Friday, July 19, 2013

PDX Pop Then and Now

PDX Pop Now! Is putting on its tenth free, all-ages, all-local summer music festival in Portland starting today. I wrote about it for the Oregonian.

At age 20, I attended the first one. There were so many bands I'd never heard of and people I'd never seen (actually, subsequent festivals were like this too).

I was relatively new to the Portland music scene, so while it felt special to be there, I thought, "This must happen all the time here."

It really doesn't though. There are plenty of other festivals, but none as well-rounded or strict in its adherence to its ideals. Not knowing the folks behind the festival back then, I would have predicted that if it lasted 10 years, it would cost $100+ by then. Good on them for staying true.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Top 10 of 2012

Although the world didn't end and Romney didn't become president, there was plenty of bad news to shock you in 2012 (see shootings, natural disasters). There were a lot of surprises coming through my stereo too, but they were mostly good ones. My top 10 list this year is full of albums that subverted my expectations.

Father John Misty - Fear Fun. This album will be a contendor for album of the decade for me. I listened to it for the first time completely cold, knowing nothing about it. The humor drew me in and I never left. The whole thing is so musically sound that it would be a great rock record even if it wasn't so smart. The rigorous dedication to making all of the commentary ("Now I'm Learning to Love the War") and characters ("Only Son of the Ladies' Man") sound great all the time is what makes Father John Misty's debut masterful.

Witch Mountain - Cauldron of the Wild. There's this problem with metal in which a lot of the most interesting stuff rhythmically and melodically doesn't have a ton of soul (see Baroness). The bands that do have a lot of soul can be kind of old-fashioned (see Witch Mountain's first album). On the third record from this long-running doom outfit, they take all the right risks.

The Beach Boys - That's Why God Made the Radio. The band's first album with Brian Wilson in about 20 years plays like a greatest hits album only all the songs are new. The poppy, surfy numbers ("Isn't It Time") are really sticky, and the heady, divine trio of songs that conclude the record are the perfect note to go out on for this timeless band that will probably never record together again.

Atriarch - Ritual of Passing. I never really got why black metal and goth had to be so lo-fi. It always felt like the music was hiding behind the indistinguishable fuzz. I don't need it to be radio ready, but why should it sound like a cassette you find on the road after an Alaskan snow melt? On this sophomore release, Atriarch lets their craft shine by stepping up the production just a little bit. It goes a long way.

Federale - The Blood Flowed Like Wine. When the premise of your band is to soundtrack imaginary spaghetti western films, there's a lot that can go wrong in terms of dead horses by your third album. This orchestra of sorts heads east with this record, with a sound that seems to emanate from far off deserts, and a movie someone should make.

Ramona Falls - Prophet. This might be the most ambitious album of the year. You can feel the hours of labor in every layer of buzzes and chords. The end product is surprisingly humble and inspires a mixture of awe and pity like a hand-painted fresco.

The Killers - Battle Born. Albums these days have to grab you quicker than they used to. There was a time when, if you bought an album and it sucked, you'd listen to it over and over anyway because you wasted good money on it. After a while, you might start to like it. That's what happened here for me. I did not like this record on first listen. But since I was writing about it and didn't really know what to say, I listened to it over and over in the background of my cleaning and driving. Suddenly, I was singing along and feeling uplifted. The Killers succeeded here not only in reviving the forgotten song form of the power ballad, but also in making a record that functions as if from another time.

Anthrax - Worship Music. I've never been a big Anthrax fan, probably because their name and Scott Ian's facial hair are stupid. But I definitely felt a kinship to this record. The album is the equivalent of a show with no stage. Anthrax is on a level playing field with the listener here, and it's enthralling.

Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan. When you've painted itself into a corner of post-a capella weirdness, what can you do? Take off your clothes. This more intimate perspective on an instantly recognizable band plays a like a prequel, and everyone likes a good prequel.

Trampled by Turtles - Stars and Satellites. This indie-blue grass crossover slows it down on this record to remind the world that poppy songs with a country bent don't have to be asinine.

Best of:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Killers Interview: Ballad Born

The Killers' new album, Battle Born, sounds like Meat Loaf. At first I hated it. Now I can't stop listening to it.

In the course of writing this story about the band for The Oregonian, I got over clunky lines like "Don't want your picture on my cell phone," and found myself absent-mindedly belting them. The record is sort of like variations on a theme. I appreciate the dedication to the experiment.

I also appreciated talking to drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. I love interviewing bass players, drummers, keyboardists--people who usually aren't the face of the band. It gives you a chance to ask more unusual questions. We had a great conversation about how drummers act on stage, and a lot of that made it in the piece.

It came up because when the Killers last played Portland, I remember noting how animated Vannucci was on stage. He's a fun guy to talk to, and apparently he enjoys Portland a lot and likes to wander around when he visits, so keep an eye out next week.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Blondie: Pretty Great For A Night With No Communists

Last month I got the chance to interview Debbie Harry for The Oregonian. I was a little nervous, so I I thought. I had 12 questions for the 10 minutes allotted and asked them all. Debbie is a pretty straight-forward conversationalist.

I was busy covering MusicFest Northwest the night Blondie played in Portland, but fortunately, I was able to catch the very last show of their tour in Port Chester, New York, last Sunday.

When I was listening to Panic of Girls over and over to prepare for the story, it struck me how different the songs are from one another. That's one point the album has been criticized on, actually. But I think it's just Blondie being Blondie. Seeing them live, it really stuck out how no two of their hits sound much alike. The new material fits right in the with the old as well.

The newly re-opened Capitol Theater was just about full, but it still wasn't hard to squeeze up into the fifth row. I had never seen Blondie before. The band formed before I was born. But in that intimate environment, and with the amazingly high level of energy Debbie brings to the stage, I felt just like I was seeing them in their prime.

Ironically, one person who helped create that impression was guitarist Tommy Kessler, who joined the band in 2010. When classic bands hire new musicians, I often find myself wondering how the hell this guy got the job. But Kessler is fantastic.

The acoustic parts of "Wipe Off My Sweat" sounded absolutely perfect. Kessler is all over the stage the entire time, even colliding with Debbie and having her strum his guitar for him. This truly gifted musician and performer adds so much to an already iconic band. I'm interested to see where his career goes from here.

Of course, while it felt to me like I was seeing Blondie in their prime, there were certainly nights of their career that won't ever be matched, I'm sure. I asked Debbie to tell me about one of her all-time favorite gigs, and this is what she said:
We did a show once in Bordeaux in the '70s and it was a college or university, and there was a lot of stuff going on in Europe at that time with communism and Bader-Minehoff and the IRA. There was a lot of turmoil, and all these political groups and everything going on. Of course there was a huge communist student group [in Bordeaux] and they actually broke all the doors and windows of the theater of this venue. We're there playing away, and it wasn't really super packed or anything like that. It was a nice audience, but you know, there was room. So I was thinking, "Oh gee, I guess they don't think much of Blondie in Bordeaux," and all of a sudden, the whole place was overrun with people storming in. It was the communists coming to see us! They didn't want to pay so they broke in.
Image: Debbie Harry in a rare moment of standing still. By me.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Beach Boys: All Of The Things We Like To Do

Al Jardine is my favorite Beach Boy. I always liked his voice the best. Something about his hyper annunciation just always gets stuck in my head.

When I wrote this article for The Oregonian about the Beach Boys' 50th reunion tour, I delved pretty deep into the song “Isn't It Time,” which, lucky for me, has a very cool part in it sung by Al Jardine.

When the Beach Boys performed at Chateau Ste Michele outside of Seattle last Friday, Al just looked so happy to be there. When “Isn't It Time” came around, I was the only person in my vicinity singing along. And Al made me look bad—he changed it up on me!

Instead of singing “Every time I think of you / And all of the things we used to” he sang “all of the things we like to do.” I actually really liked this change for the live setting. Since the song is about recapturing youth and there were a lot of older Beach Boys fans in the audience doing just that, he updated it to the present tense. It was such a small change, but it made me smile and look around at everyone dancing around me.

Oddly, this isn't the first lyrical quirk I've come across with this song. When I was researching my article, co-writer of the tune Jim Peterik told me that the chorus of “Isn't it time we dance the night away?” was originally, “Isn't it time we catch another wave?” Apparently Brian Wilson thought it was too similar to the band's previous material and suggested the revision.

Anyway, it was a great show. I kept hugging my friend Jake and I teared up a couple of times. I won't bore you with what it meant to me to see “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl” live. Instead, I'll tell you about the video that played behind the band during the title track of their new record, “That's Why God Made The Radio.” It featured footage of hipsters complete with tattoos and vintage chic outfits cut with old footage of the Beach Boys.

Now, mind you, Jake and I were some of the only hipsters in the crowd, although one of the band's keyboardists looked plucked from an Urban Outfitters ad. I wonder if they haze that guy and make him carry gear and stuff, because the way I took the video was the Beach Boys saying, “Hey, just so you know, we did it first.” If dads are the original hipsters, the Beach Boys are the daddy of pop rock bands.

Image plucked from Front Row Features.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mapping Witch Mountain

Witch Mountain has one of those stories that just writes itself.

The Portland doom outfit is suddenly taking off after 15 years (minus some hiatus time) as a band. It's an extremely unique career arc and detailed in this story I wrote for The Oregonian.

The piece focuses on their recent ascent and glosses over several previous break ups and reunions, but one is worth mentioning here. When Witch Mountain came back together in 2006, three members of the band at the time had all recently gotten divorces. Guitarist Rob Wrong told me, "Nothing quite spells doom like having all your wives leave you in a two year period."

This was the time I first discovered Witch Mountain. I liked what they were going for, but it was just lacking something. Turns out that something was singer Uta Plotkin, who joined the band 12 years into its existence.

The thing that struck me when I first saw Witch Mountain was bassist Dave Hoopaugh. He's very tall, I'd guess 6'5", with grey hair. Paired with the slight frame of drummer Nate Carson, the band kind of looked like a D&D adventure party with an ogre and an elf.

I was sorry to see Dave leave the band last year, but the new record is so phenomenal, I'm looking forward to seeing new bassist Neal Munson for the first time at the CD release show tonight.

Image: Sketch by Shaun Peace of the 2011 lineup.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Stars and Satellites

Trampled by Turtles was first pitched to me a couple of years ago as "bluegrass shredders." It was intriguing enough of a concept to get me to a live show, and I was thoroughly impressed with the energy of the rowdy crowd, although the music wasn't really something I wanted to listen to at home.

The Minnesota band's slower new album though, "Stars and Satellites," has been on constant rotation at my place. It's perfect warm night music. Like any departure from an established sound, it's taken some heat, including this little write up by my friend Andy at Willamette Week with a hilarious burn of a genre tag. I however, gave the album some glowing praise in my preview for The Oregonian, and was really psyched to see it live last night. 

Unfortunately, I forgot about the bane of quiet music: talking. The fans who packed the Crystal came to rock. The springy ballroom floor was the bounciest I've ever felt it. But they weren't quite winded enough to chill out through the quieter songs. Luckily, I have some of the lyrics memorized now, so I could fill in the gaps.