The New Decay

for those who love myusik

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Calvin Johnson is a genius?

Well, at least that was the question I was asking myself after last nights superb yet totally ridiculous performance by the legendary indie-rocker Calvin Johnson. The guy took lo-fi to new heights as he went onstage completely unmicked, playing a classical guitar, starred at the crowd and dared them not to laugh as he began playing his 'I'm so lo-fi I make Ariel Pink look like Peter Frampton' tunes. Fortunately he became triumphant as after the first song, the crowd couldn't take it anymore and was in utter hysterics.
I've never seen anything like it. I had no expectations going into the show except for to expect the unexpected and that's exactly what Johnson did. The unexpected. In fact, it's one of those shows where someone does something so different, so obscure that you leave wondering, is the guy an idiot, or is he a genius? Really, such a question actually didn't matter as the evening was completely enjoyable.

There's a charm to Johnson that is hard to pinpoint. You start to make assumptions when you here about someone influencing Nirvana (and the whole Northwest music seen for that matter), someone who got Beck started off on his career (by releasing some of his earliest recordings), but none of those assumptions seemed fitting. This is not some burnt-out grunge guy trying to re-live 91-94. This is just a simple songwriter wanting to provide pop culture lovers something to laugh about.

Julie Doiron, who played after Johnson's set was as enjoyable as ever. She's really had to take her 'broken girl' mystique to heart as she's been forced to deal with a failed marriage, loss of custody of her children and having to find a new home in Sackville. Fortunately this has all translated into some of her best work yet. Last night's show (which also featured Shotgun and Jaybird's Dick Morello) exemplified this wonderfully.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The New Decay Does the Jazz Winnipeg Festival Part 1

So the 2007 edition of the Jazz Winnipeg Festival starts this Friday and it looks to be yet again chalk-full of must see events. It could be just me, but every year the Jazz Fest becomes that much better, creeping up (and even sometimes surpassing) in quality to the other big music fest in the Peg - The Folk Fest. In fact, I would so far as to say, based on artists alone, the Jazz Fest looks to be the music event of the summer (I don't know if I've ever been able to say that before). With so much to see, so much to do, how can a music-lover not get excited about this next week and a bit?

Anyways, here's the first part of my day-by-day breakdown of the fest (with part 2 coming on Monday).

It's kind of funny, but the first day of the fest looks to be the weakest as the Performance Series features latino phenoms Pink Martini and vocal wizards Madrigaia at the Pantages Playhouse (not my cup of tea, but many absolutely eat this stuff up). John Lee Hooker Jr. opens up the blues series at the Windsor Hotel and The Glen Buhr Band takes on the Exchange Events Centre. My pick of the day though, has to be at the New Groove Series which sees James Hunter make his was back to the peg alongside Folk Fest favorite Jackie Greene. I don't know much about Hunter, but from what I hear, this show has a lot of promise.


On Saturday the fest really starts to heat up as long time Winnipeg Jazzer Ron Paley plays the the late nite series alongside the likes of Sophie Milman, Jodie Borle and Cold Front. For the New Groove Series, Champion makes his return to the peg after his successful show at the West End a couple months back (not to mention his hit single 'No Heaven'). But the day belongs to the Performance Series as two of the most excited Jazz groups playing today, the Joshua Redman Trio and The Bad Plus, take on the Burton Cummings Theatre. Redman is possibly the most important Saxophonist to break out in the last ten years. He's played with indie superstars Pat Metheny and Chick Corea, and he's successfully re-imagined what Bop can really sound like. The Bad Plus, on the other hand, are coming back to the Jazz Fest riding on the wave of the hype generated from their last performance at the festival as well as the praise for their latest album 'Prog' (which just so happens to be one of my current favorite albums). If the $35 ticket price seems a bit too steep (and even if it doesn't), then you should head on over to the U of M at 3:00pm for the Bad Plus' jazz lab series where they will lead a discussion on what exactly Jazz music is, how it has failed to live up to that standard, and what place it could have within the larger narrative of pop music.

I'm taking a sabbatical on this day, just to ensure my sanity later on in the week. But not because there isn't anything good to see. Sunday sees what is generally considered to be the headliners of the festival come to the Burton Cummings Theatre as Herbie Hancock performs alongside the Kenny Garret quartet. What can I say about Hancock that hasn't already been said. When your resume includes being a long time pianist for Miles Davis (recording on my two favorite albums of Davis' no less, Seven Steps to Heaven, and Bitches Brew), writing one of the most beautiful jazz standards ever with 'Maiden Voyage' as well as being a pioneer in electronic music with Headhunters, I think the title 'Jazz Legend' is more than worthy.

Monday's key performance is at the New Groove Series yet again as Edmonton hip-hop extraordinaire Cadence Weapon plays the Pyramid along with Grand Analog and DJ Weezil. I've talked alot about CW on this blog, but have yet to get a chance to see him perform live. Needless to say, I'm pretty excited about this one.

This is one of those days where you wished you could be at two places at once. The Hylozoists perform at the Pyramid along with Winnipeg's All of Your Friends. The Hylos have a strong reputation for being an amazing live band, and if their live show is anything like their debut album, La Fin Du Monde, I wouldn't be surprised. Unfortunately I'll have to wait to find out, as I'm spending the evening at the Exchange Events Centre as the Village Voice hyped Vijay Iyer performs with his quartet. When the Village Voice declares you as 'The most commanding pianist and composer to emerge in recent years" you can't take that lightly.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Studs and Duds

Hey all, here's my latest edition of the article-formerly-known-as "Buy and Don't Buy" now currently known as the less blatantly market-oriented "Studs and Duds." Although, it would be more accurate to name it "I spend my lunch hour alone and bored in my office". Complete with cover art this time!

San Serac - Professional (Frog Man Jake)

A Massachusetts based synth-pop artist obsessed with Bowie, Talking Heads, The Human League and Nihilism. What's not to like? Professional is the first collaboration between San Serac and former Junior Boy Johnny Dark, and the results are incredibly pleasing. I've always found Dark to be one of the best producers working right now (my only complaint about the last Jr. Boys album was that it lacked the awesome beats Dark contributed to Last Exit). But he's also the type of artist that needs to be working with someone with more pop sensibilities than himself. He had this with Jeremy Greenspan when he was part of Junior Boys, and he has it again with San Serac. "Fairlight" in particular should be the summer hit of the year. But of course that won't happen, what with "Lip Gloss" tearing up the charts.

Von Sudenfed - Tromatic Reflexxions (Domino)
The First collaboration between the Fall's Mark E. Smith and Mouse on Mars, and it's quite the success. While it doesn't come near the brilliance of previous Fall albums (such as Grotesque, Hex Enduction Hour or This Nation's Saving Grace), it is most definitely an improvement on their latest album. It seems too natural that Mark E. Smith would put out an electronic album. The similarities between groups like Devo, The Fall, the Slits and electronic groups like Mouse on Mars, Burial, Kode 9, and Junior Boys are far to great to ignore anymore. This album does just that, bringing together an iconic post-punk figure with electronic elite. The results are truly satisfying.

Delta 5 -Singles & Sessions 1979-81 (Kill Rock Stars)

This came out two years ago, but I haven't had an opportunity to really look into it until recently. It's the first full-length release by the legendary Leeds-based band (can you be legendary when people remember you only after you re-release your old 7 inch's). This is for fans of Gang of Four and Mekons as it is a great celebration of what was one of the better music scenes of the last few decades (namely the Leeds University Art School). It's the birth of Art-Rock and it's pleasing to go back to time and time again.


Battles - Mirrored
Just one dud this week (although I could lump the new Fantastic Four Movie in hereas well), and it's one I've already talked about before. I've given this album all I've got and I just can't get behind it. Considering it's being marketed as a "Post-Rock" album, a genre that has given us far too much great stuff to be thrown around so lightly (a.k.a. Tortoise, Slint, Chicago Underground Duo etc ...), I can't see this as anything but a failure. To quote the music writer Woebot 'Post-Rock was about deconstructing rock music, not playing prog'. From the Album cover all the way down, it appears Battles have unfortunately missed this point altogether.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Thurston Moore for Prez!

After I finished jumping around for joy over the signing of Mike Keenan by the Flames (as an Oiler fan how can I not be excited about the Flames hiring a coach who hasn't won a playoff series in 11 years, is generally considered the worst coach to play under, and will surely mean the demise of Hueselius and Lombardi?), I sat down and read this article by Nitsuh Abede for Pitchfork on Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation. While I've always been more of a fan on SY's albums Evol and Goo, it did cause me to ask the question, has there been a more important band in the last 25 years than Sonic Youth? Looking at their past I'm hard pressed to think of a more significant foursome than Thurston, Lee, Steve and Kim.
Here's why;

1.) They began in the early 80s as central figures of the No Wave movement in New York, a movement that is to this day still having a significant impact on much of the American underground (ie. Wolf Eyes, Black Dice, Animal Collective etc...). When the No Wave movement started to lose some of its steam they inserted a good dose of Psychedelia that enabled more artists to once again get on board with the original No Wave ethos (such as Swans).

2.) 1986-1990 - With post-punk and new pop coming to a startling halt with the emergence of Madonna and the rise of commercial pop, Sonic Youth respond by creating four albums (EVoL, Sister, Daydream Nation, Goo), that completely transform what guitar-based rock music might sound like. Later, this 'new sound' starts getting referred to as 'Grunge' and ends up influencing pretty much EVERY guitar-based group for the next 20 years (possible a bit of an overstatement, but not much of one). Two of those albums (Daydream Nation and Goo) are to this day considered indie-rock gems.

3.) In 1989 they played a huge part in the re-emergence of Neil Young (especially for younger people who didn't grow up with Young's 70s repertoire), by touring with him and dubbing him 'the Godfather of Grunge'.

4.) Then in 1991 along with Dinosaur Jr. and an unknown young band called Nirvana, Sonic Youth creates the movie 1991: The Year Punk Broke which instituted 90s alternative rock (the film also features the only filmed live performance of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'). A few months later, riding on the wave of success of the film, Nirvana releases Nevermind and the rest is history.

5.) 1991-2006 - Sonic Youth become the poster-band for what a group can look like going into the mainstream completely on their own terms, as the band signs a long-term contract with Geffen that allows them full creative control as well as the freedom to record on their own labels (which resulted in the creation of Ecstatic Peace! as well as the SYR series). This was also the period which saw them receive the most success in their career with the releases Dirty, Experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star, and Washing Machine. It was also during this period that they were able to reclaim their place as indie-royalty with their AWESOME releases NYC Ghosts and Flowers, Murray Street, Sonic Nurse and last years Rather Ripped.

6.) 2001 - While recording Murray Street on September 11th, an engine from one of the planes of that crashed into the World Trade Towers crashes into the wall of their recording studio. This of course leads to numerous attempts by the media to paint Sonic Youth as a story of triumph over tyranny. Sonic Youth has none of it, writing the song 'Peace Attack' criticising the War on Terror, and become one of the more vocal opponents of George Bush's administration, again leading to another resurgence of their popularity.

7.) Present - While closing in on their 50s, Sonic Youth still have the energy to pump out at least one album a year, touring constantly (and well enough to still be considered one of the best live acts to see) while still having time to be parents, husbands and wives.

And maybe to a lesser degree...

8.) August 1995 - Little Jeff Friesen sees a cool video by some group called Sonic Youth (the song was called 'Bull in the Heather'), which shows a women (Kim Gordon) riding a skateboard. Jeff gets excited because he also rides a skateboard, goes out and buys the album, gets super excited about it and shows it to his mom. His mom cries, but Jeff is introduced to a whole new era of music.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Empty Tigers or the Roaring Sea, What are We?

I'm trying to do this on Mondays, but it's been a busy week thus far and this is the first chance I've had to write something for the New Decay. So anyways here's this weeks 'Into, and Not So Into,' which is predominantly focused on Victoria's Himalayan Bear, who I just can't get enough of lately.

INTO ...

Himalayan Bear -
La Lonesome Island (2006) and ... Attacks the brilliant air (2007
After the Frog Eyes and Himalayan Bear show last week, my wife Jess turned to me in response to my excitement over how much I enjoyed Himalayan Bear and said 'see Jeff! This is why you shouldn't read so much about music. So you can be surprised by someone!' Although she probably wouldn't have used so many exclamation marks, what she said does have some validity. There's something about being caught off guard by an artist that makes music that much more enjoyable.

La Lonesome Island came out last summer, and is exactly that. A summer record. Not in the 'it's full of summer hits' kind of way. More because of the feel of the album. The songs are generally short (for Himalayan Bear's standard), and consist primarily of acoustic guitar, some slide, a ukulele here and there, and the occasional splash of drums and keyboards. Lyrically it is a fairly dark album, but sonically it's so sunny. You get the sense that the album was written as Himalayan Bear was relaxing at the beach in Oak Bay. While it does have its weak moments, it also has its breathtaking ones as well ('I'm On Sorrow' in particular). Overall, La Lonesome Island is an extremely good first record

Himalayan Bear ... Attacks the Brilliant Air extends HB's songs and allows them to percolate a bit more, resulting in a much more sophisticated and mature sound than that found on La Lonesome Island. A good conversation partner of HB would be San Fran's Devendra Banhart. Both have a fascination with creating imagery through lyrics (rather than merely telling stories), both focus on the guitar in their songwriting, and both are influenced by British Folk music (arising out of Devendra's obsession with Vashti Bunyan, and HB's growing up in Victoria, a city alive with British overtones). However, Attacks the Brilliant Air illustrates some significant differences between the two. Basically, Banhart lacks the subtlety so prevalent in HB's new album, and thus at times comes across as trying a bit too hard. Banhart wants to pound his faux-hippy mystique over your head. HB would rather just allow yourself to make that decision. Banharts songs often extend into jam-out sessions that lately haven't been working. HB also extends his songs, but allows them to sit for a while and develop on their own. It's a captivating way of songwriting that keeps me wanting more (even after a song moves beyond the 9 min mark). In short, Himalayan Bear is probably my favorite discovery of the year thus far.

The Bad Plus - Prog (2007)
This jazz trio is opening up for Joshua Redman at Winnipeg's upcoming jazz fest. If their live show resembles anything close to this album, the $35 ticket price will be well worth it. Their jazz version of Bowies 'Life on Mars' gives me goosebumps every time (in fact, I had to pause that last sentence because I couldn't handle listening to the track and writing about it at the same time). Same with Rush's 'Tom Sawyer.'

Adem - Love and Other Planets (2006)
I didn't get too into this album until recently. It's a wonderful mix of Brit/Pysch-folk, and pop-folk, with the appropriate amount of electronics thrown in. 'Launched Away' is particularly sweet.

Not So Into
It's been a good couple of weeks. Probably the only musical disappointment was Awesome Colors set last Monday. Other than that the only other things I can harp on are the Sens, Chris Pronger and the huge number of worms stuck on my front door.