Thursday, May 28, 2009

How's your hearing?

In the last few weeks since Coachella, I've been on a serious concert binge. Saw Cut Off Your Hands at Mercury Lounge, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart at Bowery Ballroom and The Radio Dept. at The Bell House. With any luck, I'll get around to writing entries about Cut Off Your Hands and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. But this entry goes to The Radio Dept.

A while back, not long after I awoke from a creative slumber and re-immersed myself in my passion for music, I identified British Sea Power as the (still existing) band highest on my list of favorites that I hadn't seen live. Of course, right after I conferred that title upon them, I saw them live. (Such are the perks of living in NYC. Everyone comes through here when they tour.) So I had to give the title to someone else: The Radio Dept.

At the time, I figured that it'd be a long while, if not forever, before I had to find yet another band to take the spot. The Radio Dept.'s from Malmo, Sweden, and (so far as I knew) they have not much of a following in the States. Well, either I was wrong or their popularity has grown. Their show a couple of Saturdays ago at The Bell House, which is a decent-sized venue out in Brooklyn, sold out.

The best and perhaps worst part of the night took place during the 15 minutes or so before The Radio Dept. began their set. Whoever was in charge of the intermission playlist got the break off to a wonderful start with a super-catchy song. Kinda like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, but more polished, less fuzzy and with a female lead vocalist. That song was followed by The Embassy's "Some Indulgence," which I recognized right away. (Yet more Swedes!) But the next two songs were a complete mystery again. Sounded like The Smiths reborn as Scandinavians -- gloom with a bounce, if that makes any sense. I wanted dearly to figure out the names of the bands so that I could add them to my collection. Alas, I didn't know which curtains to pull apart to find the Wizard of Oz -- the faceless force with the impeccable taste who was responsible for the soothing sounds. It got to be too much, and I started to wish that the music would just stop, because I couldn't bear to hear another good song whose name would remain an unsolvable mystery to me.

Fortunately, The Radio Dept. took the stage not long afterwards, and they were great. That was a pleasant surprise, because they didn't sound particularly good in the live clips I'd seen on YouTube. But I was a bit disappointed to learn that they don't play with a live drummer or bassist; a Macbook took the place of the rhythm section.

I'm pretty sure they had a full-time drummer (and a female member) at the time of Lesser Matters. I guess that explains why their sound has mellowed out a bit -- no more driving bass lines and thunderous drum beats. But even in their more electronic-y incarnation, I still like them lots.

I wonder who takes The Radio Dept.'s place now? Ugh. I think I may have to suck it up and admit that it's Coldplay.

Stupid Girl's Revenge

[I'm writing this aboard a flight to Houston. Go figure that I'd written much of the entry below on the flight back from Coachella and left it languishing on my laptop. Man, I was seriously pissed at The Cure.]

This is what happens when you piss off karma, I guess. Coachella was loads of fun, as it always is. But it sputtered to a severely disappointing conclusion. Never thought I'd walk away from a Cure performance, but that's what we did on the last night of Coachella.

It's strange that I'd never seen The Cure live after being a fan for a couple of decades. Something always got in the way: ex-girlfriend's family trip, shifting taste in music, the general suckiness of their latter-day releases. There's no way I'd invest good money and a big chunk of time to see The Cure on tour now. But when they're part of the Coachella bundle, that's an ideal opportunity to see them finally.

It struck me as rather odd that The Cure was booked as a headliner. They don't fit the mold of a typical headliner because they, try as they might, don't sell many records these days. And they also don't really fit the mold of a throwback headliner because there's no mystique to seeing them live, given their incessant touring in support of their generally crappy new releases. It was special to see New Order at Coachella, because they sorta-kinda reunited after a sorta-kinda break-up. And they never were very big on touring even in their heyday. But what's so special about seeing a band that seems to be on tour every year, yet hasn't released a decent song in nearly two decades?

Going into Sunday, I didn't let the finer points of event booking get to me. I was in an exceedingly happy mood, and I fully expected to get into an even happier mood after The Cure ran through their collection of classics. But Robert Smith, in all his stubbornness, had other ideas.

I could sense that things likely weren't going to unfold in a pleasing manner when I couldn't recognize the first song they played. And I was virtually certain that the night would end on Disatisfaction Street when the first "classic" they played was "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea." Wasting precious performance slots on semi-relevant songs like that meant fewer slots available for true classics like "Friday I'm in Love," "Fascination Street," "Boys Don't Cry," "High" and "Close to Me." Sure enough, none of those were on the playlist. (Well, not the part we stayed for anyway.)

They did play "Just Like Heaven" and "In Between Days" -- my absolute favorite Cure songs. But those came midway through the set, leaving me to wonder what could be left for a satisfying encore. They droned on with one unrecognizable blob of a song after another, leaving me and my friends to look at each other with disgust and unspoken shouts of "what the hell is this?" We gave them every opportunity to redeem themselves, but redemption was far beyond their reach. We lingered after their official set concluded, but on the understanding that we'd leave if we couldn't recognize the first song they played during their encore. When they returned and launched into yet another unrecognizable blob of a song, my friends and I exchanged expressions of dismay, and we began the long march toward the parking lot.

As we got past the gates, I wondered aloud: "Maybe this is Stupid Girl's revenge?" Right away, my Dallas friend -- a big believer in karma, chimed in: "Hey, I was just thinking that!"

So who's Stupid Girl? She's the hapless, yet excruciatingly annoying, semi-friend of a friend who accompanied us on our very first day at Coachella in 2005. She was most excited abut seeing Coldplay, but we left as Coldplay began their set, in part to spite her for her annoying ways. As we rolled out of the parking lot, she looked so sad listening to the sounds of Coldplay grow fainter.

Her revenge actually started a couple of nights earlier, during Paul McCartney's set. My Houston and Dallas friends grew impatient and wanted to leave because Paul wasn't playing very many Beatles songs. My O.C. friend and I wanted to stay a bit longer, but we figured we'd relent because it was only the start of what was going to be a very long weekend. Lo and behold, right before we reached the gates, Paul started to play "Let It Be" -- my favorite Beatles song and go-to karaoke tune. (You really only need to know three words, after all.) And he followed that up with a slew of Beatles classics. Alas, we were relegated to listening from Siberia because we gave up too soon.

And her revenge continued the next day, when we got stuck in traffic and missed Glasvegas. (Then again, we wouldn't have seen them anyway, because they backed out.)

By Sunday night, her revenge seemed complete (or so we thought). As we strolled toward the parking lot, I joked about how funny it would be if we were to hear The Cure playing "Boy's Don't Cry" as we drove away. Well, it turns out that those bums finished off their set with "Boys Don't Cry." (They played 30 minutes past curfew, so the organizers cut off the sound system in the middle of the song. But the band and the crowd carried on merrily. Those bastards.)

And just when we thought that karma had wrapped up its handiwork, we were quickly reminded that it's difficult to slow the momentum of vengeance. While waiting in the security line at the airport, my Dallas friend noticed an Asian girl in line with her parents and noted that she kinda looked like one of his ex-girlfriends -- an ex-girlfriend with whom he'd rather not interact. We really didn't need to get closer to confirm, given the way our luck was going. And, yup. He was right. What are the chances of bumping into an ex-girlfriend while you're on vacation? Pretty high, I guess, when karma has it in for you.

Oh well. I have some regret, but not enough to justify the cost that would've been required to foreclose it. The Cure gets an automatic skip on the iPod for the next couple of months at least.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Coachella Extravaganza

From Coachella 2009

Another Coachella has come and gone. And this was probably the best yet. But as was the case after the last one I attended in 2006, I fear that this may really have been the last for me and my friends. Throughout the weekend, we gave thought to what it would take for us all to make another trek to Indio. Which band would have to come back to life? We've already witnessed the resurrection of New Order and My Bloody Valentine at Coachella. Who's left?

My answer was easy: The Smiths. But after seeing Morrissey on the Main Stage, I may have to qualify that response. In any event, I don't think The Smiths would be enough to get all of us to show. (Maybe if Cocteau Twins were also on the roster, as they were supposed to have been in 2005.) We're not in college anymore, and we know it. Making it through three days in the desert is rough when you're not a kid. But I guess that's what made this last Coachella so special. It was rough, but there was virtually no whining among us, because our collective enthusiasm for the lineup was amazingly high.


Los Campesinos!
Wonderful, as always. This was my third time seeing them. And if they were to come to town next week, I'd see them again. Intense, skillful, rambunctious and carefree all at the same time. (Yeah, I know that logic doesn't bind those four adjectives together very well, but you'd have to see them live to understand.)

From Coachella 2009

M. Ward
Not as interesting without Zoe Deschanel. Him without She is a bit too folksy and not very cute. (Silly side note: Several people stopped me to compliment me on my She & Him t-shirt! Alas, they were mostly guys. Not sure how I feel about that.)

White Lies
Highlight of the weekend for me. I almost showed up at Coachella without knowing these guys. Discovered them only a few weeks earlier while milling about at Virgin Mega. Something about their album cover made me take a curious listen. Yet another Joy Division throwback (and I don't use that reference in a derogatory sense, like many others seem to enjoy doing these days) with a bit of Depcehe Mode synths mixed in. Quite the big voice from a rather small guy.

From Coachella 2009

Franz Ferdinand
Tough deciding whether to see them or blow them off in favor of Crystal Castles. (So much freakin' overlap this year! Already had to skip The Ting Tings to see White Lies. But that was an easy choice, since I saw The Ting Tings at Bowery last year.) Not a big fan of their latest album, and we'd already seen them put on an impressive performance at the Main Stage in 2006. Only caught a couple of songs before bailing for Crystal Castles. Probably should've stayed put.

Crystal Castles
What the hell? As my Houston friend put it: sounds like a cat screeching on stage. At least they played "Crimewave" before we all lost our patience and left to grab dinner.

Ghostland Observatory
Man, they definitely know how to put on a show. Sort of like Chemical Brothers with Freddie Mercury as frontman. Too bad we were stuck catching glimpses from the side of the tent, because we had to scoot midway through the set to catch Moz.


Second biggest disappointment of the weekend. Without Johnny Marr, he's basically a lounge singer with a hack backing band. Everything sounded the same -- one indistinctive, whiny song after another. Even when he played some recognizable, likable oldies such as "There's a Light That Never Goes Out" (my absolute favorite Smiths song) and "How Soon Is Now," it sounded as if he were singing cheap karaoke covers of the real thing. And he was being quite the prima donna. (Yeah, I do realize the redundancy in calling Moz a prima donna.) The sound mix wasn't to his liking, nor was the odor in the air. "I can smell burning flesh, and I hope to god it's human," he quipped. (There were barbecue vendors nearby. And he's vegan.) Such principles from a man who long left miserablism behind to cruise around L.A. in a Porsche.

Silversun Pickups
Filler, really. We needed to kill some time before Paul McCartney took the stage, so we drifted over to the nearby Outdoor Stage. I'd already seen them a couple of years back during CMJ, so I knew what to expect. Still can't listen to them without thinking "poor man's Smashing Pumpkins."

Paul McCartney
Most pleasant surprise of the weekend. When I first saw that Paul would be the headliner for the first night, I thought of him as a throwaway -- sorta like Prince from last year. But as the date drew closer, I was kinda excited about seeing him, mostly on the hope of hearing some Beatles material. It's hard not to like Paul. Seems like a genuinely nice guy. And he reeled off one Beatles classic after another: "Hey Jude," "Get Back," "The Long and Winding Road," "Let It Be."


The bastards didn't show! Saturday was definitely the weakest of the days for us, so we lounged around near the hotel for much of the day, since there was nothing to see until 6:00. Probably shouldn't have been so nonchalant. It took us about an hour and a half to cover the eight miles between our hotel and the venue because of traffic, so we didn't show up until five minutes before Glasvegas was supposed to have wrapped up their set. But the tent was completely empty when we got there. I went up to one of the sound guys to ask whether Glasvegas had already played, hoping that maybe some scheduling quirk pushed their set to a later time. He told me something cryptic about the lead singer "falling off the bus" -- "extreme exhaustion and dehydration" was the word from the band. I'm sure that was just code for "wasted and hungover." But whatever. I was oddly happy that they didn't show, because it meant that my poor planning wasn't the reason I missed them.

TV on the Radio
Don't understand why they're so big with the hipsters and wannabe hipsters. I do like a few of their songs quite a bit. But I can't listen to any of their albums all the way through, because they're all filled with annoyances -- like saxophones. (I hate the saxophone. Throw ten seconds of a sax solo into a beautiful song, and it instantly becomes a crap song.) The ho-hum performance gave me a chance to roam the grounds in search of a friend who'd moved from New York to San Diego.

Fleet Foxes
I've tried and tried, but I just can't get into these guys. For a while, they were all the rage among the indie scenesters. But they're just too damn soft and folksy for me.

Thievery Corporation
Only caught them because there was nothing better to see at the time. That and my San Diego friend is a big fan. Definitely not my style. While watching them and their parade of guest vocalists from every freakin' continent, I kept thinking about John Cusack in
High Fidelity ridiculing the crappy taste in music of his ex-girlfriend's new lover: "His music: Latin and Bulgarian, whatever world music was trendy that week." (Sorry if you're reading this, San Diego friend.)

Band of Horses
They're good when they rock out, like on "Is There a Ghost." Otherwise, they get a bit too drony and country-ish. Reminds me of My Morning Jacket. Sort of like indie revivals of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Again, not my thing. Yet more confirmation that Saturday was a weak night. But we only caught a couple of songs before scooting over to the Outdoor Stage.

Jenny Lewis
One last filler before the main event. She's got a good voice and all, but just too jangly for me. Felt as if it were indie country night on the Outdoor Stage.

The Killers
If not for The Killers, we probably would've skipped Saturday altogether. But their performance alone was worth the price of admission. Definitely the most polished performance of the weekend -- with elaborate stage decoration, fireworks and all. I'd seen them once before in Vegas during the back end of the Hot Fuss tour. They were basically playing on a makeshift stage in a parking lot behind the Hard Rock Hotel. Good show, but very mechanical, as if they were playing as carefully as possible to record a live album. At Coachella, they came alive. Seems they've toured enough now to know what the crowd wants: lots of of Hot Fuss, very little Sam's Town and just enough Day & Age. I'd written off The Killers after Sam's Town. They regained my interest with Day & Age. And their performance at Coachella made me a full-fledged fan again.

From Coachella 2009


Sebastien Tellier
We learned our lesson and made sure to show up with plenty of time to spare before Lykke Li took the stage. With time on our hands, we checked out Sebastien, mostly because he has a good track on the Lost in Translation soundtrack. Not bad. Didn't know that he sings. Thought he was just an instrumentalist.

Lykke Li
I saw her at Le Poisson Rouge last year and was somewhat disappointed. When she plays live, she doesn't use recorded backing tracks. Instead, she tries to recreate her electronic-y studio sound with a live band, which doesn't really work. Translating Moog bass lines with a bass guitar just seems like a bad idea. So I went in with rather low expectations, even though I'm a big fan. And she delivered what I expected. If nothing else, her spunk is irrepressible. I think my Houston and Dallas friends enjoyed the performance more than I did, mostly because Lykke's a blonde from Sweden. And she gyrates quite a bit on stage, albeit in a spastic sort of way.

From Coachella 2009

Peter Bjorn & John
Speaking of Sweden ... I think it may have been Go Sweden! Day at Coachella. A bit of a surprise to see PB&J on the Main Stage. I mean, they've really only had one radio-friendly hit -- "Young Folks." Not a bad performance, but it seemed lacking on such a big stage. Sorta like a college team playing in a pro stadium.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Felt like 2006 all over again. That's when we saw them perform a rousing twilight set on the Main Stage, and they got the same slot this year. There's something wonderfully entertaining about Karen O's over-the-top theatrics, especially when they play "Maps" -- the loudest love song I know. Can't help but feel sappy when she slides her gloved hand across her face, singing, "Wait, they don't love you like I love you," as the sun sets behind the mountains.

From Coachella 2009

My Bloody Valentine
My friends and I had just seen MBV at ATP in the Catskills a few months back. Yet we were all pretty excited about seeing them again. MBV was great at ATP, but the sound seemed slightly off there. We were all hoping that the intense loudness would carry better on an outdoor stage -- and it did. But even with the open air, it was still damn loud -- especially the nearly 20 minutes of punishing white noise during "You Made Me Realise." (Two of my poor friends forgot their earplugs, so they had to make do with their index fingers. More creative was the guy who shoved cigarette butts into his ears.) I wondered whether MBV would be bold enough to pull that off at a setting such as Coachella, where the majority of the audience may not understand their eccentricities. But I shouldn't have doubted Kevin Shields's stubbornness. Quite impressive. Even more impressive was the crowd, which endured the head-rattling noise and clapped wildly afterwards. I really wouldn't have been surprised if there had been a mass exodus or chorus of boos. I mean, the majority of the crowd was probably not yet in kindergarten when MBV released its last album. I was happy to be wrong and shown how cross-generational music can be, even if it's music of the highly esoteric variety.

From Coachella 2009

The Cure
Hands down, the biggest disappointment of the weekend. I've been a big fan since junior high. But I've somehow never seen them live -- what with girlfriends taking off on family trips at the last minute, Robert Smith becoming a big mascaraed blob, and the whole bunch of them descending into general suckiness. I wouldn't pay now to see them on their own, but seeing them at Coachella seemed the ideal way to cross the old-timers off my list. Well, they stunk -- not because of poor execution, but because of their infuriating insistence on playing song after endless song of post-Wish drivel. It's sad when bands past their primes delude themselves into thinking that their new material is as good as their old stuff. I could sense that we were in for a rough set when they led off with "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea," perhaps the most nondescript song on Wish. I knew that there'd be limited space on the setlist for classics, and if "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea" was going to fill one of those slots, we were in trouble. Sure enough, my fears were confirmed when they played "Just Like Heaven" and "In Between Days" -- two of my absolute favorite Cure songs -- in the middle of the set. What the hell were they gonna leave for an encore? As it turned out, my friends and I didn't bother sticking around to find out. We walked out, because we just couldn't bear to listen to any more of their new stuff. Not even the prospect of hearing "Boys Don't Cry" could convince us to stay. Never thought there'd come a time when I'd walk out on one of my sentimental favorites, but they were just that infuriating. What a sad way to close out an otherwise awe-inspiring weekend.

* * *

So that was Coachella. Such wonderful memories (minus the miserable Cure). If that was the last one for me and my friends, I guess I can take solace in the fact that it was the best one.

Soundtrack for a Funeral

When the Bat for Lashes show at Bowery Ballroom was announced a couple of months back, I immediately picked up a ticket. At the time, I was listening to "Daniel" non-stop, and I was already a big fan of her first album. Seemed to be a safe bet that I'd like her second album, too. Well, I lost that bet. Dumped my ticket on Craigslist a couple of days before the show, because her second album is quite dreadful.

Several years back, I had some folks over at my place for a barbecue. A couple of my guests took issue with my playlist, ridiculing it as "suicide music." I took issue with their assessment. After all, anything short of Beyonce or Jay-Z would've been "suicide music" to drunken party girls. (Then again, they're the sort who probably would've made the same complaint while sober.) But had I been playing the second Bat for Lashes's album, they would've had a point.

She played Letterman on Friday. And, you know, I've soured on her even more after seeing that performance. It sounded great, but suspciously great. I'm quite certain she was lip synching. Such shame.

I've dumped tickets for shows because of scheduling conflicts, but never because I simply didn't feel like going anymore. Felt quite strange. Even more strange was the number of people clamoring for my ticket. Probably could've gotten several times face value, but I'm too much of a softy to gouge those who are serious about their music.