These are just a few scenes from Mýa's concert last Thursday, an evening of contemporary r&b music. I'm on record about the machine soul genius of It's All About Me, with its space capsule Art Of Noise loops and that atmospheric bridge in lunar orbit (a SA-RA-before-SA-RA moment), and Moodring remains a classic from the peak era of the form, so it was a treat to catch her live at the Music Box backed by current producer MyGuyMars and DJ Klash.
The show had the feel of an old-time soul revue, with the trio working through Mýa's songbook as an arcing medley stretching across the length of the evening. Firm favorites like Movin' On,1Case Of The Ex and Fallen rubbed shoulders with new material like Simple Things and The Fall. She even opened with a cover of Sade's No Ordinary Love,2 which makes perfect sense in the context of ambient dreamscapes like It's All About Me (which — thankfully — she also managed to touch upon as well).
There was also a preview of a new track sounding like slow-motion trance music that — strangely enough — reminded me of certain tunes from DJ Bongz' South African house mixes like No Retreat. No Surrender. Mýa also had plenty of chances to showcase her dance moves and even spit some bars on Unbreakable. At one point, she handed out roses to people in the audience and distributed glasses of wine(!) to the front row while the new Terry Hunter Circle Club Mix of Circle Of Life3 played over the P.A.
From what I've heard so far, the new record T.K.O. (which was produced by MyGuyMars) sounds awfully intriguing. After some searching, it appears that the CD can be procured from her website.4 With her own Planet 9 Records set up, and even the general feel of the site (which isn't a million miles removed from that of Mahogani Music),5 it's rather evocative of an independent modern soul, city lights endeavor.
R&B's girl-next-door still going strong, twenty years on...
Apparently, Sade is listed among Mýa's key influences. Funny enough, just the other day I was commenting that It's All About Me had the feel of a Sade song. Plus, Sade's Surrender Your Love just featured as July's record of the month). Sometimes these things just come together...
After twenty years as a massive fan of the man's music, I finally caught Tricky live last Thursday at the Music Box. After work, I cruised down Harbor Drive, past Lindbergh Field and the Embarcadero toward the San Diego Harbor. I stopped off at the Fish Market to grab some fish 'n chips (soulful as Maxwell) for a solitary dinner overlooking the docks. Squeezing in a bit of writing, I washed it all down with the darkest beer I could get my hands on.
From there, I parked at Lot 1023 — on the corner of Pacific and West Broadway — and walked through the American Plaza Station, continuing down India Street for a couple blocks before the Music Box appeared before me. I handed the doorman my ticket and was in the place before you could say Six Minutes, I'm On.
Walking through the front door, I was confronted with a truly evocative atmosphere: now this was a proper venue. The Music Box now inhabits the space that was previously known as Anthology, an after hours jazz club that I'd been to a few times in the past, before it unceremoniously shut down a couple years ago. Anthology was on the upscale, aspirational tip, like the South Seas Club meets Norman Connors sleeve art, which fit the late-period jazz vibes in evidence on the venue's stage and soundsystem perfectly.
The Music Box, in contrast, seemed to intimate a sort of post-industrial warehouse atmosphere, a million miles from the sleek surfaces of Anthology but still teeming with vibe. I could see the original stage in the distance as I made my way through the anteroom, where a handful of cocktail tables were scattered beneath the half-light in lapis lazuli. The bar was located to my left, so I got fixed up with a drink and made my way toward the dancefloor (which at this point was still empty).
The plush booths of Anthology had been cleared out on the ground floor (although they appeared to have been retained on the upper floors), replaced by high chairs hugging the right wall in semi-circles around narrow cocktail tables in order to maximize floor space on the dancefloor. On the left was one long bench hugging the wall, much as it always had. The dancefloor spread out between.
There was a giant video screen behind the raised stage displaying coming attractions (Slum Village, She Wants Revenge, George Clinton with Parliament/Funkadelic, Mark Farina, etc.), and the walls were emblazoned with the shades of rust and iron. In other words, it was the perfect place to catch a trip hop show, especially in an era where the music seems to make even more sense than it did in its own time.
That time was the nineties, which is when I first dove into the music in earnest. Tricky's Angels With Dirty Faces was one of the first dozen or so records that I ever owned. In truth, I'd wanted to catch the man live since way back then, but for various reasons it never really happened. In the first instance, it was down to being too young to get in the door (circa Angels With Dirty Faces) and then it was because — in an era when I was going to school, working to pay for school and digging ditches — I was broke and (truth be known) living the trip hop life a little too fully. After that, it just never really came together. Sometimes it just goes that way...
So it was thrilling to be in a venue like this to finally get to see see the man live in person. I'd bought two tickets back in January, but unfortunately as the day rapidly approached no one else could make it. I was somewhat disappointed at first, but ultimately realized that it was rather appropriate to be at this show alone: this is just as it would have been back in the day, when no one else I knew that was into this sort of thing. As much as Detroit techno or ragga jungle, this was a music that I'd had an intimate relationship with, and it hit me at the deepest level. I suppose that picking it up in a way so totally out of step with my prevailing surroundings only made me love it more. So not much has changed, then.
A selection of trip hop's greatest hits were playing over the soundsystem as people started to stream in, and damned if it wasn't a cross-section of a certain corner of my record collection back in the day. I'm talking about Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy, Portishead's Sour Times (and Glory Box *cough* even though Hell Is Round The Corner is better *cough*), DJ Shadow's Midnight In A Perfect World and Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt, Björk's Headphones and Radiohead's Talk Show Host.
Talk Show Host was especially a real surprise, much as it had been when I first heard it — on seeing Romeo + Juliet in theaters — and placing it immediately as Radiohead, even if it was drastically more beat-oriented than anything they'd done up till then (this just before their new direction was mapped out with OK Computer).
Perhaps the demanding trip-hopper in me would have loved to hear some Smith & Mighty, Nicolette and Terranova as well, but then you can't have it all. In truth, it was a bit of a rush hearing these songs together in one place again, all swirling around the black hole sun that lay at its center. And make no mistake, I'm speaking of Adrian Thaws.
Where I'm coming from, it simply does not get much better than Tricky. He's on my short list with Adam Ant and Kevin Saunderson, those musical figures that had the biggest impact on me growing up (indeed, right up to the present day). You hear songs like Aftermath, Hell Is Round The Corner, Poems and 6 Minutes as a teenager and it's bound to leave an impression. I suppose that for me, he was something like David Bowie, Rakim and Howlin' Wolf all rolled into one. Upon reflection, I'd admit that — once again — not much has changed!
After a bit of waiting, the opening act took the stage. They were a three-piece called Young Magic, and they plied a sort of hallucinatory dream pop with slightly menacing overtones, centered around ethereal lead vocals. They filled the digital backdrop with a stunning Buggy G. Riphead-esque video loop projected behind them as they played. Exotic imagery and 3D terrain clashed in sometimes rapid fashion, much like the indoctrination video from The Parallax View. The whole experience was a perfect point of entry into the evening, setting the mood brilliantly. Young Magic: definitely one to look into.
In between Young Magic's exit and Tricky taking the stage, a bunch of peak-era hip hop like Nas, Mobb Deep and The Pharcyde played over the P.A. I looked around at the crowd, which seemed to be an interesting mix of people, ranging across every spectrum imaginable. I was reminded of Detroit's progressive scene of the early 80s, where a sort of adventurous anything goes spirit ruled the day, resulting in a fantastic mash up of futuristic funk, synth, disco and new wave music that ultimately coalesced in the sort of lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon that happens once a generation (if you're lucky).
I purposefully hadn't checked prior setlists from other shows, because I wanted to be taken completely off guard by whatever would unfold tonight. Would the set be full of older material from the Maxinquaye/Pre-Millennium Tension era, or would it lean heavily toward his more recent material (drawn from an era where he seems to have reignited the old spark with a vengeance)? Would he go off on some unforeseen variation? In truth, any such possibility would have been fine by me: just being here tonight was a dream come true. After all, it had been a long road that took me here...
When Tricky hit the stage, he strolled out with his band to the sound of Vybes before kicking into an instrumental rendition of You Don't Wanna (from 2001's Blowback). What it may have lacked in Ambersunshower, the band more than made up in live crunch, with the song taking on a sort of Alice In Chains feedback-soaked voodoo. Tricky faced the drummer, his back to the audience, just vibing out on the music. That Sweet Dreams synth, sawing through the track in deliberate slow-motion, was absolutely monolithic in a live setting.
Without warning, the band dove headfirst into the clipped raw stylings of I'm Not Going (from 2016's Skilled Mechanics). At this point, they were just getting started, vibing up the room as clouds of smoke began billowing all around. A familiar fragrance coursed through the room and Marta walked out of the shadows to take the lead. The song has always come on like one big build up, and in this case it was building up to what would be an incredible night.
In passing, I must say that I really dig the way Tricky seems to have taken a left turn at some point, veering down this winding path of blues-soaked Gothic without hesitation. One suspects that he's revitalized himself on the arty, new wave-inflected sounds of his youth, particularly things like Japan's Tin Drum, Melt-era Peter Gabriel and The Cure.
Where Massive Attack faltered (losing their identity in the crystalline architecture of 100th Window), Tricky excels. Bringing his own considerable voodoo to the table, he reshapes the sound in his own image. The results sound unlike anything that's come before... a genre that should have existed (you can almost feel the distant memory of it), but never did. Well, now it does...
The crew dropped into three songs from Tricky's latest, Ununiform, starting with the staggering twilight dirge of New Stole. Firmly in the tradition of post-hip hop blues like Broken Homes and Singing The Blues, it finds Marta in fine form, taking on the vocal duties from Tricky's latest foil Francesca Belmonte. It manages to be cinematic and totally stripped-down at the same time, something that Mr. Thaws has handily mastered by this point. The Only Way followed swiftly, rounding out the first trio of songs from Ununiform, and finally Tricky was front and center.
I wasn't prepared for the man's intensity in a live setting, which often took the sound in a significantly different direction from what had previously appeared on record. He was a man possessed, moving wraithlike and punching the air as he delivered his words, often in a shrieked punk-singjay tone that he rarely employs in the studio. He grasped two microphones, one with heavy slapback echo and the other more-or-less straight-up-clean, singing into both of them at once.
He moved the mics at various distances and angles to manipulate the sound of the room, dragging their stands with him across the stage as he moved. A tune like Parenthesis was ideal in this setting, with its dirge-like pounding chorus offering Tricky the perfect storm to inhabit like a spectre. All week, I'd been envisioning him playing Money Greedy live (which wasn't meant to be), but he did imbue each of these songs with that same sense of barely controlled fury.
The one cover version of the evening was an awesome take on Courtney Love's Doll Parts, delivered by Marta, and it was an incredible reading. It's actually another one from the new record, which isn't totally surprising. One of the many things I always dug about Tricky was his musical omnivorousness — you could picture him vibing out to Smashing Pumpkins, Gregory Isaacs, Gravediggaz and Kate Bush back to back — and the way it could be felt on his records.
It was something that I noticed increasingly as time passed by (although in retrospect it was always there), and circa Mission Accomplished (if not For Real and Contradictive on Juxtapose) I remember feeling this strange post punk/new wave element taking shape in the sound. In truth, it had probably been there since Black Steel...
This shadow buried deep within the sound reached its apotheosis on 2014's False Idols, which against all odds turned out to be his finest record since Maxinquaye. Rather appropriately, the setlist focused on this post-reinvention period, only occasionally digging further back into the past. All but three songs were from the last five years, and a solid third were from last year's Ununiform. False Idols is clearly the point of inflection. The sparse, desperate sound of Nothing's Changed submerged these proceedings deep into the doldrums before the 4/4 pulse of Here My Dear pushed back above the waterline, only for it all to sink back beneath the sub-zero bass pressure of Running Wild.
Digging into My Palestine Girl (from the Adrian Thaws LP) made perfect sense in this context, it's slithering guitar figures sounding like a distant cousin of Massive Attack's Dissolved Girl. Of course, the guitar presence here is far more informed by post punk than the quasi-metal shapes of Mezzanine. Another slashing, bluesy guitar figure drove the no-nonsense 4/4 pulse of Dark Days, its killer hook taking the room by storm. And then, just as quickly as it had begun, the tune concluded and the band left the stage.
I should mention that the crowd was going absolutely crazy at this point. It was clear that this was a room full of die-hards. It turns out that I wasn't the only one here who Tricky's music has had a serious impact on... not by a long shot. And all of us were up for anything. Everyone began chanting, Tricky, Tricky, Tricky! in unison. Then, the band came back out — sans Tricky — for the encore, kicking into Overcome. Needless to say, Marta took the lead.
The results were undeniably psychedelic, with the drunken, dizzy sway of the chorus crashing like waves across the room. Sun Down followed, with Tricky back in the mix now, it's staggering beat flowing seamlessly into When We Die. On record, it's a gently unfolding chanson, featuring the triumphant return of Martina over its filmic drift. Live, it was a guitar-crunching epic, with Tricky drawing the full power of his punk-singjay vocals.
Then, the mother of all basslines starts rolling across the stage, and a drastically reworked version of Vent is upon us. Tricky's going crazy, the music's flowing through him at this point. Just like when it kicks off Pre-Millennium Tension, heard by me for the first time all those years ago, everything feels wrong. She's the one, makes me feel these ways. Sheer paranoia creeping in from every angle, unstable drums threatening to collapse beneath the track even as they propel it forward like a lurching soldier. She hides my Ventolin. It all cuts out for a moment before the band wheels it back again for the climax one last time. That bassline rolls on...
Then, it's all over. Like a true gentleman, Tricky thanks the crowd before retiring backstage for good. Everyone seems somewhat stunned, clearly blown away by what they've just taken part in. I weave through the crowd, through the anteroom and out the front door (where the doorman is asking if anyone has seen Korben Dallas), down India Street past American Plaza Station, slowly making my way back to the car. In the crisp night air, I can hear an echo of every spin I've given Tricky's records from day one right up to this morning. There's a lifetime in there...
I caught The Afghan Whigs live at the North Park Observatory last night with my main man Gryphon. They were opening for indie rock stalwarts Built To Spill, whose output I'd always meant to explore but hadn't yet gotten around to. Jim assured me that they were a crucial influence on countless indie bands to come in their wake, bands like Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie. My limited knowledge of the group included a handful of the titles for their nineties records and the fact that they were often (perhaps lazily?) compared to Neil Young. So this was my chance to finally hear them.
The Whigs and I go way back though. I was in high school when I first heard Somethin' Hot, a tight little slab of throbbing rock 'n roll wired to a slinky, serpentine groove. It seemed to make sense in the wake of records like Primal Scream's Vanishing Point and U2's Pop (especially tunes like If They Move, Kill 'Em and Do You Feel Loved), records that spiked rock with a healthy dose of dancefloor dynamics. From there, I slowly worked my way back through their catalog in reverse chronological order, as it turned out. Of course, they broke up before I got a chance to see them live...
Their swan song (at the time) was 1965, which featured Somethin' Hot as both the opening track and lead single, a record that had a profound impact on me. To this day, it's probably my favorite album of theirs (although Black Love certainly gives it a run for its money). Tunes like City Soleil, Omerta and John The Baptist in particular, epitomize what made them so unique, with rich, cinematic production flourishes (horn charts, radio chatter, Spanish guitar, etc.), winding, full-bodied grooves and a blinding, white hot intensity.
They were simply unlike anything else at the time. Their avowed love of soul music played a crucial role in their sound as well, with an incredible cover of The Supremes' Come See About Me and a gloriously drunken cover of TLC's Creep tucked away on various b-sides and EPs.
At least where I was coming from, they seemed to connect with the shadow self, that dark fuel that keeps you going when the chips are down. A dirty energy perhaps, but bury it at your peril. The Sneaker Pimps keyed into a similar frequency circa Splinter (another personal touchstone of mine from the era).
The Whigs' sound was often a play of tension and paranoia, echoing the taut, wiry energy of post punk in a way few others were doing at the time, setting them apart from the landscape of 90s alternative rock. While maintaining a devoted following and consistently wowing the critics, they never really crossed over with that song, and it seemed as if they were destined to remain out of step with the times, doing their own thing (until they stopped doing it).
Imagine my surprise when they went and reunited fifteen years later, releasing a new record in 2014. Even more surprising was that it was a great record! Do The Beast is a worthy successor to the path laid out by 1965, Black Love, Gentlemen and Congregation, featuring new favorites like Matamoros and Algiers that update their sound in an era that — after fifteen years of post punk priming — their sound seems strangely enough more at home than it ever did back in the day.
Then, they did it again with last year's In Spades. It's rather rare for band's to come back this focused, but there you have it. As one might expect, with the new records came a new tour. I missed them last time they came to town due to circumstances beyond my control, but this time I wasn't gonna let the opportunity pass by. So Wednesday came and Gryphon and I found ourselves below the stage at The Observatory, waiting for the show to begin.
The Whigs hit the stage more or less on time with little fanfare and kicked into one of the new songs, Arabian Heights. They were tighter than I was expecting, losing none of their old intensity as the band unleashed a taut stream of focused energy conducted across furious breakbeats. It's so rare to hear a band you love actually improve with age. Greg Dulli's vocals in particular are far sharper than they often used to be on record.
Hearing Algiers live was a real treat. I remember being in total disbelief the first time I heard it on record (comparable to hearing Scott Walker's The Seventh Seal or Milton Nascimento & Lô Borges' Tudo Que Você Podia Ser for the first time), the gorgeous falsetto vocals, shimmering slide guitar and Be My Baby beats all swirling into a radiant crescendo. Great to hear Matamoros too (which, if you haven't seen it, has an excellent video), a tune with a focused intensity that sounds like something that should come from a band's debut, not tucked away on a reunion record thirty years later!
Thankfully, of the older moments that the band included was 1965's mini-epic John The Baptist, which made up for the loss of its considerable studio flourishes (backing vocals, strings and a horn section) with a diamond-hard intensity, really catching fire for the denouement. They also played Somethin' Hot, which brought it all full circle for me, back to when I first heard them as a 17 year old. Alongside what must be their best known song — Gentlemen's Debonair — these were the only songs from the band's original run to feature tonight.
The set actually leaned far more heavily on new material than I expected, but it was all the better for it. These new records aren't nostalgia trips but vital records in their own right, featuring a different group of musicians sporting a different chemistry, so why not focus on the material they'd worked up together? Besides, if they had played more of their older material, I doubt personal favorites like City Soleil, Faded and Honky's Ladder would have featured anyway! The band closed with the one-two punch of Light As A Feather and Into The Floor, and without warning it was all over...
About half-an-hour later Built To Spill took the stage. The first thing that shocked me about their sound was just how sprawlingly loose their sound was, on the order of the great 70s downbeat canyon funk jams like Wooden Ships, Bad Night At The Whiskey and Down By The River, smoldering with a ramshackle glory like some great galleon banking toward the heavens. As I said, I'd known about the inevitable Neil Young comparisons, and this tough little three piece really did get down like peak-era Crazy Horse, but I'd forgotten about Doug Martsch's status as an indie rock guitar hero (in the post-Dinosaur Jr. mold).
With the band laying down a cradle of swaying rhythm and Martsch working an array of pedals as he pulled great arcs of noise out of his guitar, it was hard to believe that such a swaying wall of sound was being conjured up by just three musicians. Martsch's vocals were phenomenal, complementing the music brilliantly in that quintessentially whiny (in the best possible sense) indie way (reminding me alternately of Eric Bachmann, Mac McCaughan and even Michael Stipe).
Unfortunately, as I'm not familiar with their records, I won't be much use to you as far as the specifics of the setlist. There was this one tune fairly early on that had a tremolo-laden surf guitar thing going on that was absolutely incredible. Real fantasy jam session stuff. Another highlight was a moving rendition of the Pretenders' immortal Back On The Chain Gang, which they rendered beautifully with a smeared post-Velvets drawl.
This morning, I checked the setlist on-line and set about figuring which tracks came from which albums, and they seem to have been pulled at a pretty even spread across their discography. With a definite desire to get familiar, I'm resolved to pick up records like Perfect From Now On, Keep It Like A Secret and There Is Nothing Wrong With Love, which happen to be the ones that I had been kinda-sorta aware of, along with their latest, Untethered Moon.
All 'n all, it was an impressive show. Seeing a great band with such a rich history live (before I'd ever knowingly heard them) paired with one I'd grown up on was quite a dramatic experience. The Afghan Whigs and Built To Spill, live in San Diego at The Observatory... in a way, it was like taking a joyride to Algiers.
Saturday night, Snakes and I caught Jean-Michel Jarre at the Spreckels Theatre. Being the kind-hearted mensch that he is, Snakes hooked a brother up with a ticket to the show. We and Jarre go way back. It all started back in our school daze, when I was deep in the studio laying down what would become the b-side to Galaxies, Red Planet. On hearing the song, my wise uncle James remarked that it reminded him of Jarre's music. I had never heard of the man, and so he explained that he was one of the original electronic artists to make a big splash back in the day.
Fast-forward a few months to the following Christmas. On opening a gift from this very same uncle (with the tell-tale 5"x5½" dimensions), I was confronted with the Images compilation of Jarre's work. And thus opened up a whole new world of seventies electronica to my ears. As was often the case, Snakes and I would vibe out to the disc in the studio or cruising around town. Ultimately, word spread and eventually a tiny, informal Jean-Michel Jarre appreciation society seemed to spring up nearly overnight in the greater Allied Gardens/Grantville area. Ok, so it was just a handful of mates, but still...
Fast-forward twenty years spent with the man's music — the both of us acquiring various records like Oxygene and Equinoxe on multiple formats, spinning them out from time to time, plus descending further into the world of early electronic music with every passing year — and we're walking into the Spreckels Theatre to see Jean-Michel Jarre live and in person. It quickly became apparent that there was a sizable presence of French ex-pats in attendance, while the age range of the crowd was pretty diverse. I'd guess we were somewhere in the middle.
With little fanfare, the opening DJ strode out to set the stage with a sprawling set of cinematic electronica. Picture a hybrid of both Blade Runner OSTs, and that'll give you a decent idea of how it all began, with downtempo industrial beats entering the picture after the sweeping overture slowly gained steam. There was one track that reminded us of Daft Punk's score for Tron: Legacy before the set ultimately eased into a grinding midtempo stomp (think Fluke's Zion from the second Matrix film). There was even one song that sounded like a dead ringer for The Dream-era Kevin Saunderson.
Once the set had concluded, the lights came on for about twenty minutes. It was a stunning set, but no announcement was made of his name until Jarre called it out at the end of the evening (but we didn't catch it at the time!). Thankfully, Snakes did a bit of digging and discovered that the DJ in question was Marco Grenier. Mystery solved! Definitely worth investigating further. We were still reeling from it all when, after a brief wait, the lights dimmed again and show was ready to begin...
With a wild slab of synth noise cutting through the theater from behind a translucent screen, the first portentous chords of the evening set the clockwork wheels in motion. Suddenly, the screen opened like a doorway to reveal vector door after vector door, revealing Jarre atop a platform center stage, ensconced within his machines. As Jarre conjured massive sounds from his vast array of synthesizers, he was matched by equally dazzling visuals in an remarkable multimedia spectacle. Accordingly, since we were seated for most of the show with no one sitting behind us, I snapped far more pictures than I usually would.
For the entirety of the show, Jarre was flanked by a drummer on his left and another synthesist on his right (actually, they both were manning myriad instruments at various points), bolstering the sound into more muscular groove than one might expect (shades of François Kevorkian drumming against Walter Gibbons' marathon DJ sets at Galaxy 21).
It dawned on me about fifteen minutes in — and I can't believe it hadn't earlier — that Jarre's music exists not only in the continuum of seventies space music (with Oxygene a quintessential head elpee), but also served as a perfect complement to some of the more propulsive dancefloor moves of contemporary electronic denizens like Patrick Cowley and Giorgio Moroder in much the same way The Orb and The Future Sound Of London would have with the likes of Orbital and Joey Beltram. With Kraftwerk fitting into this equation roughly the same way Detroit does (but of course!).
Suddenly, mid-show there was an unexpected shift into almost Wax Trax!-style industrial/EBM music. One tune made me flash on Front Line Assembly's The Blade (it took everything in me not to start repeating stick 'em up muthafucka, this is a hold up!). There was even a collaboration with Edward Snowden titled Exit (apparently from the recent Electronica 2 album), a pounding paranoid thriller of a track that tackled the subject of privacy (and the fight for the right to keep it).
Snowden himself even appeared on screen to give a brief speech mid-song before being sampled to bits during the track's x-ray denouement. It was all very much of the spirit of Cabaret Voltaire's intense interrogations of surveillance and control. Thanks to Snakes for providing the above photo... I was so mesmerized by this sequence that I forgot to snap a picture!
The big surprise came at the end of the extended sequence, when Jarre himself strapped on a guitar to add some rugged crunch to the track's climax. Yeah, that was pretty cool.
Of course various portions of Jarre's flagship piece, Oxygene were peppered throughout the marathon performance. The first to feature was the stratospheric drift of Oxygene 2, which coming face to face with in a live context drove home the fact that it's very much of a piece with someone like Daniele Baldelli's cosmic visions. I've always loved the way his loping rhythms aren't remotely like anyone else's (and the remain an obvious precursor to ambient house).
Oxygene 4 — perhaps the man's most widely known moment — featured as well, during which people were dancing in the aisles (one woman was doing some very spaced-out dancing — not unlike Keith Flint's car surfing during The Prodigy's Out Of Space music video. The Oxygene 8 (from the 90s-era Oxygene 7-13 record, a sequel of sorts) which I remember fit quite well with some of the more pastoral corners of trance that were happening at the time). I was reminded of Dr. Alex Paterson's remix of the track, which after thorough rejection from Jarre himself, he wound up releasing as The Orb's Toxygene. That was pretty funny.
At one point, Jarre — ever the showman — played a series of lasers fanning out toward the ceiling. Every time his hand would break the stream of the laser, a bass note would ring through the theater. Depending on which stream he touched, a different note would sound off. Inevitably, the sequence grew increasingly complex until the man was doling out notes in rapid succession. If I'm not mistaken, this has been a hallmark of his stage show for some time.
Another surprise (in an evening full of them) was a track that Jarre had recently recorded with the Pet Shop Boys, featuring twenty foot tall digital recreations of Neil Tennant singing to the rafters. A melancholy synth pop epic, it was without a doubt one of the evening's highlights. The visual effect was pretty trippy too.
One thing that quickly became evident was how comfortable Jarre had become with the pulsing grooves of dance music, indeed much of the night's music was taken from his recent two Electronica albums. I must admit that I hadn't kept up with the man's more recent music, but after hearing a considerable selection of what he's been up to in the ensuing years, it's painfully apparent that further investigation is essential (along with the Pet Shop Boys and Snowden, Electronica 2 also features collaborations with Jeff Mills, Primal Scream, The Orb, Sébastien Tellier, Yello and Cyndi Lauper!).
There was one sequence involving stylized dancers that was particularly memorable. Segments that I missed documenting included spooky performances of Equinoxe 4 and Equinoxe 7, featuring rows of parallaxing binocular people from the album's sleeve. At one point, I could swear a giant alien grey appeared in the middle of the screen, and there was also a return of the figures holding up their cellphone cameras in lieu of eyeglasses!
Jarre was a gracious host, descending a staircase to interact with the audience fairly often, which was a pleasant surprise. Towards the end of the performance, he even gave shout outs to his backing musicians along with the opening act. It was rather fitting for a man who's always made electronic music with an unmistakably human core. Seeing him in person was in something I never thought I'd get to experience, and it exceeded my expectations in every way.
As the crowd poured out of the theater and into the streets, Snakes and I headed down to catch a ride home, discussing the night's music like we had a thousand times before. And suddenly, it was as if we were teenagers again...
The Haim sisters rocked The North Park Observatory last night (and I do mean rocked). Their glittering sound had a harder guitar attack in the flesh, thanks largely to Danielle Haim's six-string pyrotechnics and the band's BIG beats in full effect. In fact, the ladies commenced the show by pounding out a martial rhythm in unison on a trio of drum kits. The effect recalled The Secret Machines on their Now Here Is Nowhere Tour, that same sense of aircraft-hangar-sized sonic vastness. In the end, it suited their sound just fine.
The band roamed the mirrored stage freely, Danielle striking rock star poses as she unfurled arcing guitar solos, Alana Haim working the crowd like a stand-up and Este Haim doling out some mean bass stage right. At one point, they even strolled down for a synchronized dance (I'm sure all sisters can relate)! The one constant throughout the show was that they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, and the feeling in the audience was mutual, in thrall as they were to the spectacle (at the show's climax, cannons shot confetti over the crowd).
During one of here soliloquy's, Alana confessed that the inspiration for her to start playing music was seeing Joe Walsh perform Life's Been Good at an Eagles concert, which makes perfect sense. The Haim sound seems to connect with the sound of eighties L.A. (Fleetwood Mac, Don Henley, etc.) that we grew up steeped in, in the same way SA-RA sources their sound in that decade's machine soul, all while carving out their own unique sonic terrain to inhabit with relish.
The end result comes out sounding like nothing else around, transcending even their inspirations in the process, standing as a wholly unique phenomenon in the body pop. Originality certainly has its advantages, setting them apart from much of the moment's landfill chart music. That, of course, and the ability to pen a great tune. Which we will all no doubt still be humming in ten years time...
Monday night, Jungle performed at The North Park Observatory. Sari and I caught the show, which makes it the fourth time we've seen them perform live. Hopefully there will be many more chances to come. The group has really grown into itself over the last couple years (the first album was recorded by only the core duo of Tom McFarland and Josh Lloyd-Watson), intensifying the debut's songs considerably (Tom going mad with the glissando keyboards at the climax of Time) and imbuing the new ones with a sprawling, verdant sense of space. Jungle vibes for real.
On hearing the crew's live sound, one's confronted with the question, How much more lush can dance music get?! You also immediately noticed the conspicuous presence of an (incredible) new vocalist nestled stage-right, who Sari later confirmed with Tom (had to throw that in there) is called Zangi.
There were even a few new new songs unveiled as well: Casio is a sumptuous fusion of deep house groove and an electropop sensibility that made me recall Erlend Øye's Unrest (yet surpassing it, please believe!), while they opened with the pounding Burundi beat of Smile, breezy harmonies surfing the rolling waves of rhythm.
And of course there was the requisite appearance of the new fan favorite House In L.A., a lavish, swaying epic that truly captures the feeling of sunlight streaming through cracks in the clouds. When it all explodes into that soaring chorus/climax — seeming to glide by in downbeat slow-motion, three feet above the ground — the fierceness of its languid abandon makes me flash on Talk Talk's Give It Up, that same sense of stately, towering splendor.
If the rest of the upcoming record turns out to be this good — and they seem to have unveiled a solid half an album's worth at this point — well, they stand a very good chance of surpassing the debut. I can honestly say that this new sound is everything I was hoping for when I first began to imagine where they'd go next after the debut (four years ago).
I didn't get a chance to post on it at the time, but last December we caught Jungle at the El Rey Theatre in Hollywood. The El Rey was seemingly a doppelgänger of The Observatory, down to the lobby and sprawling music hall architecture. Still, staunch San Diego gent that I am, I do believe that the latter is the better venue. Nevertheless, at each of the four times we've seem Jungle live, the group has managed to make every stage their own:
It was a dependably great show, and truly incredible to hear the new songs — especially House In L.A. — in the flesh, and in L.A. no less. Still, the group managed to surpass last year's show on all counts last Monday. If forced to choose, I'd even say that out of the four we've seen that this was the best show yet (and please believe that this lot know how to put on a show). The only question still remaining is: when will the new album drop?
Sari suspects that this might be a preview of the new record's sleeve... and I think she really might be onto something.
Friday night I was lucky enough to catch Hot Chip live at the North Park Observatory. I'd managed to scoop up tickets a week before, and had been looking forward to finally catching this crew live. In the previous incarnation of this blog (Other99), I'd written about them a great many times, from their epochal debut album Coming On Strong to their DJ-Kicks excursion through left field dance pop (and even random bumper stickers that appeared throughout the city!). However, I don't think I've yet touched on them here.
When Hot Chip first emerged, they were a crucial group at a crucial time. Seemingly rising from the embers of the mainstream's dalliance with electronica but just before the term "EDM" began to gain traction, they were reticent outsiders at a time when DFA and The Junior Boys were making similar moves at the inflection point between indie pop and the dancefloor.
I've kept up with them ever since, and they've remained a faithful indie dance outfit — perhaps the most steadfast of their era — turning out a sequence first-rate records for well over a decade. As easy as it is to take a group this dependable for granted, they've remained one of my favorite crews throughout their extended tenure. So on Friday night, after a dinner of chicken creole accompanied by the sounds of The Idjut Boys' Night Dubbin', Sari and I hustled down to the Observatory and slipped in for the show.
We arrived just in time to catch the opening strains of Marcus Marr's set, a bumping selection of DFA-shaded electronic disco, pulsing through the inimitable Observatory soundsystem. We watched from the mezzanine — taking in the room and catching up on drinks — while Marr did his thing. There was this moment where an almost nu breaks sequence dropped into the 4/4 pulse... it was without a doubt my favorite moment of his set. After a solid hour of moody dancefloor burners — incredibly crisp and crystal clear — the man signed off promptly to wild cheers from the assembling crowd.
While the technicians set up the stage for the headlining band, there was an ace selection of music playing. With a band like Hot Chip, full of connoisseurs and trainspotters end to end, you just know that everything was specially selected. I seem to recall a deejay cut on a Susan Cadogan riddim and maybe something by the Eurythmics, but the tracks that really stood out were the relatively unexpected ones: Fairport Convention's folk talisman Meet On The Ledge and Fleetwood Mac's awesome I Know I'm Not Wrong (from their stone-cold classic double-LP Tusk). A fascinating glimpse behind the curtain, to be sure. We made our way down to the dancefloor as the lights dimmed on the Observatory...
Bright lights shone and the group walked out onstage. Most of the group were posted behind synths — arranged at various angles and heights — with lead singer Alexis Taylor standing perpendicular to the crowd, flanked diagonally by Owen Clarke and Joe Goddard, while Felix Martin loomed in the background. Al Doyle stood at center with his bass and Rob Smoughton wandered back and forth between guitar and percussion, while Sarah James provided live drums in the background.
The band launched into their early hit single Boy From School, Alexis and Joe riding shimmering synth figures on a plaintive melody, operating at an uptempo pace (that they would retain for most of the night) and drawing the room into their singular strains of melancholy dance. I was instantly reminded why this group often suggest a pocket version of prime Underworld, the bright lights and that nagging refrain hanging in the air like a twilight reverie.
Next up, the title track from 2010's One Life Stand brings us into the current decade, with a firm fan favorite. Those rolling Italo-disco synth inflections (with an at times almost steel drum timbre) seem to recall not only My Mine's Hypnotic Tango but also early Depeche Mode at their most chipper and bleep-heavy (squint and the backing vocals of the chorus could almost be Martin Gore). Like early DM, with their bubblegum take on Kraftwerk, I love how Hot Chip eschew widescreen sonics for a more intimate, pocketbook style of electronic pop.
Night & Day continued down this path, its staircase bassline throwing wild analogue shapes around the room (it always makes me flash on Random Noise Generation's chaotic house missives) before flowing into the strange Moroder-inflected post-disco of Flutes, riding a free-release cascade of synths — bleeding into every corner of the Observatory's soundscape — and deftly transcending the studio version in the process. By this point, this ragtag bunch clearly had the room in the palm of their collective hands.
They dove headfirst into Over And Over, that momentous slab of dancefloor madness, and you just know what's coming from the first note. That glorious repetition — in both the vocals and its grinding bassline — in full force, pumping louder and wilder than I'd every heard it before. Then it hit me: this is the closest a band has gotten to capturing the feeling of killer acid house cuts like Armando's Trance Dance and Steve Poindexter's Born To Freak. Even the terse vocals of the verses feel like the clipped phrasing you'd find in acid, and then there's the immortal chorus: Over and over and over and over, like a monkey with a miniature cymbal, the joy of repetition is really within you. Really, what a wonderful sentiment!
The lone track from Made In The Dark, Ready For The Floor descended next, riding its trademark lopsided groove — that illogical chord progression with those bleeps spilling out over its sides. This one's always reminded me of William Onyeabor's Anything You Sow (a record that I was lucky enough to snap up on my honeymoon!). I Feel Better came next, sounding not unlike some improbable soundclash between Jamie Principle and OMD, with its shimmering vocals and hall-of-mirrors string progression driving blank-eyed into the dead of night.
Alexis then introduced a new track, House Of Truth, and the band launched into a deep, introspective groove that reminded me of some of my absolute favorite material they've ever done. I'm thinking specifically of tracks like No Fit State, These Chains and DJ-Kicks/My Piano, with a cycling, moody take on the Reese bassline, similar in spirit to Underworld's (again!) approach in tracks like Dirty Epic. Then without warning, they slipped into a superbly executed cover of Erotic City, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the boys are still Down With Prince. An unexpected delight!
Huarache Lights — the evening's lone track from their latest record (Why Make Sense?) — closed out their set in fine style, grooving along at a downright leisurely pace compared to the rest of the band's fiercely uptempo set. Featuring a sample of the vocal ad-lib from First Choice's Let No Man Put Asunder — another peak-period acid signifier — the tune sounded utterly of-the-moment, working through its own internal logic before running down into a looping refrain.
With those closing, unresolved bleeps still hanging in the air, the band slowly began to file offstage. The technicians filtered out once again to tweak the equipment for a spell, synths still shimmering toward silence. Then, the band strolled back out for the encore.
Launching into a Hi-NRG rendition of Bruce Springsteen's Dancing In The Dark — taken from their latest EP of the same name — the group clocked their highest BPM workout of the night. Tuning into that whole micro-lineage of dancefloor Springsteen covers — spanning from Blinded By The Light as interpreted by Manfred Mann's Earth Band to Donna Summer's run through Protection and even Frankie Goes To Hollywood's take on Born To RunHot Chip rewired Bruce's wistful original into a turbocharged dance into the fire, sequences racing and the crowd swept up once more for the ride.
A month ago today, Dâm-Funk rocked The Casbah. It was the first day of the tour, which I later found out would coincide with the release of his new album Invite The Light. His last solo full-length of new material was also his debut, 2009's massive Toeachizown. Firmly grounded in electronic funk, it used g-funk, r&b and techno — sounds that were crucial in my own musical life — as a launchpad in Searchin' 4 Funk's Future. For me at least, it's been one of the key records in recent memory.
I've kept up with his trajectory since then, including his archival Adolescent Funk compilation as well as collaborations with Steve Arrington and Snoop Dogg. All the while, I've been patiently anticipating another solo record, so I was excited to lay my hands on a copy and hear the direction he's taken his sound since.
We rolled into the venue early in the evening as The Junkyard Band bumped out from the dancefloor. The Cookie Crew DJ's were tearing it up on the decks, spinning a blend of down and dirty electronic funk — a perfect warm up for the evening to come.
Dâm-Funk hit the stage with his live band in tow, kicking into high gear from the jump; I'd almost forgotten how hard live funk could hit. I've seen some footage of him performing live on stage in the past, but this was him taking it to a whole other level. He'd truly polished his game and come into his own as a frontman of this lean and mean three-piece band.
Many of the extended, Pacific endless trax from the Toeachizown days had been revamped with lyrics and loosened up with a tensile center of gravity. The band jumped into an updated take on Mirrors — that preview of things to come on his debut — and it still sounded like the futurist optimism of Detroit poured into one ray of elusive sunlight and scattered through a prism into the sky.
Indeed, long stretches of the show stepped confidently into techno territory. O.B.E. (Out Of Body Experience), from the new album, seemed to recall Underground Resistance circa their masterful Galaxy 2 Galaxy series of records: that same sense of astral jazz exploration — shot through with deep electronic shades and timbres — gliding reckless across the dancefloor. 4 Hero's shimmering synths on their epochal Parallel Universe also come to mind, along with the dubbed-out stomp of The Orb, whose track of (nearly) the same title... well, I've only just now realized what it stood for!
It dawned on me that Damon Riddick just might be the West Coast analog to one Kenny Dixon Jr., crafting a double-gatefold vision of post-electro music that stretches beyond one record or the next to populate a vast mosaic of sound; each of these auteurs seem to be hard at work creating their own musical universe. Coincidentally, they both seem to have edged closer to Prince in their delivery (see Moodymann's Det.riot '67 and Dâm's new record, for example).
There were serious Purple Rain vibes running through The Casbah show, a sense of grandeur that the venue struggled to contain. At one point Dâm launched into a heartfelt paean to some distant lover that had him dropping to his knees, James Brown-style, repeatedly throughout its seemingly interminable (in the best possible sense) run. The tension was undeniable. Another moment found him in the middle of the dancefloor, stretching his keyboard out for the audience to play.
The show ended with an encore consisting of Dâm getting behind the drum kit and running loose-limbed through a selection of stone cold funk classics like Rick James' Mary Jane, Slave's Just A Touch Of Love and Cameo's Candy, connecting his own music with a rich lineage of electronic funk even as he leans bravely toward the future. All 'N All, it was a transcendent experience, in which the small venue transformed into one great pulsing ultraviolet dream.
The Jungle record came out a year ago today. It's crept up on me in a big way over the course of that year. At first I almost heard past it — pleasant enough, I suppose — but as much as I casually dug the record, I hadn't yet totally succumbed to it's brilliance. Then Sari took me to see them live at The Belly Up Tavern last September.
In the context of the live show, every corner of that venue teeming with such deeply atmospheric dance music, I was totally drawn into their trip; finally everything made sense. You could feel all manner of young people having their first rave experience to this music, eyes closed, hands in the air and dancing with wild abandon. Immersed in the vibe. It lives on even now?
I know that in my case it all took me back to a youth spent dancing in nightclubs and out in the desert to whatever strains of house and techno I could find in San Diego at the time. Cruising the city streets between work and school and the lab, bumping Stacey Pullen and making beats whenever I had the chance. Lot's of time spent digging in the trenches with my head in the clouds. Downcast but not out.
The wild shapes and sonics of that music's synthesized pulse kept a young brother's head up and feet moving forward. And forward. Fast-forward to the present. Now here was a live group on stage conjuring that same atmosphere, sidestepping any familiar rock concert forms to approximate the sound of the deepest of grooves coming off a hot 12" in the club — reworked from scratch backwards in widescreen and bang up to date.
The record itself is fantastic. I was baffled by the veil of silence that seemed to cloak this album in the music press. Any coverage the group did happen to garner seemed to focus on the most superficial aspects of their profile. Much has been made of the crew's mysterious nature, for example, but growing up as I did on crews like Drexciya and UR (operating in the shadows at all times), in Jungle's case it just seemed to be some cats who wanted to let the music speak for itself. And speak for itself it certainly does. Yet when all of the 2014 end-of-year polls rolled around, I couldn't find it even mentioned in a single list that I checked! What gives?
This was without a doubt my favorite album of the year, and one of a handful of occurrences that made me want to return to writing about music. I planned to fire this site up in late October just to talk about the record, but various real world concerns pushed that plan up until January. Then, as the year wore on and I got back in groove of writing once again, it just never seemed to be the right time. I caught them live again a few weeks ago, and realized just the other day that it had been a year since Jungle first dropped... so what better time than now?
Jungle quietly inhabits a place all its own on the sonic spectrum, seemingly formed from a single slab of onyx and then submerged in quicksilver. The songs within seem constructed from pure atmosphere rather than any formal structure or notation. You want to reach out and grasp at its amorphous surfaces even as they seem to slip and slide just out of reach. Its beats threaten to crumble to the touch, often seeming to stagger sideways even as they commence to propel the grooves ever forward. The soundscape seems a blur, smeared against distant lights on the horizon, until you squint to notice the intricate details found within. Worlds within worlds, a dream within a dream.
In a sense, its methodology reminds me of Dâm-Funk's Toeachizown in the way they both seems to spool out widescreen sonic vistas sourced in some half-remembered dream. Drawing both on years of his own g-funk sorcery and the atmospheric boogie of his youth (things like Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Kleeer's Tonight), Dâm-Funk wove moods and grooves from the deepest recesses of machine funk and stretched them across five LPs — a sprawling canvas of two hours and twenty minutes — to create a monument to these dreamtime soundscapes, previously essayed only in fleeting glimpses on b-sides and the odd album cut, resulting in a stone cold slab of perfection.
Jungle's sound itself is different, and the record's length far shorter, but it seems to spring from the same drive to build a world of its own from some dream half-remembered. The experience of listening to this record is like nothing so much as that moment when you absorb your surroundings for the first time in a strange new city: it seems wholly distinct and yet there's nearly always something that will make you say déjà vu. A cul de sac or stretch of road, a building or bit of hillside that almost feels like some mirror image of home. This record embodies that feeling, coming on like some solarized vision of the world you've known.
On one hand, its tempting to compare Jungle to groups like Hot Chip and The Junior Boys — and maybe that's not a bad thumbnail on the face of it — but those groups always seemed to be coming at dance music from an indie rock mindset, much like Scritti Politti or Orange Juice did in their day. Neither does Jungle's music truly sound like any of those groups. You'll also often hear allusions to neo soul when describing the group's sound, but that's a red herring as well. This music is soulful, no doubt, but its sound seems to spring from somewhere else entirely. Like Escort and The Sunburst Band, this is post-disco dance music through and through. The only trouble is, Jungle don't really sound like those groups either.
What the record immediately made me flash on were the spaciest passages of the Metro Area LP, especially its lush second side (Soft Hoop and Caught Up, in particular). Those tactile, spongy basslines, the sense of longing stitched between the glistening lines, and that same overwhelming sense of four-dimensional ATMOSPHERE. Loping grooves half-lit in neon, a lone street lamp and the moonlight. Jungle operate in a similar dubbed out terrain, even as they extrapolate it out into a cinematic scope that makes the most sense in big rooms or under the open night sky. It's perfect that this came out on an imprint like XL, with its well-documented roots in rave culture.
The other comparison that I would make, appropriately enough, is Chicago's Jungle Wonz. A collaboration between Marshall Jefferson and Harry Dennis (also of The It), Jungle Wonz dealt in ambient house before the phrase had even been coined. Records like The Jungle, Time Marches On and Bird In A Gilded Cage fused three-dimensional bass pulses, lush cascading synthesizers, environmental sounds and dreamlike vocals to establish a mood of endless longing. Where Harry Dennis was a street poet, expressing his ideas in spoken word, Jungle trade in fragile falsetto (I'm occasionally reminded of the Fine Young Cannibals' Roland Gift).
Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man OST, a recurring Parallax favorite, is the third and final comparison I could make. That may seem to contradict my earlier dismissal of the neo soul tag, but bear with me. What I hear in Jungle is a similarity in atmosphere to instrumentals like "T" Plays It Cool and "T" Stands For Trouble; an atmosphere that threatens to overwhelm the songs themselves even as it's kept in check by beats and synthesizers tapping out a steady pulse. Chords press on in the face of a hard life, the odds stacked against at all times. One is reminded of Bobby Bland's immortal words: Ain't no love when you're living in the city.
Album opener The Heat, with environmental sounds of the street bleeding into the mix, illustrates this point perfectly. Right on time, backed by the beach... still gon' bring the heat. An organ runs resolute beneath the beat, pressing forward as a falsetto intones pure longing. Distant sirens run throughout. Something strummed, not an instrument but pure atmosphere strummed from some combination of sources. Or formed, perhaps, from the depths of some machine? Conjured from thin air, even. That amorphous sense of sound permeates the whole of this record, cloaking its every corner in a veil of illusion.
The pacing throughout is perfect. Absolutely perfect! Accelerate comes on like some downcast permutation of The Heat. Can I get the car to jump start, please?, intoned in desperation. Everything just seemed to happen at once. Sentiments that I've understood well, and I suspect you have too. I just can't push on any further, won't you cut me a break just this once? Sari told me that it always makes her think of me. That woman knows me too well!
Those guitars that creep in during the tune's second half seem to recall the mood of Roxy Music's Avalon, only heard from within a dream. The masterful Crumbler seems to channel that same vibe through the prism of Love Inc.'s Life's A Gas — shot through with that same sense of ambient bliss — even as those great churning synth figures rev like an engine beneath the whole thing, rushing and overflowing before sinking into the ether again.
This record is above all a mood piece, but there's a couple relentless club burners hiding in its depths. Julia builds up from skeletal verses into the all-out assault of its chorus, tension ever escalating. Busy Earnin', which seems to be the biggest single so far, for some reason always makes me think of the opening sequence in Rocky II, in which Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed are rushed to the hospital after the big fight. Its sentiments do seem to capture the prevailing mood of today. Feeling like nothing so much climbing out from some abyss, every beat — every step — taking you closer to the surface, those horns (not horns) climax in a fury.
Platoon follows, once again illustrating the absolutely perfect sense of flow and pacing in this record. A downcast mirror image of Busy Earnin', it pushes forward on a low key Reese bassline and some siren song that could be vocal or synthetic in origin... or perhaps something else entirely. The driving pulse of its buildup ever unfurling into gentle pools of texture before eddying into another glimpse of the divine. That's the secret of this record: even as it reaches for the epic, it manages to never come off as forced or bombastic, everything remains undercut by a sense of longing. Dread even. Each step may take you closer to where you're going but then the destination seems to be moving too.
There's this whole other aspect to this record that seems to key into that same headspace that much of the greatest trip hop did (think Terranova's awesome Tokyo Tower). Drops' crawling beat staggers along, barely keeping together. Textures unfurl gently, the creaking of a door somehow worked into the rhythm. Barely keeping on. Indeed, as the record staggers toward its denouement, this spirit really does seem to tip over into dread. Son Of A Gun seems to struggle to press on, threatening to collapse at any moment, often cutting the beat to retreat into its gloomy refrain.
The flipside of the coin: no matter how bleak this record may turn on you, there's always a glimmer of hope hiding somewhere between the lines. Lucky I Got What I Want seems to have an almost zen-like acceptance of the passing of time, submitting to the way of the world. It's elegiac refrain simply asks Don't you forget about me, before ultimately drifting into the ether.
Lemonade Lake slips quietly into view like something from Warp's Artificial Intelligence series, unassuming keys playing out right there in plain sight, before exploding into lustrous moonlight. Sequences run up and down the spectrum as this river of pure sound, lush as you could possibly imagine, flows steady beneath. This is the sound of the night's own internal logic working itself out, however it may transpire. The record ends on an electronic hymn, and then silence.
One day, out of the blue Sari noticed that a group called Jungle were playing at The North Park Observatory. But was it the same group? It seemed unclear. Being such a die-hard fan, she sprung for the tickets anyway. It turned out to be the same Jungle after all, and we would get to see them once more. Before the show, a DJ warmed up the crowd. I heard him spin The Bottle from outside the club. We made our way inside. Without the presence of an opening act, Jungle took the stage.
The group began to fill the venue with the Morricone-meets-Get Carter-meets-Moroder inflections of Smoking Pixels, the record's lone instrumental. With the group's casual, eerie whistling, the room filled with anticipation. Massive lamps cast their figures as stark silhouettes against dazzling colors shining down from the rafters. I was reminded of the time I saw Secret Machines perform at Soma back in the day (Fall 2004, if memory serves), where they had these massive lamps blasting white light into the crowd from behind the band. The effect made it feel as if you were in the closing scene of Heat. Jungle's seemed to recall American Gigolo, or even Drive, cloaking the room in that same sumptuous palette.
The Observatory show was, if anything, even better than the one at The Belly Up. Their stage show had graduated in scale without sacrificing any of its intimacy. Passages in the songs opened up into new avenues. There was a point, in Drops I believe, when the sequencers took over and began spinning fractals out into space. Sari had it pegged as sounding like Tangerine Dream circa the Thief OST. The group encored with Time, the record's latest single, its endless cascading waves of sound — bass resonating on three separate planes, each morphing into the other — a perfect note to close on. It turned out that this was the final date of their North American tour.
I can't think of a moment in my life in which, had this music existed at the time, I wouldn't have been blown away. It seems to exist in a space all its own, hovering just out of reach between any number of sonic possibilities that I've called home. Indeed, as we started to file out of the Observatory, a thought that had been materializing in the back of my mind for months finally came into focus: this is exactly the sort of record that Larry Levan would have caned at The Paradise Garage.
The DJ played Water Get No Enemy as we walked out into the streets.
I've already gone on record about The English Beat's debut album, I Just Can't Stop It, ensconced as it comfortably in The Parallax 100. It's an LP that I have no qualms about calling one of the great pop records of all time, right up there with The Beatles. This is a band that I grew up on in the eighties, with splinter groups like General Public, Fine Young Cannibals and the Ranking Roger solo records peppering my listening habits through the nineties well into the present day. Even when I was plumbing the depths of electronic music, subsisting on a strict diet of beats and beats alone, the 2 Men A Drum Machine And A Trumpet 12" (with that crucial Derrick May remix on the flip) was never far from the turntable.
Last Saturday found Sari and I cruising up the 5 as the sun settled on the horizon, a special English Beat mix (that I'd made earlier that week as a sort of primer) pulsing out the soundsystem, just the two of us heading up the coast to catch The Beat live at The Belly Up Tavern. On arrival in Solana Beach, just as dusk began to fall, we pulled into a Mexican joint down the street from the venue in order to hook up with Kayli and LeValley and grab a bite to eat.
A half hour later we walked through the doors of The Belly Up, where the opening DJ was spinning a selection of reggae cuts to nice up the dance. Tunes like Horace Andy's I Feel Good All Over and Dandy Livingstone's Rudy, A Message To You (foundational sixties ska later covered by The Specials) filled the room and made it clear that this was the perfect venue for this music.
The Belly Up is like some fantasy collision of all the best Pablo Cruise record sleeves and those gorgeous sets from Robert Altman's Popeye motion picture (speaking of Altman, the first show that I caught at The Belly Up was King Sunny Adé & His African Beats some years back). Neon lights illuminate the building's vaulted ceilings, exposed rafters stretch out rustic and warm over a loose assortment of rooms centered around the main stage. Put simply, it's like the nightclub in Club Paradise. We made our way through the main room, grabbing some drinks along the way, and found a spot more or less at the center of the room where we waited for the opening act to take the stage.
I hadn't yet heard Viernes 13 before the band began to play, but was instantly won over by their blazing ska moves that seemed to recall nothing so much as Sublime's Paddle Out shot through a Chicano prism (think Once Upon A Time In Mexico as much as Los Lobos), sounding like Byron Lee & The Dragonaires' Frankenstein Ska if it were played by The Plugz circa the Repo Man soundtrack. It was all incredibly vibey, and very L.A.
I ducked into the back where their people had set up a merchandise table and grabbed a shirt immediately — taking note of the CDs for sale — and threw it on over the shirt I was already wearing. Consider me a fan! I later grabbed both of their CDs on my way out — you don't want to have to keep track of media on the dancefloor — and the man was even nice enough to throw a split EP into the deal. I've been rocking all three this week. I couldn't find an image of the shirt I bought (there were three to choose from) anywhere on the net, so I snapped a picture here. I thought it was a really lovely design:
I'd like to return to this crew in the near future, once I've fully absorbed their records and lived with their music awhile, as I think they're truly on to something special here. In the meantime, Viernes 13 will be back in San Diego on Friday, May 29th, playing at The Hideout, so you know where I'll be. Don't sleep!
This show brought back memories of going to ska parties back in the late nineties, when a friend's older brother was in a band (the name of which escapes me at the moment). Our crew would be chilling in the back, fish out of water more in tune with breakbeats and 303s than the sort of sounds taking place on stage, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless. Come to think of it, another friend of mine was actually in that same band as well, and he was heavy into third wave ska and the swing revival. I remember one time we bonded over a mutual love for Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington and the OG Two-Tone bands.
Which brings us to The English Beat. Dave Wakeling is the only original member in the current touring lineup of the group (hasn't he lived in Southern California since the late nineties?), so I was curious how they would sound in the 21st century. Certain questions were running through my mind in the weeks leading up to the show. Who would be toasting Ranking Roger's parts? Would they play any General Public material? How would the new drummer handle Everett Morton's phenomenal work on the original records (the debut LP has some of my favorite drumming ever)? Would it all be too much to live up to?
After the MC hyped and teased the crowd for the better part of an hour, The Beat took the stage, opening with Rough Rider, and any doubts I may have had just drifted off into the ether on the back of its mellow, churning groove. This is one of my favorite moments from one of my favorite albums of all time, so hearing it live in good form was a bit of a rush. The band was tight and seemed to be having a blast while King Schascha strut his way around the stage, toasting on the mic in fine style.
Twist & Crawl was a definite highlight, submerging the club deep into the darkness after opening with some of the group's brightest numbers. New drummer Nucci Cantrell turned in solid work on the kit, even slipping into a breakbeat from time to time. The drumming wasn't quite as meticulous as Everett Morton's clockwork precision (the very foundation of the twisting rhythmic engine deep within the heart of The Beat), but it was no slouch either (and keep in mind that I'm comparing him to one of my favorite drummers of all time here), providing ample propulsion for the band's infectious loose-limbed riddims.
Needless to say, we danced like maniacs throughout the whole show. They even lit up the disco ball for I Confess and Too Nice To Talk To! I was surprised that they didn't play Doors Of Your Heart (in fact, nothing at all from Wha'ppen), but the songs from Special Beat Service were some of the biggest moments of the night. Save It For Later got a huge response from the crowd, while Ackee 1 2 3 might have been my favorite tune of the evening, its off-kilter (and seemingly sped-up) rhythms super fun to dance to (their label wasn't called Go-Feet for nothing)!
I'd somehow never noticed before that Soul Salvation seems to be the blueprint for large swathes of the Fine Young Cannibals sound. On the other hand, I've often wondered whether Steele and Cox were listening closely to Elvis Costello's Get Happy when mapping out their new group's trajectory. Maybe it's just the similar approach of new wave cats tackling Northern soul, who knows?
At any rate, the other group to come out of The English Beat's breakup, General Public, got checked not once but twice. Early on in the show, The Beat did a rendition of The Staple Singers' I'll Take You There, which was covered by the newly reformed (at the time) GP for the Threesome soundtrack. Later, toward the end of the show, the band broke into Tenderness to a rapturous response from the crowd.
Dave even took lead vocals for Ranking Full Stop, and I could have imagined this, but I thought I saw him shake his head when he sang my name is ranking full stop. That was funny. I almost wasn't expecting the band to play that one, but it came off really well... before they slipped seamlessly into Mirror In The Bathroom! It was a serious double-take moment and definitely the climax of the whole night as that deep, chugging bassline seemed to cause the whole room to sink into the floor, dancing figures etched in neon as the band played on and on.