Thursday, February 22, 2018

tUnE-yArDs, Sudan Archives @ El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles

Sudan Archives
The curtains part at El Rey Theatre, and Sudan Archives stands on stage in front of you. She's tall, wearing a James Brown-esque wingsuit, and she has the largest afro you've ever seen in real life. For a few minutes, you're purely entranced by the magic of her presence on stage. She plays a violin and a drum machine, and you've never heard music like this before. It's R&B with conversational lyrics about eating oatmeal for breakfast, until it slips further into a musical mode with which you're unfamiliar.  Her playing style is not influenced by classical music as you know it, but by Northeast African fiddlers.

You're standing close to the front of the stage and dead center, directly beneath a speaker. Unfortunately, the bass is loud enough to shake your body each time it hits. You picture the surface of your drink rippling like in the T. rex movie, but when you look down it is still. This aggressive bass prevents you from fully enjoying the set, but her enthusiasm leaves you with a positive impression.

The pause between sets is the perfect amount of time to take a bathroom break, visit the bar, find a new spot in the pit, and make a friend in the crowd. Then the curtains open again. The bass player is stage left and the drummer stage right. Merrill Garbus stands on a riser in the middle. She's wearing all black with a white rope wrapped loosely around her neck, and socks on her feet for better control of the pedals. There's a white screen behind her to catch triplet shadows of Merrill from the front lights.

tUnE-yArDs (and you're aware they don't always stylize it like that, but you like the way it looks) mostly play songs from their latest release, 2018's I can feel you creep into my private life and their breakout 2011 LP w h o k i l l. Sometimes the songs bleed into each other like a DJ set, but most times there are pauses in between while Merrill tunes her ukelele or twists knobs on her pedal board. This doesn't strike you as boring or unprofessional, because you know you are watching the performance before you hear it. When people talk about live vocal looping, Andrew Bird is usually the first name to come up, but Merrill Garbus is just as impressive. She sings background vocals unaccompanied into one of her microphones, and it isn't until it all comes together that you recognize the song. They play all your old and new favorites. The live rhythm section elevates "Es-So" into a hard-hitting stomp.

"What interesting times we live in," says Merrill, "Sometimes I don't know what to say, but I feel like the lyrics speak for themselves. That's not me tooting my own horn, it's just a lot. It's a lot." Her music is often political and cathartic, and the new album is no exception. You listen to her sing about her privilege, her white woman's voice. She encourages you to look at your hands, all the objects in your hands. It is a lot, you think. Sometimes you read the news and feel like you'll have a heart attack. But you're grateful for tUnE-yArDs, and you're grateful that you can talk and dance it out with friends.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Simpler Sugar - Karate Bikini

St. Louis' own Karate Bikini has just released their second full-length album, A Simpler Sugar, which is currently number two on the KDHX charts. I got to talk to frontman Tim McAvin about the band and the new album. The Karate Bikini's CD Release Show is at Off Broadway on November 15th.

AF: It’s been two years since “Sauce of the Apple Horse.” So what’s new? Any major changes?

Tim McAvin: A lot has changed. The newest thing being A Simpler Sugar. We're all really excited about it. There's also our upcoming show at Off Broadway, Nov 15th. Woo hoo!!. Letter to Memphis and Soma Jet Set will be playing with us. Musically there have been some changes as well. A big change is we added Adam Frick on French horn. He's been a great addition to our sound. Besides the coolness of it being a French Horn, and the instruments beautiful tone, having two horns allows us to get into a different way of thinking about arrangements. Adam and Michelle are really good at coming up with parts. 

I also took over bass duties when Mike Martin was taking a break for school. I love it! I feel like playing bass has really done great things for my personal musicianship. I also like the position of singer and bass player. Strategically, It gives me a lot of control over focusing the melodies and harmonies. 

Another pretty big change is that we've been introducing a lot of slower tempo acoustic songs. I've always loved all kinds of music including folk and country and jazz, but I didn't bring them to Karate Bikini until relatively recently. Not sure why. I just didn't. I'm glad I am now. We're having a great time working on them and they give our shows way more dynamics. 

AF: What were the biggest influences on this album?

TM: I think the title of the album, A Simpler Sugar, sort of gets at that. I think in general this album is more accessible than the last. We tried to focus on simplifying some things and organizing things better. One of the things about Karate Bikini is that there is no shortage of ideas, and we can all play our instruments pretty well. But sometimes that meant everybody wailing and every idea coming at you all at the same time. We're getting better at keeping that down, picking our spots, and highlighting our better ideas. I think that is the biggest influence on this album. 

AF: Karate Bikini has released four music videos in the past year, and I’ve heard there are more on the way. What’s that experience been like?

TM: Making the videos is fun. For me, there's a bit of surrender involved. For our video Pen A Letter, I was told to get right up in the camera and sing the song. I felt intimidated by that, but just told myself to surrender and do it. Just do it. There are a bunch of different ideas for videos coming up. It's fun. I'm looking forward to that. We don't have lots of money, so we're doing most things sort of on the cheap, and it's a blast. It's also another way for folks to hear the songs. 

AF: This is the third Karate Bikini release and the first one with no Asian girl on the cover. What's up with that?

TM: Yeah... that... Well, we had some Asian Girl ideas and just decided to do something different. There's something campy about Karate Bikini, and that's (at least in my head) sort of what the Asian girl was about for me. But the truth is, our music is becoming less and less campy, so the pictures drawn by my kids kind of get at the idea of simplicity, and they look good, so we went with it. 

AF: So what's next for the band?

TM: A 16 track CD, more videos and shows. There are some bands in town I'd like to play with,  and there are a few new places I'd like to play. One thing I would like to see happen for us this coming summer is to get out of town a little. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Beck, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger @ The Pageant

Photo courtesy of John Ottenlips
After a six year album gap, Beck is on tour again. I was fortunate enough to experience the show at The Pageant in St. Louis this past wednesday.

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger is the creative outlet of Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl. I felt that the opening band sounded a lot like their name. Their songs were psychedelic and heavy, mystical and fierce. Lennon was an unexpectedly good soloist.

Beck and his six-piece band opened with "Devil's Haircut," dancing and smiling around the stage like a little kid who gets to play rockstar. They toured the entire Beck catalog with a stunning twenty-four song set.

It was obvious that the entire band was having even more fun than the audience. I think that's one of the key elements of a great concert. Playing the harmonica on "One Foot in the Grave" to the beat of the audience clapping is another one. And "E-Pro," which had the pit thrashing and pumping their arms, ended with the band members murdering each other while Beck put up crime scene tape across the stage.

The defining characteristic of a Beck concert is the way the genre seems to change seamlessly. The show went from hip hop ("Novacane") to folk ("One Foot in the Grave,") dance ("New Pollution,") country ("Blue Moon,") psychedelic ("Chemtrails,") punk ("Minus,") and even weird soul ("Debra.") Beck shows that good song-writing transcends genre.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

WHY? @ The Demo

Phone-quality photo courtesy of Stefanie Cook
Three friends and I drove four hours from Iowa City to spend one night in the St. Louis area and see the band WHY?. Was it ridiculous? Illogical? Awesome? Yes to all.

Google maps guided us from my home in St. Charles to the Grove neighborhood downtown. The show was at The Demo, a small club that usually hosts local shows. On this night, it was packed with music fans, approximately half of whom had septum piercings. The opener was a well-known local act called Bo and the Locomotive. They were missing something like 40% of their band. On this night, the group consisted of two guitars, bass, and vocals. The guitar-fest made their songs sound similar, but they had promise. I'd like to see them as a full band.

WHY? is currently a six member group. A rhodes piano, bass, glockenspiel, sometimes guitar, and two drummers with various percussion instruments including xylophone. Then there's Jonathan "Yoni" Wolf, the rapper at the core of the group. On stage, the combination of his curly hair and mustache empowers a weird and alluring swagger. His lyrics are simultaneously personal (in one of the many places you're not, I am / hiding from my friends in the bathroom at Thrift Town to write this tune down) and abstract (good god, what the hell, what the fuck / a white dove on the hood of a two-ton truck.) While the band provides angelic background vocals, everything unifies into a groovy, rhythmic chaos.

The show was strange and danceable. Despite having to pause for a technical problem half-way through the set, the audience did not waver and even encouraged a brief encore. Anyone willing to stick around had the opportunity to meet the band members hanging out in the venue and working the merch table. They were all friendly and grateful for the praise.

Here's their music video for "Strawberries."

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

I want to begin by saying that I am not a Trekkie. I've seen a handful of episodes from the original series, the 2009 movie, and this one. That's the background I come from as I write this review.

In Star Trek Into Darkness, the crew of the Enterprise searches for a terrorist named John Harrison, who is responsible for blowing up an archive building and assassinating several important Starfleet officers. I don't think I can say more about the plot without giving away too much.

The relationship between Kirk and Spock is interesting and often insightful. They are polarized by their respective beliefs in chaos and order, but they are best friends. This relationship provides many of the philosophical dilemmas of the film as well as most of the witty humor. The struggle between chaos and order was also a major theme in director J. J. Abrams' show Lost.

Evil villains are often stock characters. Common motivations include revenge, insanity, and power. This doesn't happen in Star Trek Into Darkness. The villain is morally ambiguous. I found myself hoping he would win certain fights. Benedict Cumberbatch is so good at being evil that it makes me question his motives as Sherlock in the BBC show of the same name.

It's easy to abuse CGI technology, but I don't think that happens in this movie. The ships, buildings, and planets have a balance of whimsy and realism that makes them beautiful and believable at the same time.

I think this is an excellent science fiction movie for anybody. It requires hardly any prior knowledge of the franchise to enjoy. I hope Star Trek Into Darkness appeals to dedicated Trekkies as well.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Iron Man 3

2008 gave us Iron Man and The Dark Knight, the first in a line of really great superhero movies. They were game changers. So was last year's The Avengers, directed by the magnificent Joss Whedon. It was the first team superhero movie and, amazingly, it didn't feel like it was spread too thin. Iron Man 3 is another solid superhero movie, but it's not going to change the industry.

In Tony Stark's latest adventure, he fights a global terrorist from his past who possesses the technology to rewrite genetic code, giving people the ability to regenerate (and sometimes shoot fire from their mouths!).

The greatest part about this movie is that it contains the secret to all Marvel characters: a human flaw. Iron Man's weakness isn't a space rock or fire; it's anxiety attacks. How awesomely human is that? He's so worried about protecting his girlfriend that it causes him physical pain and often puts him in danger.

Robert Downey Jr. really was born to play this role. I can't imagine anyone else as Tony Stark.

I can promise you that Iron Man 3 has everything you want in an Iron Man movie. Freaking cool suits? Yes. Snappy one-liners? Yes. Epic villains? Way yes. If you like superhero movies at all, you'll probably like Iron Man 3, but don't expect it to change your life.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Much has been written about The Great Gatsby, which many consider to be "the great American novel." It's a fantastic book and that is why I'm not going to speak much about the film's story: it's already been covered by everyone else.

The most recent adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, The Great Gatsby, contains all of the novel's major themes. It is a faithful adaptation except for the context in which Nick Carraway narrates it. In the novel, he is merely telling the story to tell the story. In this movie, he is in a sanitarium telling the story to his doctor. Apparently he becomes an alcoholic after the events of the novel. This major detail shifted unnecessary focus onto Nick and could easily have been left out.

Leonardo DiCaprio is superb as Gatsby, especially during the high-tension scene in the rented parlor room. Tobey Maguire's performance could have been better, but it's not distracting.

The greatest thing about this film is that it brings the novel into a new generation. Gatsby's parties are not only extravagant and fancy, but youthfully wild and chaotic. The car chases are amped up with a bit of CGI that adds some excitement to a rather dialogue heavy story. These details make the film more appealing to a younger audience and will hopefully introduce them to one of the greatest pieces of American literature.

The soundtrack, which is modern and not period, is surprisingly appropriate and makes the parties feel cool and dangerous. It will undoubtedly become known as one of the best soundtracks of 2013.

Besides the added details about Nick, I don't have any problems with this movie. If I'm not excited, it's because it's just not the novel.