Sunday, June 10, 2018

Concert Review: Depeche Mode, TD Garden, June 9

The last time I saw Depeche Mode was in 1990, and it's one of the reasons I generally stopped going to arena shows. I grew weary of David Gahan's pandering to the audience, especially when he repeatedly held his hand to his ear and proclaimed, "I can't hear you." "Getting a fucking hearing aid!" I responded, drowned out by the thousands who were singing along like sheep. That same week was the first time I saw the Wedding Present. They put on an intense show in a sweaty little club and announced at the end of the set that they don't do encores. I subsequently skipped Depeche Mode every time they came through town and saw the Wedding Present at every opportunity, even at 8 1/2 months pregnant, and had no regrets about either choice.

My conviction finally gave in. In the last decade, a friend has repeatedly raised the possibility of seeing Depeche Mode when they toured, and I either resisted or it didn't work out, but this time I gave in for the sake of my kids. They discovered Depeche Mode less through my influence than from hearing "Just Can't Get Enough" in commercials then recognizing them as an influence on CHVRCHES. The Boston show was a few weeks after my older son's birthday, so the show lent itself to a birthday present and a night out with another family. I didn't tell the kids about my trepidation, my disdain for the shtick of arena performances, because I didn't want to poison their minds if they turned out to be into that.

So how would their performance hold up? To prepare for the show, I'd been playing a lot of their back catalog, and it really is an impressive body of work. The quality of the songwriting explains why they have long outlasted their synth-pop novelty peers. The production on the current tour had the requisite video screen and computer-controlled lights. David Gahan is gifted at working the stage, spinning, sashaying and generally showing off his impressive limberness for someone nearly 40 years into his career. Martin Gore took lead vocals for a few songs. Andrew Fletcher and two supplemental musicians stayed out of the spotlight.

They included a lot of newer materials without dipping heavily into their early hits, notably skipping "Just Can't Get Enough." Yes, there are artistic choices to be made, and they can't play everything. But the performance was bloated. They milked it too far, especially goading the audience into sing-alongs too often. They could have squeezed in a lot more songs if they aimed for more intense pacing instead of dragging songs out too much. I thought my kids would be more into the performance than I, but they got bored despite their familiarity with the materials from listening to First Wave in the car as one of our default stations.

This clearly appeals to a lot of people. Depeche Mode have been filling arenas for decades while the Wedding Present have never escaped the sweaty little clubs, at least in the U.S. Music for the masses, indeed. After a great show, I usually immerse myself in music from that artist. Today I'm binging on the Wedding Present.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Concert Recommendation: Peter Hook & the Light, Paradise Rock Club, Saturday, April 28

Peter Hook’s recent immensely-detailed memoir of his New Order years, Substance, may have gotten repetitive with the endless tales of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, misguided business decisions, and bitterness. But a recurring theme emerged: the guy loves touring. He loves touring whether he’s consuming mass quantities of alcohol and drugs or stone cold sober. He loves touring whether he’s chasing skirts or happily married. He loves touring whether he’s partying with his roadies, his support acts, or groupies, or hanging with his family, especially his grown son Jack taking over on bass as the elder Hook covers vocals with their band the Light. He loves touring as long as he’s not dealing with with Barney Sumner’s mercurial moods. He takes pride in bringing the songs he created with Joy Division and New Order to life and connecting with an audience, especially now that he’s past the years of audience members rioting or hurling bottles at the stage. Anyone who saw him when he was still in New Order will recall that he was the only member who reliably was committed to putting on a show, not just showing up. Barney may have the rights to the name, but Peter has held onto the true spirit (True Faith?). He’s got an able backing band, and they”ll be bringing the house down at the Paradise Rock Club on Saturday night.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Concert Review: Franz Ferdinand, House of Blues Boston, April 8

If you see only one sexy disco art rock band this year, make it Franz Ferdinand. Admittedly, there aren’t many other options, but damn, they do it well. Whether it’s full on Roxy Music or their take on Bryan Ferry fronting Talking Heads, they hit hard. And sometimes they go for straighter rock that punches even harder.

If only they had the full confidence in their material to skip the arena rock cliches in pandering to the audience. Maybe if they had more faith in their songs, which they really deserve, Alex Kapranos could stop playing Simon Says to get the audience to clap and sing along. If he had only mentioned Boston once instead of dozens  and dozens of times in a blatant attempt to ingratiate themselves with the locals, they could have squeezed “Bullet,” possibly their best song, into the set. With all the repetitions of "(your city here)", he went from suave lothario to creepy lech using cheesy pick-up lines. The band is tight and original, but these gestures just added bloat.

Opening act Bodega has listened to a lot of the Fall or their Krautrock antecedents. Their female percussionist/backing vocalist even brings Brix Smith’s vivaciousness. However, they were disingenuous in claiming to have no political agenda when they kept spouting lefty politics.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Book Review: Strange Things Happen by Stewart Copeland

Stewart Copeland released a memoir in 2009, Strange Things Happen: A Life With the Police, Polo, and Pygmies and narrated the audiobook. I somehow overlooked this at the time but discovered the print edition when wandering through an unfamiliar library, an activity I recommend if only for that very reason.

It’s best to start by describing what isn’t in the book. Except for a chapter on what it was like to become famous, he mostly skips his heyday with the Police, probably because he documented that with his film Everyone Stares. He also focuses on his professional rather than personal life. He devotes maybe a sentence to Sonja Kristina as his first wife, spilling more ink on their business relationship with Curved Air. In his book Wild Thing brother Ian detailed the circumstances of Stewart’s losing his virginity after his drumming debut; Stewart also recalls the gig but is discrete about the liaison. Ian’s 2006 death merits no mention. Even a story about playing Crusaders and Saracens as a kid growing up in Lebanon primarily serves as a set-up for writing Stewart's first opera about the Crusades. It’s also not a straight-up chronology, although he does provide dates for each exploit he recounts, useful to anyone wanting to generate a timeline. 

Copeland does make his scope explicit. The episodic chapters recall the assortment of adventures he had leading up to, parallel to, and as a result of those early years with the Police. The book conveys his own sense of wonder at everything he’s done, including the patriotism that boiled up in him as he played polo against Prince Charles one July 4th. The polo chapter focuses on his brief time as a member of the leisure class, but almost everything else is about his work as a musician. And this is a strong theme: although he made his mark on the world as a drummer, he is a well-rounded musician/composer for whom percussion is just one aspect of his identity. His composing an opera sounds far less ludicrous after learning about his sideline in film scoring and his traditional music education in college; as someone who struggled through several semesters of music theory myself, I particularly appreciated his difficulties with parallel fifths.

Late in the book, he dives into the Police reunion in the Aughts, the events with Sting and Andy Summers that led up to it and anecdotes from the world tour. Those looking for dirt will find it here, especially the clash of egos. He is very respectful of his bandmates’ talents but also aware of refusing to be dictated to. After decades away from his old band, time spent when he was either clearly in charge or subordinate to others, he and his bandmates chafe at the adjustment to being peers in an alleged democracy. The civil war reaches a truce when they recognize that their reunion will be finite and they can more happily settle in to the remainder of the tour. That attitude and some technical aspects he goes into explain why I was much more impressed with their show during the last stretch of the tour than in its first year.

A few themes emerge. Copeland clearly embraces life and is game for all sorts of musical escapades, even acknowledging that serving as judge for a British TV singing competition was naff but fun. He’s aware of the Police’s place in the world as fake punks. He’s also humble about his musical shortcomings and has no axe to grind. He has a lot of affection for Sting and Andy and takes equal responsibility for the difficulties among them.

The book is an entertaining read, but the audiobook is a more entertaining listen. The latter offers a distinct advantage over the print: interstitial music at the end of each chapter. I’ve read many books about musicians rather than listening to audiobooks so I don’t know if this is unusual. But many chapters left me wonder, “I wonder what that sounded like,” only to be followed with the answer to that question. Likely due to rights issues, the only music snippets are Copeland’s sole compositions rather than any collaborations with others.

Copeland’s turns of phrase suggest an authentic voice rather than the generic tone of a ghost writer. As a favorite examples, bandmates are “bandsters” and Sting’s offspring are “Stingsters.” Read much of his press and you’ll start to recognize some stock answers. He acknowledged devising a set of off-repeated stories when promoting his first opera, and some anecdotes and stories he uses in the book have cropped up in interviews promoting Gizmodrome, his latest musical project. This is an observation more than a criticism. His character comes through in his writing. He's got a lot of character, and it's a likeable one.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Mark E. Smith: An Appreciation

When David Bowie, Prince and Tom Petty died, they were recalled for not only their immense musical talent but also their kindness, generosity and principled behavior. Lou Reed was often described as mercurial; he could be nasty. but that wasn’t the only aspect of his personality many dealt with. You can’t say any of those things about Mark E. Smith, the mastermind of the Fall who died Jan. 24. He was cantankerous. He was irascible. He kicked so many people out of his band that this became fodder for a whole book. By almost any measure, he was a terrible person. But his death is a tremendous loss for music.

As staunch supporter John Peel described the Fall, "They are always different; they are always the same." You can hear their influence across the decades from Sonic Youth to LCD Soundsystem to Art Brut to Sleaford Mods. The Wedding Present's David Gedge stated upon Smith's death, "I have seen The Fall more times than any other band." Gedge acknowledged in an interview with me that his own band's cover of Bowie's "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family" from their Hit Parade series was their homage to the Fall; it bears an uncanny resemblance to "Bremen Nacht Run Out."

The Fall were an acquired taste. MES was a shouter rather than a singer, prone to adding extra "uh" syllables to the ends of words and punctuating his lyrics with vocalizations like a dentist's drill. A joke in the '90s was that the band never sold any records because anyone who might buy one was already on the record label mailing list, in other words, someone who cared about music enough to make a career of it. The failed attempt to market Girls Against Boys as sounding like the Fall but looking like pin-ups shows what a precarious and rare position the Fall were in. Yet they somehow prevailed. Despite only skirting the UK Top 40 in a career lasting four decades and documented on 30 studio albums, BBC6 devoted their homepage to memorial tributes to the departed frontman.

MES's unusual lyrical topics and rantings became like a secret code among fans. When I had surgery some years back, I was given a wristband labeled "FALL RISK," presumably because of the sedation. I subsequently joked with a select group of friends that they were afraid I'd screech, "High tension line. Step Down!" and scare the other patients in post-op.

On a good night, the Fall were the greatest band in the world. Bad nights were trainwrecks. Their unreliability mirrored that of the Replacements, not coincidentally another band known for their alcohol intake. MES was so inebriated when interviewed for The Fall - The Wonderful and Frightening World of Mark E Smith that his segments required subtitles. Obituaries also reported that he had fondness for amphetamines. Every one of his 60 years showed on MES's gargoyle of a face. With a string of health-related tour cancellations since November, his death was shocking but unsurprising.

MES's volatility is what makes his death such a loss. Artists like Springsteen or the Stones have the professionalism and concern for their audience to produce reliably outstanding concerts, which is a big reason their careers have endured. But the Fall's unpredictability meant that you never knew what you were going to get, and made the good night that much more special. You couldn't count on the whole world falling away as they locked into a groove. And now we'll never have the chance again.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Album Review: Bee Bee Sea: Sonic Boomerang

Everyone needs an album that makes you want to crank up the volume and jump up and down, and Sonic Boomerang by Bee Bee Sea is it. The guitar-driven trio crank out a remarkable racket from just three people, crafting chugging, driving beats while intervals create a brightness that make the songs explode. It's garage psych with some surf touches. Lyrics are kinda besides the point, kinda muffled and in English rather than their native Italian, so they are just there to provide structure to the songs. especially the repeated words and phrases. "The Dog is the King of Losers" has a bunch of "bow wow wow"s and the title track could include, "rev it up" or "live it up" or something like that as the key phrase. I could be wrong, but it doesn't matter. It's like Ty Segall without the noodly, shapeless indulgences. (Sorry, Ty. I love, but you need to edit.) Even the long guitar breaks are in service to the whole.

Yes, I know this album came out just a few weeks ago, too late for critics who had already drafted their year's best lists. Yes, I know that rock is dead and all the cultural conversation is, rightfully, around R&B and hip-hop, where the likes of Kendrick Lamar are making lyrically substantive albums. Yes, this is a mere trifle in comparison. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a more fun album right now than Sonic Boomerang.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Concert Review: Gary Numan, Paradise Rock Club, Dec. 4

I know what you're thinking. Gary Numan: one-hit wonder from decades ago. Synthesizer novelty hit guy. But you won't find Numan on any Retro '80s package tours with the Thompson Twins and Howard Jones. There aren't many artists with careers this long whose shows make you think, "Oh, good. He's doing lots of his new stuff."

Since his "Cars" days, Numan has discovered stage presence and industrial music, both of which served his performance well, facing a packed house at the Paradise last night. No Kraftwerkian Teutonic icy detachment from him. An old fan acknowledged after the show that back in the day, Numan was a stiff performer. However, at this show he moved around at odd angles, struck an assortment of poses and generally worked the stage, particularly appreciated at a club with two giant support columns that obstruct views from many angles. He was backed by a young band, all of them in post-apocalyptic desert wear. The guitarist and bass player were fairly animated without trying to steal the show. Vertical banks of lights added atmosphere and spectacle when they weren't inducing seizures. The overall level of showmanship was notably on display with "Love Hurt Bleed," when half the sound, including the vocals, dropped out of the PA. The band's in-ear monitors were apparently still going as they continued to grind through the song despite the growing murmurs in the audience. After a brief pause at the end of the number, full sound and the performance resumed unabated.

If there was any nostalgia in the music, it was for the industrial era of the late '80s into the '90s. Trent Reznor has acknowledged that Numan was big a influence, and the favor has been returned. Many NIN-like sounds turn up in Numan's recent work, and he even added more jagged edges to his once-pristine early songs. However, Numan eschews the anger and shoutiness that characterized the work of Trent and his industrial compatriots while incorporating other aesthetics of the genre.

Numan has maintained an audience by being a charismatic performer and not allowing himself to be constrained and defined by his early single hit.