Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Concert Review: Chameleons Vox, Middle East, Cambridge


Third time's a charm. I attempt to the see some incarnation of the Chameleons every fifteen years, and I finally saw a great show by them. The first time was the fault of the venue, a not-dearly-departed Philly club that functioned as both a dance spot that sold memberships and a concert venue; those two business models were at odds on a frigid February night in 1987 when the Chameleons came through town at the peak of their popularity. Rather than letting audience members in until they reached capacity then declaring the show sold out, staffers let the fans stand in the cold while they tried to decide how many club members to leave space for as late arrivals. I gave up, recognizing a painful exercise in futility.

A decade and a half later, the band was back together when their tour hit Chicago. They went on late, and leader Mark Burgess spent most of the set complaining about everything that wasn't up to his exacting standards. His pissy attitude was more memorable than any song they played.

So I tried again with great trepidation and low expectations on Saturday at the Middle East in Cambridge. First up were three opening acts that were musically aligned with the headliners, now dubbed Chameleons Vox to reflect that Burgess is the only remaining original member. All three bands would fit right into a Moody Fuckers playlist on a Little Records podcast. First up, the Milling Gowns had the right vibe but were totally stiff, and I've seen shoegazer bands make more eye contact with the audience. Way Out, a crack three-piece, had far more energy. Soft Kill sounded so much like the Chameleons that I almost hoped they'd cover one of the headliner's songs so that I'd be guaranteed to hear a solid version of it. All the bands had the atmospherics but no obvious songs.

Fortunately, I needn't have worried. Either Burgess has grown up in the passing years, or he has wild mood swings and I managed to catch him on a good night. The man at center stage was gracious and determined to put on a great show whatever the obstacles they faced. He acknowledged the first hurdle immediately: their lead guitarist became ill their first night in the U.S. and was unable to complete the tour. Things had gone so swimmingly with the opening acts that the Chameleons had three guitarists from two opening bands (Soft Kill and another that hadn't played at the Middle East) rotate throughout the set. Burgess immediately won the crowd's support for the able fill-ins. He also apologized, in a rasp, that his voice was wrecked, but his singing voice showed no signs of wear. Late in the set he admitted that they'd had to change the key on a song to fit his more limited range, but his tone was still perfect.

How good were they? You know how when a band nails a song that you really love that it feels like your head with explode with excitement? That happened. Repeatedly. Usually from the opening riffs.

Some background for those not familiar with the band. To call them a cult favorite would overstate their popularity. Their music has grandeur, and the lyrics are dark. They were the perfect soundtrack to my youthful days of confusion and heartbreak, exactly what you'd expect from a band with song titles like "Soul in Isolation." But they were never cosplay goth. They didn't have a cool logo to stand the test of time on a Hot Top t-shirt. They broke up at their peak of popularity because their manager died, which is tragic but not the stuff of romantic mythology. But they rightly earned a small fanbase.

They churned out the artfully-rendered fan favorites throughout their set. In introducing "Swamp Thing," their biggest hit, Burgess brought out one of the Soft Kill guitarists and explained that the song had just come together during sound check but they knew people wanted to hear it. The lead guitarist wobbled a bit with the intricate triples but did so well enough to give the song its emotional resonance. He then settled in more comfortably for his stretch of the set.

By the time they closed with "Don't Fall," I had no doubts about whether seeing them was worth the effort.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Why Eric Clapton, unlike Dave Grohl's fans, isn't an old fart fuddy duddy

At a press conference for a new documentary about Eric Clapton, a reporter tried to provoke the legendary guitarist with a question about a recent article from the Washington Post about declining sales for guitars. Short version: WaPo's Geoff Edgers got his knickers in a twist because Millennials have different cultural and musical values from previous generations and this is a terrible problem. Clapton's response: Whatevs. Good for him in recognizing that different doesn't mean worse.

Meanwhile, Consequences of Sound reported "Dave Grohl buys his 8-year-old daughter AC/DC album instead of Lana Del Rey" reinforcing stereotypes that men of the past are better than women of the present. I'll give Grohl a pass on this one, sorta, because the details revealed that his daughter actually wanted an Imagine Dragons album and they happened to hit the record story during a Lana Del Ray event. But the article writes dismissively about the young female Del Ray fans who didn't recognize Grohl, and CoS posted in on Facebook with the comment, "Father knows best." At press time it garnered nearly 10K likes and loves vs. 83 angry or sad responses.

Let's transpose this half a century to get some perspective: Daughter wants a Janis Joplin album. Dad buys her Bing Crosby instead. Who is the revolutionary and who is the reactionary upholding the patriarchal status quo? Which side are you on?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Voice of a Generation

Usually the phrase "voice of a generation" is used metaphorically for the words someone delivers in text or song rather than for their literal vocal skills. Kurt Cobain earned the tag, but so did F. Scott Fitzgerald, a guy never known as a singer. But if you take the expression literally, it's hard to find a Gen-Xer more deserving of the title than Chris Cornell.

Even if you aren't a huge fan of Soundgarden (and I'm not, always preferring Mudhoney's grunge Stooges to Soundgarden's grunge Led Zeppelin) or Chris's other work, there is no denying the power of his voice. Many have noted his four-octave range, but he also had impressive intonation and emotionally delivery. Yes, he could scream and wail, but he could also offset it with quiet contrast. Mariah Carey could be a another claimant of the title, and you don't have to be into her musical choices to appreciate her talent.

Chris Cornell wasn't just the frontman of a one of the biggest bands that exemplified Generation X. He was one of our best voices.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Albums, Art, Youth and Beyonce

What does Beyonce have in common with the Beach Boys and A Tribe Called Quest but not Elvis Presley or Grandmaster Flash? And what does this have to do with the Grammys?


The Grammys are imminent, and as people stake their claims on who will win album of the year, it’s worth looking at the place of the album as artistic statement in pop music.

Rock music gained cultural accreditation in the 1960s as it evolved from a singles-oriented genre to an album-oriented genre. Bernard Gendron posits this argument in Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, but examples are rampant. Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the girl groups of the early ‘60s were all singles artists. The Beach Boys’ crowning achievement was Pet Sounds. Sgt. Pepper, rather than any individual song on that album, culminated in rock’s achieving cultural legitimacy. Two factors contributed to this shift. One was that rock artists were conceiving of the album as a unified work, but the other was that they were meeting the maturing tastes of their audience. Singles are for kids. Albums are for adults with their extended attention spans and thicker wallets. The first wave of Baby Boomers were entering adulthood, and albums that were conceived as more than a collection of singles with filler fit their evolving taste.

A few decades later, hip-hop went through that same maturation process. Early hip-hop stars were singles artists. Think Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. But hip-hop achieved its golden age as artists such as Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest put the emphasis on albums as a whole rather than singles. For all of popular music, the focus remained on albums throughout the CD era, as record companies largely phased out the single to force consumers to buy more expensive albums, which were increasingly bloated with filler to support their 70-minute playing time.

Two components allowed the pendulum to swing back to singles as a dominant force in the cultural landscape: iTunes and Millennials. The launch of the iTunes Store in 2003 unbundled the single from the bloated album. Consumers once again had a choice in spending less but getting only what they wanted. And there was a huge consumer bulge of potential buyers: the kids of Baby Boomers. Singles are the music of youth, and there was a huge generation of youth following Generation X, who had been referred to as the Baby Bust for the sharp drop in birth rates until that generation earned their own distinctive moniker.

But now the Millennials are moving into adulthood, and their tastes are maturing with them. They have the attention spans and income to consume albums. And in the realm of the Grammys, if you want to award an album as something conceived as a whole, not just a collection of hit songs, nothing comes close to Beyonce’s Lemonade in dominating the cultural conversation in the last year. This isn't a prediction of who will win since the Grammys have often gotten it wrong, just a warning that this could end up in the many lists of when the Grammys got it wrong.