Julian Casablancas + The Voidz @ The Roxy April 10, 2014

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If you have followed Julian Casablancas’s career, you know he has always looked toward the future of music. What he was unable to achieve with the latter day Strokes he was able to fully explore on his first solo album, his pet sounds of 80s guitars and synthesizers. Julian seems intent on recapturing the heart of whatever was transcendent about that decade–the ambition, the excess, the cheesiness. His newest incarnation, as leader of The Voidz, is the dark alley of that sonic territory. It’s a heavy, distorted siren sound fit for our post-apocalypse-obsessed times, and last night at The Roxy, a small crowd got a glimpse of the future.

No opening band, the curtain rose to a stage bedecked with tiny monitors displaying neon test patterns and undulating sine waves. Taking their aesthetic cues from The Warriors, The Voidz are a motley gang pastiche of 80s/90s/00s junk culture, making a noise that you would expect in a world of drones and cylons. Punk, metal, hardcore, progressive, pop, hip hop, disco, middle eastern music–the new songs throw it all in the blender. It’s difficult to make out the words through the vocal effect and Julian’s signature croonscream (“dropping five hundred pounds of hell”), but in his press “VHS,” Casablancas states The Voidz is a protest album, a subtle but universal theme that “there seems to be no way around corruption being king now and forever and always. ” There is definitely a distinct bleak and nihilistic feel to the songs, which is badass. Underpinning it all is Casablancas’s canny knack for melody and rhythm.

The playing is super tight. Casablancas has assembled a crack band of musicians to usher in his new world order. Twin guitar attack of Jeramy Gritter and Amir Yaghmai, looking like a porn star from Cobra Kai and a heavy metal Persian wizard respectively, add the familiar arpeggiated yet freshly dark and dissonant tone to Casablancas’s sound. Jake Bercuovici on bass and synth chooses to remain anonymous off to the left, as does Jeff Kite on synths and guitar to the right. Julian is in top vocal form, skulking the stage in a leather jacket riddled with with glittering metal studs. The true hero of the night, though, who threatens to outmagnetize the hypermagnetic frontman, is drummer Alex Carapetis. From first song to last, Carapetis’s unrelenting powerful precision beat adds monolithic dimensions to the tiny club, properly evoking the noir nightmare landscape of the music. The crowd eats it up–it’s been over ten years, after all, since we’ve been able to see Julian perform in a small club like this–cheering and snapping a thousand cellphone photos a second. They writhe and generate steam heat when they hear the best of Phrazes for the Young (especially the ever-danceable 11th Dimension). But they unleash their love in torrents when he announces the next song will be a classic from way back, “Take It Or Leave It.”

Having seen The Strokes many times and Julian’s only other (seated) solo show in LA in 2009, I can attest that this was one of his finest performances. His mercurial mood and singing confidence seem wholly dependent on the perfect nexus of venue, sound, and crowd, and here at The Roxy he found his trifecta. Notorious for being reticent between songs, last night he was effusive, gushing about the energy from the crowd (the best show they’ve played, he says), cracking jokes with Alex and Amir. The dude looks and sounds amazing, and if they were able to capture on the album half of the spirit and energy they pumped out in LA last night, then The Voidz LP is bound to become the future of music.

Nick Cullen

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Mark Mulcahy & Mother Falcon @ The Echo, February 26, 2014

A Study in Opposites

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I saw Mark Mulcahy play with Polaris at the Pete & Pete reunion at the Orpheum Theatre in 2012. I count it as one of the most sublime music experiences of my life (See review here). His show at The Echo this Wednesday was just as transcendent (minus the pristine sound of the Orpheum). It was a generous set, his mighty trio, including the stalwart and versatile Ken Mauri and Henning Ohlenbusch on drums/keys and bass, respectively, plowed through the best of Miracle Legion (“Ladies From Town,” “Snacks and Candy,” “All For the Best”–a granted request), Polaris (“She is Staggering,” “Saturnine”), his solo work (“I Woke Up On the Mayflower,” “Bill Jocko,” “The Way She Really Is,” “In Pursuit of Your Happiness”), a handful of wonderful tunes from his latest album, and a sober rendition of Anita Ward’s disco classic “Ring My Bell.” What this man can evoke with just a few notes from an electric keyboard and his formidable voice is staggering. Each song is a world in itself and the band played them all brilliantly. Shame on The Echo for not properly promoting this show (or billing it–some fans were confused and panicked when they grabbed their phones to snap a pic of their hero’s name on the marquee only to be greeted by the silly moniker ‘Mother Falcon’.)

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Now I don’t normally write about opening bands unless they really impress me. Wednesday’s opener blew me away. Never before have I seen a band as pretentious as Mother Falcon.

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This “collective” of musicians took the stage out of a clown car. Just when you thought everyone was up there, another three or four musicians would stumble on. Guitars, drums, keyboard, saxophones, trumpet, cellos, violins, standup bass, banjo, accordion, bassoon (?!) Before they even started I knew what type of music to expect. I’ve seen this before. A late-night drama-kid party, a bunch of college-educated music and theater hipsters suddenly have a brilliant drunken epiphany: let’s start a band, be spontaneous and start a jam, where everyone will contribute to the song and it will be pure and honest and real. What issues forth is pure garbage. Someone beats off a noodly theme and the others begin to pile on while the drummer starts up that ridiculous epic-build beat that tries so hard to make you feel something profound but only if the music weren’t so utterly white and devoid of anything resembling soul…the collective heaves and swells, more like an ungainly albatross than a soaring falcon. Each song is an empty promise of clumsy foreplay that droops to nothing. Their ambition far outweighs their songwriting talents, but the crowd claps and cheers because, hey, they’ve got over ten people up there! When they sing it’s an indecipherable coo, or a choral scream, or an out of left-field chesty operatic tenor. It’s a mess–a disorienting mishmash of overly earnest humorless appalachian soundtrack burlesque that needs to be called bullshit on.

Young musicians take note from Mr. Mulcahy: less is more and make that little that you’ve got the best there is.

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Nick Cullen

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Ash @ The Echo (1/31) & The Casbah (2/1)

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The musical galaxy abhors a vacuum…or at least it should. In a year when the nominees for Best Rock Grammies included Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, Black Sabbath, David Bowie, and Neil Young, it is flagrantly apparent that the world of rock and roll has become an empty relic of a forgotten time, a wasteland of zombies desperately grasping for a young collaborator to keep them going for another year. The offerings of the young ones, too, are vapid and devoid of any substance or nourishment. But, on the desolate plains of the sonic frontiers, a trio of renegade rock and roll warriors battle the inertia of the dying old guard. Themselves a long-established group, they continue to transform, to shape-shift to evade the ossification of trends. They are Ash, and they have answered the call and returned to America to revivify rock and roll!

After almost a decade-long absence, Ash made their triumphant return to the West Coast last week. Playing a handful of shows down the coast and across the South before meeting up with compatriots Weezer, Ash are swooping through to remind the world that they are a force to be reckoned with. This lucky disciple was fortunate enough to experience two mind-blowing, soul-transforming shows at The Echo in Los Angeles and at The Casbah in San Diego:

Friday, the sold-out Echo was brimming, the energy palpable as we stood impatiently through openers Dreamland and Deaf Havana. Both acts are fun and enthusiastic, but c’mon, we’ve waited over nine years for this moment. And then Ash take the stage. Opening number “Meltdown” makes clear the band’s mission: “We’re here to fight in a sonic nation/leave all the fakers and the liars behind/you want to meet us in a confrontation/our psychic weapons will destroy your minds!” They rip through classic after classic, “A Life Less Ordinary,” “Girl From Mars,” “Oh Yeah,” “Goldfinger,” “Walking Barefoot,” “Shinging Light.” Each song demands yard-high pogoing and vigorous fist pumping.

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In addition to sounding massive, the trio look fucking awesome! Years of playing have sculpted their archetypal forms. Onstage Mark appears ten feet tall, like The Hulk, thrusting and swinging his enormous Thunderbird bass aloft as he crushes boulders into the epic chorus of “Evil Eye.” Tim is The Silver Surfer, shredding down a giant wave of wah that jets in torrents from his flying-v guitar. And Rick is Beast on drums, concentrated and thoughtful as he annihilates the snare on “Lose Control.”

The Echo show was brilliant, a perfect spark to reignite the Ash flame, but The Casbah show in San Diego the following night was hands down the ultimate Ash experience. Bringing their epic-sized show to a bar even smaller than The Echo, Ash treated an elite class of fans to an even more impassioned, celebratory, yet more intimate-feeling set, which included newer song “Binary” (first time played on tour) and the always glorious “Angel Interceptor.” Unlike the Echo show, which seemed to have a large percentage of new initiates, this was a show for the die-hards. We all pogoed, moshed, and cheered our way through an incredible night of music. The lads stuck around after the show to chat, take pictures, sign autographs–the appreciation ever reciprocal between band and fans.

Now that Ash are a self-contained unit, no longer beholden to the whims of the clueless labels of The Empire, they are free to unleash their new material on the hungry masses. Fingers crossed that we get another album and tour by this year’s end. As Tim proclaimed in the epic closer “Twilight of the Innocents”: “I’m still breathing, my heart’s still beating.” The force is strong as ever in these rock and roll animals, and we would be wise to heed their path to breathe life back into rock music.

Nick Cullen

Photos by Ye Rin Mok

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Culture Collide 2013 – The Raveonettes, Liars, Medicine, King Khan & The Shrines

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Shugo Tokumaru @ The Echo 7/12/2013

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Comparisons to Cornelius are inevitable–there are more than a few similarities. Shugo is a slight Japanese music wizard who has a sweet voice and an unabashed obsession with sound. He writes soaring, breezy, densely-packed pop songs, some with a delicate bossa nova feel. But Tokumaru’s music lacks one important element that sets him apart from his compatriot: balls.

I should have known what I was getting myself into when I saw that the show was 18+. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an agist, but entertainment aimed at a younger crowd is almost invariably vapid, and that’s what this turned out to be. Tokumaru himself is an immensely talented musician and songwriter, as are his five multi-instrumentalist bandmates. He floated onstage, lighter than a feather, slung his telecaster (which probably weighs more than he does) over his shoulder, and proceeded to wow the college dormmate packed house with his technical prowess. I was also kind of blown away at first, but that feeling quickly subsided.

Shugo can play…really, really well. So can his bandmates. One gets the impression that they’re all very studied musicians. Buuut…they don’t rock. There was no dirt, no funk…no balls. Everything is pretty and happy; even the parts that are maybe meant to come off as sad or aggressive are still lightweight and happy. The atmosphere they create is way too giddy with too many (literal) bells and whistles. Nearly every band member has cute little cymbals and percussion devices. Every song there’s popping and clicking and clapping and snapping…and toys! So many toys! There’s nothing wrong with having fun at a concert, but this was overkill. Shugo’s sweet chipmunk voice, accompanied by accordion and multiple melodicas, makes you feel like helium is being pumped into the room, like you’re spinning in a giant cotton candy machine that’s being elevated into some rarified super happy dimension. The music itself is frustratingly complex, the songs rich and sophisticated but ultimately overwhelming. Even the most severe case of ADHD will not be bored at a Shugo show as there are a thousand little sonic details nipping at your brain at every moment. Like some sort of immersive Wii concert, each player is tapping away at his instrument in the hopes of winning some shiny prize at the end of each song. I was hoping they’d vary the pace by playing a slower number, like the beautifully spare “Tightrope” from his latest album, but instead the band kept up its relentless hyper pace* And then he covered “Video Killed the Radio Star” on ukelele.

It’s a rare treat to get a unique and talented artist like Shugo to come over from Japan, and it was a deal at $12, but his brand of sugary pop turned out to be too cloying for my taste.
*he may have played this for an encore but I couldn’t endure

P.S. If you want to see a Japanese band with balls, do not miss Guitar Wolf at The Satellite, October 13

Nick Cullen

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Neon Neon@ The Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever 6/27/2013

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Thursday night a lucky group of fans and friends were treated to a very special performance by two of the finest practitioners of modern music, Gruff Rhys and Bryan Hollon (Boom Bip) of Neon Neon. Joined by Welsh comrades Cate Le Bon on guitar/vocals/agogo and Huw “H. Hawkline” Evans on bass/vocals, along with Stella Mozgawa of Warpaint on drums, Rhys and Hollon presented in its entirety their latest album, Praxis Makes Perfect.

The venue was intimate–colorful and subdued lighting, masonic images, and Brian Eno’s Music For Airports piping round the vaulted ceiling all helped to create a serene and slightly sinister atmosphere, not wholly inappropriate for the ritual we were about to experience. Compared to their recent full-on theatrical performances in Cardiff, this was a decidedly stripped down affair. The band played in darkness, almost completely obscured in the silhouettes of five giant wooden thrones, over which narrative images were projected. The lack of theatrics turned out to be a boon though as it allowed the audience to focus more on the captivating music.

On the far right, lit dimly by a candelabrum, Hollon manned the helm with his arsenal of synths, expertly recreating the myriad textures from the album; on the left, Rhys hugged his monitor and crooned his beautiful melodies and clever and subversive lyrics about revolution and consumerism, occasionally chiming in on his own synth. Huw Evans deftly handled a spectrum of styles on the bass, from the melancholy slides on “Doctor Zhivago” to the frenetic funk of “Michael Douglas”; Stella Mozgawa added power and subtlety, injecting soul into the sometimes robotic beats of the recordings; Cate Le Bon rounded out the sound with her supple guitar and her rich and versatile voice, which complemented Rhys’s perfectly.

In addition to playing Praxis, the group tore into a handful of the best songs from NN’s first album, Stainless Style. A guest vocalist was brought up for the plaintive and dreamy chorus of “The Leopard,” and a percussionist added some furious bongo to several songs: the latin-inflected “Raquel,” the jaunty consciousness-expanding “Listen to the Rainbow,” and the twerk-inducing encore “Sweatshop.” The highlight of the night though was the duet, “I Lust U,” with Rhys and Le Bon trading off verses, weaving and coming together on the choruses.

What seemed a somewhat impromptu gig was pulled off flawlessly, a testimony to professionalism and talents of the players. They’re all at the top of their games, and with a set of such diverse and expertly crafted songs as these, they delivered a truly transcendent experience.

Nick Cullen
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Interview with Danny O’ Connell of By the Sea

Out of the wilderness of Wirral come By the Sea with their debut LP. Awash with colorful shards of chorused and reverbed guitars, shimmering and spritely keyboards, and Liam Power’s plaintive breathy vocals, each majestic wave of a song swells, breaks, and spills, sweeping you into the undertow of this very lovely album.

Nick: How long has the band been together?

Danny: The band has been together about 3 years now, i think, although we’ve only been taking it seriously for the past 12 months, since we started making the LP.

N: There’s a lot of seaside imagery in the songs and even an oceanic feel to the music. Does that come from living in Wirral? What’s it like there?

D: The Wirral is an ecologically diverse peninsula to the west of the Mersey river, it’s equally nice and boring. I think the biggest influence is it’s sleepiness- it encourages your mind to wander.

N: How did you end up teaming up with Bill Ryder Jones and how much influence did he have on how the songs turned out?

D: Bill is a good friend of ours who has helped from the start, his influence has been total and his experience has been very valuable.

N: Besides your own, what are your favorite records of the year?

D: Chromatics – Kill For Love

Lower Dens – Nootropics

Julia Holter – Ekstasis

Wild Nothing – Nocturne 
TOPS – Tender Opposites

N: What are some of your guys’ favorite local bands that you would recommend?

D: Other bands we like from the region are Minnetonka, Two Sunsets, Tear Talk, Forest Swords, Outfit

N: What’s in store for By the Sea in 2013? Any plans to play in the US?

D: 2013 is about making another record and hopefully playing lots of shows. no plans for the US yet but who knows in the future!

For more on By the Sea: https://www.facebook.com/bytheseaband/info

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Tame Impala @ The El Rey 11/16/2012

The underwhelming tone of the evening was set early by openers, The Amazing. The only thing remarkable about this band is that they somehow managed to convince their friend, Dungen’s Vahalla-raising lead guitarist Reine Fiske, to turn his amp down from 11 to 5 to play in their pedestrian folk-pop-rock outfit. Anyone who’s seen Dungen perform would attest that this was truly a depressing sight and sound, like watching Thor go into battle with a ball-peen hammer.

Tame Impala, on the other hand, came in swinging a huge, bright, sparkly, vintage sledge. The moment the first chord was struck, hands were thrust aloft, guys dropping the bro wave, girls curling their hands, eyes closed in a hippie girl dance. This music is way too trippy man…or, I mean, this shit’s sick, bro! There was something not-pleasantly disorienting about this set and audience. Amidst the clouds of pot smoke, one could detect a whiff of poseurism. This band seems determined to convince its audience they don’t give a fuck, yet there is a popularity and faddishness about them (a natural byproduct of hype, unfortunately), which is totally at odds with their so-called ‘lonerism.’ While there were occasional moments of power and beauty, on the whole I found their songs (which I’d initially liked when I listened to the albums) to be pretty boring. Kevin Parker’s adenoidal singing gets old pretty quick, and without the finesse of the album production, the songs felt clunky. The crowd loved it though, which I feel added to the illusion of heaviness. I’ll be the lone dissenter though and recommend that you pass on the live set and stick to listening on headphones to this ‘music to walk home by.’

Nick Cullen

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Class Actress, Diiv, & Nikki and The Dove @ Culture Collide, Day 4 10/7/12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Class Actress [photo by Aida Daneshvar]

Class Actress [photo by Aida Daneshvar]

Class Actress [photo by Aida Daneshvar]

Diiv [photo by Aida Daneshvar]

Diiv [photo by Aida Daneshvar]

Diiv [photo by Aida Daneshvar]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diiv [photo by Aida Daneshvar]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diiv [photo by Aida Daneshvar]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nikki and The Dove [photo by Aida Daneshvar]

Nikki and The Dove [photo by Aida Daneshvar]

Nikki and The Dove [photo by Aida Daneshvar]

Nikki and The Dove [photo by Aida Daneshvar]

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Pageants & Laetitia Sadier @ Culture Collide, Day 3 10/6/12

Text by Christopher Dreisbach
Photos by Aida Daneshvar

PAGEANTS (USA)

90’s nostalgists Pageants played solid indie pop tunes with a winsome attitude. This isn’t the kind of band that’s going to generate superficial, vacuous buzz but it is the kind of band that I want to support and jam out to on a Sunday morning.

LAETITIA SADIER (FRANCE)

Sadier is a worldwide musical treasure with or without Stereolab. Gorgeous, mellow songs with a deep emotional resonance. I felt so overwhelmed after Sadier dedicated a tune to the late Trish Keenan. Despite a broken bass string (props to Pageants’ drummer for saving the night with a replacement bass) this was an inspired, sublime performance.

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