Show Review: Empire of the Sun @ The Shrine

Antipodeans awe and amaze Angelenos

April 24th, 2017
Lesley Park
Category: Lead Story, Review

Coachella 2017 came and went, and with it came this year’s iteration of Localchella, a series of concerts in and around the LA area featuring some of the acts set to grace one of the many stages at the world’s premiere desert festival. Last Wednesday at The Shrine marked the Antipodean invasion with New Zealand’s Broods and Australia’s Empire of the Sun taking a brief hiatus from the sweltering Indio sun to dazzle Angelenos in between the festival’s two weekends.

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Show Review: Miyavi @ The Belasco

The biggest and best from Asia throw it down in LA

April 13th, 2017
Lesley Park
Category: Lead Story, Review

Ask the average Joe walking down the street what he knows about music from Asia and he’s likely to come up with one of two things: manicured and manufactured K-pop or the annoyingly stereotypical–and also kind of racist–Oriental riff. It’s a shame considering the largest continent of the world has produced some truly incredible rock musicians who can more than pull their weight against their more widely recognized American/British counterparts.

One of Asia’s better known, non-pop exports is Miyavi, the self-dubbed “samurai guitarist.” If you’ve seen the way his fingers fly on the fret of his guitar or heard his unique guitar slapping technique, you’d know it’s a monicker he’s more than earned. After making a name for himself as a member of visual kei rock band Dué le Quartz, he’s embarked on a solo career that has taken him all around the world, including an appearance at SXSW and LA’s very own Belasco Theater.

Kicking off the evening was Seoul-based Kiha & The Faces, who in their own marketing swag describe themselves as “witty like Talking Heads, psychedelic like The Doors, and catchy like The Beatles.” The influence of all three is noticeable in the quirky melodies and lyrics that frontman Kiha Chang writes. There are few who could craft a compelling song describing various smells, but you can count Chang among them.

Although they played primarily from their own catalog, they paid an homage to Talking Heads with a slick cover of “Once in a Lifetime” which the crowd enjoyed almost as much as they enjoyed singing “내 사람!” (“my person” in Korean) when the band played “Mine.” Any band who can get an audience to sing foreign phrases wins in my book.

Next up was Thai band Slot Machine, whose catalog I’ll admit to knowing nothing about going in, but who I was pleasantly surprised by. I’ve since learned that they are a huge phenomenon in Thailand with their sights set on breaking into the Western market. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if they proved to be successful. With an arena-caliber sound, Slot Machine was a charismatic force on stage.

While casting the role Mutsuhiro Watanabe for her film Unbroken, Angelina Jolie said, “I had this thought of someone who would have real presence…I thought a rock star.” The moment Miyavi stepped on the stage at The Belasco I could immediately see why she went with him.

Very few artists I’ve seen command the stage the way he does. His rapid yet somehow elegant movements coupled with the sheer skill he possesses on the guitar make it impossible to look away. Even while shredding the riff of “Afraid to Be Cool” like his life depends on it, he takes the time to give the crowd a hair flip and a sly smile.

An unexpected (but surprisingly good) cover of P.O.D.’s “Youth of the Nation” preceded a stylish romp through material from his newer releases (“Firebird” in particular with its anthemic-quality sounded particularly incredible live). Not one for predictability, Miyavi can switch gears into electric renditions of the Mission Impossible opening theme at the drop of a hat. He is a consummate rock star.

In the era of whitewashing controversies and harmful stereotyping of Asians, I can’t tell you how much it means to me on a personal level to have witnessed people who look like me defying those stereotypes on stage. These aren’t just bands who are “pretty good…for Asians.” They are great. Full stop. Props to Live Nation for putting this together and here’s hoping they continue to put on events like this.

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Festival Review: Treefort Music Fest

The best music festival you have yet to hear of.

April 3rd, 2017
Lex Voight
Category: Lead Story, Review

For it’s sixth consecutive year, Treefort Music Fest is beginning to draw massive crowds for its amazing lineup of music and arts. With multiple stages and venues, comedy, art, performance, dance, and seminars, Treefort feels like a SXSW-lite.
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Show Review: Xiu Xiu at Union Nightclub

Using every color in the crayon box

March 27th, 2017
Kyle B. Smith
Category: Review

Fifteen years in to the life of Xiu Xiu, a new chapter has been added with their release of the bone crushing, moody, and darkly beautiful LP, FORGET.

Kicking off their tour with an album release show, Xiu Xiu (on this night comprised of members Jamie Stewart and Angela Seo) played exactly half of the ten new FORGET tracks at Union Nightclub. For many LA musicgoers who inhabit the many east side tried and true establishments, this atypical setting received a sort of validation once Xiu Xiu’s disconcerting and defiant assault began.

Stewart’s desperate and tortured cries could be a hybrid of Anohni and Devon Welsh crossed with a Bowie haunt, particularly on 2002 song, “Don Diasco” (Welsh of recently shelved act, Majical Cloudz). The melodrama carried over to Stewart’s attitudinal shoulder shrugs, backed by Seo’s gesticulative and sparse analog and digital percussion.

By the third song, FORGET track “Wondering,” things really got cooking as the twosome rode a New Wave synth arc sky high. This injection continued during new album title track, “Forget,” begging questions like, how can something that in one moment feels quite discordant, also manage to find such a driving melody? Or, with all the warble and sonic paranoia, how is there time and space for all this beauty?

Xiu Xiu exhibit massive range both on record, and in person. In fact, I struggle to come up with another act that can use every color in the crayon box like they do. And to think, at the Union they achieved this with just two band members.

With the improbable cover choice of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” Xiu Xiu dipped in to a space funk that yet again tapped an unexpected dichotomy, that of glam-cum-Kraftwerk. In another moment, a fellow concertgoer astutely pegged one industrial vibe as, “emo meets German hardcore.” And so it went.

New one “Get Up” employed wood blocks digitally looped by Stewart. In the midst of executing the lyrics on top of his gentle loops, Stewart quickly sobered up the room in one fell swoop with the blood-curdling shriek of, “RISE FROM THE DEAD!” The song described harmonicas and pianos falling on faces, typically violently-themed Xiu Xiu lyrics that were soon forgotten with an absolute cacophonous eruption of pop melody, because why not? It was a show-stopping moment.

Aggro album opener, “The Call,” and the uber-neurotic confessional “Faith, Torn Apart” notably did not receive live treatment. It would have been interesting to witness how the band would have handled some of the lyrics to “The Call”, or the series of earnest confessions that close out FORGET on “Faith, Torn Apart.”

Nevertheless, the performance left a jarring impression, one rooted in the many contrasts that, when cobbled together, create Xiu Xiu.

Xiu Xiu at Union Nightclub Setlist

Don Diasco
I Luv Abortion
Fabulous Muscles
Jenny GoGo
Hay Choco Bananas
Sharp Dressed Man (ZZ Top)
Get Up
Stupid in the Dark
Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl
I Broke Up
Crank Heart

Show Review: Matthew Koma @ Hotel Cafe

The master songwriter awes with his acoustic set!

March 24th, 2017
Zein Khleif
Category: Review

Matthew Koma is not only a joy to speak to, but also a joy to watch perform. Onstage at Hotel Café, accompanied only by his guitar, he gave his audience a stunning night of song.

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On Lake Street Dive and Evidence for The Divine

Lake Street Dive can make me a believer.

Lex Voight
Category: Lead Story, Review

I have an ambiguous relationship with God(s).

While on one hand I steadfastly believe organized religion to be mostly a terrible thing, I’m aware that the community that religion can foster can be beneficial. Historically, however, people have used that faith in one particular deity or another to draw lines and fight wars, rather than reach out and encompass their fellow man. And the deities have mostly kept out of it, either too ignorant, absent, trusting, or sadistic have been content to let us sort it all out for ourselves. This, of course, has been used, along with innumerable other arguments that are tough to contradict, as evidence that “God is dead” – either that they never existed or they buggered off or we killed them. Most of the time I fall on this side of things: religion is in general harmful, the divine is irrelevant because I have seen no concrete evidence of its existence and there are few arguments that I find satisfactory to explain it’s existence.

“The Unmoved First Mover”/Intelligent Design argument I always thought kind of nicely solved the pesky problem of there being science and everything – that some infinitely intelligent being just kinda set everything up like the most intricate 11-dimensional line of dominoes and then went “flick.” Its an argument that’s tough to argue with when one doesn’t understand how to explain the big bang.

“At first there was nothing, which exploded,” as Terry Pratchett once said.

The other argument for the existence of the divine is, of course, Lake Street Dive.

And I meant that with total (semi) seriousness. Lake Street Dive, who I saw for the first time this week at the Theater at the Ace Hotel, are clearly too perfect to have come from a cold, unfeeling, and uncaring universe neutral to the existence of humanity.

Lake Street Dive are a moderately successful soul/jazz/pop band that formed in Boston a number of years ago. Each member, an expert at their respective instruments, updated the New Orleans-influenced jazz-soul sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Chet Baker, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding, mixing it with a heavy dose of disco, pop, and rock and roll. What they’ve done just over the three records and one EP that I have heard (there are several LP’s in their oeuvre which are nigh impossible to find) is create some of the most soulful contributions to modern music that is infinitely enjoyable.

I often openly question why music, as a medium, didn’t just give up after Freddie Mercury died. People like Bridget Kearney, Mike Calabrese, Mike Olson, and the incomparable Rachael Price, are the answer.

Ms. Price came sashaying out at the Ace, clad in a flow-y pink retro jumpsuit that took the audience’s breath away. Believe me when I say this as a cishet man who gasped in pleasure when Jon Forte walked out in a tux when I saw him open for K’Naan and drooled when I shot Lenny Kravitz last year at KAABOO. I know what an audience – straight, gay, or whatever – loses its breath. And it was lost before Lake Street Dive launched into “Bad Self Portraits.”

We were never to regain it.

Pulling from all over their last three LP’s, as well as a couple covers featured on their Fun Machine EP, Lake Street Dive left the audience breathless, dancing, screaming, and shaken. To my infinite pleasure, LSD’s set wears its old soul influences on its sleeve. I always thought it an amazingly beautiful gesture when someone like Solomon Burke or Al Green–people who’s talent is legendary and who packed houses just on their own names–would then point to the members of their band, name them, and give them each a moment to stand out in front of the crowd as their own. In LSD, each member is similarly equally valued in their live show, each given a chance to shine despite Rachael Price’s frontwoman status. Bridget Kearney’s upright bass solo, in particular, is something to behold (woman can absolutely shred). Multi-instrumentalist Mike Olson, however, creates a quiet presence in the background, often at a slight remove, holding playing the trumpet or guitar masterfully but with little fanfare.

Belting out a string of room-filling soul/rock one does miss the quieter sound of some jazz and soul and, sure enough, halfway through their show LSD took a break to go acoustic for a couple of songs, before launching back into some of their most pop-influenced tracks off their 2016 full-length Side Pony.
Look, I’m not entirely sure of the existence of god, but I had a borderline religious experience watching Lake Street Dive play. There are few things in this world which I consider truly heavenly, but Lake Street Dive were clearly sent from on-high.

Probably, anyway.

Show Review: Spoon at Apogee Studios for KCRW

Ninth album Hot Thoughts due March 17

March 13th, 2017
Kyle B. Smith
Category: Review

On the eve of SXSW, tried and true Austin veterans Spoon migrated to LA for an hour long set at Apogee Studios in Santa Monica. The performance and an interview with Anne Litt will be broadcast on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic on Wednesday, March 22.

The opening couple of tunes came off of Spoon’s forthcoming ninth album, Hot Thoughts, which will be released on March 17. Front man Britt Daniel moved about the crowded stage during bouncy opener, “Do I Have to Talk You Into It,” and then proceeded to take on the angular new single and title track, “Hot Thoughts.”

On “Inside Out,” Daniel lost his guitar, took the mic in hand and exhibited his indie rock strut over twinkling keys. One of Spoon’s best works, “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” lead track from 2005’s Gimme Fiction came next, shifting from its head bobbing lurch to end with the sage wisdom, “When you believe they call it rock and roll.” The song, like some others in their repertoire, evoke thoughts of what a modern day Beatles might sound like.

“I Ain’t The One” started up with a sparse and lounge-y R&B vibe, but then took a turn for something meaner, and then another for a fuzzed out outro. This is certain to be one of the best tracks on Hot Thoughts.

Details from the mid-set interview discussion between Litt and Daniel will be saved for the broadcast, but included some of the back story on writing the new material, a great story about the band playing with a Spoon cover band in Maine, and revealed which band member is their “sexy cabana boy.”

On to the second set, “Can I Sit Next to You” is fit to be another highlight from the new album. The tune contains excellent minimalist flourishes of electronica, and is to the gills with an attitude that was exemplified in real time as bassist Rob Pope took a swig from a can of beer mid-song.

In “Small Stakes,” Spoon reached all the way back to 2002. There was “Panama”-like intro and an exponential build that culminated with Daniel raising the body of his guitar to his shoulder, looking down the neck as if it were the barrel of a gun.

By the time we reached the encore closing selection of the breakup banger, “Rainy Taxi,” Daniel and co. had the room properly revved up. As if speaking directly to the LA crowd, with a return to ATX imminent, Daniel defiantly sang, “As the sun goes fading in the west, there’s an army east that’s rising still.”

KCRW’s Apogee Sessions featuring Spoon Setlist

Do I Have to Talk You Into It
Hot Thoughts
Inside Out
The Beast and Dragon, Adored
I Saw the Light
I Ain’t the One
Rent I Pay
Can I Sit Next to You
Do You
Small Stakes
My Mathematical Mind
First Caress
Rainy Taxi

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KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic

On Suicide Silence and Suicide Squad

The legacy-Killing Joke.

March 4th, 2017
Lex Voight
Category: Lead Story, Review

We like to keep it positive on this site. In general, good vibes are the only ones that truly matter and its so much better talking about something that you love and why you love it, than something that you hate and why you loath it. Too often those conversations get into weird superiority complexes and holier-than-thou attitudes or descend into internet trolling and horribleness.
But every once in awhile a failure is so impressive that it bears examination.

Suicide Silence’s recently released self titled record is one such example. Not only because it is such an interesting case, but it because it bares such a strong resemblance in its failures to another pop culture failure/phenomenon, Suicide Squad.

Suicide Silence, for those not in the know, has been one of the hottest extreme metal bands for the last ten years. Following a grind-influenced EP that followed up on the absolute brutal-ness that Job For a Cowboy spurned after the “Doom EP”, Suicide Silence dropped “The Cleansing.” Suddenly every deathcore act around had the bar set for them—“The Cleansing” was a revelation. Deathcore had already begun to falter early on with a lack of originality and an all-too-strict structure that discouraged experimentation. Suicide Silence, with more overt metal flourishes and charismatic vocalist Mitch Lucker’s demonic/psychotic vocals, was…while not a breath of fresh air exactly, it was the absolute epitome and pinnacle of deathcore. It was the absolute gut-wrenching brutal-ness of Job for a Cowboy, the sound of Cannibal Corpse, and the bro-ness of Slipknot all mixed into one. “No Time to Bleed” followed—showing slight progression and some better than decent singles that quickly became my and all my friends ringtones. With “The Black Crown,” Sucide Silence began to branch further—clearly leaning on those nu-metal, Slipknot influences over their more traditional metal counterparts…to mixed success.

Then tragedy struck. Mitch Lucker, the band’s endlessly charismatic frontman (I saw them play twice live and both shows were some of the best I have seen) was killed in a motorcycle accident. The band’s legacy was seemingly finalized—concretized by a tribute show where Suicide Silence played, filled in by a number of guest vocalists from across the metal and deathcore worlds to pay tribute to their fallen comrade. With more in them, the band made a bold move—soldier on. And to do so they made the best choice they could have in picking up former All Shall Perish’s vocalist, Eddie Hermida—perhaps the only person who could not only rival, but perhaps exceed Lucker’s legendary screaming vocal range. “You Can’t Stop Us” was a defiant and surprisingly solid “comeback” record.

I saw them play at Knotfest this year, for the first time with Hermida leading, and was blown away at how good they remained. Certainly Lucker’s presence was missed palpably, but the band performed exceptionally, whipping the crowd into a frenzy.

Everything seemed to be going so well.

Then things began to go awry. As Suicide Silence started to talk about their next record, dropping that it was going to contain a lot of clean vocals, people began to cry “foul,” and the band started to hit back. In a cringe-worthy series of publicity moves, Hermida and the band embarked on a salt-the-earth campaign with their fans. And…to be honest…one can hardly blame them. Metal, in general but specifically its more popular iterations and even more specifically nu-metal influenced extreme metal, is not known for its intellectual rigor or open-ness to new ideas. Too many fans of deathcore simply chase whatever is most brutal and will have none of anything else. Many fans, Suicide Silence correctly surmised, simply rejected the idea of a deathcore band, and Suicide Silence in particular, using clean singing. Personally, I was stoked. Deathcore is too confining and I believed this band to have the talent to pull just about anything off.

When first single “Doris” dropped, however, I was forced to temper my expectations. “Doris,” was a nu-metaly-mess. Off-key singing, disjointed Frankenstein of a structure, and some strange tonal issues. It was like Suicide Silence were experiencing an identity crisis. It was like the song started as one thing, the band second guessed themselves, and then became another.
And, unfortunately, its indicative of the whole album at large.

“Suicide Silence” is a mess. But an interesting one.

Which, of course, is where I get onto the subject of Suicide Squad, maybe not the worst, but certainly the most frustrating movie I have ever seen. Suicide Squad is a master class in how not to write, structure, pace, organize or tone a movie and yet it was a bonafide phenomenon, going on to break multiple box office records. The movie has about five starts, four introductions per character, no idea of what character motivation is or how to show rather than tell. It is a horribly misogynist, mixed-message of a movie with completely negligible character arcs, inexplicable decision making, constant deus ex machinas…it’s a cringe-worthy bore that is only carried by the charisma of it’s leading actors…Will Smith, Viola Davis, and Margot Robbie. It made me so angry that as soon as I saw it I went home and rewrote the whole damn movie just based on the scenes they had already shot and a few minor changes and sent it to my friends. Its so bad that it still makes me angry at least once a week.

But I LOVE bad movies. So why did this one irk me so? It wasn’t the disappointment after it failed to live up to the expectations that an absolutely stellar marketing department and some gangbuster trailers set. It was because, so often, it would get so close to greatness that it would practically telegraph what it was going to do next. It new how to reward the viewer (and yes not all movies should “reward” the viewer, but movies, like all media, are a delicate manipulation of the viewer’s emotions and knowledge that is its own visual and auditory language and frequently “rewarding” the viewer is simply because we are so familiar with narrative that we can anticipate whats coming next…the fun part that movies play on is when they see that, wink, and then fuck with you the way they want after that) and then would do something completely different out of nowhere. It’s a series of utterly baffling decisions one after the other and each time they tell you whats going to happen…and promptly do something totally random from out of absolutely nowhere.
God its infuriating.

“Suicide Silence” plays much the same way—it’s a series of completely strange choices all slammed together under a barely-held-together framework that seems cobbled out of whatever the band had to hand by way of ideas. Songs come and go out of nowhere with little thought to structure—“Doris” is a perfect example, beginning with a southern riff, typical deathcore pounding, insane amount of reverb, horribly flat vocals, and ideas from about three separate songs stuck together. There are all sorts of random pauses throughout the record for Hermida’s deranged scream-talking to come to the fore. Moreover, the instrumentation feels lazy and uncomfortable. Like it wasn’t natural for them to be playing this slowed down.

What he’s saying, however, sounds patently ridiculous…even as far as metal lyrics go. “We’re dying through life, we’re living through death,” “the torrential clouds,” and honestly, too many other examples to note are all frighteningly shoddy lyrics that sound all the worse for being better understood by clean singing. But even what singing there is, is frequently drenched in an absurd amount of reverb and echoes last seconds after the words themselves have been said. It’s a cool idea when used in a song to really impress that going-off-the-rails feeling as the sheer amount of noise mounts to a peak, but over an entire record it just feels…off. It was most likely done to help make up for the underwhelming nature of the clean vocals themselves, but you could forgive them that easily if they were simply better utilized.

Where Hermida’s vocals really aid the record is in their complete psychotic-sounding derangement. He really plays with edging that precipice between crazy and absolutely batshit insane…but it’s the one tool he has in this whole travesty of a record. And he never stops using it. Consequently it loses its unique appeal fairly quickly, despite how tortured and raw he seems to want to sound. Mixed with the clean vocals and simplistic lyrics, however, it becomes a little tired and melodramatic. Which encapsulates what is so frustrating with the record as a whole–these musicians are great, their ideas have legitimate awesomeness within them, but they keep going the wrong direction.

Tonally, the record is all over the place. Humans being complex creatures, I am not against a multi-tonal record, but “Suicide Silence” really puts a confusing amount of tonal choices into only 9 songs. It begins with a “fuck yeah!” and southern rock riffage, but so much of the record seems to be really gunning for this tortured aesthetic, before ending on a carefree and completely out of nowhere whistling jaunty tune in “Don’t Be Careful You Might Hurt Yourself” and the ding of a microwave. As Hermida rockets back and forth between talking, crooning, and vocal-chord shredding mayhem, backed by an alternating chugging and soundscape-y instrumentation, one would really think they are trying to play up this dichotomy to aim for a certain kind of catharsis brought to light by this tonal rawness, but with bits and pieces of all sorts of ideas and songs chucked together haphazardly, the record ends up being just as frustrating a listen as Suicide Squad was a watch.

“Suicide Silence” is a massive miscalculation of epic proportions. Its an embarrassment that the band, perhaps forced by an unwelcoming fanbase who hates change of any kind, has doubled down on with both an antagonistic PR campaign, but simply through the album itself. I wanted to ignore that horrible album cover/excellent band photo that destroys a visual aesthetic pattern that the band has been roughly following with their records since “The Cleansing” because it makes me too upset, but I can’t. Because it says it right there—“Suicid Silence.” This is a self-titled record. Self-titled records are assertions of identity. It’s the band saying, quite literally, “this is us.” It should function as the truest (if not the best, of course) representation of the band themselves. It’s a choice with a purpose. Suicide Silence are clearly tired of living under the shadow of tragedy and within the confines of a genre resistant to change, but that they chose this papier-mache mess of a record as their mission statement paints them into a tough corner. But look at that record cover—its literally a band photo, arms crossed in defiance and everything. “This IS Suicide Silence” is what they are telling us. And yet it doesn’t match up at all with our understanding, nor is it even said in a way to create understanding. I get that the band are really trying to shake off the stragglers who havn’t been able to move on since Lucker’s passing, but the record seems to be encountering such ire because its a perceived betrayal of their legacy that was done with purpose. It’s a defensive, defiant, provocative move on all fronts. Which is a knee-jerk feeling that seems to dictate a lot of the choices on the record. I get that they are deliberately trying to buck expectations and assumptions, but there must have been more thoughtful, authentic, organic ways that challenging of assumptions and iconography could have been done or toyed with.

If they were seeking to solely shed themselves of the shackles confining them and the fans weighing like anchors on them, there is no doubt they will have done that, but with the added difficulty of no doubt falling down the ranks of bills. If they truly believe in the merits of this record (and, no doubt there are a few—just like Suicide Squad there are faint glimmers of true greatness in the sprawling morass of awfulness), and wish to continue down this path, they are going to face a rude awakening (if they care at all, of course) it is received mostly negatively by critics and fans alike. But at the same time, they will have difficulty backtracking on how antagonistic and vocally uncaring their PR campaign has been—it would take a really thoughtful interview after months of meditating on the critical failure of this record to be accepted as genuine. Finally, the band also (hopefully) can’t end here…with a slow fizzle into obscurity before a final pop of abject mediocrity. That would be a sad capper on the band’s legacy, and totally undeserved given the talent of all those involved.

While their livelihood is somewhat dependent on fans and critics reception of their output, I of course do not believe that they are beholden to make people happy and not challenge their audience or themselves. That, I believe is the role of the artist—to challenge themselves and others. Far be it from me, or any of us for that matter, to dictate the output of the author, the artist, or the musician. Works of great art, or even great media, are rarely assembled by committee. Need evidence? Just look at Suicide Squad.

Show Review: PWR BTTM at Ebell Highland Park

Lead singer’s mom promptly brings down the house

March 2nd, 2017
Kyle B. Smith
Category: Lead Story, Review


You could almost hear impatience in the child’s voice. The kind that kids heap on their poor parents. The kind where the offspring tap their fingers and scowl, awaiting another in a string of thankless tasks bestowed upon them simply by virtue of their birth.

Except that this was a rock show, and the 20-something front man called to his mother in the crowd to get up on stage and sing back up. Times they have a-changed.

PWR BTTM crashed in to the Ebell Highland Park Monday night riding a wave of the-future-is-now energy in a dazzling blur of glitter, glam, and jam. More on Mrs. Hopkins a bit later, but first, her son’s band.

Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce are PWR BTTM, a Brooklyn duo that is exponentially more than the sum of their parts. Under the vaulted ceiling of the Ebell – one of the many charms that gave the setting a throwback feel, directly in conflict with what was about to go down on stage – the sold out crowd came ready to do glam rock battle.

Many in the youthful audience were outfit in dresses, their glittered faces physically echoing Hopkins’ own mug. Each looked primed to join the band, if ever graced with the honor. With gender roles and outdated social convention checked at the door, it generated a refreshing energy still absent at most shows in this city. The clearest evidence of this were the signs posted to designate all restrooms as gender-neutral, apparently a requirement outlined by the band.

When Ben Hopkins emerged to do a quick sound check on his guitar, the general admission crowd prematurely let out an Ed Sullivan-like collective shriek. After shushing the crowd with an index finger raised to his lips, Hopkins tuned a bit, then revved up the tempo, then played up the neck with his right hand before ending with an animated chord strike – true rock ‘n roll flair! The show hadn’t even started, but then it did.

PWR BTTM’s live performance is an absolute fucking cornucopia buffet of super crunchy electric guitar, exaggerated dance moves, melodic shredding at the top of crescendos, and painfully earnest, often funny lyrics that bleed in to a non-stop conversational banter between songs.

In the early going, the title track from 2015’s Ugly Cherries, contained a line that casually toyed with pronouns: “My girl gets scared, can’t take him anywhere.” Meanwhile, the track’s spiraling and angular lead guitar cut through an otherwise muddied sound in the venue.

On newest single, “Big Beautiful Day,” Bruce’s cascading drums were mathematical in their precision, while Hopkins’ casual post-song spoken lament – “I left my effective make up in San Francisco” – sounded like a PWR BTTM album-ready refrain.

In amongst the yet-to-be-released songs due in May on Pageant, PWR BTTM sprinkled in seasoned anthems. The gang of eastsiders responded heartily in unison on tracks like “Nu 1,” “I Wanna Boi,” and “Trade.”

Pageant number “New Trick” described meeting friends’ parents at a graduation party while wearing a dress. Like many of their less bombastic lyrics, “If you stop staring, you’ll be able to see” took a turn that stopped me dead in my tracks.

“C U Around” had a similar effect, especially when it culminated with an ethereal jam and a silent crowd, arms raised and waving left to right. There was gravitas in the moment, evoking the graceful turns of those massive windmills out near Palm Springs.

And then entered Ben’s mom.

Responding to her son’s “Mommm?”, Mrs. Hopkins let out a motherly and high-pitched, “I’m here!” as she hurried to the stage. This was no schtick, be sure of that. Dressed to the nines in a regal shiny gold top, Ben’s mom was about to bring down the house on Pageant lead track, “Silly.”

Her son’s guitar solo played like an unhinged “White Cliffs of Dover” that was soon to join sonic forces with his mother’s own operatic howls. This cross-generational collaboration was quite possibly the most unusual dynamic I have ever seen at a rock show…yet it totally worked. Did I mention that Mama Hopkins is set to appear on five Pageant tracks?

During the encore, Hopkins (Ben) slowly fingerpicked “House in Virginia,” as if said house was actually a secluded cabin somewhere up in Wisconsin. Lilting harmonies quickly ignited, were extinguished, and then set afire again. By the song’s end, Ben Hopkins cradled his guitar like a dance partner as he drifted around the stage like a jewel-encrusted marionette. His movement became an instrument in and of itself, as the guitar responded with audible reverberations.

Before the music ever began some 90 minutes earlier, Mrs. Hopkins’ son imparted a sobering and spot on gem. It was a mini-life talk, and maybe it was a little preachy, but was Ben Hopkins wrong?:

“Music can’t save your life. But it can provide a really great soundtrack to fix your own goddamn life.”

PWR BTTM are back in LA on Saturday, July 15 at Teragram Ballroom. For tickets, click here.

PWR BTTM at Ebell Highland Park Setlist

West Texas
Ugly Cherries
Big Beautiful Day
Dairy Queen
Nu 1
Serving Goffman
New Trick
Answer My Text
I Wanna Boi
C U Around
House in Virginia

Lead photo by Andrew Piccone

Album Review: Grandaddy – Last Place

Surveillance audio recorder in a dried-up creek

February 28th, 2017
Kyle B. Smith
Category: Review

Now a robust twenty-five years deep in to their career, Grandaddy have re-emerged in fine form with new LP, Last Place.

Perhaps that quarter century mark is a tad misleading; for the past 10 years, the group has been dormant. During this time, Jason Lytle and co. went their separate ways.

Long considered the de facto leader of Grandaddy, Lytle moved from Modesto, California to Montana, and put out a few projects under his own name, or as part of Admiral Radley.

The other members? Who is to say. But if Last Place is a time capsule of this period of separation, it sounds like the members of Grandaddy disbanded to gnaw on the more trying experiences of life.

The album careens sort of helplessly between the depths of heartbreak and the disconcerting observations of a paranoid mind. Characters are frequently on the run, living on the roof of a big box store, or surreptitiously followed by hidden recording devices.

These sad tales are delivered via Lytle’s quivering childlike vocals. His neurotic musings are met with Grandaddy’s trademark menagerie of dull throbs, urgent Spy Hunter themes, and cinematic synths.

Occasionally there are moments of sonic levity (“Way We Won’t”) that flirt with a sense of emotional relief. But don’t be fooled. On Last Place, Grandaddy channels dark energy in the way that Nick Diamonds’ Islands does. There may be a playful veneer, but crack it with the edge of a spoon, and that darkness will come pouring out.

Take “I Don’t Wanna Live Here Anymore.” It’s vessel is a generally cheery ditty, maybe even in the spirit of Weezer’s “Buddy Holly.” But the fact of the matter is, Lytle is a wreck: “Everything is outta place, now I’m having trouble dealing, I just moved here, and I don’t wanna live here anymore.”

“The Boat is in the Barn” offers a contemporary vignette of post-relationship hell, as his yearning for a former lover is hijacked by the far more crushing thought of being totally forgotten. “I saw you sitting at a table by the water, and you were going through the photos on your phone. You looked so happy, and you need to be there all alone. Getting rid of all of me is what I figured. Delete, deleting everything that had occurred. That’s when I backed away and headed out without a word.”

If that isn’t enough, the LP ends with the killer one-two punch of “A Lost Machine,” and “Songbird Son.” The former is a pitch perfect capture of modern paranoia, and haunted by post-apocalyptic imagery. I’m not sure I can recall a more evocative first line of a song than, “Surveillance audio recorder in a dried-up creek.”

“Songbird Son” is a delicate gem, and well-situated to close out Last Place. It’s a microcosm of Grandaddy’s core elements: Lytle’s frail intonation, an acoustic guitar juxtaposed with electronic swatches of spaceship whirs, and other beeps and blips that suggest that this coda is a descendent of “Let Down.”

Last Place is due March 3 on Century Records / Columbia. For a few more days, stream it on NPR’s First Listen.

While you’re at it, pick up tickets for Grandaddy’s return to Los Angeles, Friday, May 12 at the Fonda Theater.

For more information: Grandaddy