December 21, 2014

Xiu Xiu Vines

Top: "Kling Klang" | Bottom: "Metal"

Xiu Xiu's Very Own Clown Town

Xiu Xiu perform at Glasslands on October 18. Corresponding photos by Zach Bernal.
Over a few weeks during September and October the echoed remnants of clangorous noise could be heard in various locations in New York City. It was quiet at first -- like a faucet turning on in another room -- but grew to catapulting heights of distortion and destruction.
   Los Angeles-based post-punk agitators Xiu Xiu took over the city for two art installations with Vietnamese-born artist Danh Vo -- “Kling Klang” and “Metal" -- and capped it with a proper set in support of their most recent album, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, at Glasslands. The bells are still sounding off in my skull.

Detail of "Kling Klang" on September 28. Corresponding photos by Eli Jace.
   On September 28, at noon, on the edge of Brooklyn Bridge Park, Xiu Xiu’s main head Jamie Stewart, with Ches Smith and others, started the construction of “Kling Klang.” The concept was simple enough: attach hundreds of pink plastic vibrating eggs with neon duct tape to a section of Danh Vo’s We The People installation and listen.
   The piece by Vo is a dismantling of the Statue of Liberty into 250 copper pieces littering parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The piece they chose was a section of the Lady’s gown on the Pier 3 Greenway Terrace. Onlookers roamed, scratching their heads and smiled. Some lent their hands, mostly unaware of what they were taking part in.
   As Stewart and other helpers taped the eggs to the structure the onrushing sound of static water rose. It grew bigger with each activated egg until eventually they would die out with their battery life, creating a slow fade.

Close-up of busted cymbal from "Metal." Corresponding photos by Eli Jace.
   While ascending the steep staircase of the Lower West Side’s The Kitchen, the sound of knocking faded in with each step. Two Thailand-based gold pounders, Nantapol and Pruan Panicharam, were swinging mallets in rhythm onto a cement block. Commissioned by Danh Vo, they were flattening 24-carat squares of gold into leaf for a future sculpture. Their consistent pounding acted as the human metronome for “Metal.”  
   The live installation went for three weeks with a grueling schedule. Each week, Tuesday through Saturday, noon-3 p.m. Jamie Stewart was joined by Shayna Dunkelman, Ches Smith and, later on, Angela Seo for an abrasive and chaotic percussive performance.
   In the middle of the open space was a semi-circle of loaded cymbal stands with two xylophones in the middle. The group played 52 five-minute compositions loosely chained to the gold pounders’ beat with each one cut off by a loud gnarled feedback screech. Some of the pieces were clearly annotated, while others existed for the purpose of spontaneity.
   One segment called for each person to run in a single line, crashing an instrument, one after the other, around in a continuous circle. Stewart flinched spastically with each cymbal hit. The unpredictability kept the crowd vulnerable with anxiety. For one interval everyone grabbed slingshots and flapped wrapped butterscotch candies at the gongs and cymbals that hung. The candies broke into shards and catapulted across the room. A sugary crust collected on the floor.
   On the final Saturday Stewart and company ended “Metal” as they did every other day. They completely dismantled every cymbal stand and threw each cymbal, gong and percussive piece into a large pile with the force of a tantrum-throwing child. Nuts, bolts and pink vibrating eggs flew in the faces of everyone watching.
   All the noise and experimentation and charring of New York City culminated in a proper Xiu Xiu set at Glasslands in Brooklyn on October 18. The current live lineup of the band consists of Stewart and Dunkleman. Their setup was minimal: a table of electronics and pedals for Stewart and a pile of scrap percussion for Dunkelman.

   Stewart, without guitar, moved with a dreadful grace. He exhibited the motions of a ballerina, diving side to side like a swan on heavy drugs. When a certain lyric called to be belted out, his eyes would slip right to the back of his head, revealing only the white in his sockets. Stewart choked down the microphone, sometimes blaring louder than the percussion.
   Their set was made mostly of recent songs and decade-old classics. Most of this year’s Angel Guts: Red Classroom, the group’s ninth album, was played. “Black Dick,” “Stupid In The Dark,” “Lawrence Liquors,“ and “Archie’s Fades” all showed up in the setlist early. Songs were their usually startling selves, but louder. The sound scraped against the walls of Glasslands.
   Shayna Dunkelman played her drums like she was in a funeral march. The rhythms were tight and punctuated the dark, grinding electronics.  Her eyes would close tight and wince at each manic yelp from her neighbor. She was momentarily swept away in a trance.
   In addition to the new songs, they played only from their earlier albums. There was nothing after 2004’s Fabulous Muscles. The older songs offered the greatest relief from the barrage of caustic pounding. “Ian Curtis Wishlist,” the final track off A Promise, was a nice surprise. A harrowing drone flooded the room as Stewart released the panic of his mind and the restlessness of his heart. “Will you ever bleep out,” he screamed. “Do you love me Jamie Stewart?!” Everyone suddenly had goosebumps.
   The set ended with two Xiu Xiu classics: “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl” and “I Luv The Valley OH!” The instantly recognizable notes molded the mass into a slow-dancing form. Stewart’s voice still retains its glum trepidation and he still performs like his feet are on fire.
   For a full ten minutes following the final note the crowd stood at attention waiting for an encore. Eventually Stewart returned with news that he could play no more because the pornstar-cum-DJ Jessie Andrews was up next for a different show. In lieu of an extra song he kindly offered a long-winded joke about an aspiring clown in a brand new town. It started quiet at first, with hiccups and giggles, but ended with a scream that invaded the ear holes for one last time. “Fuck you clown!”
One night in Phoenix during the La Foret tour, I went to see Xiu Xiu at the Modified. Pregaming then was breaking bottles in vacant parking lots and a shard of glass struck my ankle, leaking blood quietly into my shoe, in and around the venue, leading into the bathroom where I was attended to by staff and where Jamie Stewart leaned his square head in and remarked, “That’s pretty goth.”

December 18, 2014

Top 5 Releases

2014 has very easily been the best year for music, at least since The White Stripes were still active. Spoon, Ryan Adams, TV On The Radio, Aphex Twin and Interpol all returned with strong releases after a few quiet years. Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Pink Floyd all added to their legendary discographies. But, more than anything it was a phenomenal year for women making music.
   R&B’s hypnotism launched further into space with the work from FKA Twigs, SZA, Jhene Aiko and Azealia Banks. Warpaint, Dum Dum Girls, Marissa Nadler and St. Vincent all made stunningly next-level records, while White Lung, Priests and Perfect Pussy chimed in with quick-burning records fronted by spit-fire, acid-tongued leading ladies. Everyone experimented and stepped just to the left of their sound. It was a year of wild transcendence for many musicians. Music was rich in 2014. Here are my Top 5 of 2014. Taken from: Independent Music Promotion’s annual list of the Top Releases of 2014.


El Pintor by Interpol
The black-clad doom-groovers of New York City returned with their fifth album, El Pintor, this year. Interpol parted ways with bassist Carlos Dengler at the finalization of their 2010 self-titled album. Paul Banks and company rebounded without bothering to fill in Dengler’s place. Banks took over duties on bass for the recording and the group soldiered on to create an album as good as their debut, Turn On The Bright Lights, released over a decade ago. “Breaker 1,” “Anywhere” and “Everything Is Wrong” charge ahead with the rhythm section’s angry brood. Banks’ voice coils around the looping guitar crescendos with anguish and disappointment. “All The Rage Back Home,” “My Blue Supreme,” and “Same Town New Story” are three of Interpol’s greatest songs, each built with tunneling song structures where, at any turn, the fragments of one’s heart might scrape off and disappear. El Pintor is the soundtrack of every empty skyscraper in New York City tonight. [Full review]

Ryan Adams by Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams’ fourteenth, self-titled solo album is an album of stark, minimalist, pure-hearted rock’n’roll. The guitars are lean, stripped bare and fall in line with the rhythm section. The melodies are catchy and each song follows a basic verse-chorus-verse structure. Adams wades into territory just slightly left of his usual countrified sound. Gone is the country twang from his work with the Cardinals. His voice is more subdued, mushier. On “Kim” Adams deals with the sight of an old flame moving on with somebody else. The guitars latch onto the constant pounding of a snare and each line is bittersweet. Other times he sounds dejected and spiteful. “I don’t love you anymore,” he sings on “Am I Safe, “I just want to sit here and watch you burn.” “My Wrecking Ball” is the quiet folk tune Adams perfected on Heartbreaker and Gold over a decade ago. Ryan Adams is Adams’ best since 2005’s 29[Full review]

Deep Fantasy by White Lung
Deep Fantasy, by punk-Canadians White Lung, starts with a blaring ring like the oncoming warning of a missile as it enters enemy airspace. Vocalist Mish Way’s shrieks bleat against the punk crush and wailing sonic blast on opener “Drown With The Monster.” Way is powered by the onslaught from Kenneth William’s guitar, Anne-Marie Vassiliou’s drums and Hether Fortune’s bass as they go on to pulverize ten songs for 22 minutes. Deep Fantasy is the band’s third album. The carnage of White Lung is real. When they play live the band’s sound explodes from shitty amplifiers and Way releases the tension of the record with the ecstatic gymnastics of a front woman in charge of her aspirations. Press play then find cover. [Full review]

Z by SZA
Z is technically an EP–SZA’s third–but it stretches out over ten songs and for forty minutes your mind is given all the fuel it needs to power each song for days after. The stoned songbird yawns, meditates then levitates in her colorful R&B prism, singing about headless Barbie dolls, Street Fighter and bumpin’ that Jadakiss. She’s concocted a sugary sweet sound with the all trappings of neo-soul and hip-hop, but with the foggiest of guidelines. SZA has kept her musical palette open, safeguarding her from ever being pigeonholed. Chance The Rapper slithers in a melancholic verse on the watery “Child’s Play,” while Kendrick Lamar punctures holes through “Babylon.” For the hypnotically lush “Sweet November” SZA twists Marvin Gaye’s “Mandota.” Her proper, debut album, A, is due for a release in 2015. If SZA’s first three EP’s were merely creative flicks of the wrist, I can’t wait to hear a whole hip thrust.

St. Vincent by St. Vincent
There is no album that more succinctly wraps up the emotions of our digital existence than St. Vincent’s fourth, self-titled album. Annie Clark, the brains behind the music, vows to never settle for going straight. One of the greatest guitarists currently making music, she has progressed her sound by leaps and bounds since 2011’s Strange Mercy. Clark loves to throw a song into total disarray only to pick it back up like she does with “Bring Me Your Loves.” She can also write a straight-forward ballad straight from her pumping heart as evidenced by “I Prefer Your Love.” Nearly everything on the album is enveloped in the light fuzz of distortion and it pinches the back of the neck until the drool flows.
   Clark is joyfully weird on St. Vincent. Her confidence allows her voice to breach levels of ecstasy and devilment. Her penchant for experimenting with metallic textures and psychotic song structures gives her music an urgency, like it’s trying to constantly fake you out. She pushes the limits of what’s expected in a song and for that her name deserves to roll off the same tongue as Bjork, PJ Harvey, Erykah Badu, Laurie Anderson–the beautifully supernatural women of rock. The earth should be so lucky. [Full review] [Live review]

The Honorables: July by Marissa Nadler / Syro by Aphex Twin / LP1 by FKA Twigs / The Best Day by Thurston Moore / Amphetamine Ballads by The Amazing Snakeheads

December 03, 2014

The Great Pixelated United States

America in one flashed blur, from New York City to Arizona's Sonoran Desert. Shot over the first week of November 2014 on the open road in a big black car with a phone. Music by Native Bells.
Time - Location
00:01 - New York City, New York, USA
00:28 - Somerville, Massachusetts, USA
00:36 - Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
00:41 - Hairpin Turn, North Adams, Massachusetts, USA
00:46 - North Adams, Massachusetts, USA
00:54 Indiana (somewhere), USA
01:01 - Chicago, Illinois, USA
01:07 - Willis Tower, Chicago, Illinois, USA
01:26 - Cheyenne, Wyoming, USA
01:39 - Denver, Colorado, USA
02:10 - Sonoran Desert, Arizona, USA
First Song: "Blissed Out" (segment) off Side A
Second Song: "Maze/Your Mind As Puzzle" (segment) off Falling Into You

October 08, 2014

FILM REVIEW: "20,000 Days On Earth"

Cover design for 20,000 Days On Earth.  Photo courtesy of
Near the end of the film 20,000 Days On Earth, Nick Cave, with the Bad Seeds behind him, performs among a throng of fans. He grabs the hand of a young girl, pressing her palm onto his chest as he whispers into the microphone, "Can you feel my heartbeat?" He repeats the line, at the end of “Higgs Boson Blues,” until the fan can only look him in the eye and nod, yes.
   When the song ends, Cave jumps back onto the stage, his energy restored. "When you enter the heart of the song," Cave explains in the film about performing live, "you can be taken away...and feel godlike."
   The improvisational documentary by filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard is meant to play like one full fictional day in the life of one of rock and roll's greatest frontmen. The audience sees how the man is currently living and working and encounters a glimmer of insight into his creative process.
   Throughout 20,000 Days On Earth, the Bad Seeds are hard at work on their fifteenth album, Push The Sky Away. Cave and his right-hand man, multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, work on an off-the-cuff song about Lionel Richie. They share a lunch and reminisce about a Nina Simone performance at the Cave-curated Meltdown Festival in 1999 that left them with mouths agape. Ellis rides an elliptical and conducts a children’s choir for the recording of “Push The Sky Away.” The viewer is given a rare opportunity to gaze deeply into Cave's dark blue eyes as he sings.
   The film does not follow the basic linear retelling of the average rock documentary. Instead, it’s Cave offering stories of his early days with Birthday Party, growing up a brooding boy in a small Australian town and balancing church life with drugs when he was a young adult.
   At one point during Cave’s day, he stops to revisit old photographs and various pieces of memorabilia from his life. He seems delighted, even giddy, to be pouring over and celebrating his past.
   Rather than simply regurgitating old clips from a storied career, what the filmmakers have done is show their subject's emotional reaction to his past. This is where the film succeeds most.
   Seeing a bubbly Nick Cave, grinning from ear to ear, looking over photos of himself isn’t exactly the image one would expect from the cagey prince of goth. He isn’t the most forthcoming about personal details so it’s welcoming to witness him acknowledge his own personal and creative past.
   The film intermittently is cut with Cave opening up to his therapist. The whole time the therapist looks just as transfixed as the audience by what his patient is telling him.
   When asked about his first sexual experience, Cave discusses being turned on at 15 by a girl with black hair and a very white face. He insists the experience wasn’t outrightly sexual, but admits that her contrasting features flipped a switch inside him. At that moment he became aware of the power of arousal--a power that would go on to greatly influence his songwriting.
   The most stunning revelation of the film is that the man with eyes like coal has his own set of fears. As Cave drives through rainy Bristol and navigates his day, he looks back on the past with a host of guests. With longtime collaborator and friend Kylie Minogue in the backseat of his car, he discusses the vulnerabilities of being a rock star.
   His whole life, he explains, he imagined becoming the man he is today: bold, acerbic, lyrical, confident, a showman. The success of becoming a famous persona has outweighed his inner self and he finds it difficult to retreat to any sort of normal life. Not that he would want any soft of “normal” life.
   Ultimately the film inspires the creative heart to dig into something deep, something profound. We live in our work. Our art is our reality. Cave talks a lot about memory and how our personal histories are shaped only by what we remember. His biggest fear, he says, is to lose his memory because it would then be as though he were never there. Songwriting for him is the net that captures his life experiences as he finds a perspective on them that makes sense.
   Find out where 20,000 Days On Earth is playing in your city here.

October 06, 2014

St. Vincent at Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Annie Clark performs in Prospect Park August 9, 2014. All photos by Eli Jace.
It is fifteen years, two-hundred and twenty-one days into the 21st Century. August 9, 2014. St. Vincent -- that’s Annie Clark in Brooklyn -- stands in the shadows of the Celebrate Brooklyn! stage in Prospect Park. She comes to take aim at our fractured, disseminated digital lives and hold our focus for one night.
As Clark stands in the dark an electro-computer voice reads a disclaimer. Please refrain from capturing the concert with all digital devices. I snapped two quick blurred images, posted one to Twitter and felt horrible about myself. 
The show was the finale to Celebrate Brooklyn!'s free summer concert series and was easily the most anticipated. The line to enter curled around and past the park. At the entrance, signs warned of the use of strobe lights--always a positive sign.
Clark's form came into view as the strobe lights sputtered for the opening fuzz of "Rattlesnake." She stood straight and defiant dressed in black stockings, black leather skirt and a white button-down top. When the solo came, she rocked up and down like she was blowing in the wind. Her frazzled newsprint-colored fluff of hair shimmered and her high cheekbones reflected each flash of light like a shield.
The song opens St. Vincent, Clark’s fourth album, released early this year. The album is sure to fit at the top of every year-end best-of list. The setlist was heavy with new songs and ones from Strange Mercy from 2011. Further back, off Actor, “Marrow” and "Actor Out of Work," a tightly wound chunk of krautrock, showed up early in the first half.
Clark’s four-member band was impressively locked in. The colorful arrangements of the recordings were expertly re-contextualized on the stage. Songs were kept mostly intact as heard on record, but there were pockets left open wide for improvisation and expansion.  
Bassist Toko Yasuda and Clark interlocked their guitars beautifully for the brain-tingling climax of "Surgeon.” Their subtle syncopated choreography charged on “Birth in Reverse" and other songs. Toward the back of the stage sat a white three-block pyramid. Clark’s soapbox. She hopped up the white steps for "Cheerleader," pounding her black high heel on the top step.
Clark wore the expression of a Stepford Wife pixie doll. She moved in a mechanized drone, focused on the performance she was engaged in. Surely she was sweating, but her makeup never smeared. She changed guitars as often as some pop divas change outfits. An assistant rushed out between songs with a fresh axe in hand. She stayed close to the microphone, stepping back momentarily to go cross-eyed in a hypnotic guitar excursion.
Before "Every Tear Disappears" Clark took a moment to welcome the "freaks and the others" in the audience. She called out the millennials chiding them for the generation they were born into, then launched everyone further into space.
She followed the spotlight to the white block pyramid for "I Prefer Your Love." The sweet rhapsodic ballad rocked back and forth as Clark sat, folding her legs on the second step. "All the good in me is because of you,” she serenaded, her gaze growing distant. “It's true.” 
As the feedback rang out, Clark fell to the pyramid steps like a piece of jelly. She writhed and spilled over the steps, pulling herself across each one until she slumped head-first to the bottom, legs crossed and pointed upward in a v-shape.
Toward the end of the set Clark’s face took on that of a growling bobcat, lip upturned. She turned feisty, trying to rile the sitting crowd into consciousness, spitting curses between songs. During a few, she added extra spite to the lyrics. "You traced the Andes with your index," she sung on "Prince Johnny," "and bragged of when and who you're gonna fuck next."
The stuttering snare shuffle on "Huey Newton" turned the energy up. When Clark cooed, "It was a lonely, lonely winter," a chill swept through the crowd. Her rising falsetto then lead us blindly into the tar-thick guitar crunch of the song's last blistering half. "Entombed in the shrine of zeros and ones," Clark screeched, "You know."
The nerve-pinching space-grind of "Bring Me Your Loves" finalized the proper set. Clark took us off our leash and exited into the dark, but we would not leave. We wanted more. After a 14-song set that thrilled, exasperated and numbed the senses, the band returned for a skull-cracking encore.
Clark walked on alone. She took our excitement and anticipation and molded it in her palm like a clump of clay. She stepped to the block pyramid's top step frosted by a single spotlight beam and eased into “Strange Mercy.” She teased out each note of the honey sweet ballad, letting them hang in the air. The crowd fell into a collective trance, growing so quiet, the cicadas sizzling on the tree branches could be heard between the bars. "If I ever meet the dirty the police man who roughed you up," she sung with alarming relevance, "No. I don't know what."
A second song in the encore of a free show is a wonderful thing. What St. Vincent gave us was an extra show within the show. "Year of the Tiger," off Strange Mercy, dumped onto the stage with booming guitars and buzzing electronics. For a moment it felt as though all of Brooklyn was put on standby. 
As the song played through, it began to take another shape. It grew limbs and threw a tantrum. The strobes flickered incessantly with the clashing energy. Clark finally gave in to her punk thrash heart, shredding like Kurt Cobain on live TV and tumbled into the collecting crowd of VIP at the front. Feedback rang out. 
She ended with "Your Lips Are Red," off Marry Me. The pounding psychotic episode, with chants of “Ashes in downtown, ashes in downtown,” just about sucked the remaining brain nodes from everyone’s head.
Free or not, St. Vincent at Prospect Park was one of New York City's top shows this year.   

A few days after the performance Clark appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers, sitting in for two nights with the 8G Band. She batted her eyelashes while Meyers informed his television audience of the 15,000 people that packed into Prospect Park to see her. "I did that," she quietly purred against the blare of television lighting. Why, yes Annie. You sure fucking did. 

PHOTOSET: St. Vincent at Prospect Park, Brooklyn

PHOTOSET: St. Vincent at Prospect Park, Brooklyn

"She took our anticipation and molded it in her palm like a clump of clay."
Read the live review here.
All photos by Eli Jace.