I’ve always been impressed by musicians who are keen on blurring the boundaries between various styles and approaches, and this is certainly the case of Alex McArtor. This accomplished musician recently released several fine singles that are developed beyond her age of only 16 years.
McArtor’s songs explore different ideas and unveil distinctly British classic alternative influences such as Siouxsie & the Banshees, Kate Bush, and Portishead. On songs like “Touch” and “Are You Alone,” McArtor sings in an upfront and energetic way. On “Burning Fleeting Love,” one of her most powerful tracks, McArtor strikes for her unique strength and ability to create seamless song arrangements which are catchy, yet sophisticated and intriguing all at once. She doesn’t sound at all like she’s 16, but then neither did Bush when she also debuted in her youth in the late ’70s.
Everything is well balanced, making for a smooth and personable listening experience.
When I hear the word “Thursday” the thing that comes to mind isn’t the recently reunited emocore band whose name tops this concert bill, it’s actually the face of Patsy Stone whose Absolutely Fabulous character turns the word into a brilliantly breathy supermodel pout. That’s about how invested I was in this Thursday reunion tour. Still, I’ve been late to love many of their peers from the early days of the genre and usually all it takes is a really great live performance to win my cynical heart.
While this wasn’t one of those occasions, the NJ band — headed up by the dynamic Geoff Rickly — do deliver a show worthy of the celebratory confetti drop that falls late in their set. Even if the celebration feels more nostalgic than innovative.
“We’re gonna play a lot of old songs tonight,” Rickly tells the crowd before diving into “Cross Out the Eyes” off of 2001’s Full Collpase. “Actually, all our songs are old at this point.”
While most everyone else was there to either bask in the nostalgic glory of Thursday, thrash to the relentless post-hardcore onslaught of Touché Amoré, or try to keep the dream of emo alive with Basement, it was early opener Wax Idols who had lured me into the House of Blues that night.
A darkwave, post-punk modernization of the new wave vibes of the 80’s, Wax Idols invoke the kind of feels that Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division conjure, only with a little less goth and a little more modern age emoting. There’s a melodrama in the mix and in the words, that serves as a perfect balance to the darkly dance-worthy melodies — like The Lost Boys as a band, with Ione Skye as the lead. And even though the stage was much too large for such an intimate-sounding band, theirs was the set that left the most lasting impression.
Into a quiet, dark bar I walked, as fog shot out from the ceiling and gradually pillowed the room. I had a beer, I had another, and though the music soon began, the light — and the feeling of reality — never came.
Were I to view these conditions from the perspective of my poor camera’s light meter, I would deem the night the worst ever. Instead of dwelling on what my camera could not see or capture, I soon tucked her to sleep in her leather case and swam into the surreality of a concert experience according to Zola Jesus.
The music, prior to the headliner, began not with a bang but with a noisy whimper. Talk Normal, a Brooklyn pair of dueling vocalists whose singing styles are more garbled mumbling than singing, remind me of all the songs I don’t like by Sonic Youth and none of the ones that I do. Noise, garbled mumble, noise. On a few occasions a song would begin that hooked my ears with melodic and tantalizing drumming, but would soon slide into chaotic oblivion. The best thing I can say about Talk Normal is that drummer/vocalist Andrya Ambro plays like a freakin’ machine!
Centered around a glowing blue cube, a full band that included a violinist with a wicked fast hammering bow backed the pint sized Zola Jesus as she welcomed us into her landscape with the opening chords of “Swords” and into the haunting verses of “Avalanche.” Heart-clutching ballads like “Lick the Palm of the Burning Hand,” haunting epics like “Sea Talk,” or spine tickling moments of perfection like my personal favorite “Vessel” surrounded the hundreds in attendance like earmuffs on a cold night.
When the platinum ingenue danced her way into the center of the audience, backed herself up against a stage wall, or fell to her knees inches from the faces of the fan,s no one grabbed or squealed or tried to catch a piece of her. Something about Zola Jesus just feels otherworldly, and it would be disrespectful to do anything other than allow her the space to express herself and to applaud appropriately at the end of it. It would also be disrespectful not to move your body when she flew into a dance rage, as she does with “In Your Nature” and with a bring-the-house-down encore of “Seekir.”
The translation of the alien musings of this Russian-bred songstress from record to stage was remarkably true. The ambiance of the lack of light and the bursts of room-filling fog were helpful touches, but even had these artistic touches not been present, her vocals and pixie-ish presence, the Gothic violinist, and the pulse-quickening beats of drummer Nick Johnson would have sufficed.
As magical and mysterious as Florence Welch, Zola Jesus is swooping in to pick up listeners of early Tori Amos, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Kate Bush, and Dead Can Dance. The Gothic Synth Wave has rolled in once again.
Stellar goth-psych collective Pocahaunted may have lost many of their key members, but goddamnit, with offspring like Best Coast, Sun Araw, and LA Vampires rising from the ashes, one does have to be somewhat of a crank to wail all that loudly. Added to that brood is the solo debut from Poca bassist Diva. With The Glitter End, Diva recasts herself as the alien baroness of electro-weirdo-groove-noise. Despite the ghettofabulous title and the back cover collage of Diva modeling a plethora of different glammy looks (not to mentation the Man Who Fell to Earth-tastic front cover), The Glitter End is in no way a grab for the zeitgesty brass ring in the same way that Crazy For You was. Nah, this is wigged out freaktronica of the most ramshackle stripe. The disc slips out of an inner sleeve that echoes Fripp and Eno’s mock-scientific schematics on the No Pussyfooting album. And once you drop the metaphorical needle on the album you’re bombarded by ramshackle mutant disco and lo-fi electronic doodles.
There are a handful of absolute fucking gems on the record. “Glow Worm” is a deliciously elephantine groove, plodding back and forth, while a multitracked Diva ululates like Kate Bush, and high-pitched electric guitar buzzes around like clouds of mosquitos. The alien chorale of the title track is ace. Then the dubby-Suicide-with-a-wah-pedal smokiness (with appropriately breathy vocals) of “Crocodile Crawl” is a keeper too.
Never quite warmed up to the Montreal scene as much as I should have, still getting into arguments about Arcade Fire, but the fellow denizens, The Luyas, let me tell you, I’m enjoying their juju. Reminiscent of Slowdive and the Cranes, but infused with a Warp-esque electronic sense of wonder and weirdness, The Luyas are on just the right side of “new music” (modern without pandering, etc.). Sweaty, organic, electro rave-ups (“Too Beautiful to Work”) hold hands with utterly enchanted ether-sniffing idylls (“Seeing Things”), eerie lullabies (“Canary”), manic chamber music (“Moodslayer”), and musique concrete wonderment (“Worth Mentioning”). The album speeds by, a burst of generally three-minute-and-below audio collages and sumptuous vocal swoons, and a moonlit, wintry idyll overlays the whole affair.
The Flaming Lips are without a doubt one of the most exuberant, eccentric, energetic bands on tour. Their concerts are a wild circus under an orange and yellow electric Day-Glo tent. And Wayne Coyne is the boisterous, foul-mouthed master of ceremonies of this three-ring Cirque de Soleil on acid, walking through the vagina-like tent flaps encased in a plastic bubble and occasionally donning a pair of giant hands to throw laser lights at suspended mirror balls.
The Flaming Lips
Disney World was a perfect fit for Coyne and the band’s pussy-obsessed, strobe-light and balloon pulsing, confetti-blasting show which invaded the House of Blues Orlando at Downtown Disney last Thursday night.
The opening act, post-feminist three-piece no-wavers Le Butcherette, gave a strong performance. Lead singer Teri Gender Bender sounded like Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees, according to Ink 19 alumnus Mike Crown, who just happened to be standing next to other friends I met at the HOB.
After a bunch of kids in orange jumpers ran around setting up the equipment, the Lips’ adventure commenced.
Coyne gave a brief warning about the 20 strobe lights used on several songs, saying “We turn them up to maximum capacity. We love that.” But he warned that some folks could have a bad reaction (he claimed even some band members occasionally had a bad reaction).
“If you feel you’re having a bad reaction, well, we want a good reaction, fuck yeah! Just don’t look at the lights. Look away!”
With that Coyne disappeared, the lights went down and with two swift downstrokes to the drums, the show kicked into gear and didn’t let up for nearly two hours.
A gyrating young woman danced and swayed to the music on the LED screen behind the stage, her person-sized vagina a throbbing light as “The Fear” blasted out of the speakers.
A door opened in the screen and band members Steven Drozd, Kliph Scurlock and Michael Ivins popped out, being born on stage. They each walked down an orange ramp and jumped on a hand-painted vagina on the stage before taking their positions.
And then Wayne came out to wild cheers, climbing into his bubble and inflating it before launching himself into the audience in the pit of the HOB.
Wayne Coyne rolls out in his bubble
Back on stage, Coyne got out of his bubble and grabbed his signature bullhorn and the band segued into the hard-driving “Worm Mountain” as a pulsing black and white op art video played on the screen. Coyne stomped around a confetti gun, blasting confetti up to the third level at HOB.
An insane number of huge balloons was released, too, practically filling the vertical space between the pit crowd’s heads and the ceiling rafters, prompting Coyne to observe, “That’s a lot of fucking balloons!” They’re used to bigger outdoor festival venues with crowds of 10,000, Coyne said, so he urged the HOB crowd to really scream so Kliph the drummer would “get fucking into this thing!”
Coyne rode atop the shoulders of someone in a black bear costume for “Silver Trembling Hands,” grabbing the bear’s snout and riding it like it was a bucking bronco.
The Lips dove way back into their catalog for the third song, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” a very enthusiastic sing-along. They even showed clips from the original video on the giant screen.
They followed that with two more songs from Embryonic — the beautiful “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” and a really dynamic version of “Powerless.”
The audience received the songs from Embryonic warmly, but really lit up whenever The Lips tossed out one of their older, better known songs, like “In The Morning of the Magicians.” One of my friends at the show sighed, “Oh, it’s such a beautiful song.” It was made even more beautiful by Coyne’s spare, Miles Davis-inspired bugle solo.
Coyne then quickly jumped on the opportunity to draw a parallel between himself and another visionary artist and entertainer, Walt Disney.
The Flaming Lips
“This is the Disney World, isn’t it,” he said breathlessly, still holding the yellow maracas he shook during “Magician.” He wondered how the name Disney got to be synonymous with all things safe and bland. “I mean, Walt Disney had his head cut off and frozen!” Coyne said, predicting that ol’ Uncle Walt would be pissed if he ever got his head thawed and reattached so he could see what his dream had become. Coyne surmised that Disney would not be pleased with all this safe stuff, and would advocate that we all smoke pot. Concept album, anyone?
Then Coyne and Kliph got the band to sing along to the charming and giddy “I Could Be a Frog,” getting all 2,000 of us to ribbit, roar, growl, chirp, and meow along with Kliph.
But the audience went absolutely nuts when Coyne began strumming the opening chords to “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” even shouting the little “hey hey” and singing themselves hoarse on the chorus. It was a lovefest.
They went back to Embryonic with “See the Leaves” as Coyne smashed a stand-alone cymbal with an over-sized mallet. And on “The Ego’s Last Stand,” Coyne struck a gong rimmed with flashing psychedelic lights.
“The W.A.N.D.” was the band’s big finale, before walking off stage and making the audience scream their lungs out for the first encore, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and finally a sweet, lovely version of “Do You Realize?,” which in a way is a perfect ending to a concert that started out with a psychedelic live birth. Because everyone you know will die eventually and every concert has to end and we all had to go home, but at least we could say we got to see one of the best fucking live bands performing today.
Come to think of it, next time the Lips play Orlando, they should perform next door to the House of Blues at the Cirque De Soleil theater instead.
Rykarda Parasol has a helluva voice, no doubt about it — deep, throaty, dusty, and laden with a sinister gravitas and murderous intent belying her age and waif-like appearance. I expected her to look somewhere between a grizzled Marianne Faithful and Jarboe! She delivers her material with a conviction and, yeah, menace worthy of Nick Cave (the constant comparison), Siouxsie at her most imperious, and the aforementioned Marianne Faithful, with a bit of the ubiquitous Chan Marshall in there. She casts her tales of deceit and devotion over a backdrop of lonesome Americana and Bad Seeds-esque cabaret that, while a lush and evocative vehicle for her postcards from the edge, are a little too derivative of Nocturama-era Bad Seeds or Tindersticks to really lift the material to the necessary level of transcendence. So it’s perfectly serviceable music, but the attention starts to wander halfway through. And Parasol needs a few more years and a few more traumas. Then she’ll be a force to reckon with.
Out in the wilds of Seattle, the grunge movement has melted with the winter snows leaving behind the more firmly rooted rock and soil of punk. But in an era groping for an exciting new musical direction, even the 40-year tropes of punk rock look weak and wounded, leaving the generic tag “indie rocker” as the default handle for hundreds of bands. They pace and practice and refine their chops, even as they wait for someone to start a new trend. With gangsta rap on NPR, disco a viable hipster option, and Lady GaGa our best and brightest hope, we are sadly in need of fresh directions.
Past Lives is emblematic of this ennui — they possess sufficient technical skills to hold together a pseudo-melodic rhythm and enough gumption to get a few albums on Amazon, but they lack any identifying marks to separate them from the indie alt-rock crowd and make you think, “THAT’S a band I want to see live!” Opening cut “Paralyser” doesn’t paralyze so much as makes you look for the channel flipper, and “Falling Spikes” mashes up some punk vocals and a noisy guitar line as if they’re trying to sneak an unreleased Siouxsie Sioux demo past the kids today. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast, but always with a calculated energy, this indie band finds itself in the middle of a crowded field, seeking a way to make gas money on tour. I hope they make it, but competition is stiff.
For NME darlings These New Puritans, the choice was stark and clear. Hence, new album, Hidden — a heady collage of ideas and fearless sonic abandon. Not content in any way with the hoary standards of being “just another rock band,” the Puritans (twin brothers Jack and George Barnett, Thomas Hein, and Sophie Sleigh-Johnson) embrace new and seemingly conflicting ideas and aesthetics with a reckless confidence, willing to find the hidden patterns and connections between Siouxsie Sioux’s Creatures, chamber music, J Dilla, new-school Jamaican dancehall, apocalypse acolytes like Death in June, hoary ol’ big beat, brass and woodwind, and Kevin Ayers. Hidden is an album that takes several listens to fully digest and appreciate (save for doomy, beat-heavy barnburners like “Three Thousand”), but after those initial forays, it continually yields new delights.
Hell, start the album with a beyond moody string-and-horns movement called “Time Xone.” (“Canticle” breaks up the album along similar lines. Fascinating.) Fuck the rock n’ roll, man. “Three Thousand” is this fucking amazing hybrid of Suicide’s madness, hip hop swagger, and lush Gothic fatalism with the drumbeat alone! Next up is a John Cale-ish/Steve Reich piano-led mantra, full of tension and feeling like there should be comfort from this “classical” instrumentation. “Fire – Power” mixes nu-reggae and dancehall (literally with the Capleton-aping references “fire! fire! fire!”) with the OCD industrial noise of prime Nitzer Ebb.
“Drum Courts — Where Corals Lie” starts off with martial sped-up drumming worthy of “Idioteque” or “Total War” before slowly melting into elegiac strums and subliminal vocals, then becomes a disorienting mix of the two. “White Chords” takes a chopped drumbeat nicked from nouveau R&B and weds it to the suffocating isolation of the Cure’s “Lullaby” for a nightmare dreamscape of paranoia and control. Sometimes it’s so minimal it feels like the song has stopped. The bell-choir and strings idyll of “5” ends the album on an ominous note, with a choir of children wordlessly reaching for… something.
Evil. Evil. Evil. Evil music. Evil like the Cramps. Evil like the Reid brothers and Bobby Gillespie playing 10 minutes of pure feedback and starting a riot. Evil like Beat Happening singing “Pinebox Derby.” Evil like Hasil Adkins wanting to put his sweetheart’s head up on the wall. Evil like Junior Kimbrough threatening, “You’d better run.” Austin’s (via Florida — how did I miss that?) Woven Bones take the base elements of rock and roll and strip them down even further. A drum kit? Fuck, how about just a snare and bass? (Played standing up, Moe Tucker style, natch.) Guitar and bass? You guys get to learn one chord each and then drench that shit in broken effects pedals, feedback, and general bad vibes. Andrew Burr’s vocals are one long, wounded sneer, a pungent cross between Mark Gardner of Ride, Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux, and the fella from the Trashmen who gives that nasal gonzo menace to Surfin’ Bird. In and Out and Back Again is gonna be a trying album for the average listener. The formula is simple but consistently thrilling: the drummer pounds out a menacing tattoo, the guitarists whip up a storm of guitar noise (occasionally forming into subliminal patterns shared by Sun Singles and Spectrum seven-inches) and the singer hectors and hurts.
In and Out and Back Again is totally Gothic in its suffocating intensity (as in the Cure and Death in June and Siouxsie singing “Metal Postcard”), while simultaneously bluesy and bratty as hell. Not so much individual songs, this album is one long, glorious, droning march of the damned. I put in the Cramps’ Songs the Lord Taught Us after this, and it felt perfect and right and seamless. In the best possible way, Woven Bones prove that anyone can do this. Hence, you have to do this.