Sunday, March 20, 2005

I saw a really bright rainbow while waiting for the #9 at Broadway and Commercial. It was almost a double rainbow—the outer arc was really faint and only went up about 45 degrees. No one else appeared to notice, except for a stroller-pushing couple with his 'n' hers metal hoodies (Slayer for him, Metallica for her). They held up their cell phones in unison and took pictures, then appraised the results on their respective screens.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Mark Lanegan Band – Bubblegum (Beggars Banquet)
“What you got coming is hard to swallow,” sings the man right into my ear. Mark Lanegan is a heavy dude, and one of my favourite vocalists. His voice is pained but never pitiful, murderously earnest yet never melodramatic. He commits to the material like Nick Cave or Peter Hammill, and I have to believe every syllable. He used to sing for Ellensburg, WA’s Screaming Trees, an ultra-prolific, occasionally brilliant band who took the indie-to-major label ride in the early ’90s. They signed to Sony/Epic and had a minor hit with “Nearly Lost You”. In 1990, while still with the Trees, Lanegan released his first solo album, The Winding Sheet—a dour, depressive masterpiece, and arguably the best album Sub Pop ever put out. I followed Lanegan for his next couple of solo releases, then lost track of him until he turned up on QotSA’s Songs for the Deaf a couple years ago. He seems to have migrated to California and fallen in with Josh Homme’s desert rock gang. He still has that Pacific Northwest blues sound happening, a combination of gritty, terse songwriting and Lanegan’s single-malt-and-cigarettes voice. The resulting atmosphere brings to mind rain, grimy dockyards, stale beer, and drugs. Bubblegum features Lanegan alongside Homme, Chris Goss (who worked with the Trees on their last album), Nick Oliveri, Polly Harvey, John Kastner (The Doughboys) and others. The Mark Lanegan Band’s lineup changes from song to song, with players dropping in and out as the arrangements require. Some songs are sparse, with a few chord changes, reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s wondrous third album. “Strange Religion” and “Morning Glory Wine” are songs that take basic constructions and carefully build upon them, with staggering results. “Wedding Dress” uses a mechanical sounding drum and bass line as a framework for the vocals, then unapologetically fades out when the idea’s been explored sufficiently. Lanegan and his crew also aren’t afraid to put up walls of sound, like on “Hit the City,” with Lanegan and Harvey singing in unison against a driving three-chord backdrop, or “Methamphetamine Blues,” which crams in as much soot-encrusted sound as possible. The four-on-the-floor, string-bending action of “Sideways in Reverse” roars away like The Stooges. But really, this album is all about voices. The singers accompanying Lanegan on these tunes—mixing and matching, complementing and contrasting—are what lends it a “band” feel. Whether it’s Chris Goss’s smooth tenor doubling Lanegan on “One Hundred Days” or PJ Harvey joining him on “Come to Me” and the aforementioned “Hit the City,” or Wendy Rae Fowler’s fragile contribution to the spooky and intimate “Bombed”, the variety of singers working alongside Lanegan are what makes this album so satisfying. Fifteen songs in 50 minutes fly by. Although I imagine Lanegan chose Bubblegum as an ironic title for this gloomy collection, it’s a pretty sweet thing to chew on.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

I've been thinking a lot about Aerosmith lately, which is something I never expected to do. Smash lent me their autobiography, Walk This Way, and I've been tearing through it. Woven through all the salacious Toxic Twins-type tales is a vivid picture of the music industry in the '70s.

Strange things could happen. For example, in 1973 you might have seen Aerosmith opening for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The jazz fusion nerds got a rude awakening, apparently. Recalls photographer Laura Kaufman, after Aerosmith's set "[John] McLaughlin came out in his white clothes, burning incense, and he looks at the crowd with great sympathy and asks for a moment of silence. Joe Perry, standing next to me in the wings, said, 'I guess he figures after an hour of us, they need it.'"

Or in 1979, you could have been flipping through Rolling Stone and read the following: "Aerosmith is a dinosaur among bands, the last of a generation of rock 'n' rollers being edged out by more streamlined competition like Boston, Foreigner, and Fleetwood Mac." You know, cutting-edge New Wave bands like those.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Smash and I went to see Black Rice at Mesa Luna last night. These all-ages gigs crack me up; they’re like being on the set of a Larry Clark film. Once again I’m the old guy at the rock show.

There were five bands on the bill. We arrived just in time to catch Calgary’s The Cape May, who were second up. They reminded me a bit of Red House Painters—very heartfelt and fearlessly sedate. Their songs demanded a confident voice to pull them off, and their singer, who looked a little young to have entered the beard-rock phase of his career, was definitely up to it. Aside from Black Rice, they were the best band I saw all night.

It’s weird when you see a band rocking but you don’t hear a band rocking. That’s what I experienced with The Approach, the next band up. Although they had interesting material that made up for lack of hooks with lots of twists and turns, they seemed reined in somehow. I think the guitar needed to be louder. I’m not sure how long these guys have been going, but they might become really good if they build upon their existing tightness and deliver it with more force.

The next band had no such problem. In Media Res are a four piece who deliver their Dinosaur Jr.-ish songs with a little too much enthusiasm. You’d think they were headlining Lollapalooza ’92 the way they carried on. Fair play to them, but this was the weird thing—the crowd responded in kind. Not only do In Media Res have fans, they have fans that clapped along and sang the words and tolerated the banter between songs and knew what was going on when some guy joined the band onstage and started lobbing cans of pop into the crowd (I saw later they were empty cans turned into makeshift shakers). Smash and I felt like we’d crashed the wrong party.

Black Rice got us centered again. It’s so nice to see a band where every member has a presence and a personality and contributes equally. They’re like The Minutemen or Fugazi; an onslaught of sincerity wrapped up in serious fun. Look at Juli drumming herself into exhaustion, smiling all the time. Maybe I should smile more when I play. I’m usually too busy cringing. Check out the guitarists and their matching Telecasters and moustaches. Whatta team. Look at the bass player—that kid has indomitable spirit. I’ve seen them play tighter, but they challenged themselves with few new numbers, perhaps looking forward to their recording break after another show this weekend. Still, a rough-and-ready Black Rice is better than none.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The advance word on New York’s Wetnurse was that they were a noise band, a definition that makes me think of either the classic Touch & Go bands like Killdozer and the Butthole Surfers, or the pure anti-music of Japan’s Merzbow. Wetnurse are not a noise band, they’re a precise heavy metal drill team executing some avant-garde musical manoeuvres. They’re hard to pin down, which I like. Although there’s death metal, grind and hardcore in their sound, they chop and channel those genres, welding together their own hyper-agile vehicle of destruction. It’s easier to describe what their music lacks. It doesn’t have rehashed Slayer riffs or an over-technical, blind-them-with-weird-science approach. It doesn’t have guitar solos. The guitars harmonize and crush in tandem, Hunter Schindo’s bass snakes around every sudden turn, Curran Reynolds’s drumming finds clever new ways of bolstering the chaos, and Gene Fowler throws vocal tantrums in a variety of voices. This self-released album never flags in applying its own pretzel logic, Wetnurse striking the perfect blend of advanced math and riff-pounding catchiness, with dissonant, jagged riffing that makes this Voivod fan happy. There’s enough repetition to keep you grounded, but the music is always finding interesting new possibilities to explore. For example, the twin-lead thrash breakdown in the middle of “Idolized in Pink,” where the bass suddenly comes to the fore to take the song into the next part, or the Melvins-like bass-skulk intro to “Live Wire Touches Wet Blanket” or the “dub” section in “Rhetorical Question.” Martin Bisi’s recording and mix is excellent. It’s big and natural and I can hear air moving in the studio. The album peaks on the epic final track, “Urgently Missing Something,” where the riffs drill straight into my pleasure centers. I especially love the section where the song bursts into what sounds like a fragmented Budgie riff and joyously rocks out for a time before fading out…then fading up with an extended outro riff that sounds like it could segue into another song entirely. Maybe they should start the next album with that riff. It’s difficult to describe how cool (and musically nourishing) Wetnurse are; you’ll just have to take my semi-adequate word for it.