distinguishing feature is its cleanliness. "Big" Canadian bands that tour America in recent past--Tragically Hip, to name one--are exceedingly adept at drawing...Canadians (at least in Los Angeles). And, to make matters worse, at least to Americans like me, their main pop cultural exports up to this point are not exactly a murderers row.

Commonly cited Canadians:

1) Mike Myers (single-joke franchise machine and sequel destroyer)
2) Triumph (Fight the good fight every moment).
3) Loverboy (crossed fingers held across an ass in red leather pants. Need I say more?)
4) Rush (Ann Rand set to prog with vocals that could sterilize a goat)
5) "You Can't Do That on Television" (introduced slime to a nation of grateful children)

Sure, I'm oversimplifying. There are plenty of grand Canadian exports. The Kids in the Hall consistently were funnier than Saturday Night Live when they were both on television (and there's really no comparision to what passes for SNL now). Hockey is like faster soccer with violence on the playing field (rather than in the stands). Hash bars outnumber Starbucks in Vancouver. All fantastic examples of Canadiana.

But it seems that lately Canada's getting far more adroit at doing their own thing and, frankly, kicking holy ass all over what we've got happening. CBC news (carried on the International News Channel--a channel created once CNN stopped serving that need) is a source not only of a semi-global persepective on what Georgius W is doing to the world, but also offers a quaint look back to what news looked like when the news was enough to keep people watching, rather than throwing a couple of smartly dressed experts in studios and watching them fight it out for your eyeballs.

Musically, Canda's experiencing a rennaissance as well, again, at least as far as us sudenlanders are concerned. I first experienced this with Godspeed You Black Emperor!, an instrumental collective that sounds like the house band for the end of the world. They compose terribly serious, terribly frightening and terribly good vignettes that stretch into the 20 minute range that are more evocative than most films, thanks to the use of bizarre field recordings of homeless lunatics, street preachers and unfinished short films. Crushingly great.

Then there was Do Make Say Think, a series of action verbs piled on top of eachother that sounds like Chicago's Tortoise if they were bore a little bit bleaker world view. Broken Social Scene, who pitchforkmedia built a shrine to a few years ago and, surprisingly, are also pretty good in a fey art-school kind of way. Both of the above bands share members with Godspeed, by the way, who oddly just aren't as good now that its members have started spreading themselves around.

Now there's the band Stars, who I was listening to on the way home. They had a great song called "Elevator Love Letter" a couple years ago that was just about as close to perfection in a pop song as you can get. Jangly guitars, anthemic chorus, the whole bit (wouldn't it be great if I could link to these songs and let you hear them like all the big kids' blogs do?). I was prepared to consider their new album just another in a long line of new wave fetishists, with their wispy Sundays-lite vocals alternating with a more non-descript fellow who probably has too many Smiths CDs in his collection than is healthy. But then...then came this change in the second song, a complete transition from a straight ahead new-wavey thing to this string-augmented piece of taffy that lifted them above, say, their American contemporaries. A little touch to show they care, and, by the way, they're Canadian and thus a little off.

Between that, a health care system and a distinct shortage of blowing things up with global sabre-rattling, Canada's looking pretty good.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

dead rubber between your fingers

There's been a lot of talk lately about Tom Sizemore, noted for his proficiency at playing tough, grizzled folk, usually of the military persuasion. It seems that our faux-battle hardened hero was busted for attempting to pass a drug test by using a rubber penis (presumably color-appropriate to his own--you have options) and someone else's luke-warm urine.


Nevermind for a second the thought process that goes into seeing an advertisement for a fake phallus and thinking, "By God, that's just crazy enough to work!" Nevermind the thought process that goes into putting on your thinking cap when faced with a drug test and realizing, "What this country needs are color-specific fake penii to sew to their underwear, and connected to these penii will be 'safe' urine. By God, that's just crazy enough to work! Fetch me my modeling clay!" Only people who are reeeeeeeeeeeeeeally high will have either of those thoughts, and as such they're excused. You're not in your right mind, fake dicks sound smart, so be it. Sorry.

What I'm concerned with is the thought process of the poor doctor. Now, he noticed the temperature was a little off, which meant either the good Sargeant was dead (which is a form of a high, I suppose), or something was flawed in the equipment. Sure, this guy's someone who has given urine tests before, AND given them in Los Angeles, presumably, so he's seen this sort of thing before. But still, there's that moment, that emotionally scarring moment where you must gird yourself just a touch before essentially saying "Sir, I don't believe that's your penis." Under how many other circumstances do those words come out in that order?

Now, tack on the fact that he had to make this request of Sgt. Horvath/Sgt. Earl Sistern/Lt. Col. Danny McKnight/Lt. Owen/Lt. Vincent D'Agosta (seriously, this guy's like three roles away from being named our Defense Secretary), and somehow it trasforms from a mortifying event to something well worth sharing. Of course, ABC News and Reuters took care of that, but I'm sure you took the day's prize around the hospital coffee maker. Hell, maybe you even had details to embellish the story. Maybe size and color tipped you off too, we'll never know. That's for just you and your friends/therapist.

But here's a helpful message for you, Det. Scagnetti, 'cause I know you like checking in with how I'm doing. This is it. Anyone who could have been your fan (who didn't confuse you with Michael Madsen), now knows that you strapped a functional dildo to your leg and tried to pass off someone elses urine as your own. So delicious was the methamphetamine in your system, mild forms of biological puppetry were considered and accepted. If you are not now at what recovery people call "The Bottom," you can certainly see it from where you're sitting. You're probably one, maybe two bad decisions away from joining James Spader in a Corvette convertable for the Palm Springs honeymoon suite. Clean up, man. Andrew McCarthey's not coming. There's a war going on right now as we speak, and surely we're only like six months away from our first batch of crap films depicting it. Who's going to play the tough-yet-fatherly Sargeant from Detroit/Brooklyn/Philadelphia? Who's going to hold Tom Hanks' hand when his trigger finger gets all twitchy? Your nation needs you. So have a cup of coffee, put your Whizzinator away and take stock. Hollywood always offers second chances. Hell, once you've sobered up and gotten your career back on track you can go ahead and get whatever fake parts make you happy. It's your world, Tom.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

c'mon kids

I'm not sure if this is a development tied in with our current embrace of what is now the fifth year of our new millennium (please don't give me any guff about it being the fourth year because 2000 didn't count--the place for that argument was really four years ago), but lately lists and ruminations on new 'classic' albums of the '00s are becoming all the rage.

No less a source than glorified Enquirer that is Entertainment Weekly (the USA Today of entertainment journalism, if that isn't redundant) will soon be ruminating on what we've done in the last 15 years in media, and Pitchfork media talked about their favorite albums (so far! See, we can start early!) here. Neverminding for a second that these lists really aughta come along only at the end of 10 full years (it's like those people who had 5 year high school reunions--what's wrong with you? You haven't even forgotten anything about high school in that amount of time, and that's the point), what I want to get at here is, at least in Pitchfork's case, Radiohead's "Kid A" garnered some much deserved praise. Whether coincidence or not, another little zine jumped in and had one of their soldiers fawn and gush over the album recently.

What's my problem with this? None whatsoever, "Kid A" is a phenomenal album. I said it when it came out when I was even more of a rabid Radiohead fanboy than I am now, and I still stand by the sentiment. "How to Disappear Completely" is among the saddest, most angelic songs ever written. "The National Anthem" is a terrific rock song. "Idioteque," as bizarre and sinister a disco song as it seems, become just transcendent when performed live, as much of this icy and frequently described as dehumanized material became.

What's my point? None to speak of this time around. Best I can do is I'm happy that "Kid A" is getting what it was due, and now I'm wondering what further revisionist music history has in store for albums that are now deemed as "difficult" or, even, "classic." Are the White Stripes doomed to suck? Is the abrasive and obtuse noise-rock of the Black Dice our next classic? Probably not. In the meantime, go listen to "Kid A," then, while you're at it, listen to "Hail to the Thief," an album I think didn't get quite its due when it came out. Now then, carry on.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

i wear black on the outside

No really, I do, honest, from time to time.

Saturday night in the interest of cultural study and a general thirst for the inexplicable or, at least, story-worthy, I went with a friend to a big, fat Goth/Fetish type club in Hollywood known as Bar Sinister. Yep. And after I wrote all those earlier protests that here would not be a haven for such things. The world's a complicated place, my gentle bunnies.

At any rate, there we were. My thinking was it sounded a lot more interesting than some fratty little watering hole in the Miracle Mile district (my friend's neighborhood), and since he's a veteran of such scenes (in a synth music and black clothing kind of way--no make-up or Anne Rice novels were present) , I figured if I was ever going to check such a place out, now was the time. Luckily I was in uniform: A black shirt.

The funny thing is, when I was in high school and college I listened to that sort of music. My first concert was the Sisters of Mercy at Universal Amphitheatre (though I looked like some Manchester/Jesus Jones refugee at the time), I have an embarrassing amount of Depeche Mode in my collection and, as I've mentioned, I know who or what Skinny Puppy is. Yet I never really looked the part. My hair is a sort of muddy red, for starters--not a goth-friendly color (unless I dyed it black, in which case I'd probably be just pale enough to be held up as some sort of deity)--I have no silver jewelry, no piercings, no tattoos and generally have a distinct impression that my sense of style would bore the average fan of the lifestyle to tears (if they weren't in tears already). Yet I bob my head the same way as anyone else when the bass line of "She's Lost Control" rings through a room. I guess I simply never heard the subliminal messages in the music asking me to alter my wardrobe.

In any case, after paying a sort of denim tax at the door for wearing jeans, (this was annoying, but once you're already $8 into Hollywood for parking there's no turning back) there we were. It was as interesting a carnival of humanity as you'd expect. There was the guy who looked a little like "Captain" Lou Albano from pro wrestling (and Cyndi Lauper video) fame, wearing a taut black tank top stretched well below his nipples. There was the trio of barely trying drag queens, done up in latex and leather and yet looking like the butch brethren of Terence Stamp in the process. There were enormous boots that put the Kiss Army to shame. There were the Suicide Girly go-go dancers writhing about on platforms in various forms of distressed lingerie and rocker gear (one girl had several black and white strips of what appeared to be plastic woven through her hair in absurdist pigtails, making her look like one of Marilyn Manson's party favors). There were men and women of all sizes and of various levels of committment to the look and the lifestyle, and you know what? They were about 10 times as interesting to watch and interact with than the average Ugg boot Abercrombie and Fitch Seven Jean Hollywood scenester.

There is something endearing about the gothed up scene, not that I'm about to trade in my wardrobe for as many shades of midnight as I can find. For the most part, everyone there must feel a little awkward in the 'normal' world (otherwise why would they seek out this alternative world, right?) and in the past probably absorbed enough abuse and mockery for their perceived shortcomings to make a Super Bowl quarterback break down into tears. Yet on those nights (and, possibly, days while working at record stores, visual effects-houses and the like) they are indeed rulers of the night, giving as much of a shit about fitting in with a guy in jeans as a guy in jeans cares about fitting in with them. But we all want a drink and we all want some good music, even if that includes Robert Smith keening his way through "Charlotte Sometimes" for the umpteenth time. Everyone is strange, no one can dance and as long as no one brings up the score of 'the game' or J Crew's spring line, everyone gets along. Spankings optional.

Friday, February 04, 2005

I'm wide awake, it's morning

Yeah, it's an on-the-nose title for a rumination on Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst and the fuming hype machine bearing down his neck, but it seems to fit (for another hour at least).

With the best of intentions and the (almost) most open of minds, I cracked open a friend's promo copy of both "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" by our man Conor Oberst, the ohmygodvoiceofageneration poet-waif du jour who every...single...critic I've read has lionized, adored and stopped just short of carving his face into the side of Radio City Music Hall (or equivalent) to add him to the pantheon.

Unfortunately, nothing makes me more suspicious than universal acclaim (particularly when coupled with a Goldenvoice concert add that featured HEARTS around his smooth little face to promote his Valentine's Day show), but I was willing to give it a shot. I heard Emmylou Harris was involved. I heard talk of a prominent mandolin (a seductive wooden beast if there ever was one) and, most of all, I heard he'd remedied his problem with editing himself, a failing that essentially took his somewhat promising "Lifted" album and turned it into a collection of PeeChee folder poetry set to music.

So off I went. And yeah, the guy's got skills. I'm not going to deny it, he can write his ass off. A few lines were quite vivid, a few others made me cringe, but mostly, he's got a way with the pen. Musically, okay, it was rootsier and better played than I expected. I saw him play with M.Ward and Jim James of My Morning Jacket a few months ago (mostly to see the latter pair) and those guys tore him apart. There were several golden moments of inspired musical collaboration, with James' and Ward's guitars tangling around eachother, and their voices blending seamlessly into the rusty heavens--just an amazing example of two musicians in tune both musically and mentally. Then there was Conor.

Granted, the whole crowd just wanted to reach out and take his narrow frame into its arms, and he could do no wrong in their rapt eyes, but his voice warbled out of key, his guitar clangled and buzzed through clumsy chords and he just couldn't keep up. He was like a baby bird getting slapped around by a pair of pumas. During one very loose campfire jam-feeling song, James and Ward were running circles around eachother and just lifting that hall on their shoulders, and all Conor could do was slap his guitar body from his slouched position on the Barcalounger in the center of the stage. Hey, at least he knew to get out of the way.

Now, back to the album(s). I'll stick mostly to "I'm Wide Awake" because it's garnered the most talk and, frankly, is the much more listenable of the two, didn't grab me. A few good songs--'Another Travellin' Song' in particular sticks out, as does 'Lua,' with its hung-down talk of things not making sense in the morning after making sense at night. Sure, I looked back and related. But, for the most part, its nothing I care to hear again. Maybe I need to give it another spin but, I just don't think it's for me. If I were 19, terribly sad, lonely and heartbroken, I'd be using this album like crack. But I'm not, and I won't. Sorry everyone.

Feel free to jump in here and argue. I'll just go back to sleep.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

I am pointy nose

Spent the afternoon feeling a bit 'dated' on my drive home. Listening to Jane's Addiction will do that to you.

Don't get me wrong, I love Jane's. Saw Lollapalooza 1, marvelled at their stunt performance of "Trip Away" on Igloo Ice Chests, and like any true fan avoided their abominable second go 'round with last year's "Strays" like it was covered in fire ants. I'm sure that CD had its merits, but DAMMIT, if there was a band that could be put into a rotting Frigidaire and buried in the earth for 100 years and then dug up to answer the question "What did Los Angeles sound like in 1991," Jane's Addiction are your androgynous, goth 'n Roses leading men.

Yes Nirvana, yes Pearl Jam, yes Smashing Pumpkins, yes to all of your carnival of delights that could go in their place, but those bands, in a lot of ways, still hold up. Sure, "Ten" is drowning in approximately 72 tons of reverb over every lovin' note (or so I've been told--I just know it sounds murky and muddy as a Seattle March), but it's still basically a *rock* record, and what's now a 'classic' one at that. "Nevermind," for all the changes it wrought (good and bad [mostly bad]) in mainstream music, is still an amazing rock record that will stand the test of time for as long as critics can flog the legacy of Kurt Cobain until his corpse dances the "Macarena" in Hot Topic. Smashing Pumpkins...well, frankly, they're just not as good as the other two, and those among you who think they deserve to be time-capsuled ahead of the aforementioned bands should seek solace in some empty Chicago pub. Being that wrong deserves a stiff drink.

But Jane's, for my money, as someone who was in and around LA in those heady days I can vouch for the fact that was the soundtrack of pre-Riot Los Angeles. Melrose Avenue. Pre-white elephant Hollywood & Highland. Venice. Koreatown. They all fell under the umbrella of Jane's, with Perry's shrill, multi-tracked, effects-mangled voice soaring above us all. What was he singing about? Half the time it now sounds like addled junkie-poet nonsense but you know what? It was our nonsense. "Now they parade around in New York with a baby boy/he's gorgeous./Ain't nobody leavin'. " "My girl she's one too/she's gonna get a skirt/stick it in her shirt." "I am a proud man anyway/covered now by three days."

It really is a sensation not unlike slapping yourself in the face.

Does it hold up now? Of course not, do the Grateful Dead? Jefferson Airplane? But, Jane's captures all the fucked-up, confusing, misguided mix of idealism, nihilism and hippie-dippie philosophy that we were all soaking in as part of the grand Gen X experiment. Give me heavy metal guitars and sensitive talk of a Classic Girl. Give me talk about your "sex and your drugs and your rock 'n roll," because, frankly, they're the only thing keeping us here too.

Naturally they blew apart, just like all or most of our so-called 'slacker' idealism, farted away in a gust of 9/11 and George W.'s Crayola-stated America. We Lollapaloozans are still around, but not quite sure what happened, and, I think, for the most part not too happy with what W's selling. But we're right inbetween. Too old to be interviewed or courted as the bright-eyed, neo-neo-con college vote (the group who views Janes and the above bands as quaint relics from their older brother's record collection, ripe for harvesting in 8 years or so when they want to play generational dress-up), and still too young to be in charge, we sit and just take it. We're repulsed by the process and not buying what's happening, but no one's asking us. Canada sounds good, but no one really wants to go where the cold is. Running for office could help, but see the above 'process revulsion' comment. We're stuck in the middle, defined by not having really much to complain about yet finding plenty to complain about regardless.

The Jane's reunion didn't have a prayer. They were supposed to flame out just as they did--spectacularly, in a haze of drugs and animosity, leaving behind a mere 3 records worth of deranged half-brilliant meanderings. They had the courtesy to drop out before they sucked--then came back 10 years later just to remind us why they quit in the first place. There was no Lollatopia to dream of any longer, just glam fashions and nu-metal guitar riffs to harvest until, finally, they quit a second time, scattering Navarro into a reality TV punchline, Perry into a DJ huckster, a Timothy Leary without a following, and Perkins to just keep playing with whomever picked up the phone (Mike Watt, Nels Cline, etc). Avery won't get mentioned because he had the courtesy to stay away from the other three lunatics the second time around.

So now Jane's is gone for good (maybe) and their true swan song, Ritual de lo Habitual, which is what spawned these thoughts today, is among all that's left. It's loud, jagged, crazy, quite a bit silly, and as bright and poisionous as a sunny day outside Bleeker Bob's on Melrose, where you were just as weird as the guy in the striped tights and the girl in purple dreads. It takes you back, but not all the way. If you listen you can almost make out, back there in the last bits of effects-pedal majesty and reverbed wonder, the sound of a band that was brilliant enough to quit, and an audience that wasn't smart enough pick up where they left off.

It ain't no wrong, it ain't no right.